After the death of their father and being abandoned by their mother, 14-year-old Jennifer Abwin has taken on the role of raising her siblings, writes Caroline Ariba
A little boy bundles at the entrance to an in-complete hut in Aputi-puti village, Bukedea district. His face is a tale of sorrow; his eyes weary as they stare into space in deep thought. He seems unaware of his surrounding, not even the flies that freely roam on his lips, nose and swollen cheeks bother him.
Quietly, he sucks on his tiny dirty thumb as if he were pulling out a liquid. This is three-year-old Michael Odeke; all he wants is to partake of what lies in the tiny sooty saucepan resting atop a lifeless fire behind him.
Sadly, he cannot touch the food until his elder sister and head of the family, 14-year-old Jennifer Abwin, returns from wherever she and the other two siblings have gone.
Such has been his life's story from the time his mother left when he was only 11 months old. His siblings go to school and leave him home alone.
Luckily, the news of my presence at the tiny compound reached his elder sister like a thunderbolt.
When Abwin finally arrives, the young boy lights up like a child does upon his mother's arrival. And she rubs his head with such affection as if to apologise for leaving him alone.
Her path to such enormous responsibility started when her father succumbed to a severe liver illness three years ago. Her mother fled responsibility, sighting abandonment by her late husband's people months later.
Well, at least that was what she told her children on the day she deserted them for another marriage. It was only a matter of time before Abwin's elder siblings (both teenage girls then) eloped and left her solely responsible for the family at only 11 years old.
The young girl's story is not strange to the village's people who themselves are masked in poverty amid severe alcoholism.
In fact, it was a half drunken old woman, staggering past Abwin home that spread the message of my presence. She claims she is an aunt to the children and that she herself had been abandoned by her husband, their uncle. A tear roles down her eye as she wonders if I have come to save the children from suffering.
Abwin, still clad in her school uniform, a sign that she had rushed from school to the garden, welcomes me. But first she must tend to whatever is in the tiny, sooty saucepan that her little brother has been monitoring.
Out of curiosity, I follow her into the kitchen, wondering what it is that had held the little boy at ransom. I can swear my heart stopped - it was four pieces of pumpkin; a piece for each child. And that was the day's meal for this family.
Finally, Abwin, her nine, six and three-year-old siblings sit down to tell their story in Ateso.
"Sorry I was not here earlier, I was away looking for food because that is the only food left," she says, pointing at the tiny, sooty saucepan. She and the other two siblings in P1 and P2 had left school earlier to labour in a neighbour's garden.
"When we finish peeling the neighbour's cassava, we are given the tiny cassava pieces that are sliced badly, which we later dry and pound for flour," Abwin says in a hushed tone.
The young girl has to labour in people's gardens so the family can have a little soup to go with the flour. She makes up to sh2,000 a week, which she spends on the one-and-a-half kilogrammes of silver fish (mukene or omena). If she is lucky to make more, then she buys paraffin, salt and soap - all considered a luxury.
"When it gets really bad, I trek to my mother's home and ask for help," Abwin says piteously. Ironically though, the mother that she treks over 10 miles to seek help from, is in no better situation.
The casual labourer, who is now pregnant, can only raise either sh1,000 or sh2,000 every two months, and sometimes just a used piece of soap. All they have is half an acre of land that does not yield much as a result of unpredictable weather.
I then dare to look into the hut that is the family's bedroom. It is alarming! Sun rays visibly poke through the mundanely thatched roof, like a torch of some sort.
"We do not sleep every time it rains at night. We are forced to stand in a corner with beddings, holding our clothes," Abwin says, her eyes well up.
The head teacher, Aput-puti Primary School, Annette Igonyo, is worried that the girl might drop out of school.
"My worry is that the young girl might soon break and like her elder sisters, run off into an early marriage.
Her younger brother will be the next head, since they barely know their relatives. I pray that maybe, just maybe, someone out there helps lift the weight off her shoulders before it is too late," he says.