Scott and I are doing a blog post swap this week. I thought his great story about Annet, one of our favorite clients, would be a fitting follow-up to my post yesterday about God’s passion for widows just like her. Enjoy the read, and be sure to check out his blog for more stories from the field.
KAMPALA, UGANDA – There was something different about Annet’s smile that day. The widow had become known for her generous grin, but on this January afternoon, she glowed. Thanks to the quick work of an IJM investigator, joy has replaced the waiting, wondering, and worrying that colored these last few years. At last, Annet’s abuser has been caught.
When Ben passed away in 2003, he left a grieving Annet, six children, two small pieces of property, and one opportunistic brother. At a meeting following the funeral, the clan named Ben’s brother Patrick as guardian for the children and land. (Because Annet’s marriage to Ben was never formalized, and likely because she is a woman, she was overlooked by the family.) One plot of land was designated for Annet’s two young children, Dennis and Winnie; the second went to children from Ben’s previous marriage. Cultivation of this land provided Annet her only source of income to feed and support her young family.
For a while, the arrangement worked. Friends allowed Annet to stay at a home close to her land so she could farm and sell bananas. Annet, with a bubbly personality much larger than her tiny size, maintained a friendship with Patrick and never thought to distrust him. Unfortunately, her trust was misplaced.
In July 2008, Patrick sold the land designated for the children and kept the profits. When Annet questioned him about the deal, worth 450,000 shillings ($185), he sharply and angrily dismissed her. Patrick boasted around town that he would never repay her.
For a single mother in rural Uganda, however, this was a massive loss. Annet reported her the stolen land to a local government leader, who referred her to a higher office. In January 2009, the officer confronted Patrick, who signed an agreement to pay Annet over the next four months.
But after paying the widow just 20,000 shillings ($8), Patrick went quiet. Four months came and went, then six. Annet, who earned only a small income from selling bananas, desperately needed the money to either buy new land or start a more profitable business. Her house, with bare brick walls and dirt floors, needed repairs to keep the elements out, and her children would need school fees soon.
Fearing Patrick had abandoned her, Annet sought out an IJM attorney after a legal education seminar in her village. Patrick never expected that Annet would have an advocate, nor that he would have to answer for his deception.
After IJM contacted him to resolve the matter, he fled. An informant later claimed Patrick escaped to Juba, in Southern Sudan. Another alleged he had been seen in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. IJM investigators received sporadic tips whenever he returned, staking out his home several times, but the perpetrator was frustratingly evasive.
For two years, the legal and investigations teams inched alternately closer and farther from apprehending the perpetrator. Patrick was deep in hiding and finding him seemed impossible. Even the perpetually optimistic Annet began to lose hope. Each of Patrick’s fleeting return trips raised her hopes of resolution, and each failed intervention let them down. Her children’s future seemed increasingly unsure.
“We pursued Annet’s perpetrator for well over two years without so much as a hint that the case would end in success,” Field Office Director Jesse Rudy recalls. “The case looked so hopeless that the interventions team seriously debated the wisdom of closing the case to turn our attention to other cases with more immediate opportunities for success.” But the team decided to wait patiently a little longer, hoping the perpetrator would emerge. Three weeks later, he did.
IJM learned from an informant that Patrick had returned home in secret. The informant claimed Patrick planned to leave for Sudan the next day, so speed was critical. An IJM investigator quickly filed for a warrant and met a police officer familiar with IJM’s work, who helped expedite the process. Just before midnight, with the village bathed in darkness from a power outage, IJM accompanied local police to arrest Patrick in his home. Two years of frustrated waiting finally culminated in a few quick hours of action: Patrick was caught.
The next day, Annet drove with an investigator to the police station to give her official statement. The perpetrator was remorseful, seeming to know he would eventually be caught. In addition to any criminal charges, IJM attorney Byron Mwanje gathered the two parties to negotiate a new repayment deal. Instead of the remaining balance he owed, Byron convinced Patrick to pay 600,000 shillings ($240) as compensation for the stress he inflicted on Annet. He paid most of that sum in cash immediately and summoned his wife down from Sudan to pay the balance.
Police charged Patrick with intermeddling with an estate, punishable by up to ten years in prison. He was released on bond. IJM will strategize with police on the most appropriate actions going forward.
Annet celebrates receiving the money she was owed, but kindheartedly hopes Patrick will not suffer now that he has been arrested. Their relationship before his deceptive land deal had been friendly; she hopes they can rebuild it with time.
The money Annet received will go immediately to good use; it is the exact cost of a plot of land she had her eye on. Kind family friends have let her stay in one of their homes for a few years, but she hopes to start building a new home for herself and her children soon.
The length of her case has allowed for a remarkably deep relationship with IJM. Annet’s aftercare specialist Claire has loved getting to know her. “She’s an extrovert: friendly, warm, and outgoing,” Claire says. “Annet always believes that something good will come her way.”
And now, with the property that belongs to her family, she is well positioned to succeed. In the two years that IJM has worked with her, Annet received support to raise pigs and chickens, and to start a used clothing shop. IJM connected Dennis and Winnie with school sponsorship programs and paid for Annet’s two older children to join trade programs.
When receiving each of these gifts, Annet expresses her gratitude with signature joy. She performs a bouncy, girlish dance at even the smallest offer of assistance. And now – after two years of patient waiting and uncertainty – Annet has every reason to dance.