Laura Haley was looking for purpose.
She found it and a whole lot more in Uganda.
Laura Haley watched Keifah’s large, dirty hands remove the bright crimson University of Alabama T-shirt from the Christmas package. The dry heat of Uganda pressed upon them, creating the antithesis of a winter wonderland as Keifah opened the first brand-new item she had received in years, maybe decades.
She squealed at the sight of her favorite color and immediately pulled the shirt over her head, “Bama” stretching across her chest. She smiled brightly for a few pictures, then removed the XXL T-shirt, folded it neatly and placed it back in the Christmas wrapping. She would not wear it again, Keifah told the translator to tell Laura. It was the most beautiful piece of clothing she’d ever seen. She wanted to save it for her burial.
Photo: Laura’s love of Uganda is apparent in the home she shares with husband Jason Haley in Columbus. Brant Sanderlin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Five years ago, Laura Kelley spent most days driving her BMW down Hwy 31 in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., to The Wynfrey Hotel where she worked as a corporate sales manager. The green-eyed, brunette 20-something had a quick smile and a hint of the South in her every word. Her outgoing, talkative nature gave her the ability to make a stranger feel like a confidante within minutes. She was confident and hard working, but always ready for a girls’ night out. She bought her first home when she was 22 and racked up a bit of credit card debt decorating it with finds from her favorite boutiques and antique shops. She loved her church, Church of the Highlands, and was surrounded by loving friends and family. Her life was good — great by most standards. But Laura felt like something was missing. She was just living for herself and nothing more.
Laura’s younger brother Lee knew she was searching for more purpose in her life. He also knew where she’d find it: Africa. After a lot of coaxing, he convinced her to join him on a mission trip to Kenya. She signed on, thinking it would be a good brother/sister adventure. She had no idea it would change her life forever.
Laura had seen photographs of impoverished areas before, but seeing it firsthand — and even worse, smelling it — overwhelmed her. While visiting Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, one of Africa’s largest slums, she kept a thick layer of strawberry Chapstick on her lips to help mitigate the odors of trash and disease. She cried herself to sleep at night thinking of the people she met each day. She wondered why she was born in America with clean water, healthy food and shelter, while those she met in Kibera were born with nothing. A sense of responsibility started to build within her, a desire to bridge the gap between her world and theirs.
While in Kibera, Laura visited a small church. The women there appeared ecstatic to see an American woman walk through the door. They assumed she had come to share a profound message and immediately began making plans to gather a group together the next day to hear her speak. Laura panicked and stayed up all night, trying to prepare something to say to the women. She pieced together a generic lesson from the book of Ruth about loving one another and following God’s principles. When she spoke before the women the next day, they hung on every word. They responded as if she had given each of them bricks of gold.
“I couldn’t believe how powerful and impactful it was,” said Laura. “It made we wonder what kind of difference I could make if I was more prepared. I realized Africa didn’t need me, I needed Africa.”
Laura followed that mission trip to Africa with two more. Then she decided to take a leap.
In 2012, she quit her job, sold all her possessions, rented out her house and moved to Uganda on a two-year mission trip with Sozo Children, a Birmingham-based ministry that organizes short- and long-term missions to Uganda to care for neglected children and introduce them to Christianity.
One day Laura and Sozo director Daudi Sebaana visited Ngongolo, a secluded agricultural village about 40 minutes outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda. They were seeking people in need. Villagers suggested they visit the widowed, handicapped woman who lived at the bottom of a steep hill.
Inside a one-room mud hut they met Keifah. The 95-year-old woman had a head of white, close-cropped hair and large, weathered hands. She didn’t speak English, but she had an infectious smile unmarred by her missing front tooth. Paralyzed from the waist down, she moved around her hut and small garden by scooting on her bottom and hands, dragging lifeless, callused legs behind her.
Laura’s presence seemed to make Keifah nervous. She swept up her hut, rolled out a grass mat for Laura to sit on and insisted that Laura’s backpack not sit on the dirt. Daudi began conversing with Keifah in her native tongue, Lugandan, and translated for Laura, who got the impression Keifah wasn’t interested in what they had to say. But then Daudi asked Keifah if she knew any worship songs. Keifah’s expression lifted and she instantly began to clap and sing. Her voice was raspy and not completely in tune, but her joy was contagious.
Daudi and Laura explained to Keifah that they wanted to bring a Sozo team over to help tend to any needs she might have. Keifah seemed skeptical but open. Laura suspected she was more excited about their company than the services they offered.
From that day on, Laura and her interns began making frequent visits to Keifah’s hut to help her out. Neighborhood kids often stole her food, so the Sozo team installed a lock on her door. She had no sanitation system so they dug a latrine outside her back door.
Laura had noticed the large, thick calluses worn into Keifah’s feet from being dragged over the dirt floor. One afternoon she arrived at Keifah’s door with a bucket of water, sweet-scented body wash, a nail file and nail polish. Curious and excited, Keifah watched as Laura placed each of the woman’s feet into the water. The touch of Laura’s hands sent Keifah into a fit of giggles as her feet were scrubbed and her nails cleaned. She squirmed and kicked until they were both soaking wet and doubled over with belly laughs. Her nails were so thick and gnarled they couldn’t be cut, and they were sensitive to the touch. So Laura settled on just polishing each of her big toes a bold red. Keifah clapped and sang in celebration when Laura was done.
Keifah’s hut was along the path to one of the village’s watering holes. When she was alone, she’d sit on her porch and ask passersby to fetch her water in exchange for bananas or avocados she grew in her garden.
Two big yellow plastic water jugs would last her a week and not a drop would be wasted, she rationed it so meticulously. When Laura visited, she always brought Keifah a bottle of water, which Ugandans called “muzungu water” — white people water. She’d finish it off immediately. Sometimes Laura brought Keifah potato chips and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Not one to throw anything away, Keifah would save the empty water bottles and plastic bags for reuse.
Keifah’s favorite treat was Blue Diamond sea salt almonds. Her face would light up when she ate them. She once took a handful of the almonds, dug a hole in the dirt and buried them, hoping to grow her own sea salt almond tree.
“She was so joyful, yet she had nothing,” said Laura. “Our American mind set of happiness depends so much on what we have. This woman didn’t have material possessions and she didn’t have her health — she could barely move. But she was joyful. Whatever she had, I wanted a double dose of.”
After 16 months in Uganda, Laura moved back to Alabama to work at Sozo’s headquarters, where she coordinated the summer internship program and fundraising efforts. But she still returned to Uganda often and began visiting Keifah on her own a couple times a week during her stays.
With Laura’s driver serving as translator, the two women spent their time together going about Keifah’s daily routine, mostly cooking and gardening.
“I would just do life with her,” said Laura.
One day Keifah told the translator she was Laura’s “jjajja,” which means grandmother in Luganda. Laura smiled and nodded in agreement. From that point on, that was what Laura called her.
Keifah loved to sing. One time Laura showed up at her door unannounced and she found the older woman singing, stark naked, while taking a bucket bath. Keifah wasn’t embarrassed, but Laura was. After that Laura would call out for her friend on the drive down the hill to her hut.
“Jjajja! Jjajja!” she’d yell, alerting the woman to her arrival.
Keifah would always respond with a song, loud and cheerful as it echoed up the hill. She would be clapping and cackling by the time Laura reached her.
“Seeing her joy and hearing it through song was so infectious,” said Laura. “Talk about someone who has hope in something that is not on this earth.”
Over time, through village hearsay and bits of translated conversation with Keifah, Laura pieced together some of the details of her adopted jjajja’s life.
Keifah was the mother of eight children, all of whom were deceased, mostly from complications related to AIDS. It is unknown whether all of the children were biologically hers. In Uganda, it is not unusual for people to refer to others as their mom or Jjajja, whether they’re blood-related or not.
Keifah was imprisoned for two decades, accused of feeding rebel forces during the Uganda civil war. She was crippled while she was in captivity; the nature of her injury and how it was incurred is not known. After her release, she ended up in the one-room mud hut in Ngongolo, not her native village, where she was shunned because of her paralysis.
“Everyone loves the little kids, that’s the bulk of what we do with Sozo,” said Laura, “but I love the women. They work from sun up to sun down to provide for their families. A lot of the time the men are MIA or they have two to three wives. The women are the rocks. Then there was Jjajja, all alone after all she’d been through. I was drawn to her.”
And Keifah was clearly drawn to Laura. Every time Laura paid her a visit, the older woman would choke up, place her hands over her eyes and bellow out a song before scooting around to her front step where Laura would join her. There they’d sit, shoulder-to-shoulder for hours, sharing life and often a comfortable silence.
Growing a family
Marriage was not on Laura’s radar.
“When I joined Sozo as a missionary, I assumed that meant I was laying down my dream of ever being married or being a mom,” said Laura. “I was OK with that if it was God’s plan, but then he brought Jason back into my life.”
A U.S. Army Ranger deployed in Afghanistan, Jason Haley was a high school friend of Laura’s, but they hadn’t spoken since graduation. One day he commented on a photo Laura posted on Facebook of herself with a Sozo child. His comment spurred an ongoing conversation and the two were engaged seven months later.
Keifah cheered when she learned of the engagement. Laura shared pictures of Jason with her and she loved them so much that Laura often let her keep them.
When Laura showed Keifah the wedding pictures, she screamed, waved her oversized hands in the air and marveled over every detail.
“She cared so much and was so invested in my life,” said Laura. “It’s like she really was my grandma.”
Laura was in Uganda for two weeks during that visit, and she spent many days with Keifah. But every time they said goodbye, Keifah would grow sad.
“She’d always shut down and get quiet when I told her I had to go. It was very obvious she was upset I had to leave.”
Laura told Keifah that Jason would come visit next time. The elderly woman hadn’t been feeling well, but she vowed to stay alive until she could meet him.
“I was so paranoid every time I left Uganda,” said Laura. “I was always so scared that would be the last time I’d see her.”
Laura learned she was pregnant in March of this year. She and Jason shared the news with family over Easter weekend. They planned to travel to Uganda this summer and couldn’t wait to tell Keifah about the baby, a boy. Laura ordered a red T-shirt with “Baby Haley Jjajja” stitched on the front. She planned to give the shirt and a copy of the ultrasound photo to Keifah.
But when Laura told her doctor of her travel plans, he advised her against it because of the Zika virus. She was disappointed but planned to send the shirt and photo to Keifah with a friend who was headed there soon.
Two weeks later, Laura received word from a Sozo co-worker that Keifah had died.
No one knew the cause of death, but she had been in the clinic for two days prior. The village had pulled together and given her a modest burial. Instead of her cherished Bama T-shirt, she was buried in a yellow Gomez, a traditional Ugandan dress.
Laura couldn’t bring herself to pick up the new shirt she’d ordered for her jjajja.
“I know she would have just loved it,” said Laura. “We couldn’t wait to take the baby to Uganda to meet his jjajja. I know she would have loved holding him. I’m just praying she somehow knows all of this. And though I know she’s in a better place, selfishly, we’re going to miss having that experience with her. She was my family, my jjajja. She was my village. The only thing that helps is that I know exactly where she is. I know she’s where she’s wanted to be and for her to finally be at the feet of Jesus is the sweetest thing I can imagine.”
After living in Uganda, Laura has found adjusting to life back in the U.S. a challenge.
“The hardest part is learning how to balance it all. My selfish desires want to spend money, buy more and more and build ‘my kingdom,’” she said, gesturing air quotes. “It’s truly a daily struggle to choose a life counter to what America tells us is success.
“I think about Jjajja saving our empty water bottles. She’d set them outside to collect rain water. Because of that, now my eyes are opened wider to how wasteful we are. Like when people brush their teeth and leave the water running. I can’t stand that. We take so much for granted, but I think of Jjajja every day and I remember to be grateful for everything.”
In 2014, Laura and Jason moved to a historic house in Columbus. They chose a diverse neighborhood with people of varied races and socio-economic statuses. Laura’s favorite thing to do is sit on her front porch and talk to neighbors who walk by, some of whom are homeless. Last Thanksgiving, she and Jason took pecans from the tree in their yard and made pies for all their neighbors.
“I used to go volunteer on designated days,” said Laura. “Now it’s just my lifestyle, a full immersion where I look for opportunities to serve, day in and day out. I have more of an awareness of people who have fallen to the wayside, and I have a deep desire to engage with them.”
Her experiences in Africa have affected old friendships because she doesn’t like to spend her time and money in ways she did before. She doesn’t own a credit card. Instead of shopping or going away for a weekend to the beach, she prefers to save her money for a trip to Uganda or to sponsor a Sozo child.
“Jjajja taught me the importance of investing in other people,” said Laura. “I’m not talking about monetarily, I mean the importance of quality time. Human interaction is such a gift. Really listening to someone and not having to talk about yourself, or not talking at all — just enjoying each other’s presence. You could say (Keifah and I) had no relationship on some level, as there’s so much we didn’t do. But I can’t say I’ve spent that much quality time with anyone else in my life. We’re so distracted these days. We’re on the phone, we’re multi-tasking. With Jjajja it was full eye contact and we were focused on one another, even when we weren’t verbally communicating. We were fully in the moment and there was nothing superficial about it. It just goes to show you, love doesn’t need translation. Love transcends translation.”
Laura and Jason plan to travel to Uganda with the baby as soon as they’re able. She promised her jjajja she’d return with Jason, and she intends to keep her word. Still, it’s difficult for Laura to think about a Uganda without Keifah. She plans to visit the woman’s grave site in hopes that she’ll find some closure, but she can’t imagine driving down the hill toward Keifah’s mud hut and not hearing her ebullient song. Even so, Laura may roll down the window anyway and call out for her beloved Ugandan grandmother, “Jjajja! Jjajja!”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Freelance writer Keri Janton knew Laura Haley in college at Auburn. Over the years Keri followed Laura’s experiences as a missionary in Uganda on Facebook. She was particularly struck by the photos of Laura and Keifah and their megawatt smiles. Their affection for one another was apparent. Keri was saddened by the news of Keifah’s death and felt compelled to reach out to Laura to learn more about their special friendship. The result is an inspiring story about an unlikely friendship and the power of human interaction.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Keri Janton is a freelance writer and family photographer. Her favorite job, however, is being a stay-at-home mom to her two sons, whom she is raising in Sugar Hill with her husband, Dan. She loves to write children’s books in her spare time and journals about family life in a private blog she has maintained for four years.