Miria shivers in the dark and pulls the ragged blanket around her shoulders as she moves through the dark streets of Bwaise. She is exhausted, cold and hungry, her bare feet sore and bleeding from the stones and broken glass that litter the dirt streets of this sprawling slum outside of Kampala, Uganda.
She has been stumbling through the dark for nearly two hours now, on her way from one place to another. From a day spent begging in Kampala, to her planned destination, a lean-to-shack that is an elementary school by day and a relatively safe shelter for children like her when the sun’s warmth and light have faded. It is the school that she attended before her mother became so ill with the HIV virus and could no longer work at the kiosk just down the street from their home. When the job had ended, so had Miria’s days at school. But, it’s a place she still knows and a place she trusts. She is hoping to get a few hours of sleep there before moving on to the other side of the slum where her uncle now lives. He is a mean man who shows only a little love for even his own children, but she is desperate and right now he is her only hope. Besides, his home used to be hers. Before her mother died that is.
Truthfully, it’s the last place she would go if she had a choice, and she has fought hard for nearly four weeks now to avoid going there; begging for food and water during the day and seeking safe shelter at night. But she is exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. The meager meals she has begged haven’t been enough to sustain her. Not even close. And there is no amount of food, water or shelter that could make her smile right now. Nothing that could help with the ache she feels in her heart and has felt since her mother died. It had been a long, slow death. She had watched her waste away, day by day until there was nothing left of the beautiful woman she had been. Someone who hadn’t watched it all wouldn’t have recognized her. Except for her eyes. Even in the end, that’s where she had found the mother she had known as a little child. The warmth, the love, the laughter, were still there right up to the moment she had closed them for the last time. They buried her three days later in a cemetery for the poor.
She had cried for three days. She had cried until there were no more tears and then she had just sobbed and moaned for two more days. She was alone with her two younger siblings; her father having abandoned them all many years before. Now, with their mother also gone, all three were orphans in every sense of the word. The next number of days had come and gone with the three children sitting alone and emotionally numb in the humble shack they had spent their entire lives in. Within that time, what food had remained was all gone and neighbors stopped by periodically to check on them and bring them a little food. On one such visit, a neighbor and close friend of their mother informed her that she had been in contact with Miria’s uncle and someone from the government.
Two days more passed and then a social worker had come from Kampala, the one summoned by the neighbor. That was the same day her uncle had arrived with his four children. The social worker had taken her two younger brothers away after a long conversation with her uncle who had said that he would provide for Miria, but couldn’t provide or care for the younger ones. But he had lied. Even on the first day he had beaten her and told her how things would be from that point on. She would serve him if she wanted to eat. She would serve her four cousins if she didn’t want more beatings. At fourteen years old, she was young, but had her mother’s fierce strength. So, one night after eating scraps from the floor and receiving a beating
her uncle referred to as a “reminder,” she had left in the middle of the night, taking nothing but her blanket and her mother’s homemade necklace, which hung loosely around her neck even now.
Now, dark clouds block the pale moon light and it is only the smell of raw sewage that tells her she needs to slow her pace and move forward ever more carefully. Somewhere close she will find the ditch she needs to cross; a ditch carrying human waste and water from many thousands of make-shift homes that line the streets, back to back, roofs touching and even overlapping. Suddenly she is at the ditch, and struggles to maintain her balance as she climbs the humped dirt that lines the edge of the flowing filth. She gauges the jump from memory and leaps into the darkness, landing painfully on her knees and scrambling up the bank on the other side of the ditch. She feels her way down onto the flat, hard surface of the road and brushes the dirt from her arms and legs.
The moon peeks out from behind the clouds and illuminates the ground in front of her. There, just a few feet away she can see the pale, yellow planks on the outside of the shack she has been seeking. She creeps quietly around the building and peers around the corner into the interior. It is almost too dark to see, but she is fairly certain she can see dark shapes on the other side. They are motionless and are making no noise so she steps inside and makes her way to the dark corner against the back wall. She will meet the fellow occupants in the morning light and only then will she know if they are strangers or not. Perhaps they are the brother and sister from the night before; or perhaps they will be someone new altogether.
She smooths the dirt with her hands and spreads the blanket before crawling onto it and wrapping herself the best she can, using her arm as a pillow. She sighs a deep sigh, accepting the paltry gift of rest and shelter that her sad, young life has given her this day. She lies there in the dark and worries about her two younger brothers. Are they safe? Are they Happy? Will she ever see them again or is she really all alone in the world? Is this all there is and all there will ever be? Loneliness and hunger? Will she be doomed to begging for scraps until she dies of hunger or will her uncle finally beat her to death? Without an education, she could never hope to escape the slums! Her mother had told her that; promised to give her a way out for her and her brothers. She had been wrong. For now, there is no way out and to Miria, the school is no longer a school. It is just a place to sleep. Just a place to hide from everything unknown in the darkness outside.
She sobs quietly in the dark, pounding a fist into the hard dirt in anger. Then she thinks of her mother and what she would say if she were there at that moment. “Clear your mind child. Clear your mind, close your eyes, and trust that God will see you safely through the night.” She obeys the memory. She closes her eyes and tries hard to clear her mind of the fears and sorrow that lurk there. In just moments she is asleep.
It is three o’clock in the morning. The clouds are gone and the moon and distant stars adorn the black sky as Miria sleeps fitfully on the hard ground inside the dilapidated school. Less than 20 miles away, two other people sleep on soft pillows in warm beds; one good, one evil. Tomorrow when the sun rises, a day will begin in which their lives, and Miria’s will intersect at a crossroads that will change everything…
To be continued…