The Remand Home
By: Alecia Greenwood
Uganda, to me, is a country full of contradictions. I met people that were loving and peaceful, yet I knew many of them had been delivered from a time of violence and hatred. They were denied the liberties that they deserved, and yet they rose above the suffering. In travelling to Uganda, my mission was to offer myself to that culture, but in the end that culture offered more to me: on one sweltering late August afternoon at the Remand Juvenile Delinquent Home, my world was changed forever.
I was unsure of what to expect and was nervous while approaching the facility. I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautifully serene property, decorated with ancient trees that were sprouting delicious mangoes and papayas. The boys who lived there lined up to greet us, introducing themselves while bowing their gazes down.
Curious, I asked my local volunteer Charles why these boys were being detained. He said they were being punished for defilement—most of these minors were being accused of engaging in relationships with the opposite sex. The boys seemed like ordinary kids, and it didn’t take me long to see that indeed they were.
As soon as we got inside, we began voice exercises. I am a trained vocalist, and recalling months of vocal exercises and live shows brought me a sense of familiarity. Knowing that an unrehearsed performance was at hand, however, brought insecurity. I was taken back to my roots as I awaited the boys’ performances.
I firmly believed there would be no volunteers to break the ice, and I was pleasantly surprised. The boys belted out their smooth vibrations, and I allowed the chills to carry up my spine. I became entranced, so embedded in the moment that I lost sense of what was coming next—a moment of complete horror as my co-worker Dan looked to me and the circle fell silent, “Alecia, your turn!”
The gaze from the expectant faces in the circle remained strong as if to say, “You don’t get off that easy… this is Africa.” Fear or unwillingness to act is not any sort of pardon in Acholi culture. I had a flashback to my performing days and, remembering my old techniques, pictured everyone with underwear on their heads.
I knew I had to do it. If I failed to do this, what else would I fail to even attempt in life? I took a deep breath from the densely heated air and released my voice. I felt my stomach fall concave as I tried with all my might to have any comparison to what had resonated the room before. The group broke out into applause.
This was a scary moment for me; singing in front of a juvenile delinquent home. I was entirely vulnerable, caught off guard and worried that the room would sound empty, given the previous performances. The boys smiled while nodding their heads. I was pretty sure I had done something respectable in the Acholi culture by accepting the offer to participate. Their reaction made me realize something profound: we cannot prepare for the unpredictability of our future. But, if we attempt to understand that judging ourselves and others is futile, we can free ourselves of the prejudice, fear and ignorance which lie at the root of our disillusionment. Believing in our abilities and removing our judgments can help us nurture our relationships and connect with people of all cultures and beliefs.
Before departing back to Canada, we visited the Remand Home one last time to say our farewells. We printed out a group picture and gifted a copy to each boy. They told us that of all the visitors that had crossed their path, we were the first to do anything like this. The boys had all prepared speeches to express their gratitude for our visit. Listening to these speeches, I struggled with the thought of leaving them, and tried to come to terms with our impending departure. They would never expect us to stay, but I was overwhelmed with endearment as they invited us back to Gulu in the near future. At this moment I understood the true impact our group had had on them, and they on us. We were part of a connection to the outside world that had been denied them, and they taught us humility, charity and grace under pressure. Together they prayed that we would not forget the youth at The Remand Home.
I fought back tears and determined never to forget. Although one week earlier I told myself it would be easier to sing knowing I would never see these people again, it only strains me now. The memories are still with me every day in every song I sing.
Alecia Greenwood received her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Human Relations from Concordia University. This story was written in honour of the boys at the Remand Home, and is dedicated to Onen Charles, Alecia’s local volunteer partner in Gulu. As Alecia puts it, “He taught me everything I needed to know about being a true Acholi woman. He is the closest thing to God on earth.”