“Florence was murdered three nights ago,” Robinah said, grieving not only the loss of her friend, but also that she had missed the funeral. She had seen Florence on Monday night. Now she was in her grave on the edge of the Kampala slums.
They found her when the sun came up on Tuesday morning, crumpled on the muddy, red clay like some discarded rag doll. After she was raped and beaten by a group of men who will likely remain forever anonymous, they shoved sticks inside of her, their final mocking humiliation.
Like the rest of her young female friends, Florence was a temporary resident of the “lodge,” a shabby collection of boards and tin, fashioned into the semblance of a building. It was not far from the edge of the slums, easy access for men and boys who would pay the teenage girls a few coins in return for a few moments of pleasure. The lodge owners, barely out of their teens, took a portion of their earnings.
Earlier that week, Florence had attended Robinah’s twice weekly English class with other young girls, most of whom have rooms in the lodge. Held in a dark brick room loaned to them by a small church, it was a place that carried a whiff of hope. Learn English, you might get out of there. Come to English class, and you could get invited to live in Robinah’s house, a place where you can be loved for real. They say that no one pays for love and hugs at her house. Hugs there are free and plentiful.
The girls came to class on Monday and Thursday nights, sat on the dirt floor, and began to learn words. When I learned vocabulary, I put words to what I saw in my surroundings – “toy, puppy, ball, play, car, and leaf.” I wondered if these girls learned vocabulary from their surroundings too, with words like, “dirt, mud, sewer, shack, pimp, prostitute, and condom.”
A few weeks prior to her murder, my friends and I visited that classroom with Robinah. Our group stood for a few minutes in silence. There was so much sorrow in that place. Darkness was trying to swallow it up. I wondered how our friend could muster up the energy to keep going there, week after week.
Looking around, I saw two words still visible on a mostly erased blackboard – “dream” and “imagine.” These lofty words, introduced into this dark place, shimmered like a sunrise on the Atlantic Ocean. And like the sunrise, the words took my breath away. Two words beaming brightly into a room filled with the shadows that come with despair. Two words that beckoned, propelled, and lifted.
Upon closer look, I recognized the handwriting. I’d seen it before. It was the handwriting of Jesus, who once scribbled words into the sand, and darkness cowered in fear.
And so, each Monday and Thursday night, inspired by the memory of Florence and a love for the brokenhearted, Robinah continues her lessons in a room that only appears to be dark. The girls from the lodge studiously copy each word from the blackboard, not knowing that another hand is etching letters on their hearts that spell “H-O-P-E”.