By: Aliker David Martin
Pope John Paul II once said, “Nobody is so poor he has nothing to give, and nobody is so rich he has nothing to receive.”
In 2010, as a graduate student of University of San Diego (Kroc School of Peace Studies), I carried out my thesis research in Coo Pee (A Place with No Men) village.
One sunny day, the wind was wild and my respondents kept cleaning sweat from their faces.
We took shelter beneath a dilapidated hut that looked in every way the marks of post war.
My respondents looked poor, hungry and tired but anxious to find out what brought a young man to their village.
Suddenly, someone in a loud excited voice called out my full name. It was akin to how we were called while at Bishop Angelo Negri Primary School days.
I turned to find my former head boy (Head of Prefects) Kidega Robert. I turned and called him back in his full name too.
We were excited to meet after close to 20 yrs. Robert looked dirty, skinny and with unkempt hair that contained mud. He certainly had not showered in years and he was all smelly.
The community referred to him as a mad man who lived by an old scary and bushy abandoned dilapidated structure with bullet marks all over it.
Robert was an exceptionally bright student who got the dream score of aggregate 4 and joined a dream school St. Henry’s College Kitovu. Robert had dropped out of Law School at Makerere University.
Like fate would have it, here was a once bright boy who always topped his class but was feeding on rubbish pits; had no shelter and no clothes for close to 14 years then but still had a sharp mind and humor.
If I am a graduate student of University of San Diego (USA)on a scholarship then Robert would have been in Harvard Law School.
After my studies, I returned to Uganda got a job and in 2015 decided to look for Robert and support him through with his mental health challenge.
This is when I met Aloyo Jok Vicky (52 yrs old). Vicky is not as old as she looks,just that poverty and her disability has taken its toll on her too in the aftermath of a conflict.
The community informed me to find her if I have to find Robert. Vicky is an elderly looking mother who runs a small restaurant called Mego Lapit literally meaning grandmother’s care.
Here she was caring for a mad man by donating him food every day in a restaurant where food cost less than $1.(2000/= UGX)
I and other former students then met Robert’s family and mobilized to get him to the country’s best referral mental health hospital (Butabika).
The old students of Bishop Angelo Negri and a few from St. Henry’s College Kitovu using Facebook fund-raised for his medical bills and welfare.
In 5 months Robert recovered and was discharged. We returned him to his family looking healthy and smart. He was productive again. We trained his family on how to manage mental health and the need for medication for a life time and social support.
Last Sunday, 20th January, 2019 I and a few former students decided to make a follow up visit to Robert to find out how he was doing.
Sadly, he had relapsed again and looked just the same way we had found him in 2010. His family gave up on supporting his medication and providing social support but one woman never gave up on him. The elderly looking lady with a low cost restaurant-Vicky!
As it happens with many old students Associations, they are only comfortable identifying with those who “made it in life”.
Our individual monthly
remittances had failed. We owed Vicky 250,000 Ugx ($100) for food bills for
Robert but she still welcomed us and offered updates on Robert and how she has
struggled to take care of him.
Vicky rents a small space where she has built a restaurant with un-burnt bricks and mud and iron sheets.
She uses a bench and one table to serve her customers. She offers food for less than $1(2000Ugx).
She is supported by two young girls to serve her customers in a restaurant of only 3 saucepans and less than a dozen plastic cups and plates and in return she cares for them too.
Her floor is clear dirt from the ground and not cemented. She separates the kitchen and the customers table using a bed sheet yet she has never run out of business in over a decade and has been able to feed and care for Robert every day.
To ensure that Robert is not stigmatized she
ensures that he is clean shaven and once a while gives him soap to take a bath.
In my interview with Vicky I asked her what inspires her resilience and generosity. Vicky says she was once married to Roberts’s family as a young girl but she divorced after bearing two children and she moved on.
Then Robert was a young
handsome boy. Robert’s mother did everything she could to save her marriage and
would host her whenever she faced domestic violence. If she lived her son would
not suffer like he is suffering now. So in death she feels like giving it back
to her by standing in to support her son before she dies.
The Sustainable Model
In was clear our previous monthly remittance initiative from the old students was not successful; so our mission this time round was to find out what community model works to support people like Robert.
Since our intellectual ideas were failing, we needed a grassroots approach to what will work. We met Vicky attending her village savings and credit community meeting.
She excused herself to meet us and we placed these ideas to her. She responded with humility that she has no idea but she will continue supporting Robert for as long as her business is running.
Then Anthony who comes from a business family noted that, it’s simple we need to make sure her business keeps running and runs better.
We then discussed how Robert
can be helped in a more sustainable way. We noticed that since Vicky’s
restaurant has never closed despite its poor state and has been helpful in
supporting Robert; we will start a membership community based organization and
fundraise 20,000/Ugx ($10) each every month from anyone interested to donate to
This funding will go to supporting Vicky’s restaurant to ensure she supports Robert better. Members present immediately started with their donation.
In return, Vicky is to ensure Robert takes his medicine after every meal like he has been having. Vicky will also ensure Robert travels for medical care monthly and update us on his progress. Besides, she will ensure he is clean and keeps both his medical records and accountability for how she has used these funds in her business.
In the aftermath of the conflict in northern Uganda, the challenge of mental health is real. The cost of treating mental health is much more than HIV/AIDS and Malaria.
The choice to get involved is normally personal but the challenge is communal. We may do nothing about it because we are blessed with a clean bill of health but the reality is that as a community we will get affected.
That’s why we have more cases of suicide and we still think it’s their family issue not until we lose those we care about or one that society needs.
A mother who lives with the reality of a son struggling with mental health challenges cannot say she is mentally healthy when she has sleepless nights and so is a brother and a sister and just like his friends.
Other than donating $10 every month or making a one off donation to this cause; you may as well donate a dozen of cups and plates to Vicky’s restaurant.
You may as well donate chairs and tables to Vicky’s restaurant. But most importantly you may donate your time or bricks and we rebuild Vicky restaurant.
You don’t have to be Roberts old boy, you just need to care about community members with a mental health challenge.
The Bible tells us blessed is the hands that give for it shall receive. This simple act of kindness is enough to make the world we live in a better place. Vicky will offer her time and restaurant services, as old students we will offer funds and expertise.
Hopefully, the community based organization develops to serve others in his community who could be challenged too.
If you like to support Robert, Call Ojok Cornelius(0776800804), Chairman Bishop Angelo Negri Students Association-Gulu
The Author is a Blogger and Mental Health Activist and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org