Ways of the Heart By: Cari Matejka
Simple. Stirring. Soulful. The lyrics to a song can rouse emotions, but few can claim to change a life. Ways of the Heart was written by a teenage Ugandan boy, and it most certainly changed everything I thought I knew about love. Bethlehem Parents’ School and Orphanage (BPS) is in a small village in Uganda, Africa. This is no ordinary school. As a matter of fact, it is one of very few schools in Uganda that accepts the responsibility and financial burden of saving street children and educating orphans. Unfortunately, that weight causes constant financial drain and ever-present struggle, from housing and educating, to feeding and raising the children.
It is at that exceptional school that I found myself sitting next to an extraordinary boy named Mbowa. His name, I later found out, was given to him by his first teacher at BPS. He had only known “boy” otherwise and had no recollection of his given name, so the teacher told him he would be called Mbowa from that day forward. With a new identity and the power of education, he had actual potential to make something of his life for the first time. I can’t ever forget the moment at the end of my first visit to BPS and Uganda. Mbowa had been friendly, gentle and sweet, along with the others. I was surrounded by children who loved freely and openly, smiled brightly, and hoped for bright futures despite having nothing. So many experiences swirled in my mind. One child urgently requested my time, so we could chat. A concern clearly weighing heavy usually meant the plea for a sponsor, an urgent request to stay in school, a need for books. All of these concerns, of which I could only answer with, “we are trying our best.” This child in particular, however, said, “Mum, I don’t have something that I need.” I could immediately think of a dozen things the child didn’t have: shoes, hope to continue into secondary school, notebooks, pens, lunch… But, surprisingly, he said, “I don’t have a birthday, mum. Will you give me one?” It was a heartbreaking and beautiful moment – but I feel gratitude knowing a sweet Ugandan orphan shares my birthday. Mbowa kept requesting my attention, but he kept getting put off until other business was accomplished. That special day he asked if he could share something with me, and I made sure to give him my time–the most valuable offering I had at the moment. We sat next to each other in the grass under a tree. The sun was setting. Mbowa pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to me. “I wrote you a song, Mum Cari.” I looked it over and read a few lines. Awe gripped my heart. “Can I sing it to you?” Unlike other experiences, it is one I still can’t adequately put into words. I listened to lyrics so powerfully vulnerable and full of raw emotion that I couldn’t articulate how deeply felt my appreciation was. From the heart of a teenage boy, none-the-less, I learned what love in its purest form looks like. “From the time, mom, you came, I have been feeling good and even looking good. But, for now, mom, the time has come. You are going to leave me alone. But, why should you leave me, momma? You’re the only light in my life. I will be losing my joy. You will be locking my smile. You’re my only smiling key. Everywhere you go, mom, keep me on your heart. Forever mom, I will stand on your side. You’re my only bright star. I always dream of your smile. I love you, and I will keep you in my soul. I love you, mom. I’ll miss you, mom.”
Speechless. I may have been speechless at that moment, but I found my voice. Those lyrics were the articulation of deep felt emotions and needs. My life profoundly changed since that first experience in Uganda. From that point on, I kept volunteering and helping the school. As my responsibilities grew, so did my action.
I started my own nonprofit, Literacy of Love, Inc. My day job is a school teacher, but my every-other-waking-moment-job is to help provide a future for children I call my own. Years after that first experience, I continue to travel to Uganda twice a year, and I’m proud to say that Mbowa is a close son to me, and we chat regularly. Through grace, he found a sponsor who afforded him the opportunity to attend secondary school and then music school. Many children aren’t as fortunate as Mbowa, though.
We continue to struggle towards our goals. Literacy of Love has supported unsponsored children, provided emergency food relief, and has started several small businesses for grown children to develop a more sustainable future after school ends. When times are tough, and funds are slim, I support the children myself to the best of my ability. No matter what, I am reminded from Mbowa’s song, that I have a responsibility. Needs don’t go away when visitors do, nor do they go away when fundraising is difficult. Our primary goal is to build a permanent orphanage home because our children are growing, and a primary school dormitory no longer fits our needs. We need to build a secondary school so that we can ensure our children who are not sponsored and who have no means to pay fees will not be denied a life-changing education.
Literacy of Love has big dreams for a small nonprofit. We don’t view it as a business, we view it as a family. This family needs to care for its children, and we won’t ever stop struggling for their future. Not a day goes by that I don’t think, pray, love, or find time to work towards our goals. We need help. We believe every ounce of love causes a ripple of change. The heart of the children in Uganda and Mbowa’s song created a ripple in my life. It made me learn things I can never un-learn. It made me feel love I can never un-feel. I can never be the same, nor do I want to be. Together, we can create waves of change for Literacy of Love.