July 25, 2016 — By Matt:
Walking off the plane six weeks ago, I immediately noticed the luscious emerald flora and the brick-colored dust that covered the landscape before me. The country that I have since come to love was staring back at me through the eyes of the curious staring at us from outside the airport. During our various excursions to the Northern and Western regions of Uganda, the term Pearl of Africa has developed a deeper meaning. To say the natural beauty of Uganda is amazing would be understating just how beautiful this country truly is. The breathtaking sunsets, the vast lakes, tall mountains, and stunning green valleys are only a minute testament to the myriad of wonders that Uganda holds for those that are blessed enough to visit. However, it is not the vessel of this country that has captivated me, but its inhabitants. The friends that I have made and those that influenced me powerfully during my stay here will forever be with me. I had the opportunity to meet such remarkable and fantastic people who pour their love over us expecting nothing in return. A people who hug first and care for our well being before their own. Individuals who gazed at us with eyes of hope, that they too will one day be able to walk out the prisons as we did.
There are a few instances in my life that impacted me so mightily and left leaving a mark so defining that it cut deeply into the very fabric of who I am. But even within these experience and interactions, there are a few that stand out among the rest, diamonds shining among precious jewels. This is one such story.
Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah was charged with murder. Based on the facts enclosed within her tattered file, a man had been banging on the door wanting to get into the house where Sarah stayed. She refused to let him in and he began to tear down the mud wall in an attempted forced entry. Sarah and possibly another person proceeded to force the man away using stick. In chasing this man away with sticks, Sarah ended up causing enough physical force for the man to succumb to his wounds. However, Sarah’s story plays a different tune. The deceased man was once her significant other. By his heavy hand, she suffered frequent and intense episodes of domestic abuse and fled from village to village to avoid his anger. For the past three villages, he continued to pursue her and found her every time. In this past incident, the man approached her mud and grass house. Upon denial of entry, the man attempted to for=ce his way in by tearing away at the mud wall. Of course during all this, Sarah was terrified because, once again, her abusive past had found her. Wielding a weapon of self-protection, she chased off her assaulter only to be arrested for murder, a charge that never should have been brought in the first place.
Upon receiving the other end of this story, we were confident that she did not even belong here. She had acted out in self-defense, but the problem is actually getting to trial to prove this point. Most of the prisoners at Fort Portal were on remand, meaning they are awaiting trial. Some of them had been in this prison for over three years awaiting trial. To give more perspective, the prison held around 1200 people, 800 of which were on remand, in a prison with a maximum capacity of 300. Sarah had been there one year with probably another handful until she can prove herself in court. The Ugandan advocate and Prosecutor agreed on a sentence between 3-4 years asking for the discretion of the judge to make the final decision. To witness the joy on her face when they announced that she could only be serving a maximum of 3 years (four years minus one year for remand credit) was a sight to behold. She had walked off back to the grass mat placed on the ground and she started crying tears of joy in the presence of her friends. We could see her and she excitedly started to converse with those around her. Her smile did not subside for what seemed to be hours.
Two days later, we were informed that the judge reviewed her case and gave her a sentence of one year. Since she had been on remand for one year, she was released immediately. It was an amazing to hear this. We had been fighting so hard for bringing justice to those that had no voices and this solidified everything. This, this was the reason we are here. Everything became worth it.
She, who went from no hope and despair and uncertainty of when her trial will be which could have been half a decade away, was free after a period of three days of our arrival. People who had absolutely no hope because of the charges against them once again had renewed hope in the justice system and in the promises of God. She will never be forgotten. I can imagine just how beautiful of a scene it would have been when her children and her family see her walking down the street towards their home. I am positive there was unbelief and shock written on their faces when they see their mom, who they likely believed would never return, walk down to them. I imagine the emotions were powerful with a celebration that had enough tears to last a lifetime. I know that I will be overjoyed to see my family and friends again after two months; but this pales in comparison. Her perspective is entirely different. She had signed up for a plea-bargaining program where she knew that she would have to plead guilty in order to get a lighter sentence to get back to her family. Little did she know that a group of mzungus (foreigners) would interview her on Tuesday, she would go to a hearing on Thursday, and walk out minutes after.
“We know too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if that drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.” – Mother Teresa