Today I met Mercy Akello, a 13-year-old P-7 (7th year in primary school) student with extremely short hair and bright eyes. She was timid, but I know that she is bold at heart because out of the 1,600 students at Lira Integrated School, she was the one who wrote me a letter.

When I asked Mercy why she chose me out of our group of visitors, she thought for a minute, choosing her words carefully and trying to translate her thoughts into understandable English. She said, “Sometimes you see a person and you know that they are great. I looked into your eyes and I knew that you were a good person.”

I struggled to hold back tears at first, but then I smiled and told her that I know exactly the feeling she is talking about, and that I felt the same thing as soon as I met her. That made her smile too.

Mercy told me that next year she’ll begin secondary school, another 6 year process. After that, her dream is to travel to Kampala (Uganda’s capital) to attend University and become a doctor.

As I walked away from our meeting after saying goodbye and promising to talk with her again, I was overwhelmed with the sadness and injustice of her situation. Mercy is HIV positive, but doesn’t know it. The irony in her aspiration to become a doctor is that her mother and brother both died before reaching an age that would have allowed them to complete the required schooling to become a doctor here. The irony in her name is that although she doesn’t know it now, mercy is something she will be praying for some day.

I can only hope that the medication she is taking is sufficient to keep the HIV under control. It makes me wonder what percentage of children with HIV escape the development of AIDS and live to become doctors.

I decided that I’m going to give a small amount of money to the headmistress of the school to pay for postage so Mercy can send me letters, and I’m determined to find a way to keep in touch with her while I’m abroad. I wrote her a letter in response and gave it to her today, and I’m expecting another hand-delivered letter from her tomorrow.

Again I find myself struggling to accept the things that I cannot change, but maybe a “pen friend” as Mercy calls it, is enough to make the small change that I can.


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