From Uganda with Love

Southern Miss graduate Lindsey Pellittieri sits in her tiny corner of the world in Gulu,Uganda. There have been many life changes since she moved from the Hub City to this rural village halfway across the globe, about 8,000 miles, give or take, and eight hours ahead of local time.

 It’s been a long time since she’s connected with the Hattiesburg area.

But in this Northern Region village she’s learned not only about her own strengths, but the strength of Ugandan women and others around the world.

The seed was planted some time ago, but has started to blossom.

Hattiesburg was the first place Pellittieri ever really called home. A native of New Orleans, she was too young at the time to appreciate the culture and opportunities in her own backyard.

Pellittieri moved to the Hub City in 2011 to study at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she majored in Special and Elementary Education. She worked for a time at the DuBard School for Language Disorders. She described her time at USM and in Hattiesburg as fulfilling and purposeful. So much so that she became engulfed by the creativity and ambition within the community.

She knows now that this was only a launching pad for the work she knew she was destined for.

Rather quickly, she became involved within the volunteer sector of the Hub City.

“I was a two-term member of AmeriCorps, where I spent most days serving and creating alongside a group of committed teachers at Hawkins Elementary,” she said. “I was also involved with Southern’s CCCE (Center for Community and Civic Engagement), as both a peer mentor and as a project coordinator.”

By her junior year, she was living in the big blue Volunteer Hattiesburg house on Buschman Street. Here she met volunteers from across the country. The house soon became her home, because of the strangers who entered it.

“I understood what it felt like to come to this new place and feel the magnitude of Hattiesburg’s heart for the first time,” she said.

“Even as I began my college career, I knew I did not want to teach school, at least not in any traditional sense. I wanted to change policy, reform the system, create curriculum, and subvert the perspective on disability – especially in areas of our world where children with these unique abilities are neglected and marginalized.”

She spent her final semester in Belgium, where she completed her practicum for her degree. In Belgium, she worked with the Department of Defense on the base called SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). Belgium was the 17th country she had visited, and during her stint there, she had the opportunity to visit 11 more countries.

When she returned to the states, she only had four days before graduation. One week later, she boarded another plane, this time to Uganda.

“I’m not sure, even now, what my plan was,” she said. “I booked the ticket with no real sense of purpose or direction. Uganda had been on my radar for some time. It kept coming up in conversations and in articles I had read while I was conducting research at the time.”

She figured once she got there she’d figure out what came next. Originally, her thoughts were to stay in Uganda for the summer. Her return ticket to the U.S. was already booked, but when that day came, “I felt like I hadn’t even begun what I was meant to do.”

Pellittieri had been working with a group where she taught vocational skills to young adults with disabilities. However, after a few months she understood that if real change was going to happen, it needed to come from within the community.

“Sure, I could teach the skills, but what use would it be if the community still would not accept them?” she asked. “My colleagues even laughed at me when I suggested the idea of “internships.” They warned me it wouldn’t work and that I was foolish to try. So, call me a fool because me and my group of students wandered throughout the village and into the market.”

After three days, all of her students had a “job” to do. Some folded clothes at the market, some sorted fruits with local vendors, while others with severe disabilities were invited to work at a barbershop as sweepers and as door greeters.

“It was amazing to see the community work together to find a special place for each child,” she said.

But there was something much more sinister playing out in the background.

Just a week after Pellittieri decided not to return to America, her colleague assaulted her for the first time. She stayed in Uganda, working alongside a staff who justified the brutality.

 “I couldn’t tell my parents, my friends, or my church in Hattiesburg, who was funding my mission,” she said.

 The organization told other women that they, too, didn’t need to leave their abusive situation. “These village women were told it was their fault that their husbands abused them and they needed to change,” she remembers. “When I finally found my voice again, I told them otherwise.”

Along with two other Ugandan women, Pellittieri began a women’s support group.

“We talked about other options and we talked about our rights, or lack thereof… and sometimes, we just shared our hearts. Women empowering other women. That’s what we did. These women, powerful women, saved me.”

However, soon after the support group began meeting, Pellittieri began receiving threats from men – in particularly, the husbands. It was suggested she leave the country, but again she stayed. Pellittieri was only there for eight months, but said it felt like years.

“I cannot explain how this place of joy was simultaneously my personal hell,” she said.

This was her dream job and she had to say goodbye to it.

She found a new job opportunity an hour away.  “It wasn’t my dream job, but I enjoyed it,” she said, remembering the depression and anxiety that lingered with her.

A year later, in 2016, Mariel Rieland, a friend, invited her to travel to the North. She explained that Rieland is an empowerment officer for a women’s social business, basically, a professional feminist.  Pellittieri found her passion and excitement about Northern Uganda enlightening. Intrigued, she agreed to journey with Rieland on a 10-hour venture through Uganda that would land them in Gulu.

When they finally arrived at the café/guest house in Gulu a man named Emmanuel, who was the barista, opened the door.

“I’m not one to say that ‘love at first sight’ is a true thing, but y’all… he had the most gorgeous smile I’d ever seen. It was the way he smiled, I knew I wanted that in my life,” she said, glancing out the living room window to see her husband, with a huge grin on his face, dancing with their three puppies in the yard. She would come to know him as Emma.

A friend that had never met Emmanuel told Pellittieri’s mom at a later date that you can just tell he is a “happy soul.”

She said they spent that night at one of the café tables talking about nothing, but also everything.

“Between us there was laughter, chemistry, and the fresh aroma of coffee. Yes, this café is where we met, but it’s also where we fell in love.”

The next day Pellittieri informed Rieland that Emmanuel was the man she was going to marry.

“And I was serious, but she thought I was only joking,” she remembers. “But I just knew.”

A few weeks later she packed up her life (again), so she could be close to this man with the happy soul.

On their first date, they went to a local restaurant called Alulululu, a pork joint where they sold pork on a stick with sliced tomatoes for plate garnish. A date typically costs between $3-7.

“It’s not a glamorous life, but it’s ours,” she said.

After their date, Emma took her to his mom’s home in the village, where she had invited most of the neighbors to come over and greet her son’s new friend.

“I thought Emma and I were going to hang out with his family; instead, inside a room there was a straw mat on the floor and an entire buffet of local foods all for me and Emma,” she remembers.

They sat on the floor and ate their feast, shaking hands and greeting people in between bites.

Pellittieri said she didn’t understand what was happening amidst all the commotion. When they finished their meal, Emma’s younger brother, Stephen, and his mom entered the room, where she began speaking the Acholi language with Stephen translating for her.

“She said something along the lines of, ‘You are welcome to our family. I am Emmanuel’s mother. What are your intentions with my son? What are your plans for the future? If you marry my son, it will be your duty to love and care for him forever.’

“Again, this was our first date. I said, ‘okay.’”

 

I’m in Love

As for her family, they were 8,000 miles away. She called her parents one evening from the same table at the café where she and Emma had chatted that first night.

“I want to tell you something, I said to my parents. I could tell that my mom, who is a worrier by nature, was anxious to hear what I would say. I told them I was in love. I don’t remember what my dad said, but probably, ‘good deal.’”

She said her mother’s questions were, ‘Does he speak English?, Does he have a job?, Did he go to school?, How will he support you?, Does he know how serious your Type 1 Diabetes is?, What about your health insurance?, You can’t stay in Uganda forever!”

Pellittieri described herself as more like her dad. She said eventually even her mom accepted the relationship she had with Emmanuel, but even more, accepted that her daughter was truly going to stay in Uganda and possibly forever.

The first time they met the man who would become their future son-in-law was in the weeks prior to the upcoming nuptials.

“When they finally met Emmanuel one year later, naturally they loved him,” she said. 

Pellittieri explained that traditionally the groom is to pay a dowry or “bride price” in which he is to give the parents of the bride some form of wealth in exchange for their daughter’s hand in marriage.

“We warned my parents that at our wedding it would be likely that they would be gifted a cow, because of their gift of me to Emma,” she said.

No cows were gifted, but they did receive a goat they named Biscuit and a hen, that they named Gravy.

 

Our Wedding

The couple exchanged vows on Dec, 2, 2017. It was a Saturday, the day after the last rain before the dry season. Pellittieri’s parents made the journey to Uganda just three weeks before the wedding. Her parents had never traveled abroad.

Pellittieri described the time as very exciting, the couple taking them on a variety of adventures including a safari where giraffes and zebra were almost close enough to touch.

“It was neat for me to observe my parents experience all the things that I’d become so use to, such as women carrying jugs of water on their heads, traveling around town by motorcycle, bargaining for fruits and vegetables at the market, and getting caught in traffic behind the cows and goats,” she said. 

Pellittieri’s wedding dress was custom made – from a lace curtain from the main market of Gulu. The rest of the wedding party wore native attire in matching prints.

She said that in the South lace is viewed as more classy or elegant, but in Uganda lace is used for more functional purposes, such as covering a fruit bowl to protect the fruit from gnats.

“Needless to say, I visited three seamstresses in one afternoon, because the other women laughed me out of their shops,” she said. “Finally, a young girl of 19 named Bea agreed to create my wedding dress.”

Two days later, Pellittieri’s dress was finished and she was called back to the shop. She tried on the dress in a makeshift stall as the seamstress held up a curtain for her to change behind. She said about 30 women were standing outside the shop to see her in her wedding dress.

“When Bea removed the curtain all of the women, who were anxiously waiting, began to make their local chant noise, a true sign that they approved of the dress,” said Pellittieri. “Ugandan seamstresses are greatly gifted,”

The material and labor cost around $6.

 

On a Mission

It was during one of their first dates to his mom’s village that sparked the creation of the couple’s ministry.

“It was then I realized I had a reason for being part of this community that is now my home,” Pellittieri said. “Our work is not rooted in us leading; it’s us working alongside a group of women, who are then empowered to lead their communities. Together, they ignite the flames of passion and creativity deep within themselves. It is their time to release the strength they did not know was theirs.”

Lwo Heart Beat is their ministry located in Northern Uganda. According to Pellittieri, Lwo is the language of the region. For the natives, Lwo is more than a language, but rather a way of life for a resilient group of Ugandans known as the Acholi people.

She explained that during the war that plagued much of the region (ending in 2009), many children lost entire families.

“While much of the post-war emergency relief effort goups have dissipated since the time of the war, there is still much restoration to be done,” she said. “Many children are not afforded the opportunity to attend school; rather, they spend their days caring for younger siblings, cleaning the home, or tending to cattle.

“We have learned through relationship building with the kids that many of them have experienced trauma, yet, by nature of living in a third-world ­culture, traumas such as domestic abuse, war brutality or sexual assault, have been labeled as ‘normal.”‘These parameters, while often are the blockades of social and emotional progression, are used in our ministry as a means to facilitate conversations.”

She said that while much of their ministry's focus is on education, the couple knew from the beginning they wanted to provide more than school accessibility but something of a holistic approach that would foster educational, social, medical and emotional needs of each child and their family.

Emma and Lindsey began hosting "social positive" workshops with teenagers, for those already part of their organization, as well as other kids in the community. The girls are taught how to be confident in themselves and to speak their truths.

“The girls are learning they can make their own choices and that it is OK to say ‘no,’ and that consent is real and that it matters,” said Pellittieri. “They are learning that they, too, can be leaders, that they, too, can succeed in school. They are realizing their gender does not define their potential.”

Meanwhile, the boys are being taught what it means to have positive masculinity. They are learning they have the responsibility to intervene when they witness assault/gender inequalities in their villages.

Pellittieri said she has witnessed the effects of what can happen when these teens attend the weekly workshops. She describes it as nothing short of “magic.”

“I spent some years wandering the Earth before meeting my husband,” Pellittieri said. “For two years in Uganda I had been living about 10 hours from him. The first time I visited the city of Gulu was the first time in Uganda that I felt I had found my true place of belonging.”

 

Things are Happening

By day Pellittieri is a teacher and Emma is a farmer. Together they’ve built a life and shaped their ministry.

This year the couple will begin other community projects that will enable the families to become self-sustaining.

Emmanuel is serving as county director and is hosting workshops for the parents to learn how to create and sustain small businesses. He also teaches life skills, such as budgeting and savings, family planning and interpersonal skills needed for entrepreneurship.

“As newlyweds, Emmanuel and I have experienced the fruits of what happens when you believe and invest in your passions,” Pellittieri said. “These experiences are what fuel our desire to inspire the families in this small village community we call home. We’ve put in our own savings to help build a community piggery, in which Emmanuel teaches these women and men how to care for livestock in a sustainable way and then how to use their earnings to benefit their families. These families have big ideas for their community.”

And then there is their latest adventure – Bibeko’s Coffee.

Pellittieri said on their honeymoon they were inspired by the local coffee farmers so much that they brought home 733 coffee trees.

Here are their directions for becoming a coffee farmer.

Step 1. Take a tour of a coffee farm while on your honeymoon.

Step 2. Ask little to no questions/do no research.

Step 3. Do not take any notes.

Step 4. Be inspired.

Step 5. Make the most rational decision and purchase 733 coffee trees.

In February, Emmanuel purchased four acres of land. Soon he will transfer the coffee trees from their home to the land in the village where he will lead his discipleship and life-skill trainings.

The logo for their brew was designed by Hattiesburg native Jordan Klingnufus.

The couple is building their international network with other coffee companies around the world, starting with Pellittieri’s two favorite cities – the Hub City and New Orleans. 

Beginning in June, Moore’s Bicycle Shop in Hattiesburg will have a stock of Bibeko’s Brew to offer customers who visit the shop for all of their cycling needs.

Mason and Binder Barbershop, located in New Orleans, will be selling the coffee in their storefront along with other collectibles and artisan crafts from Uganda.

“We’ve started networking with other local businesses and cafés in Hattiesburg who have agreed to sample our coffee,” she said. “If they like what they taste, you can expect Bibeko’s Brew to be brewing around the Hub, as well as cafés in Seattle, New Orleans and in the D.C. area.” They offer a light, medium and dark roast.

Interested in purchasing the coffee for your store or for your home, contact them at bibeko.family@gmail.com

 

Living the Life

Whenever asked, “What do you miss the most?” Pellittieri admits that her sarcasm comes out as she answers, “running water, reliable electricity, adequate healthcare, baths.”

“But really, I miss cycling on the Longleaf Trace, group yoga classes and T-Bones café.

“As an outgoing introvert, I often find myself exhausted at the end of the day. Cycling and coffee shops are my favorite ways to reenergize. Thankfully, we’ve turned our kitchen into a tiny coffee bar stocked with all of our favorite mugs and an antique French press that was imported from Australia, shipped to Montana, and then got on another plane to be brought to Uganda. Even our French press is a gypsy.”

She said one of their favorite things is creating spaces. “Emma loves a space for hosting fellowship and I love a space that reflects us at the heart,” Pellittieri said. “We live a pretty normal life. We go on dates. We shop at the market. We have friends come over to our home. Though there are metal bars on the windows and the walls and floors are all made from concrete, our house feels very homey.”

She explained that the dry season ended just recently. Typically during this season there is no running water for a few weeks at a time and they rely on the rain to fill their water tanks.

“During dry season, we bathe in a bucket to help us collect water that we can use for flushing the toilet,” she explained. “We do not have electricity, rather, we have solar panels on the roof. We rewarded ourselves with an oven just before getting married. I use it mostly to boil water for our coffee. Emma uses the oven for cooking meals.”

 

Finding my Place

Pellittieri described herself as adventurous as a child. “I use to climb to the top of our pine trees and pretend I was a firefighter or an astronaut,” she said. “I was always fascinated with nature. As I got older, my hobbies were outdoorsy things like hiking, kayaking and cycling.”

Growing up, Pellittieri wasn’t certain of the specifics of what her life would look like in the future, but she was certain it would be fun, that it would be fulfilling, and that she would have an adventure.

One of the things she struggles with most are the social constructs of gender, what it means to be a “woman” or to be a “man” in Uganda.

“Quite often I am told that if I ‘become fat,’ that my husband will leave me and find another wife, likewise if I don’t ‘produce’ a child soon. I’m told that I do not respect my husband, because I do not cook and mop everyday. Women shake their heads at me in disbelief when I tell them that my husband does most of the cooking and cleaning.”

She also had men ask her why she sometimes carries a ladder or hammer around town or why she collects scrap wood in the market, as if a woman could construct things on her own.

Women have told her that she isn’t a real woman unless she wears a dress and that she is still a child because more often than not, she wears trousers.

“I’ve even been told that women should not ride bikes, because it will destroy their womanhood,” she said. “What’s worse is that most women actually believe these things about themselves.”

She said when they first started building the piggery, Emma and his brothers were mixing concrete. “I saw a spare shovel and decided to help. His brother said, ‘Oh go sit there and tell us when the lunch is ready. This is men’s work.”

“My dad is a contractor. I’ve mastered many skills under his supervision – I can fix your toilet or AC unit. I’m good at roofing. I can hammer a nail or two. I once rewired a house.  But mixing cement was ‘men’s work.”‘As. If.

“I’ve been asked on more occasions than I’d like to admit, ‘You want to be a man?’ My haircut and androgynous clothing and personality have disqualified me as a ‘real’ woman in the eyes of some men in Uganda. And that’s fine.

“I never wanted this, by the way. Any of it – the white dress, the home together, the talk about babies and a future, settling down and building a life together. Maybe I wanted it, I just didn’t know it was possible to find such a love. And I have to admit, part of me thought I’d become less of a feminist if I settled down, and that I’d have to say goodbye to the gypsy soul inside of me.”

“I thought by now I’d be exploring every continent, swimming in the deep waters with the whales, maybe, climbing the highest mountain peaks, earning my Master’s degree, and later, my doctorate. My degree would be in something like ‘intercultural studies and peace-making strategies.’”

A couple of years ago she applied to one of the country’s most prestigious seminaries on the West Coast; however, a week later she found herself immensely in love with a man whom she’d only just met.

“Fast forward to now. I’m selecting drapes for the windows in our home and I’m picking the finest mangos in the market that you’ve ever tasted,” she said. “I met Emmanuel. I’m better with him. Home is wherever I’m with him. I almost missed this.”

Coffee culture will always be part of their story.  And Pellittieri is so OK with that.

“Our dream is to create a space where there is coffee + Jesus, a space where we can facilitate fellowship, share perspective and do life with a community who love us where we’re at. It’s actually incredible what God can do with two human hearts. I wouldn’t want any other human to walk this life with. Here’s to the BIG God-sized dreams woven deep deep into our hearts.”

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