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People who really want to make a difference in the world usually do it, in one way or another. And I’ve noticed something about people who make a difference in the world: They hold the unshakable conviction that individuals are extremely important, that every life matters. They get excited over one smile. They are willing to feed one stomach, educate one mind, and treat one wound. They aren’t determined to revolutionize the world all at once; they’re satisfied with small changes. Over time, though, the small changes add up. Sometimes they even transform cities and nations, and yes, the world.
People who want to make a difference get frustrated along the way. But if they have a particularly stressful day, they don’t quit. They keep going. Given their accomplishments, most of them are shockingly normal and the way they spend each day can be quite mundane. They don’t teach grand lessons that suddenly enlighten entire communities; they teach small lessons that can bring incremental improvement to one man or woman, boy or girl. They don’t do anything to call attention to themselves, they simply pay attention to the everyday needs of others, even if it’s only one person. They bring change in ways most people will never read about or applaud. And because of the way these world-changers are wired, they wouldn’t think of living their lives any other way.
This realization came to me on my first day in a small village near Katie’s home in Jinja, Uganda. My driver took me from Entebbe airport to the village because that’s where Katie happened to be when we arrived. The place is called Masese (pronounced Ma-SESS-ay). It is a place of intense poverty; it’s filthy and it smells like raw sewage rotting in the hot sun, often made worse by the distinct odor of homemade moonshine. To drive through Masese is to witness one gut-wrenching scene after another, and Katie absolutely loves it because she loves the people who live there.
Masese is located at the foot of a hill. On top of that hill is a school where the ministry Katie directs supplies food to the school students and, by special arrangement with the school officials, to the children of the village too, even if they are not enrolled in the school. The school was my first stop in Uganda and I could easily tell the schoolchildren apart from the village children. Certainly, the students’ uniforms distinguished them, but so did their cleanliness, their shoes, and the fact that their noses weren’t running and their mouths weren’t bleeding.
Many of the village children appeared to be sick, but one little girl, who looked to be two or three years old, stood out more than the rest. Her tiny body seemed barely able to carry her enormous belly, and her dirty skin was dotted with unidentifiable bumps that each resembled a wart, a blister, and the kind of sore that appears with chicken pox, all in one lesion. A wound that was part scab, part raw and oozing covered about half of her little mouth. I watched Katie walk over to this fragile child, pick her up gently, assess her needs almost instantly, and begin asking other children questions about her.
“Who is this child?”
“What is her name?”
“Where is her home?”
“Where is her mother?”
At first, no one seemed to know the answers, but word must have spread that “Auntie Kate” wanted to know about this child, because soon the little girl’s aunt approached Katie to say that her name was Napongo, her mother had gone to Kampala and had been away for months. Her father had gone somewhere else (gone is a word far too often associated with fathers in Uganda). The aunt, who must have been twelve or thirteen years old, was responsible for the little girl.
Within a few minutes, I was being jolted along the uneven road from the Masese school in Katie’s sixteen-passenger van with the fragile little girl, her aunt, and four of Katie’s fourteen children. We were headed to the home of Katie’s friend Renee to give Napongo a bath because Renee’s was the closest place Katie knew that had clean running water.
I watched in awe, and a bit of disgust, as the little girl stood motionless in the tub as Katie ran water from a portable showerhead and sprinkled it on her wrists. I silently wondered why she didn’t move a little faster with the bathing process and then it dawned on me: Perhaps the little girl had never been in a bathtub. Having her entire body sprayed with the showerhead could have terrified her. Katie was dripping water on her own wrists, and then on the little girl’s, to help her feel safe and at ease.
Napongo barely moved as Katie tenderly ran a bar of soap over her. The clean, clear water that came out of the showerhead became dark red as it rolled off her into the drain. And then, in a move that surprised Katie and me, the aunt walked into the bathroom, took the soap from Katie, and began to scrub the little girl. I was afraid the child would burst into tears, but still she stood without squirming or squealing or raising any of the objections toddlers typically raise.
Katie and I watched quietly, both of our minds filled with the same question: “How can it be that this aunt, who isn’t clean herself and lives in squalor in a dirty village, knows the importance and urgency of cleanliness for this child?” She was washing the little girl with determination and concentration, as though she understood that this activity was vital to the child’s well-being. More than likely, this auntie had really wanted Napongo to be clean and well all along, but simply didn’t have the means to help her.
When the child had been bathed to her aunt’s satisfaction, Katie wrapped her in a towel and carried her to a nearby bed. She knelt in front of her and began to remove jiggers from her feet. Jigger was not a word I’d heard before. In Uganda, jiggers are everywhere and they cause much trouble. They are small insects that burrow painlessly into a person’s skin and create a tiny egg sac, leaving a little bump that appears as inflammation. While having jiggers doesn’t hurt until they have practically infested an area of the body, having them removed can be excruciating. But the child didn’t wince, scream, or jerk in any way as Katie removed the jiggers and cut away dead skin around them. She simply sat silently as a few tiny tears made their way slowly down her face.
I backed into a corner, thinking that if I fainted, I wouldn’t fall backward; I would simply slide down the wall. I told myself it was fatigue from jet lag, and it was—partly. And partly it was a mixture of disgust, sadness, and shock over the child’s willingness to so quietly endure this painful procedure.
Under normal circumstances, I might have been tempted to think the little girl was too sick to recover. But because I knew she was in Katie’s care, I had every reason to believe she’d be just fine.
I knew the stories. I’d read all of Katie’s blog, her chronicle of her life and work in Uganda, starting in 2007. I knew that if anyone could give a little girl the love and attention she needed, it would be Katie. I was aware that Katie would not only tend to the child for part of an afternoon but for days or months to come if necessary.
Not unexpectedly, about ten days later, Katie saw Napongo in Masese. She was not improving as Katie had hoped. Certainly, she looked better than she had when I first saw her. The wounded place on her mouth had healed completely, probably because her young aunt applied the antibiotic ointment Katie gave her, as instructed. But the child’s belly was still enormous and tight. The sores all over her body remained. Ugandans recognized the disease and had a name for it, but no one anywhere could translate that name into English.
So, for the remainder of my stay in Uganda, Napongo lived at Katie’s house with the rest of us. She received nourishing meals and vitamins, plus the affection and care of fourteen sisters. On her first Sunday there this child, who literally wore dirty tatters and went barefoot every day because she had no other option, had a brand-new sundress and a pair of shoes to wear when she went to church for the very first time.
One of the moments with Napongo etched most deeply in my mind took place when Katie took her to be tested for HIV. Katie and I, with all fourteen girls and Napongo, piled into the van and went to Renee’s house because Renee had HIV-testing supplies. Napongo sat on the kitchen counter. I once again stood in close proximity to the wall—just in case. This child who had so stoically endured the painful removal of her jiggers began to shriek as the needle pierced her veins. The sound was like a vise grip on my heart as I watched drops of her young blood fall on the paper testing strip. Katie, Renee, and I, along with a couple of other friends, waited nervously, fully aware of what the test results would mean to Napongo’s life and future.
And then, after a weighty sigh, Renee announced with a whisper, “She’s positive.”
The kitchen was silent.
Today, Napongo’s mother has returned from Kampala and has learned to love and care for her in a whole new way. With Katie’s help, Napongo is receiving regular HIV treatments, infusing new life into the body that was wasting away only a few months ago. She attends preschool, and she runs and laughs and dances and giggles—as four-year-old girls are supposed to do. Katie and her family visit Napongo often, amazed and overjoyed by the way her life has turned around.
Napongo’s story is only one. Many others in Katie’s community can tell of times when she took notice of their situations and stopped to provide as much help and compassion as humanly possible. During my short stay in Uganda, I witnessed a steady stream of people who dropped by Katie’s house or stopped her on the street for various reasons. One woman, a neighbor, came at night. She had a fever and wasn’t feeling well. Katie quickly put on a pair of latex gloves and pricked her finger to test for malaria. Over the next few days, someone dropped by to ask Katie for a letter of reference to help him obtain a visa to the United States. Someone came to speak to her about his schooling. A neighbor stopped by to share her struggles with her health and finances. As Katie cared for each one and did what she could do to assist or encourage, I realized that there are no statistics in Katie’s world. There are only people, and every life matters.
You’ll see that over and over again throughout these pages. It’s not only the way Katie lives, it’s also the way you can live if you choose to do so. Human suffering and need are everywhere. Katie is not a superhero; she’s really just an ordinary woman who wanted more than anything to obey God and say yes to whatever He asked of her. It just so happened that a great adventure awaited her when she did, and she now finds herself in the midst of a remarkable story that is unfolding in jubilant ways, in heartbreaking ways, and in courageous ways every day.
God has been writing a story in Uganda for a long time. He’s used lots of people to accomplish what He has wanted to do there over the years. Some of them have given their lives for His purposes in this country, and though we don’t know them, we honor them. Others are giving their lives to participate in all God is doing in this land today, as we write this book. They are both Ugandan natives and citizens of countries far away; they are Katie’s friends and colleagues; they are ordinary people who love an extraordinary God; they are part of Katie’s story and part of God’s ongoing story here.
If you are ordinary but hungry to obey God, may you find inspiration and encouragement in these pages. May you find the strength to say yes and be launched into your very own amazing story.
© 2011 Katie Davis