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Agwera Margaret

By Cheryl Paley


Little flowered dressit is auspicious for me that this month IF has chosen the topics of motherhood and Africa as my life has been unexpectedly enriched and changed forever by a unique and unexpected combination of the two.

In my creative life outside of IF Magazine I direct a theatre company, The NiteStar Program ( Founded in 1998 by Dr. Cydelle Berlin, it was originally created as one of the first “AIDS theatre projects” in the country. Every year, on World AIDS Day we do a series of special performances for community audiences. In 2003 I was introduced to a documentary film, directed by Rory Kennedy and produced by HBO called: Pandemic: Facing AIDS. It goes to 5 countries devastated by the Pandemic: Uganda, Brazil, Thailand, India and Russia, telling the human story behind the statistics. It occurred to us that little was being done in the New York public schools to enlarge a young person’s understanding of the magnitude of this pandemic so I decided to adapt the film as a performance piece.

The first segment takes place in Tororo, Uganda in a program called “The Orphans Club.” A woman named Margaret Boogere works with program coordinator Apollo Jaramogi from The Uganda Orphans Rural Development Programme, a grassroots, non-governmental organization that helps orphans financially, emotionally and, with the support of Father Mathew Okoth, spiritually. A unique feature of The Orphans Club is that they have formed a choir. It is a creative lifeline that sustains and strengthens them, and tangible evidence of the healing power of art. Margaret, Apollo and Father Mathew are mother, father and village to these children.

The film follows the orphans through their everyday lives, illuminating the grim reality of never having owned a pair of shoes and the fear they live with of being abducted in the middle of the night and sold into slavery or worse because there is nobody there to protect them. In many instances there is no surviving extended family member either, no grandparent or aunt or uncle, and so multiple children are being raised by the eldest, who may be only 7 or 8 years old themselves. It is agonizing to really stop and take this all in and so the most many of us can do is support a telethon or just shake our heads and say, “well, that’s really so sad, isn’t it.” We want to help, but where do we start?

Moved by their music, I decided to try and find this woman, this Margaret Boogere and see if I could get the lyrics the children were singing and have my actors learn their song, to be used in our piece. Only in this age where technology has erased miles and borders could I have imagined what that initial email would open up for me. I found Margaret, who has a free account and access to the Internet through a government building. 5 years and countless emails later she has become my Agwera, my friend.

I estimate that a few thousand people have seen our “Pandemic” theatre piece, many have been moved and, perhaps, momentarily enlightened, but the real gift has been mine. We now have an ongoing outreach through NiteStar, sending The Orphans Club something each year. And the circle grows. My mother’s senior citizens group in Chicago sent $100 and The Ethical Culture Society of Teaneck, New Jersey, moved by our piece, created their own outreach effort, sending $2,000 this year. In a very small and special way, those children have become my children too, and Margaret Boogere, a sister, a friend, my Agwera.

Donations should go to:

Margaret Boogere
Orphans Club
PO Box 11
Tororo, Uganda

Below is a reprint of the original article I wrote for IF about The Orphans Club in December, 2007. Here, in this issue about motherhood and Africa, I salute you Mama Margaret, for your unbridled courage, your compassion and your friendship. You teach me what “motherhood” is about.

Agwera Cheryl

“Whoever rears an orphan, it is though (s)he has brought him into the world.” - The Talmud


The Journey of The Little Flowered Dress

By Cheryl Paley
December 2007

The Little Flowered Dressit was just a piece of flowered fabric really – simple, no ruffles, no beads, no high end designer label. I bought it at a street fair back in the days when my “skinny jeans” were just jeans. A 6? Maybe a 4? It cost me $7 and I wore it constantly. In summer and fall, with leggings or bare legged, layered, over a bathing suit, you name it. My little flowered dress made me feel like dancing. Years went by and every spring I would take it out, put it in a pile to give away, and then back it would go, to the back of the closet where I could keep it safe. Just in case I lost those extra 10 pounds. I just couldn’t let it go.

My theatre company was doing a clothing swap – we all brought in our castoffs – that sweater that used to be great with jeans except for the hole under the right arm, the vintage jacket too tight to squeeze into. We all brought our “stuff,” put it in a huge pile and picked through the treasures together. It was time, I told myself, to let go of my little flowered dress. So, into the pile it went. Anything unclaimed would go into the miscellaneous bags and be given away to different charity organizations.

As the pile got smaller and smaller I couldn’t help but flinch seeing it picked at, poked, thrown around and discarded. The designer labeled items went quickly, followed by anything denim. And still, my little flowered dress remained unclaimed. Abandoned. A castoff in a sea of castoffs.

One of my assistants, a gentle soul named Owen saw me grab my little dress from the bottom of a pile being thrown into the “miscellaneous” garbage bag. “Is this yours?” he asked, “It’s so cute. Maybe my girlfriend will want it?” I felt like the kid who is last to be picked for the soccer team and finally gets called. “I hope she enjoys it, “I said, “as much as I did.” A year later Owen found another job and left behind a small pile of items forgotten – castoffs. Including, you guessed it, my little flowered dress.

Time passed. I put together a theatre piece based on Rory Kennedy’s documentary, “Pandemic: Facing AIDS.” In it, she profiles stories of those infected and affected all over the world. Stories of struggle, stories of courage, stories of those abandoned by their society, forced to leave their homes, orphaned. Castoffs.

The film features a story about a remarkable AIDS orphanage in Uganda, where the children have a choir. I wanted my actors to somehow know them a little better and thought, maybe if we sing their song, we will. It was a simple melody with a haunting message: Don’t forget us. Don’t cast us away. Through the miracle of the Internet I was able to contact their caretaker, Margaret Boogere. A year of emails followed. We wrote letters back and forth, my actors and myself and Margaret and the orphans. We became friends. And in our theatre piece we sang their song.

Spring came again and, instead of sending our castoffs from our clothing swap in miscellaneous satchels to anonymous sites, we decided instead to send gifts to the orphans. I asked everyone to bring in things they could no longer wear, things in good shape, things children might be able to use. Things they cared about. We collected 5 enormous boxes of clothing, pens, candy, shoes and toys, and in it was my little flowered dress. It was finally time to let it go.
6 weeks went by with no word. We were sure our care packages had been vandalized, rifled through. And then, just as we had almost given up, there it was: an email announcing the safe arrival of our gifts, and pictures of the celebration they had to honor the good fortune of our friendship and generosity. There, on a little girl with the face of an angel, was my little flowered dress.
How strange it is that, in the midst of so much abundance, I can sometimes feel so discarded, forgotten, cast off. With a closet full of clothes, a roof over my head and a loving family I can feel so alone. Stranger still that the simplest of gestures, the giving of a $7 dress could fill me with such an abundance of joy. When I’m down I click on that picture of the smiling angel, the one right there at the top of your computer screen. And, for that moment, I feel like dancing.

Cheryl Paley

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