The strangest things seem to happen after midnight. Who would have thought an empty file box could be so important? In 2017, I was in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, and my library project was not going well. Everyone on my small team, including my mother, was tired and frustrated from nearly three weeks of waiting. Now with an elaborate grand opening to unfold the next morning, we had no choice but to work non-stop to get it done.
Building and stocking a library in a refugee camp started as my Girl Scout Gold Award project. It soon took over my life. During more than a year of preparation, I had drafted a business plan and budget, secured grants, solicited book donations, hired a builder and packed a container with every stick of the library and its contents. All things considered, though, my timeline progressed like clockwork - until the gears jammed. Thanks to a dishonest customs agent and a corrupt Ugandan official, customs held my container hostage for 19 days and demanded a succession of bribes to release it. We took possession only after engaging the US Embassy, hiring a lawyer, and losing precious days.
Our building team now had just 3½ of the 22 days I had allocated for assembling and wiring the building so we could stock it with 5,000 books. The refugee community had worked for months to plan cultural dances, speeches, and skits for 400 guests, including local dignitaries. An unfinished project was not an option! By 1:00 am on the last night, my team was beyond exhaustion but it looked as if we could make it - only by waking before dawn to stock the shelves. With the pandemonium of the library, we managed to ignore the children’s cries and everyday drama of the refugee camp.
That was when the director of the camp, Bolingo, asked me if I had an extra file box.
I was embarrassed when my mom gave an irritable reply, “We have 120 empty file boxes! How many would you like?”
“I need only one,” he said gently, “preferably a clean one”. When I asked him what he needed it for, he explained that in a room next to our little library, an infant had died in the night. The mother had obstructed labor for nearly 24-hours and, by the time her husband agreed to go to the local clinic, the child was dead. Bolingo needed the file box for a coffin so the parents could take the body home. As a pastor, he would be blessing the child and officiating at a 5:00 am burial.
I was speechless. While we had been focused on completing my project, a tiny life had slipped away right beside us. What could I have done? Why didn’t someone convince the husband to get help? My mom was near tears as we quickly sorted through our boxes to find one and wipe down the cardboard to make it as dignified as possible.
Yes, we celebrated with everyone during the grand opening and posed for many photos. But behind my broad smile, I was profoundly sad. The life of an infant who happened to be poor and without a fixed address was, it seemed, of little consequence to the rest of society.
Why am I so lucky? How was my being born into a family in a developed country fair when millions of children are not? Yes, I had equipped a refugee camp with a much-needed library but the experience had profoundly deepened my determination to do all I can to become an effective agent of change in an unfair world.