A long, sweet journey home

Posted: July 08, 2007

NORTHERN UGANDA - Jennifer Anyayo's reunion with her family would have to wait. First, our taxi driver took us from Entebbe International Airport to Kampala to exchange currency and grab breakfast. We sat down at the pricey Speke Hotel - and that's where Jennifer, 16, first flashed some of the attitude she picked up in America.

She didn't like the eggs.

"Oh, these eggs are salty. Why do they do that? I don't like salt," she said. "My doctor told me not to eat salt."

Still, she finished her meal, and she, Inquirer photographer Michael Wirtz and I piled back into our minivan taxi. Ahead of us lay a four-hour drive on a rutted dirt road to Gulu, where Jennifer would see her mother and a sister for the first time in 15 months.

As we drove out of Kampala, Jennifer moved farther from her life in the Philadelphia and Washington areas. There, she had undergone six major operations for severe burns to her face and left hand, wounds inflicted during a war between the Ugandan government and a rebel force called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Seven years ago, LRA rebels attacked her village and set fire to the hut she was in. Her mother, Regina Adong, said Jennifer probably saved her own life by throwing a goat skin over herself as the hut burned.

A cease-fire has a tenuous hold in the country now, and talks may end 21 years of fighting. During that time, the LRA is estimated to have abducted 30,000 children and forced them to be soldiers, porters and sex slaves. About 1.3 million people remain displaced. Peace cannot come too soon or stay too long.

In the United States, Jennifer evolved from a stigmatized victim of war to a confident young woman with a taste for hip-hop and a sense of possibilities. The teen who returned now actually embodies two Jennifers: the metro American and the rural Ugandan. Would they mesh or clash? And would that American sense of possibility be a blessing or a burden?

The first days back revealed the blessings.

As she recognized buildings and signs in Gulu, Jennifer gave high-fives and happily snapped her fingers. In the center of town, she ran up to hug 73-year-old Abitimo Odongkara, who had been her guardian in the United States.

Abitimo, who has homes in Gulu and Philadelphia, had returned to Uganda two weeks earlier. In Uganda, Jennifer attends Abitimo's primary school and lives in her compound along with several other children who need shelter.

Because Jennifer's mother and sister had not yet arrived from the town of Kitgum, where they rent two grass-thatched houses, the taxi took us to Abitimo's school, the Upper Nile Institute for Appropriate Technology (UNIFAT).

A crowd formed around our vehicle to see the girl who looked so different after so much surgery, the girl who had lived in the country that is only a dream for most northern Ugandans.

Suddenly, Jennifer became shy. She stayed in the taxi to calm her nerves and then stood beside it as teachers walked up and said, "Welcome." Younger children bowed and shook her hand.

As Jennifer began walking around the school yard, a crowd trailed her. She spotted her friend and housemate, Lamwaka Santa, 12. Jennifer grabbed her hand and together they walked off, chatting in their native Luo.

"She's so different," marveled Oloya Julius Bosco, 19, "especially the eyes."

That evening, Jennifer sat outside and ate a dinner of cooked greens and posho, a traditional Acholi dish of cornmeal and water. She picked up a piece of posho, kneaded it between thumb and forefinger, soaked it in the greens and popped it into her mouth - an Acholi Happy Meal.

When Jennifer saw her mother, she couldn't contain her joy. Regina picked up her daughter and twirled her around.

Regina noted that Jennifer's hairline, which had been burned off to the top of her head, was nearly back in place. Her nose looked much better, and the surgically loosened skin around her lips let her mouth fall into a more relaxed position.

"She used to be scared, shy," Regina said, "but now I can see she is freely interacting."

In Kitgum, Jennifer reunited with her sister, Alice, 18. The two giggled with pleasure.

"Is this really you?" Alice asked as they jumped around the hut in each other's arms.

"I feel like I should swallow you inside me," said an ecstatic Jennifer.

Her first day home, Jennifer began asking everyone to say a prayer before meals - something she did not do in America. And she showed an impressive maturity when her 2-year-old sister, Sharon, initially pulled away from her. Slowly, gently, Jennifer won her sister's trust.

Jennifer herself faced adjustments ahead, some of them difficult, if the experience of Evaline Apoko, 16, is any indication.

In December, Evaline returned to Uganda after 14 months in Indiana. She, too, had caught Americans' attention and had been sponsored to go to the United States for surgery. She even appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show during a segment on the war in her homeland.

The LRA abducted Evaline and forced her to carry heavy loads through miles of countryside. In 2002, she and other abducted children came under attack from a government helicopter. She was reaching to rescue a baby who had been carried by a woman killed in the battle when a bomb fell. Shrapnel ripped away Evaline's mouth.

For Evaline, as for Jennifer, it was hard to find classes in the United States that could accommodate a teen learning at a second- or third-grade level. Now back in Uganda, Evaline was still struggling in school.

Sometimes classmates were nice; sometimes they made mean comments about Evaline's injury or were jealous of her time in the United States.

The impudence Jennifer picked up in the United States showed again on her first day of school, five days after we arrived. The 90 or so other students in her fourth-grade class immediately pulled out pens and paper and took notes when the teacher wrote on the chalkboard; Jennifer sat there as if the lessons didn't apply to her. She was also the only student with a bright red water bottle, brought from America, on her desk.

At home, she began lecturing her mother and Alice, who has a son. Jennifer felt that she now knew more than they did about how to take care of children.

When Jennifer's little brother had a stomachache, Regina gave him medication, confident it would make him feel better. It did. Yet Jennifer argued he must be taken to a hospital that had a laboratory for immediate tests.

(In the United States, Americans rich and poor were moved by Jennifer's plight and contributed to a fund to get her top-notch medical care. Because of the surgery and medications, when she felt ill she usually was taken to a doctor. Jennifer never understood that most Americans don't get such medical attention - and at no cost.)

Jennifer has opportunities now that few other children in northern Uganda will ever have. As I said goodbye, she seemed happy to see me go, yet reluctant to part with her last direct tie to America. Then without another glance, she walked away to continue her journey.

To see more photgraphs of Jennifer's journey back to Uganda, go to http://go.philly.com/journey

To read more about Jennifer's journey by Editorial Board member Carolyn Davis, go to http://go.philly.com/jennifer

Contact Carolyn Davis at cdavis@phillynews.com or 215-854-4214.

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