As much as I hate to admit it, after living in Africa for years, it started getting easier and easier to become immune to certain tragedies. As horrible as it sounds, suffering is so common in Africa that when you spend lots of time there you don’t always react to news of death, violence, or trauma. Sadly, it becomes numbingly normal.
However, I’ve always prayed that God would keep my heart soft and protect me from becoming jaded – that He would break my heart for specific people so that my spirit would always remain tender. When God brought me to a woman named Grace and to her family, I knew I would never grow hard-hearted in their presence.
Before meeting Grace, I was introduced to four blind women – an elderly woman probably in her eighties, her middle-aged daughter (Stella Rose), and Stella’s two young daughters. I was horrified when I saw their living conditions and even more horrified when I found out that Stella’s brothers had completely shunned her and offered no help to her, the elderly mother, or the young girls. They were treated almost like lepers, and no one seemed to find any value in them. Their story was unlike any other I’d heard in Africa, and after my first visit to their compound, I left with tears in my eyes. Their reality was absolutely unfathomable.
Robert, my Ugandan ministry partner, searched and searched until he could find someone – anyone – who was involved in helping Stella Rose and the others. After doing his homework, he found the treasure we’d been waiting for – Grace. Grace was the sister of Stella Rose (and the daughter of the elderly woman/the aunt of the two blind girls). She lived in a different village than her blind relatives and went to great lengths to travel between her home and her blind relatives’ home. Though a widow herself and a mother of four, Grace did everything in her power to care for her mom, sister, and nieces. Despite barely being able to keep her immediate family afloat, she made every sacrifice she could to support Stella Rose and the others.
When I met Grace, two things were utterly clear. First, she was absolutely genuine. Grace loved God, and Grace loved people. She had the purest of hearts and wanted nothing more than to care for her family. Second, Grace was an unsung hero. She sometimes walked for hours to move between her home and Stella’s home when she didn’t have enough money for transport. Grace knew the cost of caring but never questioned if it was worth it. She simply loved – tirelessly, fearlessly, gracefully. Everything about her was beautiful.
I remember the first day I met Grace, and I remember her face when she heard my name. Since people in Uganda often struggle to pronounce Caitlin, I usually introduce myself as Katy, a far easier name to pronounce in the local dialect. Ketty is the Ugandan version of Katy, so that’s become the name I am known by in the villages. When I told Grace my name, her face lit up and she told me that her daughter was also named Ketty. From that moment on, she called me “my daughter” and greeted me as such for the rest of her days.
Over time, I got to know Grace better, got to see more of her heart and love for her blind relatives, her children, and really everyone she interacted with. I got to visit her home many times as well as see her at Stella Rose’s home. Grace loved to spoil my friends and me with delicious food she prepared, despite having so little herself. She traveled to my village numerous times, including a visit for the best Christmas celebration I’ve ever experienced. I got to know the real Ketty, Grace’s adorable daughter, and my friend Connie fell in love with Grace’s youngest son, Daniel. We saw how much Grace loved her kids, and we enjoyed getting to know such a precious family.
Despite our good times together, I could see the toll life was taking on Grace. After losing her husband, struggling to provide for her children, and taking on the burden of caring for her four blind relatives, the emotional drain was evident. Even when Grace smiled, I could see that she felt like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. Sometimes, she would make an escape from reality by daydreaming about my African wedding. We would laugh as we planned my one-day wedding in the village. Though I had no prospects when these daydreams began, we had so much fun laughing about what my dress would look like, how many goats my husband would have to pay for my dowry, and what types of food we would prepare for my wedding feast. Even though the image of a white girl getting married in the bush was quite amusing, I was serious about having an African wedding one day. For years, I dreamed that in the future Grace would help me design my dress and that we would get to celebrate in my village together.
Several years ago, Robert, my friend Natalie, and I introduced a microloan program to a few select individuals, and we immediately invited Grace to be a part of it. People were given loans of 200,000 shillings to start a business (or grow an existing business) and had to pay back 20,000 each month. Instead of paying interest, the loan receivers had to pay their own transport to attend a monthly meeting where everyone who’d received a loan was to share business ideas with one another. Unfortunately, most of the people who received loans skipped the meetings and did not make timely payments. One person even took the loan money, ran off with it, and never spoke to us again. But there was ONE person who came to every meeting and paid back her loan every month on time. Can you guess who that was? And can you guess who had the furthest and most expensive commute to the village where we held the meetings? Do you know who did whatever it took to keep her word and honor her commitment to the loan program? Our dear friend Grace.
Because of Grace’s faithfulness to us, the program, and her word, we decided to give her extra money to boost her business. We surprised her one day at her home and gave her enough money to buy a bale of clothes in Kampala to help grow her secondhand clothes business. With not an ounce of entitlement, Grace took the money, got on her knees, and asked us to pray for the money. Her desire for business growth was motivated by one thing – wanting to provide for her family.
I don’t know many people who have the integrity, honesty, and sacrificial love this woman had. In a country where people are poor, desperate, and tempted to steal, it can be difficult to find such a pure heart. Yet, for some reason, the Lord gave me the privilege and honor of being a friend to this treasure.
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When I arrived in Uganda for a visit during the summer of 2017 (after moving back to California), I couldn’t wait to see Grace. I’d heard that she had fallen sick and was staying in Mulago Hospital, the biggest hospital in Uganda. Mulago is located in the capital city about nine hours from the district where Grace lived (and where I used to live and now visit each year). I knew something was really wrong if she’d traveled all the way to Mulago for treatment. When I found Grace there, I was struck by how thin she’d become and how desperate she looked.
After visiting her in Mulago, Robert and I made the long trek to my former home, Soroti District. We were relieved that shortly after, Grace was transferred back to Soroti and placed in a hospital there. With papers from Mulago in hand, she lay in the Soroti hospital, unsure of what the medical papers meant and even more unsure of what to do next. We couldn’t find a single doctor in the hospital to answer questions, so I took a photo of the Mulago paperwork and left to do some research. Robert drove with me to speak to a doctor at a better hospital who confirmed that Grace had cervical cancer. He let us know that there was only one radiation machine in all of Uganda – and it was broken. Then he gave me advice that broke my heart: “Make her as comfortable as you can until she dies.” And there it was. A terminal diagnosis. A void of hope. A death sentence. I cried the whole car ride home, knowing my time with Grace was quickly running short.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around Grace dying. It simply did not make sense. What about Stella Rose and her girls? What about Grace’s four children who had already lost their father? What kind of reward was this for all of her hard work and love? It hardly seemed fair.
Days later, my friend Connie arrived in Uganda with a team from her church that was eager to meet Grace and pray for her. On our final day in Soroti, we found out that Grace had returned to her home since the hospital staff wasn’t really doing anything to treat her. Robert, Connie, the team, and I spent our last morning in Soroti traveling to Grace’s home. I asked the team to wait outside while Robert, Connie, and I went inside Grace’s one-room home to greet her. When Grace saw us walk in, she immediately started crying. It is rare to see a Ugandan adult cry, so right away I knew things were bad – really bad. It was evident that Grace was in pain and had lost hope of overcoming her sickness. Yet, despite her pain, she still welcomed us with the same love as always. “My daughter,” she greeted me, “Come sit on my bed next to me.” I cozied up close to Grace on her mattress while we chatted and asked her how her body felt that day. She was in terrible pain and continuously shifted around in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort. Robert briefly stepped out of the room, and Connie and I had a moment alone with her. She looked at us, her adopted girls, and said to us with such genuine affection, “You people really love me.” We smiled and told her that we did very much. After having so many Ugandans confuse handouts and money with love, I was once again refreshed by Grace’s understanding. Love didn’t mean receiving stuff. Grace knew we loved her simply because we were with her – because we sat with her and held her hand and prayed for her. We had nothing we could give that would fix anything. All we had was love, and she knew it.
We eventually asked Grace if Connie’s team of friends could pray for her, and she only had one hesitation – she didn’t have anything to serve them. Even in her dying days, she was worried that she had nothing to cook and serve for her visitors. In her most vulnerable and ill state, Grace was still thinking about how she should be taking care of other people. We assured her that she didn’t need to provide anything, just to accept the prayer of friends. Gratefully, she allowed them to enter, and they prayed for her. They stepped out of the room afterwards, and Connie and I said our goodbyes.
I’ll never forget my final moment with Grace. She looked so frail and hopeless, and I knew there was a good chance I would never see her again. I kissed her on the cheek and told her I loved her. And I really meant it. I got in our car, and as we drove away, tears poured out of my eyes. I hoped Grace would miraculously be healed, but I guess deep down I knew that would be the last time I would see Grace.
We drove to the capital city the next day, and shortly after, I flew back to America. After being in California for ten days, I received a message from Pastor Robert that Grace had passed away. I read the words I’d been dreading. Grace was gone.
Worries flooded me. What would happen to Stella Rose and her girls? What would happen to Grace’s children who had now become orphans? How would life go on after Grace?
Maybe it’s selfish, but I also started thinking about my dreams of one day picking out a wedding dress with Grace and realized that would never happen. I thought about other dreams we’d dreamed together and tried to digest the fact that none of them would ever come to pass. This coming summer (2020), I am planning on bringing my new husband to Uganda for the first time to have an African wedding in my village. When I think about the fact that Grace will not be there, it is still hard for me to accept, even after several years now.
Nothing can lessen the pain of losing Grace. No one can take her place. However, the loss of Grace does not mean a loss of her memory or a loss of the effect she’s had on my life and on the lives of so many others. She has served as such an inspiration of what it means to truly love. Grace was a shining example of her name. She lived it out so well, and I am forever grateful for the grace and love she showed me and so many of my friends. I will miss her voice greeting me “my daughter,” but I will remember the Ugandan mama who loved me so well. I will remember the times she cooked for me, made me laugh, dreamt with me, and encouraged me. I will remember the sacrifices she made to take care of her family. I will remember her smile and her warmth, her fiery tenacity, and her deep love for God.
Looking back now, I wish I would have served Grace more. I wish I would have done more to help her carry the burden of taking care of her relatives. But it’s not too late to serve Grace. And it is my honor that today, I am able to do so. Currently, with the help of Robert and generous donors, we are able to help Grace's sister, Stella Rose, as well as Grace's four children. There's nothing Grace desired more than to know they would be fully taken care of. We do not help Grace's family because we are trying to be heroes or carry a burden that is not ours to carry. We help simply because that is what family does.
So, to a mother, sister, daughter, and friend who has loved so well, I honor you. Grace, I will forever be moved by your life, your heart, your love. Thank you for showing love until your final day with us. You are greatly missed.
Written by Caitlin Guess, February 2020