Start Reading Garden of the Lost and Abandoned

In Jessica Yu's stunning work of narrative nonfiction, we meet Gladys, a journalist in Uganda's capital, and one of the many children she's determined to save.

Garden of the Lost and Abandoned

NAKINTU MISTREATED

Nine-year-old Olivia Nakintu was born with a swelling on her back. She was found loitering the streets and is currently at Kawempe Police Station. She claimed her mother, Agnes Mbabazi, had been mistreating her and she revealed a big scar where she reportedly burnt her with a hot knife.

In tears, she said her mother discriminated against her because of her disability, so she had decided to look for her father, Misuseera Sebutali of Ndegi village near Lukaya town. 

In some of Gladys’s cases, all the names were known. Each star in the family constellation had been identified, along with its location in the galaxy: child, mother, father, village. On the surface, the reconnecting of kin in such cases should be a simple matter.

But as with many things in life, particularly life in Uganda, a matter was rarely simple. Even when Gladys knew the names and village of a child’s relatives, reunion was no certainty. Maybe the family members had moved. Maybe they lived in a remote area where no one could read English or afford the newspaper. Maybe the parents had moved on to new families. Maybe they were dead.

While she could continue to publicize the children’s existence through “Lost and Abandoned,” the fact that Gladys lacked the means to chase down every lead meant that children might languish in police stations or children’s homes or some other limbo for weeks and months. Sometimes, as in the case of Olivia Nakintu, years.

______

Gladys had first encountered Olivia two years before, when she was making her rounds at Kawempe Police Station. Passing by the recycled shipping container where kids were held overnight, she saw an image she could still vividly recall: a girl in a light-blue school uniform, the hump on her back giving her the profile of a question mark. She appeared to be around ten years old, although she was shorter than average because of the compression of her spine. Her face was wet with tears.

“What is the matter?”

“I’m trying to get back home.”

Gladys placed a hand on the trembling shoulder. “Come, my dear. I want you to tell me everything. Tell me the story from once upon a time to the very end.”

Indeed, the story was like the hardship in a fairy tale. Her mother had stolen her from her father’s home and had brutally mistreated her. The girl had run away to look for her father. “Because he used to love me,” she said simply. “And my grandmother too.”

Florence, the Child Protective Services officer on duty at the time, told Gladys that Olivia had been picked up on the road. She told the police that she was trying to walk back home to her father’s village somewhere around Lukaya — a town over sixty miles away! There was no way that a child, particularly one with a malformed spine, could make such a journey on foot.

The other children at the station were eating the single daily meal of posho the police could provide, but Olivia had arrived too late to share in the porridge. Who knows when she last ate? Gladys fretted as she crossed the street to buy her some matoke and meat.

After finishing her other interviews at the station, Gladys went to check on the girl, only to discover that other children had eaten her food! Maybe it was a misunderstanding, or maybe they had taken her food because she was small and misshapen and weak. Whatever the situation, Officer Florence told Gladys not to worry. The problem of the girl was solved. By a stroke of luck, a policeman who was coming by the station happened to be going in the direction of Lukaya, the town the girl had been walking toward. “We’ll just give her to this policeman,” she said, “and he can drop her there on his way.”

That was not right. They were just going to dump her in Lukaya somewhere? So the girl could be stranded there instead of in Kampala? The child had already spent several nights in a couple of police stations, and she was terribly stressed. You couldn’t just pass her along like an empty bottle for someone else to dispose of.

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“No,” said Gladys. “They are not taking that girl and leaving her like that.”

“Then where do we keep her?”

“Don’t mind. Give me one day, and I will find a way for her.” In convincing the policewoman, Gladys had trapped herself. Now that she had made the promise, it would somehow have to come true.

Since that day Gladys had done everything she could for Olivia. She had run her profile in the paper repeatedly, but no relatives had come forward. That was not so surprising, as the father’s family lived in a remote rural area. Gladys managed to get Olivia placed in Early Learning School in Entebbe and contributed to as many of the girl’s expenses as she could afford.

As with so many of the displaced kids at the school, Director Agnes promptly rechristened her. Olivia would now be known as Deborah.

Under her new name, the new girl blossomed. In this alternate world, Deborah’s infirmity was an identifying feature but not a negative one. Every visitor to the school remembered the winsome, hunchbacked little girl with the brilliant smile; she became the school’s unofficial ambassador. It amazed Gladys that Deborah was always the first to greet her when she stepped out of the car. How could the girl spot vehicles before anyone else? With her shortened body and her little legs, how could she consistently outrun the boys?

The hump on her back seemed to cause her no awkwardness as she chased friends around the yard or offered one of her frequent affectionate hugs. If anything, the way her shoulders bunched up gave her an attentive air; she seemed permanently oriented forward, like an eager student leaning on a desk.

Her voice was honeyed, flutelike. In the school chorus, her clear soprano shimmered like the iridescence on a rooster feather. She was also bright. The teachers reported that Deborah was the most frequent user of the library. In contrast, Ezra had not once been spotted inside its door.

Gladys had entreated Deborah to assist Erza in learning English, as his progress was achingly slow. The girl saw nothing odd in leading the teenager to study after class, although she was half his size and age.

Other children might have felt jealous of the attention she drew, were it not for her generous nature. A fellow classmate could always turn to her for a share of food or a spare garment or a turn in a game of jump rope. She was in all ways a charming girl.

Deborah was happy in Entebbe. But Gladys knew she still longed to visit her father’s home. The problem, as so often, was transport. The expense was a problem for everyone; even the police did not have access to vehicles. How many times did Gladys come across a case and think, Surely such a child can be resettled, only to realize with a sigh, But now how can I take the child there?

It would take a half day just to get to the town near Deborah’s village. With new obligations to new cases landing in her lap every week, Gladys could not place such a costly journey at the top of her priority list.

So Deborah waited. She smiled, she sang, she studied, she played. But Gladys knew she waited. And how the father and grandmother must miss their girl! Where might they have looked for her? Were they still looking? They must have endured restless nights worrying over how this child, a born victim in the eyes of the world, had survived. Or did they assume she had not?

______

Through her own scrimping and some donations, Gladys finally had the means to take Deborah home. Gladys’s dress reflected her sunny mood: a long sheath of blue-green with a gold trim, in a light and airy weave.

This time when Gladys reached the school, Deborah was not alone in greeting the car. Friends held each of her hands, and an entourage of well-wishers trailed in their wake. Knowing Deborah’s story, they were excited that she was getting her turn. Some looked on a bit wistfully. Little Rose, who longed for family attachment, peered into the car as though scouting for a place to stow away.

Deborah slipped into the back seat of Mike’s Volvo. She wore a neat black blouse with white polka dots, a black skirt, glittery silver sandals, and the irrepressible smile of one who has won an unexpected prize.

“Pray for us!” Gladys called to the children out the window. “We are hoping for a successful outcome!”

The car headed west on the Kampala-Masaka Road. It would be a long drive, about four hours. As Esther, Gladys’s roommate, chatted with Mike in the front, Gladys took advantage of the rare opportunity to talk to Deborah alone.

“I don’t know if you still help my boy as I asked you to,” Gladys said.

“I do,” the girl chirped.

“You do? You take Ezra to library? But how come he has not learned English well, like you?”

With Zam at the garden, Gladys had concocted a way to light two candles with one match. Ezra needed money for school expenses; Zam needed help with digging. If Ezra spent the month of holidays working under Zam’s supervision, he could make his own money. The boy was certainly up to the task, having endured his difficult childhood through his practical and hard-working nature. But Gladys sought reassurance that his studies would not suffer.

“He talks English when we are at school.”

“He talks English now? But he still has a problem of writing it. He doesn’t know the tenses.”

Deborah did not refute the point but answered patiently. “Every time he’s in class, I give him my book. He studies it, and every word he doesn’t know, I help him.”

“He points out the words he doesn’t know?”

The chatter eventually petered out, and after a while Deborah started to feel ill. Unaccustomed to long car rides, she was nauseated by the start-and-stop of the traffic and the smell of exhaust. Gladys patted the girl’s shoulder and encouraged her to sleep.

With her head lowered over her folded arms, the scars on Deborah’s scalp were clearly visible, lines and patches where hair would never grow. Given her sweet and sunny nature, it was easy to forget that she had been so injured.

Some children wore their hardships like shackles. Alex, for instance, whose ability to smile had died along with his tubercular mother. But Deborah possessed unusual buoyancy. She did not behave like a child who had lived through hell.

______

Unlike some children’s stories, Deborah’s had not changed since that day at Kawempe station two years ago. As she had explained to Gladys, her mother, Agnes Mbabazi, left home when Deborah was a toddler. She did not reappear until Deborah was about eight. It was school break, and Mbabazi announced that she wanted to take her daughter to Kampala with her. The family agreed, but when the break ended, she did not bring Deborah back.

In the city, Mbabazi’s decision to repossess her daughter quickly corroded. She complained that people were mocking her for having a deformed child. Her humiliation sparked an escalating cruelty, as Deborah’s scrapes and bruises were soon followed by cuts and burns.

“Why don’t you go back to your father?” she would yell at Deborah. “He’s the one who produces disabled people like you.”

After Deborah was seen with stab wounds on her head, neighbors reported the mother to the police. For a few days Mbabazi was held at Wandegeya Police Station. When Deborah was taken to see her, she was greeted not with remorse but with hot bile. “I wish I hadn’t produced you, you bastard,” her mother hissed at her. “Why did I have to produce a lame one like you? I wish I had known what I was producing. I would have killed you before you came out.”

That night Mbabazi escaped from her cell. She headed straight back home to beat Deborah again, hatred guiding her blows in the dark.

The next day Deborah started off in search of her father. Instead she ended up meeting Gladys.


Author Photo: Braden Moran

JESSICA YU is a prolific filmmaker known for both her scripted and nonfiction work, which includes the Academy Award-winning short Breathing Lessons. Her documentaries have focused on art, social justice, and the environment. She lives in Southern California.

About JESSICA YU

JESSICA YU is a prolific filmmaker known for both her scripted and nonfiction work, which includes the Academy Award-winning short Breathing Lessons. Her documentaries have focused on art, social justice, and the environment. She lives in Southern California.

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