Kizitos and Angels

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I am afraid it is difficult to translate into English the exact definition of what it is that we call a Kizito. It is as impossible to accurately define what a Kizito is as it would be to define an angel, or perhaps the mathematical proposition "How many angels would fit on the head of a pin?" What I can say is that it is a fact beyond dispute or philosophical discourse that only one Kizito could fit on a pin, and it would have to be a big pin.

The word in itself neither explains nor defines the Kizito. True, a quick Google search will give the relevant information that there was a Nineteenth Century Ugandan youth who was martyred for his Christian faith. It would go on to inform you that this youth was canonised as one of the Martyrs of Uganda. But this explains Kizito as a proper noun, not Kizito as a class.

To enter into the life of one stranger is a daunting proposition, especially if there is a cultural and linguistic divide. This is multiplied when entering into the life of a community where you have not been before, and may never enter again. This is one of the main challenges of being "a stranger in a strange land".

Life in the Jesuit Refugee Service is unusual, in that one is asked to wear more than one hat. At times this dichotomy is not unlike living in a comic book. "By week days a mild mannered humanitarian project worker and on weekends a priest." But unlike life in a comic book, there is no mask to be worn. We in the world of JRS only have a stole and alb.

During the week I spend my time in an office. With the exception of long meetings, most of the working week is spent behind a desk. The project is large, with a staff of 42 and an education programme for over thirty thousand students. 

Last week I went to a health meeting in the district health office. Since December, meningitis has stalked our communities and threatened the life and future of the people of this district. Infection rates have soared and people have started dying. At the moment we have 59 cases and have lost the lives of five members of our community. In surrounding districts the situation is worse. The refugee camps where JRS serves in Rhino Camp (Northern Uganda) have recorded over one thousand cases and the death toll is rising. An immunisation programme has begun and the health experts believe they can check the death of the refugees.

At the emergency meeting all the health experts were gathered with the local government politicians, and under sufferance, some non-expert staff. I was one in this latter category. Not being a medical expert or a politician I was there on a good behaviour bond. As the UNHCR-implementers for education in the refugee settlements in this district, we were invited to provide input on the effect of the outbreak on schools and how we could respond.

As with most meetings here, it was advertised to start at a certain time and actually began two hours late, when people decided to turn up. At the end of the meeting I was asked to remain behind and work with the group drafting the district health plan. My inclusion on this task was not due to my overwhelming charisma or impressive professionalism, but the failure of the district education office to send a representative.

Meningitis is a deadly disease, so I felt a responsibility to stay and help where I could. The plan was already in draft form and the details needed to be addressed. Issues like the closure of schools for two weeks and the dissemination of health warning progressed quickly.

Adjumani is often stalked by the spectre of death, and the refugees are often the first victims. Late last year a Cholera epidemic swept through the district. Many died before medical professionals could halt the spread. Cholera is a manageable disease. A simple regime of washing one’s hands with soap after visiting the toilet and washing before eating can prevent the spread of Cholera. The macabre thing about Cholera is that in the act of preparing the dead for burial, the disease can be transmitted. The necessary preventative measures can also be halted by a lack of access to such simple amenities as soap and clean water.

The refugee communities are more at risk than the other communities in the region. They are living in dense village allotments which re overcrowded and have poor access to water. Water is accessed from communal boreholes that can be kilometres from the residences of the refugees. Water is, therefore, a source of constant labour for the refugees. A person must walk to the pump during the hours in which the pump is unlocked and operates with a plastic jerry can. After queuing, a person has to then manually pump the water and carry it home. There are no power pumps or windmills here to lift the water from the ground.

The Crowding and poor water access helped spread the Cholera outbreak. When it was combined with the lack of soap, it is easy to understand how it spread.

No sooner had the Cholera outbreak been checked than Meningitis first reared its head in the district.
As we planned a response to Meningitis, we were informed that Cholera had returned. Death is in the air and in the water of Adjumani. If it were not for a caring international community who provide support to local health workers, the toll among refugees would be in thousands.

After a week of meetings and contingency planning, I travelled to a small community near the village of Zaipi. Zaipi is an exposed village that suffered the brunt of the atrocities inflicted by the LRA. It is on the main access route between Kampala-Gulu-Nimule—a route taken traditionally by traders, but also a conduit for the LRA to travel between Sudan and Uganda. The hills around it are bare and quite. I was caught by the beauty of this until it was explained that once there were people farming on those hills but an LRA attack massacred the people, stole the children and drove the remaining people away.

On arrival at this village I was greeted by smiling children and joyous song. The throng of children gave little credence to the realities of the inhumanity of people. To the children, the LRA is a distant nightmare and the threat of Meningitis incomprehensible.

As the volume of the song increased, small figures forced their way to the front of the other children. These small figures were different. Whereas the other children were singing and clapping, these children were dancing. Their dancing had a wild energy that only children can muster in 35 degree heat and not an ounce of shade.

These dancing figures creating a dust cloud were also all young girls. The more they danced, the greater the volume of the singing would rise. On their heads they wore a distinctive yellow and white cap.

These girls were the Kizitos - a youth movement that keeps alive traditional culture and helps young people be proud of their heritage. When a girl is ready she can join the youth movement and share in the dance and song. Older women instruct these girls in the movements and song of their culture. In their dance they form a link with generations of women from the past. At festivals and cultural events these girls form the basis of the traditional events. Boys too are involved in this process, but in dance it is the girls who hold dominion.

In their dance, these girls express the joy in the freedom of youth and pride in their culture. During the last seven months I have seen girls from many different cultures and tribes dance in numerous villages and schools. But mostly I see them in the chapels on Sundays. Throughout the Mass and the celebration of the Sacraments, these girls dance up a storm. They bring life and movement to the liturgies we celebrate. Each Sunday I notice smaller girls looking with envy at the dances, copying the moves and hoping someday they can become Kizitos.



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Existing comments

A fascinating article of your expriences in Uganda, especaily of interest to the Malawi Support Group in Eltham Vic, whose sister parish is St Kizito in Malawi.

I have published a link for our members.

Thanks for the wonderful artcle about Kizitos-the youth movement. No doubt named after the young Saint Kizito.

Best wishes

Lindsay Byrnes | 25 February 2007


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