Fuel to Endure

They live in a dangerous slum, but 8-year-old Mariam and her mom have found cause for joy.

Eight-year-old Mariam Asiimwe climbs on a stack of white sacks containing charcoal and begins to sing.

“This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made,” she belts out. A group of children gathers around her. There’s a 5- or 6-year-old girl carrying her infant brother on her back, a boy with oozing sores on his skin, and a dozen other kids, some wearing tattered clothing because it’s all their parents can afford. A few children stand out from the others. Their clothes are in good condition, they’re wearing shoes, and they’re smiling. A couple of them start to sing along — they learned this one at their Compassion child development center.

Sponsored children’s distinctly hopeful spirits illuminate this crime-ridden neighborhood, where Mariam, her three siblings, and their mother, Goretti Namata, live in a rented clay home with a leaky roof. Floral curtains divide the living area from the family’s bed. Just outside the door is a cooking area and a heap of charcoal that Goretti sells. But she doesn’t sell enough to meet all her family’s needs. After all, her customer base lives in the same impoverished neighborhood and can’t afford to buy much charcoal. Her husband, who helps with the charcoal business, recently moved in with another woman down the street. Adding further stress for Goretti, she worries that her home will be bulldozed.

“We’ve already received notices from the government that they want to destroy this whole place, remove all these ramshackle houses,” Goretti says. “They could get rid of us at any time.”

Despite these ongoing hardships, the family’s situation has improved immensely over the past eight years.

When Compassion’s local church partners in Kampala first visited the slum to offer help to families there, they found Goretti feeding tea to newborn Mariam. They asked why she wasn’t breast-feeding the baby, and Goretti said she couldn’t afford formula and was afraid she would give her daughter HIV, which Goretti had been diagnosed with in 2005.

  Scenes from Mariam’s neighborhood: Many children live and play in this Kampala community, which government officials have threatened to tear down. Gun violence is a constant threat, drug and alcohol abuse are common, and kids often go barefoot in the area, where trash and sewage fill gutters.

Seeing that Mariam was malnourished, the church workers immediately registered her and Goretti in Compassion’s Child Survival Program. Babies and their caregivers in the program receive health care, spiritual guidance, food, education and other crucial support, thanks to Compassion donors. Program workers delivered groceries to Goretti, including formula and supplements to boost the baby’s health. Thankfully, Mariam tested free of HIV.

To ensure that the mother could better meet her family’s future needs, Compassion trained Goretti in income generation. After learning more about running a small business, she and her husband took out a $450 loan from the bank, which they used to by a large supply of charcoal. Their business began to pick up. Now on typical days, Goretti makes about $3 to $4. She pays $19 a month in rent and $12 a week in loan repayment on top of other costs of raising four children.

Goretti scoops up charcoal, which people use as fuel for stoves, to sell to a customer.

Encouraging words carry extra weight in an environment that places children in situations they should never have to face.

The family still needs help. So when Mariam was 3, she was registered in the Child Sponsorship Program. Her sponsor, Eun Yeong Choi, writes often and even flew to Uganda from South Korea to visit her. “He’s the best,” gushes Mariam, who speaks English in addition to her mother’s language, Luganda. “Even if I’m sick, he can write a letter to me, say, ‘May God bless you, Mariam.’ … Even if I’m sad I can get a smile. When he writes a letter, I can be happy.”

Mariam remembers a frightening day when she was playing in the street outside her home. “Policemen came and started shooting their guns,” she says. “There were people who were stealing things, then the policemen came. They started shooting those people.”

Mariam ran inside and hid under a blanket. “I was feeling sad, like somebody was going to be dead. … I thank God that they didn’t shoot me.”

Amid this unsafe environment, one source of stability encourages Mariam and Goretti: The local church that runs Compassion’s program will continue to live and walk beside them. ▪

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