Two weeks flew by quickly once the never-ending workshops finally ended and the volunteers got a chance to serve the families. Trinity Cross Missions had developed strong bonds with the communities, encouraging the families welcome the volunteers with open arms. Some even invited them to eat dinner at their homes.
As with the children in Kibera, Karen was equally humbled and blessed by the children of Kampala. Her experience with them only strengthened her resolve to get into missions once she returned home. Her smile was wobbly as she hugged the last of the children, having grown fond of every single one.
“Bye bye, Aunty Karen,” they said in unison, smiling happily.
If only she could bottle up their joys as she did memories of them. Karen opened her arms wide for one last embrace. No matter the stress of her stay, Karen wouldn’t trade this wonderful experience for anything.
“We will miss you, Sister Karen,” one of the Ugandan teachers said, giving Karen a hug also.
“I’ll miss you too,” Karen said, holding the woman close. Though they were of the same age, their life experiences matured them differently. Though Uganda had its share of trials and pain, joy emanated from the native teacher’s smile as it did with the children.
Karen wished she could feel that type of joy, even if it was birthed from trials.
“Come see us again.”
“I will,” she vowed, loosening her hold. “Keep in touch. Remember to write me and I’ll do the same.”
“Of course.” The native teacher giggled as the children swarmed Karen, not wanting to let her go.
An hour later, Karen tamped a sigh as she and Jennifer took a cab to the airport. The warm feeling instantly faded once she met Jennifer standing near the sidewalk outside the center, awaiting their cab. Two weeks since the controversial workshop and Jennifer had yet to say more than two words to her.
It hadn’t bothered her in the beginning but Karen was slowly losing her patience. She shifted in her seat.
“Where are you going after this?”
Jennifer flinched and glanced over, confusion etched in her brow. “What?”
“You heard me. Where to next?”
Jennifer eyed her warily and then answered. “Djibouti.”
“I see.” Karen refocused on organizing her wallet contents.
There was a moment of silence and then Jennifer sighed before facing her own window.
Karen paused with a frown. “No seriously, what is your problem?”
The younger girl turned slowly, brow furrowed. “My problem…?”
“Yes, your problem,” Karen answered. “You’ve been sulking for two whole weeks. Avoiding me like the plague although we share the same room. C’mon, what’s that about?”
“I thought you hated me.”
“Hated…” Karen’s jaw slackened at the glimmer in Jennifer’s eyes. “Huh?!”
Jennifer sniffed noisily and lowered her gaze. “The way you looked at me after the workshop, and then you ignored me the whole time.”
“Oh come on,” Karen interjected. “Don’t be silly—”
Jennifer suddenly burst into sobs. Alarmed, Karen glanced once at the driver eying her suspiciously from the rearview mirror. Clamping down a retort, she cautiously put a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “What on earth are you crying about?”
Jennifer’s wails got louder and she turned her face to Karen’s shoulder. Tossing an exasperated glance at the car ceiling, Karen reluctantly pulled the inconsolable girl into her arms.
Gratefully, by the time the cab had pulled in front of the airport, Jennifer’s sobs abated to sniffles. Handing the cab driver his fare and a few more dollars as tip for minding his business, Karen then turned back to Jennifer who stood by their luggage with her head bowed.
“Let’s get checked in and get some lunch. Okay?”
To Karen’s gentle suggestion, Jennifer snuck a peek at her companion and nodded.
“Alright,” Karen sighed and reached for her suitcase. “Check-in’s that way.” Leading the way through the busy airport, she rehearsed a kinder way to relate with Jennifer. If that was all that resulted from their time together, she planned to make what was left of it a teaching moment.
“Two sub sandwiches and salted fries!”
“I’ll get it,” Karen said, gesturing for Jennifer to remain seated. With some free time between their flights, the two women relocated to the corner of a sandwich café.
Returning with their meals, Karen reseated. “So you do understand that we’re allowed our personal convictions, right?”
Jennifer paused in mid-bite and looked up at Karen, expression dubious.
Karen managed a smile. “Sure I was surprised by your view on illegal adoption, but never once did I think you evil or terrible… Neither did I express any feelings of hate toward you.”
The girl chewed her sandwich in silence, mulling over Karen’s words.
Encouraged to continue, Karen did just that. “What I did feel was disappointment that a mother’s rights to her child could be ignored for someone’s gain—let me finish, please—if someone dared to take away my niece and nephew, I wouldn’t take that sitting down. In fact, I might get pretty violent to protect them.”
Something flitted in Jennifer’s eyes and she swallowed hard.
Karen sighed deeply. “It pisses me off that there might be children out there, missing their mothers and growing up without their birth siblings. Who knows if their adopted parents are even taking care of them as they promised? Disputing a birth parent’s right to justify that of illegal adoptions is unacceptable—”
The softly-spoken outburst stilled Karen’s tongue. She blinked at the young woman before her.
Jennifer wiped her mouth first and set down the rest of her sandwich. “My parents adopted me when I was six. I didn’t know my mother, and my father made it clear he didn’t want me. Yeah sure he said otherwise but his actions didn’t match his words. I obviously can’t say I regret being stolen from him.”
The forlorn expression on Jennifer’s eyes stole Karen’s breath and rendered her speechless.
“Not everything is black and white, Karen. Not every parent wants their children and not every parent is good or selfless. My birth parent wanted a freedom he couldn’t have with a child. And my adopted parents would do anything to have me.”
Karen swallowed painfully, watching the sadness in Jennifer’s eyes.
“Unlike you, I’ve been on many of these mission trips. I’ve seen ugliness in families than your mind can even imagine. Kids are abused and neglected because their parents are hopeless or frustrated. People can be evil. You can’t tell me different when I’ve seen children sold to prostitution by their own parents.”
“Let me finish,” Jennifer said softly. “When there’s desperation, we are all capable of doing anything and everything to survive. To win in life.”
Karen didn’t dare ask what her adopted parents were willing to do to win their child. She had a feeling it wouldn’t be a good story. Appetite lost, she fiddled with the wrapping of her untouched sandwich.
“It’s every man for himself out here.” Jennifer’s lips turned in a sneer. “Yes, some are considered good because they might die for their children. Yet some are not at a point where they must choose their lives over that of their kids, but some will… and the number of parents in that category is significant.” Jennifer lifted her sandwich to her lips and bit down, eyes on Karen.
The weight of Jennifer’s stare forced Karen to lower hers. There was nothing left to say and that was troubling. With a deep sigh, she nudged her plate aside.
And with a heavy heart, Karen said goodbye to Jennifer while feeling like she’d failed her somehow. If she’d known Jennifer harbored such feelings, she would’ve spent the time they had together to prove otherwise… or at least show her that parents were prone to make mistakes.
Karen’s parents, though strict, loved and cared for their three children. She couldn’t remember a time when either her mother or father placed their needs before that of their kids. Instead, she recalled the sleepless nights her parents spent nursing a sickly Samina or the troubled days when her brother Obadiah needed to be disciplined over a stupid mistake or two. Her father’s struggle to punish Obadiah for his reckless behavior was plain to see. And though they easily pointed out her faults and reprimanded her for each one, Karen had no doubt they cared for her too.
As Jennifer disappeared around the corner, Karen heaved yet another sigh. There was nothing else she could do for Jennifer, and she despised harboring regrets. So resigned, Karen turned around and started the long walk to the assigned gate for her flight.
“I won’t lie to you,” Ejigu prefaced as Clement read the morning paper. “It doesn’t look promising.”
“But we have to do it,” Clement answered, flipping the page. He was calm and collected in the midst of their growing irritation.
Ejigu silently beseeched Dula to convince Clement otherwise. Dula sighed. “Brother, listen to him for a change. He is the one nearest the capital. He hears what happens there.”
“It’s true,” Ejigu added. “The government is working to strengthen their laws on child kidnapping. Priscilla says it could happen sooner than—”
“Okay,” Clement finally looked up with a frown. “What’s the matter with you two? Since when do you start listening to Priscilla?” He couldn’t help the sneer as he said her name, still annoyed with her meddling. Ever since she returned, she wanted a say in everything.
“Her father is in Parliament,” Dula replied. “You know she has his ear. Let us wait for her to talk with him.”
“And every time she promises to talk with him, we wait and wait,” Clement answered with derision and folded the paper. “Well I’m done waiting. The bad guys keep doing what they do best while we sit here like fools, waiting for a government too afraid to make the bad guys pay.” He shook his head and stood. “I won’t ask you to go, Dula. As I said before, you’ve got a family to take care of.”
“I have one too,” Ejigu inserted, agitation clear in his voice. “Why must I risk my life but not Dula?”
The two men stared at each other, stunned by Ejigu’s outburst. Then Clement’s brow furrowed. “I never said you should come along, did I?”
“Clement—” Dula started.
Clement held up a hand, though his hard stare remained on Ejigu’s face. “You volunteered to come with me, and I’ve always given you the chance to back off.”
“But you can’t go alone,” Ejigu insisted.
“Yes I can,” Clement countered firmly, though his expression softened. “I know your sister and mother are in a tough spot. I realize you need to keep your job so you can provide… and I know you want to get married.”
“And you don’t?”
Clement quietly considered Ejigu’s softly-spoken question for just a moment and then shook his head. “Putting a woman through this life would be cruel.”
“You don’t have to live this life,” Dula reminded him gently. “We can involve the government.”
“A government too busy managing petty conflicts?” Clement rolled his eyes. “They have their hands full.”
“As do you,” Dula protested. “You are a pastor, Clement. Your duty is to preach and lead your sheep.”
“When half my sheep is stolen and sold to slavery or worse, how can I confidently preach God’s love and care for them?” Clement frowned. “What mother or father would listen to a message like that when their child is nowhere to be found? Could you listen if Meko suddenly went missing?”
Dula’s lips thinned.
“And you.” Clement’s gaze skipped to Ejigu. “Could you listen if your niece was sold to prostitution?”
Ejigu’s gaze lowered.
“Didn’t think so.” Clement heaved a sigh. “I have seven nephews and nieces, and one more on the way. The thought of any exposed to that kind of danger makes me sick. The thought of our kids here vulnerable to attack at any point of time makes me lose sleep at night. And that mother’s cry… I still hear it every night.” Clement trembled with pent-up indignation. “How can you expect me to ignore that and mount a pulpit every Sunday to say Jesus loves you?”
Both men slowly looked up and met Clement’s gaze. They looked conflicted, their silence louder than words.
Clement nodded. “You have done more than enough and I thank you for supporting this crazy mission of mine. You’ve put your lives on the line enough times and I wouldn’t ask you to do more than that. But please don’t try to convince me otherwise. I’m still going.”
“How would you explain my absence?” Ejigu asked. “That woman will be suspicious if I’m not with you. You’re not supposed to understand the native language.”
Clement frowned and Dula heaved a sigh at his friend’s momentary silence. “This is dangerous, Brother.”
The door creaked open and Wubit stepped inside with Meko propped at her hip. Clement’s frown melted away as the young boy beamed at the sight of his father. When Dula took Meko from Wubit’s arms, Clement determined never to put his friends through such danger. He would go it alone and make sure they need not worry for anything while he was gone.
“Are you through with your discussion?” Wubit asked, eyes on Clement. “The play is about to begin, and the children are asking for their guest of honor.”
Clement’s lips twitched a smile and put a hand to his chest. “Me?”
“Who else?” Wubit giggled. “Come on before they get restless waiting on you.”
“Well let’s not keep them waiting. Should I pretend to be surprised even though I saw them practicing?”
Wubit laughed. “Please do.”
As Clement and Wubit walked out of the pastor’s office, Dula and Ejigu stalled a minute longer. They exchanged wary glances, worried that their friend was too committed to this dangerous mission.
“Will you go?” Dula asked, bouncing his baby boy on his hip.
Ejigu looked remorseful as he shook his head. “I can’t. My mother’s health is worsening, my sister just lost her job at the hotel and I have to make more money.”
“Oh no! You should’ve told us, Brother. We could’ve helped with some—”
“I can’t ask you to do that,” Ejigu protested. “You barely have enough to feed everyone. And Clement…” he heaved a sigh. “He’s using his own money to buy back the children.”
Dula swallowed hard. “This is too dangerous. If he gets caught, they could kill him.”
Ejigu dragged a hand over his face, his frustration palpable. “But we can’t stop him. No one can stop him.”
“He believes this is the best way—” Meko suddenly smacked his father’s face and Dula let out a laugh as he held back his face from attack. “This boy.”
Ejigu managed a smile. “He wants to see the play too.”
“Then let’s go,” Dula answered and led the way out of the office, down the hallway into the compound that looked different from how it looked a day ago.
Clement sat on the floor, cross-legged, with the younger children seated around him. Some leaned against him and giggled as he kept them entertained with his stories. Wubit and Priscilla were near the back, making popcorn while the other two volunteers stood with the older children dressed in makeshift costumes for their play. Joining Wubit and Priscilla by the popcorn station, Dula leaned in to give Wubit a kiss on her cheek.
“Smells delicious!” Ejigu said, smiling brightly at Priscilla.
Priscilla’s smile was wan, distracted as she watched Clement. “He’s still going, isn’t he?”
Ejigu’s smile slipped and so did Dula’s. The awkward silence lasted only a moment before Meko smacked Dula’s cheek.
“Oow!” Dula protested with a short laugh. “Where is he learning this?”
“Who knows,” Wubit answered, giving her son a kiss on his soft cheek. “Why don’t you guys have a seat? The play is about to begin.”
Priscilla watched with a frown as the two men readily fled from the table. “Maybe I should talk to—”
“Leave it be, Priscilla,” Wubit said softly, pouring a scoopful of freshly-popped corn into a newspaper cone. “The more you push him, the faster he runs in the other direction.”
“Can’t he see that I still care about him?”
“I know you care but you ran away when he needed you.”
Priscilla snorted derisively. “Does that man need anyone?”
Wubit glanced over where Clement was now tickling a few of the younger children. She smiled wistfully. “The right woman will make him need her.”
“…Wow Wubit,” Priscilla said, frowning. “So you’re saying I’m the wrong woman?”
“Sister.” Wubit looked back at her, smile still in place. “One day you’ll meet the right man that will value and cherish you the way you deserve to be treated.”
“And Clement isn’t that man?” There was pain etched in her face.
“No Priscilla, he isn’t.” Wubit abandoned the popcorn to embrace her friend. “Not for you.”