MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Samuel lived by three rules.
Never doubt Kony.
And trust no one.
He didn’t just follow the rules. He lived by them. He lived because of them.
Sitting in the shade on the low porch of a sprawling compound, he couldn’t recall the traitorous thought that broke his first rule, but proof of the betrayal hid beneath the bloody bandage wrapped around his thigh. His captors promised the medicine was working, but he could feel the angry swelling beneath the stained wrapping covering the bullet wound where the infection had taken hold.
Samuel understood infection. In his eleven years, he had seen it burrow deep into the bodies of other children. Their feet. Their legs. Their chests. Their arms. Spreading like brush fire until it consumed them.
He picked at the frayed edge of his bandage and struggled to keep his thoughts from evaporating in the fog of painkillers dulling his senses. The drugs ate away at his second rule. He’d spent the last week swaying between fitful sleep and blurry consciousness, unable to form a clear understanding of where he was or what his captors wanted.
A peal of laughter nudged Samuel’s attention away from his wound. His head lolled to the side as he watched a faded and worn soccer ball arc through the cloudless Ugandan sky before dropping into the midst of a group of excited children. It bounced off the forehead of the tallest, a teenage boy with legs like the gray crested crane, long and knobby-kneed. He sent it soaring across the dirt field to the waiting chest of a teammate. The huddle of children squealed with delight and scrambled after the ball, kicking up clouds of red dust with their bare feet.
Hard as he tried, Samuel couldn’t fit together the images of the laughing children and the razor-wire fence trapping them within its boundaries. His eyes drooped closed from the effort as another numbing current of painkiller pulled him under. Splinters of a memory prickled beneath Samuel’s muddied thoughts, and the joyful laughter on the field dissolved into terrified screams.
A sudden attack. Samuel and other panicked rebels grabbing their weapons. Government soldiers charging, guns raised. Explosions ripping into the earth, silencing screams and scattering bodies. A confusion of commands roaring above the smoke.
Bullets firing. Rebels falling. A terrible sharp pain in his leg. Blood gushing from the bullet wound. Samuel begging for help. Crying out for his mama.
Hands reaching for him. Taking his rifle. Taking his panga. Taking his bullets.
Leaving him wounded. Leaving him helpless. Leaving him.
“A powerful home is a place where people work hard,” Ricky’s mother said, handing him a basket. “You want us to have a powerful home, don’t you?”
Ricky placed his school uniform in the basket and set it by the door. “Yes, but I promised I’d help my friends gather wood for the bonfire tonight.”
“And you’ll keep your promise,” she said, “after you fetch me some cassava.”
Ricky groaned. During the wet season, the sweet-potato tubers pushed deep into the earth, making them difficult to dig up in the dry season when the ground hardened. “How many do you need?” he asked.
“Fourteen. The whole village is gathering for the wangoo. I want to make sure I prepare enough.”
Ricky groaned louder. “Can’t Patrick do it? My friends are waiting.”
“It won’t kill them to wait a bit. Patrick is helping your father close up the school,” she said, slicing a mango into bite-sized chunks. “And then he’s promised to fix the radio for tonight, so I need your help preparing dinner.”
While she wasn’t looking, Ricky grabbed two chunks and popped them into his mouth. “What about the girls?” he asked, reaching for more. “Shouldn’t they be helping?”
She swatted his hand away. “They are already outside gathering simsim.”
Ricky’s mouth watered at the thought of the sesame-and-honey treat he hoped his mother would make from the seeds his sisters were collecting. “Are you making candy?”
She smiled. “I thought it would be a nice treat to celebrate the end of another successful school year. Your father tells me you did well in your studies.”
Ricky dug his big toe into the dirt floor. “Not as well as Patrick,” he mumbled.
His mother looked up from her cutting. “Your brother has two more years of schooling than you. When you’re fifteen, you’ll be just as smart.”
“When I’m fifteen, Patrick’ll still be two years older and smarter than me.”
She turned to fetch another mango. “Stop worrying about your brother’s grades. Just worry about your own.”
Ricky crammed another handful of fruit in his mouth before she returned to the table. He stopped chewing when she looked at him with one eyebrow raised and grabbed his swollen cheeks with her sticky fingers.
“And worry about what I am going to do to you if you don’t stop eating my mango, Anywar.”
Pulpy bits squished between Ricky’s teeth as he smiled at her use of his Acholi name, a name reserved for special occasions or when he was trying her patience. “Sorry, Mama.”
“You will be sorry if you don’t get me some cassava.” She delivered a playful swat to his backside. “Now, go! I have much to prepare before we leave for dinner.”
Ricky swiped another chunk of mango and ran out the door.
As he made his way into the fields surrounding the family homestead, he tossed his hand hoe in the air. It somersaulted twice in the crisp blue sky before falling toward his waiting basket, where it bounced off the edge and landed in his father’s beloved flower garden. Ricky stepped into the garden, and the familiar scent of night roses filled his lungs. A contented smile parted his lips, allowing a sigh to escape as he closed his eyes and breathed in his home.
The sprawling homestead had been in Ricky’s family for generations. Tilled soil rolled in gentle waves with row upon row of maize, cassava, millet, simsim, and cotton, which grew in abundance on either side of the compound. A single-story, tin-roofed farmhouse and two thatch-roofed huts huddled together at the center of the property. Beyond the crops, herds of cattle dotted the fields that stretched out to the wild bush.
“Ricky!” his mother yelled. “Get me another mango to replace the one you’ve eaten!”
Ricky jogged over to the tree he’d planted with his brother when he was nine and plucked two mangoes from its branches. Placing them in his basket, he headed down the rutted paths of the cassava field.
Once Ricky had delivered the mangoes and sweet potatoes, he sprinted to the village. Now that school was out for the holiday, the promise of long days spent fishing and hunting with his brother and friends lightened each step as he raced between huts. Nearing the fire pit, he dodged groups of mothers balancing large bowls of food on their heads and swaddled babies on their backs. The infants cooed and laughed from the security of their colorful obenos as Ricky ran past.
He found Thomas, Andrew, and John gathering small branches and dry twigs for the evening fire.
“We’re hunting tomorrow, right?” Thomas asked, pulling on a tree branch.
“I don’t know,” Ricky said. “I have to ask my mother first.”
Thomas yanked the branch free and tossed it to Ricky. “C’mon, boy. We’re just hunting rats.”
Thomas lived to hunt. At seventeen, he was the oldest of their group and Patrick’s best friend. He was fearless, and Ricky loved to listen to him tell tales of his latest adventure in the bush. Unlike the elders of the village, who used only their voices to weave tales at the wangoo each night, Thomas told a story with his whole body. He stalked around the fire, leaping high above the flames and pouncing at children as he reenacted a lioness hunting an impala.
“What’s your mama afraid is going to happen?” Thomas asked, breaking off another dead branch. “Does she think a rat will nibble your toes?”
“No. She thinks you take too many chances.”
Thomas’s mouth fell open in pretend shock. “Me? Put you in danger? When have I ever done that?”
Ricky, Andrew, and John stopped their work and laughed at him.
“What?” Thomas asked.
“Have you forgotten about the python?” Ricky asked. “Because my mother hasn’t.”
Thomas waved the question away. “You were never in any real danger. I knew what I was doing.”
Andrew snorted. “No, you didn’t. You were spearing fish. The python just swam in your way.”
“I’ll spear you if you don’t shut up,” Thomas said, chucking a branch at Andrew’s head.
Andrew ducked away. At thirteen, Ricky’s classmate barely passed for eleven, but what Andrew lacked in size, he made up for in nerve and speed. Before Thomas could grab another branch, Andrew retaliated with a clump of dirt. It exploded on Thomas’s back, leaving behind a dusty scorch mark.
“Just wait until we get to the well tonight,” Thomas said, shooting Ricky a mischievous smile. “We still owe you for yesterday.”
“I think there’s still a bit of dirt in your hair,” Andrew said, throwing another clump at Thomas. “You’ll want to wash carefully tonight.”
Thomas jumped to the left, and the dirt hit John’s backside.
Andrew erupted in another fit of laughter. “Beat you to the well!” he said, breaking into a sprint.
Thomas threw down his kindling. “Oh, I’ll beat you, all right!”
“You’ve got to catch me first,” Andrew yelled, darting between two women carrying pots of water and peeled cassava to the fire to be boiled for the communal dinner.
Thomas skidded to a stop before colliding with the women, who scolded him for not being more careful. Mumbling a quick apology, he skirted around them and continued his pursuit of Andrew.
With a shake of his head, John piled an armful of kindling in the fire pit and then dusted off the back of his shorts.
At fourteen, Thomas’s younger brother was the peacemaker of their group, a role he played to perfection.
“I’d better get to the well and make sure Thomas doesn’t kill Andrew,” John said, picking up his brother’s dropped kindling. “Are you coming?”
“I have to get Patrick first.”
“Where is he, anyway? I thought he was going to help us with the fire.”
“He had to do something for my father.” Ricky tossed his last handful of twigs on the wangoo. “I’ll get him and meet you at the well.”
Ricky found Patrick in the thatch-roofed hut they shared, hunched over their family radio, the village’s only receiver and its one connection to the world beyond its borders. He crossed the small room to grab his bathing bucket and a hollow gourd used for fetching water from the well, careful not to step on the pieces of villagers’ disassembled tools, watches, and clocks littering the dirt floor. “It’s time to get washed up for dinner,” he said.
His brother looked up from the radio. “I need to finish this. Baba’s counting on me having it fixed by dinner. It’s been two weeks without any news from Kampala. People are getting nervous.”
Ricky picked up a large block of dry soap from beside his bucket and rubbed it over his head until flakes of soap clung to his hair. “Do you think you can do it?” he asked, replacing the soap, which they weren’t allowed to take to the well.
“Yes,” Patrick said, turning his attention back to the radio.
“Mama and the girls are making a special meal to celebrate the school year ending. If we’re late, we’ll miss all the good food.” Ricky stared down at the pieces of the radio still lying before Patrick. “How much longer is it going to take?”
“Not long. I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong.” He pointed to a small pair of tweezers lying near Ricky’s feet. “Hand me those.”
Ricky tossed him the tweezers. “Do you want me to wait with you?”
“No, you go ahead,” Patrick said, not looking up from his work. “I’ll meet you there soon.”
* * *
When Ricky arrived at the well, he found dozens of children from his own and neighboring villages already waiting in line with their bathing buckets and gourds, but Thomas, Andrew, and John were not among them. One at a time, the children knelt down beside the small rectangular hole dug deep into the ground several meters from the watering hole used by local livestock. The children dipped their gourds in the clouded water and then poured the water into their bathing buckets. When the buckets were full, they carried them behind the tall grass or bushes surrounding the well for some privacy as they washed. As Ricky neared the well, he scanned the area to make certain his friends weren’t hiding nearby, waiting to ambush him with clumps of dirt. When he was convinced they weren’t, he got in line.
While he waited, he spotted Daniel, a young boy from his sister Margaret’s class, approaching a group of teenagers chatting about their plans for school break.
“May I use one of your buckets?” Daniel asked in a small voice.
“Don’t you have your own?” a girl asked.
Casting his eyes to the ground, Daniel shook his head.
Vincent, the tallest boy in the group, stepped forward. He didn’t live in Ricky’s village, but every kid in the region knew of his cruelty.
“You can use mine,” he said, holding out his bucket, but when Daniel moved to take it, Vincent lifted the bucket higher. “If you can reach it,” he added, smirking at his friends.
Daniel glanced around at the boys and girls, who were watching with amused interest, and his head sank in shame.
“Jump for it,” Vincent said. “Your baba will have your hide if you go home smelling like you do. What were you harvesting today? Manure?”
Daniel jumped. His fingers grazed the bottom of the bucket, but Vincent lifted it higher. “You’re going to have to do better than that.”
Ricky’s stomach burned with anger as the boy crouched lower, preparing to jump again. He’d witnessed Vincent’s bullying before, and when he was younger, he’d been the target of it on more than one occasion. He stepped from the line and held out his bathing bucket. “You can borrow mine, Daniel.”
Daniel wiped away his tears and reached for the bucket, but Vincent snatched it from Ricky’s hand and pushed Ricky to the ground. A sharp breath burst from Ricky’s mouth and gravel tore into his palms as he fell back on the dirt path.
“Wait your turn with the other babies,” Vincent said. He then turned again to Daniel. “Now you have two buckets to jump for.”
Tears slid down Daniel’s round cheeks.
Ignoring the sting of cuts on his hands, Ricky pushed himself up from the ground. “Leave him alone.”
Vincent laughed and shoved him again. Ricky stumbled back, but managed to stay on his feet. He drew in a shaky breath.
“Aw, what’s the matter?” Vincent taunted. “Did I hurt your feelings, baby?”
Ricky felt children staring at him from all sides. The teens behind Vincent laughed and jeered.
“I think I see a tear!”
“Does the baby need his mama?”
The rest of the kids watched in silence. Humiliation and anger simmered behind Ricky’s eyes, and his hands trembled in fear. He balled them into fists, hoping no one noticed.
“I’m not a baby.” His voice wasn’t as loud or strong as he’d hoped, but it was steady.
Vincent leaned in closer. “What was that, baby?”
“I’m not a baby,” Ricky repeated, his voice gaining strength from his anger.
Vincent spread his arms wide and splayed his fingers in invitation. “Then what are you waiting for?”
Lifting his chin, Ricky stepped forward and tensed in anticipation of the first strike. Vincent laughed and moved to shove Ricky again, but Patrick stepped between them.
“I’m not a baby,” Ricky’s brother said, staring down the bully. “Why don’t you try pushing me?”
Vincent stepped back at the threatening tone in Patrick’s voice.
“Well,” Patrick said, “what are you waiting for?”
Vincent glanced back at his friends, but they’d all moved away, so he dropped Ricky’s bucket at Patrick’s feet. “You’re not worth it.” Then, turning away, he stalked back toward his village.
With the excitement over, the children returned to the task of bathing.
“Thank you,” Daniel sniffed, wiping the back of his hand under his nose.
Ricky gave him his bucket, and Daniel joined the children at the well.
“You all right?” Patrick asked when they were alone.
“Yes,” Ricky said, wiping his hands against his thighs to clean the blood and calm the trembling. “Every night it’s a new kid. You’d think he’d get bored.”
“It makes him feel big.”
“He is big. He’s almost as tall as Baba.”
“He may be big, but he obviously doesn’t feel big.” Patrick took Ricky’s hands in his and flipped them over to inspect the cuts. With the same careful precision he used when fixing the villagers’ broken possessions, he picked bits of gravel from the deeper scrapes on Ricky’s palms. “He thinks acting like a jerk will make him powerful and earn him respect.”
“No one respects Vincent,” Ricky mumbled. “No one even likes him.”
Patrick extracted the last piece of gravel from his brother’s palms. “True, but they fear him.”
“Not you. Did you see his face when you told him to try and push you? I thought he was going to have to take another bath.”
The brothers laughed. As they neared the well, a clean and smiling Daniel handed Ricky his bucket before running back to their village.
“Vincent only picks fights when he knows it’s a sure win for him,” Patrick said, kneeling down to scoop up a gourdful of water from the well.
“Which is why he was picking one with me,” Ricky said, holding the bathing bucket for Patrick to fill.
After several scoops, the bucket sloshed with water, and the brothers walked behind a bush to bathe. Standing on a flat rock, Patrick cupped water in his hands and poured it over his body before dousing his head. “I don’t know. I think you surprised him. He’s not used to kids standing up to him.”
“I’m not a kid,” Ricky said, rubbing water into his hair until the soap flakes blossomed into suds, tickling his scalp.
Patrick took another handful of water to rinse the soap from his hair and body. “You know what I mean.”
Suds still clinging to his hair and face, Ricky stood as straight and tall as possible. With a long inhalation, he pulled back his bony shoulders and pushed out his chest. “I’m almost as big as you.”
Patrick laughed as he stepped off the rock and picked up the gourd. “You sure you didn’t hit your head when you fell?”
“I am,” Ricky argued as his brother started on the path for home. “Someday I’ll be bigger and you’ll be my little big brother!”
Dumping the remaining water over his head, he grabbed the empty bucket and hurried to catch up for the twenty-minute walk back to the farm.
Text copyright © 2017 Keely Hutton