by senkungu ibrahim
Published on: Aug 8, 2007
Type: Short Stories

I eased my way into a conversation with Morris Opira and Samuel Ojwiya, and a different picture began to emerge. Morris and Samuel are childhood friends from Purongo, 50 kilometers northwest of Gulu. They fled their village to avoid the war between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.

By this time, Morris had lost his only sister and his father. His mother died in 2003, but when asked whether he was an only survivor from his family, he points to Patrick Ocan, and says simply, “That boy is my younger brother.”

Samuel Ojwiya still has his mother and an older sister, but the rest of his family perished in the war. “My mother is very old and weak now, and cannot do very much,” he says without betraying any emotion.

Morris and Samuel work the car wash during weekdays, while Patrick attends nearby Atede Primary School, and only joins them on weekends. But, the wages of hard work are very low, usually amounting to a meager 5,000 shillings (approximately 3$ USD) on a very good day. Moreover, part of their earnings is shared with the owner of the water pipe from which they draw water. “That man over there collects half of everything we make, even tips,” Samuel reveals in a hushed voice.

I glance at Omona who is working a sweat scrubbing the extremely grimy car. My mind is made up—no tax collector is going to share the tip I intend to give to Omona when he finishes the job. The remaining wage is spent on a hefty rent for a ramshackle lean-to shack nearby. Other expenses go into food and clothes for themselves, Samuel’s older sister and her two fatherless young school-age sons. School fees for Patrick and Samuel’s two nephews eat up the rest of their earnings.

Both Morris and Samuel feel school is not a priority at this point. “When you are hungry at school, you can’t think at all,” Morris says philosophically. Yet both young men are very hopeful. Samuel is looking to become a qualified truck driver who will be able to earn good money.

Morris is keen to go into the pig business which he says breed quickly and when sold in the market, fetches good money. When asked how pigs could be reared in the crowded quarters where they live, he offered that something could be worked out. The only drawback is that piglets cost between 15,000 and 20,000 shillings and that one would need at least five piglets to get started.

That would be a cool 100,000 shillings- which he did not have and could never dream of having in five years. But, he remained hopeful. Almost an hour and a half had passed since Omona started working on my car and though it is sparkling clean, he refuses my entreaties that he had done an excellent job already.

Omona, I find out later, is also an orphan living with an aunt. He attends school nearby, but has taken Friday off to earn some extra money for food. He is preparing for his primary leaving certificate. He neither drinks nor smokes and finds that going out to a nightclub is a waste of money. He is going straight home after work. Come Monday, he will be at school.

I openly give Omona 2,000 shillings with one hand but I am mindful that we are being watched by the money-collector so I secretly slip into his hand twice that amount. For a brief moment, caught in the soft yellow glow of the setting sun, I saw a soft kind kid who should be playing basketball or soccer or reading a book this time. Let us end the war in the northern Uganda.

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