Life From the Dust
Working alongside Irene since those days, these rescued young people have helped her establish Childcare Kitgum Servants (CKS), an umbrella ministry for educational and humanitarian services that reach 8,000 children a day.
CKS operates three primary schools and clinics that serve 6,500 children, a vocational training center for 1,300 students, a 60-bed AIDS hospice, 15 wells, a community church, and a radio station that broadcasts the gospel message to more than 1 million people living in the area.
Yet the transformation would never have happened had Irene listened to counsel she got when she attempted to heed God’s call. Before she left Sydney, she approached several aid organizations and missions groups and told them: “I want to go to a war zone where no one else is going and build schools.”
They were not impressed.
“You’re very naïve,” the aid organizations told her. “Get a Bible-college degree,” some missions groups advised.
All of them questioned her capabilities. What could a grandmother possibly know about the development issues of nations in crisis? Discouraged but not deterred, Irene and Jeff made a decision to go it alone. The only question was, where?
“We looked at all the Scriptures in relation to God’s direction, especially Exodus 23:20, where God promises His protection and provision for the journey ahead,” Irene explains. One passage that leapt from the page was Ephesians 2:10, which says we are God’s “workmanship” created for “good works.”
“I just envisaged footsteps leading me to a particular place for good works, so I prayed and asked God where that would be,” Irene says.
Well-meaning friends suggested possible mission hotspots: Sri Lanka, Tanzania, other parts of Africa. But it wasn’t until someone told her about northern Uganda, describing the civil war and plight of the child soldiers, that her heart leaped.
“I knew straight away that this was the place God had prepared for me. Despite the dangers, it was perfect,” she says.
Not so perfect was the reaction family and friends gave her when she told them she was selling everything to live in Uganda.
“My family thought I was crazy,” she says, her eyes twinkling. “My children were distressed because I’d only recently become a stable Christian—and now I was leaving them.”
Determined, and after holding two garage sales and auctioning their two beach houses, Irene and Jeff packed everything into a cheap caravan, shipped it to Uganda and booked their flights to Entebbe. Upon arriving, they boarded a bus and said to the driver, “We want to travel as far as this bus goes.” The last stop was Kitgum: a war-torn district 40 kilometers south of the Sudan border.
“I can vividly remember that bus trip,” Irene says. “As we crossed the Nile River the scenery drastically changed from lush banana plantations into thorny scrub. It was then I said to God: ‘I could never live here. You’d better confirm this is the right destination.’” As they traveled along, the heat intensified, and they noticed villagers cheering them and waving them on.
“I asked the driver why people were cheering,” Irene says. “He told me this was the first bus that had made it through rebel territory since 1986. I heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that the north of Uganda was God’s plan.”
Irene clearly remembers the day they got off the bus in Kitgum. “Our senses were completely assaulted. I was used to smelling the beautiful aroma of coconut oil wafting up from the beach, not the stench of dirt and sweat.”
The people hemmed them in from every side. “They couldn’t quite figure us out,” she continues. “Then I noticed something moving across the ground—a woman. Her body was twisted with polio. She was crawling on all fours like a spider.
“I gasped. And then she reached out to shake Jeff’s hand. Even though I was physically shocked, I can recall thinking, I will help these people, no matter how hard it gets.”
Irene’s first job was to convince the local council to give her land for her mission. Eventually, after 12 months of negotiations, they were given 18 acres of dry, dusty scrub. It was here that Jeff began farming and Irene’s ministry to 50 traumatized kids took shape under a large mango tree.
“I started by teaching them songs like, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know,’” Irene says, demonstrating the gestures. “I think at first they all thought I was a little crazy—‘What was this strange white woman doing?’
“The kids all looked like zombies. They had seen too much. It was then I realized that nothing, not even my own childhood, could compare with what these children had suffered and were still suffering. War had robbed them of any childhood joy.”
Persevering through the suspicion of villagers, the blank looks of the children and the watchful eyes of local authorities, Irene eventually took her “tree ministry” to other parts of Kitgum. “I was singing and working with puppets in three places around town,” she recalls. “I’d start in one location, then walk three kilometers to the next place and do the same thing.”
Eventually she added English lessons to her repertoire, carving out the letters of the alphabet in the dust—a challenge, considering the language barriers. “As I was teaching them, I began noticing their bloated bellies and ringworm, so I bought medicines and employed a local lady,” she recalls. “Next, I started feeding them tomatoes and beans from my little caravan. Water was another issue, so I worked with the locals to sink two water bores.”
Irene faced another challenge: finding a way to continue financing her work. She had been using the money from the sale of her two homes in Australia, but that resource was quickly diminishing. Her solution was to raise funds from her family, and from friends’ churches and ministries.
Over time, through donations and sponsorship, she and Jeff were able to build a school, then another and another. “I couldn’t have rehabilitated the destitute children without God or the support of those who love African children.”