On the outside, Winnie appeared to be a lighthearted, happy fifteen-year old with a gentle smile. She expertly executed the rhythmic, Ugandan dance steps, laughing as the Freedom 4/24 team, a group of women ranging from their teens to 40s, awkwardly tried to follow her movements. The team would never have suspected the darkness of her story.
Eight ladies from Lynchburg, Virginia journeyed to Uganda from June 5 through 15 with the overall goal of serving at Christine’s House, a safe house for exploited minor girls. Christine’s House exists out of a partnership between Freedom 4/24 and Sports Outreach Institute (SOI). Freedom 4/24 provided the funds to build the house and currently funds the annual operating budget, while SOI provides the staff to facilitate the day-to-day operations. Throughout their time in Gulu, the team was able to quickly bond with the girls of Christine's House. They shared their stories and testimonies, worked alongside the girls in their chores, and even have a good old-fashioned sleepover at Christine's House! As a result, the girls willingly shared their stories on the last day the team was with them. The girls expressed emotion and brokenness over some of the horrible things they had experienced, and opened up in ways that had not been seen before in the history of Christine's House. Winnie was one girl who shared her story.
On Monday, June 11, the team went to visit Winnie’s home to meet her parents and learn more about her life. Both her parents, Charles and Grace, appeared to be warm individuals who cared for Winnie and though they lacked money and resources, wanted the best for her. Winnie suffers from a heart condition that prohibits her from engaging in any intense activity, and she has to take expensive medication for the problem. Grace shared her concern over once finding Winnie passed out when she arrived home due to this heart condition. Charles talked about how grateful he and Grace are for the services of Christine’s House and for helping Winnie overcome the difficulties of her “situation”. He said he was going to court hearings on her behalf but no one has been arrested yet. At this point, the Freedom 4/24 team was not fully aware of Winnie’s story, only that it involved some sort of exploitation typical of all Christine’s House girls.
The following day, the last full day the team was in Gulu, Winnie opened up to tell her story. She and her friend left school one day and on their way home, a group of six guys started chasing them. One of the men grabbed her friend and hauled her into the bushes. Winnie continued to run but her leg got cause in mud and the five remaining men overtook her and dragged her off the road to a sewer in the bushes. They strangled her and threatened to throw her down the sewer if she didn’t cooperate, then gang raped her, and abandoned her in the bushes. Winnie passed out and was left there overnight. When she awoke the next morning, she walked home, covered in blood. Winnie also talked about how she lacked support at home, so she did not immediately tell her family what had happened to her. Her father, Charles, had abandoned Winnie’s mother and her many siblings and had remarried a woman in another town. When Winnie would visit her father, her stepmother would purposely force Winnie to carry heavy things and perform hard labor and when Winnie did not comply, Charles would beat her. Winnie wanted to complete her education, but her father refused to pay for her schooling. At times, she had to perform hard labor in spite of her heart condition to cover her school fees and care for her family. The team later discovered that Charles had only been present for the home visit because he had found out the Freedom 4/24 team was coming.
Winnie’s story reflects the complicated layer of issues surrounding many of the girls at Christine’s House. The Freedom 4/24 team tried to wrap their mind around the dichotomous image of Winnie’s father, the cultural norms that allowed for women to be viewed as insignificant, and the lack of safety, education, money, and general resources depicted in this story.
Winnie concluded her time of sharing by thanking Christine’s House for bringing her out of a very bad situation. She talked about how she prays now and sees how prayer is helping her. Christine’s House is providing Winnie with a safe place to heal, to receive trauma counseling, to learn new skills, to be surrounded by staff who care for her and other girls who have also been through equally hard situations and can support her in her healing. To see Winnie now - dancing, laughing, and living each day in freedom - demonstrated to the Freedom 4/24 team that as confusing and angering as her story is, Winnie’s life is transitioning from ashes to beauty. She is being transformed, and healing is evident. Below is a video of Winnie and Christine’s House girls singing a song they wrote, expressing appreciation to Freedom 4/24, Sports Outreach, and our founder Christine, herself.