By Ed Wilson
Ed Wilson is the Executive Director for IJM Canada. He recently returned from a one-week trip to visit our teams in the field including Uganda, where we defend widows and orphans from property grabbing.
As we drove up the terra-cotta red dirt road toward Juliana’s home, we could see her waiting for us, dressed in a crisp blue, yellow and white gomesi (traditional Ugandan dress) with its distinctive peaked shoulders. Juliana greeted us with a triple cheek kiss, and after some scrambling to find enough benches for everyone, we seated ourselves around her so she could tell us her story.
A picture of resilience, Juliana’s eyes flashed with fire as she told how she prevailed over the threats of the young man who claimed to be her grandson and therefore (in his mind) was entitled to a share of her property. Something immediately seemed out of place to Juliana as she had no knowledge of this alleged relative before he showed up on her doorstep some time after her husband passed away.
With Florence Sitenda (Juliana’s IJM caseworker) translating and with thunder rumbling in the background, Juliana described for us the terror she faced over the course of a number of months, with the imposter at one point threatening, "If you don’t give me a portion of this land, blood is going to be spilled here. A person will die in this family.” Repeated attempts by local officials to resolve the situation failed because of lack of good faith on the part of the perpetrator. Eventually he moved into the kitchen house on Juliana’s property and brazenly began work to enlarge it. But he went too far when he attacked Juliana with a machete, severely cutting her hand when she raised it to block a blow to her head. She called IJM for help and our staff quickly came with the local police to arrest her tormentor. Now he sits in prison, convicted on multiple counts and sentenced to six years—the longest in IJM’s history in Uganda.
Juliana’s story had to be cut short because a storm was approaching and we had work to do.
As an example of the economic empowerment needed to enable IJM’s clients to transition to a safe and sustainable livelihood, IJM will often help them develop an income-generating activity.
That day, with guidance from Juliana and help from our group of muzungus, IJM’s staff were going to plant a vegetable garden for Juliana.
I came with an eagerness to get my hands dirty in the Ugandan soil, so I quickly grabbed a hoe and begin to dig holes for the cabbage plants in the garden plot that had already been tilled. My mother taught me how to plant straight rows by stretching twine between two stakes, but we had no twine that day so I had to scratch out a line in the soil.
What quickly developed was a great picture of teamwork—some dug holes, others filled them with black earth, others tamped in the young plants, while still others watered. We thought we were finished when all the cabbage plants were in the ground, but a portion of the plot was still vacant. Harriet (Juliana’s only surviving child of five, who lives nearby) suddenly appeared with an armload of sweet potato slips, and we began to mound up the earth for sweet potatoes. And then, after we were washed up and ready to leave, Harriet found a bucket full of eggplant seedlings that needed to go in the ground.
As we drove away, our last picture of Juliana was of her chasing away the chickens who were already rooting for grubs in the freshly planted garden. She—and IJM with her—will need to remain vigilant, especially as there has been a fresh threat against her land. But, as someone who was born and raised on a farm, I know that when you plant a crop you declare that you are not planning to leave any time soon. Juliana’s vegetable garden declares to her community, and to anyone who may be watching, that she is not going anywhere—and neither is IJM. IJM is proving that laws against property grabbing can be enforced, and widows and orphans can get the protection they deserve.
Learn more about property grabbing.