(The Hamilton Spectator – December 15, 2012)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ Once there was a little Ugandan girl who loved school.
The girl, who had been an orphan when she was younger, loved learning new things and making new friends and pretty well everything about it, especially the stories.
Maybe she loved school all the more because of her years as an orphan, which started in a hospital in Mbarara, in western Uganda, where she was left abandoned when she was barely larger than a cat.
There she was given all she ever owned, her name, Hannah. Then she went to an orphanage some hours away. Over and over the girl watched children leave with their newfound parents, this boy holding that hand, that girl getting a new life in a different direction.
One day, sometime after they guessed it was her third birthday, Hannah also left the orphanage while holding the hands of her new parents. As it turned out, they had previously promised each other that if Providence ever granted them another girl, they would surely name her Hannah.
“Mommy, daddy, brother, sister,” Hannah said, when her new family asked what gift she enjoyed the most after her first Christmas with them.
This is the story of Hannah Froese, a Ugandan girl who has now been in my family for three years. It comes to mind for two reasons.
First, because I don’t need to tell you that plenty of girls in developing nations like Uganda will never get a chance at decent schooling. Instead they’re too often up at sunrise getting water or firewood or having the weight of motherhood forced on them at far too young an age.
“A crisis in education” is what the recently-released State of the World’s Girls 2012 calls it. The report states that 75 million school-age girls are now out of school. These girls come from homes with not only too little money, but too much violence, along with that attitude that a girl is just a girl.
Yes, too many of the world’s girls are seen as expendable second-class citizens. The older they get, the less they need schooling. Send them for chores. Marry them off. And the cycle of poverty continues.
The other reason Hannah’s story comes to mind is because it’s Christmas. And Christmas, it seems to me, has something to say about all this.
Christmas reminds us that even a poor girl has more value than anyone might imagine. Even a poor girl can accomplish great things if given the chance. Even a poor girl, can, in fact, be visited by angels and handpicked to lead God’s biggest mission.
Yes, once there was a poor girl. And God had big plans for her.
People didn’t give her much of a chance. Didn’t think she’d amount to much. Gave her sideways glances and whispered behind her back. Said she was a girl of ill repute. But that poor girl became a great blessing even to our time. Because God literally dwelt in her.
Now it’s Christmas, that time for children and those who have become like children to enter into this, God’s kingdom. ‘Let the children come to me,’ is how Jesus put it. ‘Let them hear my stories.’
And what stories they are. Once upon a time there was a lost son. Once upon a time a man bought an entire field for its small hidden treasure. Once upon a time a king threw a party.
Of course, these stories are not about some strangers way out there somewhere. No, they’re about us. You and me. They’re about plain people and common days.
Indeed, once upon a time a simple virgin gave birth. And once upon a time God loved. He loved so much that he adopted us – dirty-faced kids that we are – not because of anything we could ever do to deserve it, but just because this is what we needed.
And, yes, once upon a time a girl in Uganda went to school. And she loved stories, and read in bed with her little flashlight, and dreamed her own outlandish dreams because nobody ever told her that she couldn’t. Nobody ever said no. Nobody ever that said she wasn’t worth it.
And the world was changed