Walking on Eggshells
Bery's Place - The Sexual Abuse Recovery Home of 43 Ugandan Girls
Sometimes one ends up in situations they could never expect. Actually, it seems to be a daily part of my existence as a man on the road trying to avoid the mainstream. Gifts of people and of life just sort of fall at my feet. Maybe that is part of being as open as possible to everything around me...
My local friend and I were in a small village called Mweena on Bugala Island. It is part of the Ssese Island group on the Ugandan side of Lake Victoria in Africa. We had enjoyed typical food in as traditional of a family run shack as possible, where the chickens ran through the kitchen, pecking at the ground, and stopped to look inside the shack-restaurant, perhaps to see who was being served. After lunch, my friend and I went for a walk to look at Lake Victoria and found a beautiful patch of grass where we sat to digest and relax. There were children everywhere and I could hear their distance voices tossing the word "Muzungo" back and forth. I knew they were talking about me because muzungo means "White Man" in Ugandan and in Swahili. Within about 10 minutes, a Caucasian man in his retirement years came walking up behind me and said in a German accent, "My daughters said there was another Muzungo here, so I have come to say hello."
That was how I met Bery from Belgium. I flashed images through my mind, trying to picture the daughters of this older man to mentally check the situation... There had only been young children around and I did not expect that Bery was still having those. Was he speaking of his grown up daughters that I had not seen? Three African girls came to join us and sat on the grass beside my friend and I.
Bery told me that he lives in the house that was behind us. Still trying to make sense of the situation, and the girls who were with him, I asked if he had married a local woman and had made another life here. He laughed and said that was not the case. He said he has been married for years to a European woman. He then informed me that he runs a home called "Bery's Place" that is a Youth Crisis and Emergency shelter for young girls who are victims of sexual abuse.
He has been running the center since 2007 and the three girls I had just met were ones he has taken in. Some of the young ladies have been with him for five years or more. He has many "daughters", 24 of who stay at Bery's Place and the other 19 are in boarding elsewhere, but he is responsible for them. Bery told me, "I have 43 daughters. I take care of them like they are my own. They are my own." Of the 43 girls, 22 of them are sponsored. The money goes toward their care, school uniforms, fees, food, living and survival.
A non-profit organization, Bery's Place provides sexual education, information and counseling in a Ugandan culture where sex is too taboo to speak of and locals therefore lack education on the subject. As an example, Bery asked my friend to tell me the Ugandan word for "penis". My friend would only laugh, but would not answer, saying it was a bad word that did not need repeating. Bery told me that the translation of the world for penis is "Animal" in Ugandan.
He asked one of his girls to say the word for me. When the girl said that word for penis in Ugandan, my friend began laughing uncontrollably in embarrassment of the word. Bery's girls are open-minded enough by his European fatherly influence to be able to speak of such taboos. Though, when he asked them to say the Ugandan word for "vagina" everyone said they could not remember what it was...
a) they do not want to find out that they have the disease and then have to deal with the stigmas
b) most people of the islands are in very rural areas with treatment medication in bigger villages, which would cause them too much of a travel cost
According to my friend, African sex is a masculine act of being manly enough to having as many orgasms as possible through short sessions of a couple of minutes each. The men usually have 500 Ugandan shillings ($0.15) for the first condom. Maybe, they have 500 shilling for second condom. Then the third time, they have sex the girl gets pregnant, diseases spread and oftentimes both contract it... It is thought that 80% of the population of the Ssese Islands are infected with STDs.
Bery, 67, and a cancer patient, said that Bery's Place was not his dream when he came to Uganda, but it has become that now. He is a former physiotherapist who retired early and wanted to enjoy next phase of easy living, but this instead became his life. He told me, "I wanted to be like you, to travel, to see interesting things, then totally retire... But now..."
I spent the next three days with Bery and the girls, spending one night in the guestroom of the home. Bery's number one priority is to rehabilitate the victimized youth. I was exposed to some really horrific stories that have forced the local police to bring girls to Bery's Place. We sat in the living room and Bery would begin telling the history of the girls and often the young girls were comfortable enough to matter-of-factly speak of their own tragedies.
A girl of about 12 spoke to me about how she was from a tribe in northern Uganda where she was stolen from her family when she was four years old. She was trafficked since she was six in the streets of Kampalaa. Bery introduced me to another with physical scars, who told me that she was also trafficked at six years of age. When she was eight, she was hit by a motorcycle on the street and ended up with amnesia. A police officer, who was supposed to take care of her, then sexually assaulted her with a gun to her head. Her case went to court and the police officer went to prison, where he was eventually killed by his inmates. Nearly everyone in the house has a heartbreaking story. I met a very sweet five year old girl with a warm smile who is new to the house because she was penetrated by an HIV positive man. Bery said that they have ran tests on her to see if she has the disease, but in children so young HIV can be difficult to detect.
Most of the girls who arrive do not know their birthdays. Bery said that often he gives them their arrival date as their birthday or sometimes gives them his own so that he does not forget. He stopped having parties for them years ago because it was no longer feasible.
The girls often arrive at Bery's Place with contraceptive implants so that they can not be impregnated. Many request more sexual information when they arrive. Some of them have ruptures, physical problems, and STDs when they get to the crisis center that need to be treated. Bery has worked hard with them so that they are open enough to really speak about anything. Several end up at Bery's because they had nowhere else to go, abandoned by their own families and a society that has cast them off as damaged goods. It is a burden for a father with a rape-victim daughter because how will he ever marry her off?
The government of Uganda offers no funding. Bery estimates his costs of keeping the place running to maintaining 43 girls by educating, rehabilitating, and teaching them life skills costs about $5,500 a month. He is spending his life savings, his wife contributing half of her salary for the nine months a year she is away in Europe working, and his 90 year old mother contributing monthly as well. It is a financial drain, but he hopes to one day to have the center in running order that he can turn over to the girls to help others.
A wall of Bery's bedroom has shelves of medical supplies for whatever might be necessary and to help whoever might arrive. One of the little girls of the house has HIV. The government will fund that medical cost, but she had other costs due to her illness. Wrapped up in a blanket on the bed was a sick little girl. Bery said, "She has malaria. She is not even mine. But, she comes from the neighborhood though..."
Bery lives a dangerous life of walking on eggshells...toeing a fine line of European standards in a developing nation that represents a much different life than where he spent most of his. On December 1, 2013, he was arrested for medical work. It tied to a few years previous when he hired an intern to come work at Bery's Place on a one-year term. After three months, it was clear that it was not going to work out and she was let go. The following day after she came into Bery's room topless and sat on his bed. His housekeeper saw what was going on and came into the room as well to sit on his bed to protect him from the intern. When the girl exited the house, she stole his phone. Some years passed...
In November 2013, someone got into contact with Bery, said she had just finished her studies as a journalist, told him she knew him, and asked if she could come to the islands to spent time at Bery's Place to write an article on what they were doing. Bery agreed and some days later when he went to pick up the journalist from the ferry, he realized that it was the intern who he had fired. He knew it was a problem, but brought her to the house anyhow. She stayed for a couple of days, and after she got her story, she left again.
A few days shortly after, 40 police and members of the Special Investigation Unit arrived at Bery's Place. He was arrested and on the front page of national and international newspapers was his first and last name with the words "...Defiles 34 Girls" who had been under his care. The Special Investigation Unit did not tell local authorities they were coming because they claimed Berry had been paying local forces off, and in return, they we allowed to use the girls.
Bery was released some time later on bail of around $3,000. Two governors stuck their necks out for him, vouching that he would not disappear. The newspaper that ran the headline was New Vision Group, who are government owned and represent the biggest media outlet in Uganda. The journalist wanted revenge and the newspaper wanted the headline. Bery said that the journalist must have had powerful contacts to get it to go as far as it did...
The girls were questioned by the police and eventually the newspaper paid for their transportation costs to return them to Bery's Place. Life went back to normal, but now Bery is pursuing a civil suit and a trial for the slander and accusations. Meanwhile, the government keeps issuing him work permits to live and take care of the girls and the police keep on bringing abused children. In a horrible consequence, the girls have had to deal with a backlash of being called "Bery's Whores" at school...
Nevertheless, there is a fantastic positive energy at Bery's Place. The girls keep the place German-spotless and it would be difficult to find kinder and sweeter young ladies. Perhaps they are so because someone has given them a second chance as cast-offs... You would never know from the aura of the property that these girls come from such a dark past. You could not even guess as much... The girls do not want to leave Bery's Place. Even the older ones, who have grown and moved on, continue to return as it is their home.
During these summer holidays, the girls play through the trees of the front yard, rake leaves, and keep up with the laundry of so many people. When I awoke in the morning after spending the night, my shoes had been washed and re-laced. I had not asked them to do such a thing, but the girls see opportunities where they can contribute and help. They take care of the property and prepare meals. Dinner time consisted of four young chefs standing around the stove preparing a meal. In the evening, after our meal was completed, there was a traditional dance for 30 minutes and then 30 minutes of "disco" where they danced to modern Ugandan pop hits. Who would want to leave such a place when you have 23 peers living with you to spend time with? The house moves like an anthill with people coming and going from the house living room to their bedrooms to the dormitory. It is a busy place.
The young ladies there want education. They want to be doctors, lawyers, judges and chefs. Bery told me, "I want to die here, not in some sophisticated place. Kalagala (the village on Buggala Island of the Ssese Islands) is home now, not Belgium. So I have told the girls, 'I will help you now, but you have to help me later in life.'" The kids organize the house meetings and different girls have different roles at Bery's Place. Bery says that he is grooming them for the take over. One girl does monthly and daily accounting. One is the main chef. One is the painter who keeps the outdoor furniture preserved. One is responsible for ordering household items and food... "They are becoming financially responsible," he tells me. "I don't have money. They have control of the money. They have the credit cards and daily accounts to run the place. I want them to learn these skills. I want the kids to add value to Uganda. I do not want them to go somewhere else. They wanted to have cable television which costs 14,000 shillings ($4) a month. They find ways together to make that money to pay for the cable. Janet (one of the oldest) has her own pigs that she raises. They are my memory now that I am aging and cannot remember things anymore. They take care of things."
There is heartbreak in Bery's role. He told me that a few days ago he had to send away a 17 year old girl, who had been with him for years. She was the leader of the rest of the girls in the house, she had been the house secretary, and she was the translator in the teaching of sexual education. Then, after translating all of those sexual education courses for so long, she ended up getting pregnant. Bery said it was very hard on him, but he had no choice, but to send her away. She could no longer be the role model of the house and he had to make a point. It was evident that to do so had hurt him...
The most vulnerable are the ones who arrive at the youth crisis center. There are two sets of three sisters living at the house. I asked Bery if all of the girls from those families arrived because of sexual abuse situations. He asked the sisters-sets to come and sit down in the living room. Once they were seated in front of me, Bery told me that they were from a very rural part of the islands and the oldest girl had to walk three hours to school every morning and then three hours home again after school finished in the evening. One night a man dragged her into the forest and raped her. That is how she ended up at Bery's Place. Her parents were fearful that the same thing would happen to the next daughter so they asked Bery to take her in as well. He accepted. Now the youngest one is five and she is at the house visiting and hoping to stay with her sisters. The parents have asked if she can stay permanently so that they can all be together. He has been mulling it over for a few days, trying to figure out what he can do.
Bery, friendly as can be and a valuable asset to a community that lights up when they see him, told me we would get into the minivan so that he could drive me back to town. There was a lot of laughing and debating about who was going to get to ride in the van for the trip. When the girls had all decided among each other who was staying and who was going, 10 of us were in the vehicle. I remarked about how we were all squeezed in. Bery said, "You should see school mornings. There are 28 of us in here every morning just so that I can get everyone to school..."
That is life at Bery's Place. The environment is great, but the girls need help. This is in no way any kind of guilt article or a pressure to help article, but I have had friends who have asked me in my travels to find them children to sponsor where their money would go directly to the source with no administrative deductions along the way. So, if you are interested in helping, or you are interested in sponsoring a child, please click to contract Bery directly here, or at the Facebook page, or by email (all links listed below). There are 21 little girls in his care without a sponsor. If you are interested, I can tell you first hand that these are wonderful little ladies who I have met and talked with that need help, and I know that your money will not be going into the pockets of a middle-man along the way. I just think this story should be shared and I want to help to bring as much awareness to Bery's Place as I can. It is a wonderful positive place rehabilitating the worst possible mental and physical scenarios there are...
Thanks for reading.
* Stephen Harris was a farm-boy/cattle rancher from Big Beaver, Saskatchewan, Canada. He is now a freestyle journalist, a rock and roll ambassador, a travel-holic, and a good time always happening who lives every day like it might be his 3rd last. He is also the proud voice behind www.bigbeaverdiaries.com.