I saw them as I was collecting myself after leaving Adrian. Though I was taking deep breaths and wiping tears away, they waved and smiled. I waved back and was going to let it be, but they kept waving. We were leaving Uganda in a few more hours, so I decided I better make the best of it. Plus I thought sitting with them might cheer me up.
They rested on the ground near our van and kept smiling my way, so I sat down next to them.
"Hi," I said, not knowing if they'd understand.
"We like shoes" the younger girl said, eying mine. I thought briefly about giving them to her, but knew either girl would swim in my size 10. I stammered something about the Sole Hope people bringing more shoes the following week, which they were, and fumbled for something else to talk about, wanting to take advantage of their English. They were sisters, 10 and 12 and the older girl seemed a little sluggish, making me wonder when she had eaten last.
A Sole Hope worker behind us was teaching some small children a song.
"You sing for us."
"I'd rather hear you. I loved hearing the songs you sang to us earlier. They were beautiful."
The little one smiled and nudged her sister and they sang a couple for me. The younger smiled as she did so and I enjoyed the sparkle in her eyes.
"Now you sing," she said.
"How about we sing something together," I offered, "Do you know Jesus Loves Me?"
Immediately they both nodded, but when I started singing, they looked at me like I lost my mind. Apparently they knew a different version. They humored me, though, and listened quietly. When I finished I tried teaching them the chorus and they gave it a shot. Like so many moments in Africa, I was hit with the realization of what was happening. Here I was, sitting in the red dirt of Uganda, singing, Jesus Loves Me with two beautiful girls. Crazy! Who could have imagined?
After we finished singing I asked about their family. They told me their dad was dead. When I asked if they lived with their mother, they shook their heads.
"Our mother died. We live with our stepmother."
Everywhere I went in Uganda I heard stories about stepmothers and how traditionally they don't care for their stepchildren, even if the biological mother is deceased. They mistreat them, don't feed them or abandon them. There are exceptions, of course, but not many, so I worried about their home life.
"Where do you live?" I asked.
They pointed beyond the trees behind me and then asked a question I've heard countless times at home.
"Can you take us home?"
I knew I didn't have the skill to drive them over the rutted roads and wasn't allowed to drive the van anyway, so I just answered, "I'm sorry. I can't do that."
"But do you live in America?"
"Can't you take us home?"
They weren't looking for a ride home. They were looking for a NEW home. In America. With a woman they just met. What does that tell you about their lives?
"I'm sorry. I can't," I said sadly.
The older girl sighed and hung her head.
The younger sister wasn't giving up easy. "But we have no shoes. We have no clothes."
And what is there to say?
They both sighed. I didn't know what to do. I had a few shillings left I knew I wouldn't spend in the few hours I had left in their country and considered giving it to them, but wondered if they had anywhere to spend it in the village. They couldn't get to town. And if their stepmother was as bad as the stories I heard and they took it home, it wouldn't do them any good. I felt helpless and wanted to do something, so I found a team member to ask about giving them money just to be sure.
"No," my friend Amy said, "besides all that, if the other kids found out they had money it might cause problems for them."
Then I sighed. They could live for months on the money I spend for groceries in one week, yet there was no way to help them.
Soon our team started loading and I told the girls goodbye. I hugged the older one and she barely moved, again causing concern about if she had eaten recently. As soon as the 10-year-old saw me embrace her sister, though, she was in tight and close.
"You keep singing," I told them, "Never stop."
After I boarded the van, they found me sitting in the back and came to the window for another goodbye. I pressed my hand to the glass and they matched it on the other side.
I was struck with helplessness and wondered what good it did for me to be there. Did I stir up hope only to dash it? How in the world could I make a difference in their lives? It made me think about the effectiveness and fairness of a two week trip to their country. Our team talked about it on the way to the airport and came to an important conclusion. We may not be able to make a dent in the vast needs on a two week trip, but any small mark left was better than none at all. You can only fail if you do nothing.
I left Uganda praying my little efforts made some difference, praying for those I could not leave with Bibles or shoes or money. I prayed for those girls. I still pray for them and know that if nothing else, they're being lifted to God and He can do what I cannot. I pray they remember the song we sang together, for when life is hard, maybe it can give them hope.