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Jessica Yu on Gladys Kalibbala and the Value of the Small Act

by Brendan Dowling on November 14, 2017

Jessica Yu’s Garden of the Lost and Abandoned tracks the work of Gladys Kalibbala, a Ugandan reporter whose weekly column on missing children works to reunite her subjects with their families. Equal parts detective, social worker, and child advocate, Kalibbala hunts down the origin of each child’s story, working tirelessly to find a solution for each child’s predicament. Yu brings her skills as a documentary filmmaker (she won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien) to bring Kalibballa’s story to life. While Garden of the Lost and Abandoned is her first book, it has been met with rapturous praise. Kirkus Reviews called it “an eloquent affirmation of the vast capacity of the human heart,” while Amazon selected it as one of its Best Books of the Month: Nonfiction. Yu spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on November 6th, 2017.

How did you first learn about Gladys Kalibbala?

I was working on a documentary about population issues, and I was interested in looking at the lives of kids who are born into families that don’t have the means to take care of them. One of the stories was looking at kids in Uganda, and I was trying to find out what’s going on with the thousands of kids who are stranded or abandoned, whether it’s through poverty, neglect, or illness. I found this newspaper column called “Lost and Abandoned,” which profiled a lot of these kids with the intent of reuniting them with their families. I kept seeing the columnist’s byline show up in other stories about lost and abandoned kids. I thought this woman, Gladys Kalibbala, would have a unique perspective since she’s a hub for kids, families, police, and other agencies.

When we got to Kampala, I met her and was immediately struck by her. She wasn’t just sitting behind her desk sipping tea. She was out there in the field with these kids, way beyond the boundaries of her column. If no one came to claim a child it was very likely that she would get involved on her own and try to find out what’s really the situation. Where’s this child from? Does she know the name of her village? Does she remember the name of her mother? She was like a detective in that way. She has to work with what the child presents to her and then figure out what’s the real story and what’s best for a child in that particular situation. So she gets involved in these cases, for sometimes years. That really struck me, and the fact that even though she was entering such dire circumstances with children, where the solutions aren’t simple by any stretch, she had this joyousness to her. I thought, “How do you do this all the time, on your own, and have this kind of buoyancy?” That was the point where I said, “I need to follow this person!” I wanted to know what drives her, what keeps her going. I couldn’t just leave after a few days of filming

Gladys immerses herself in the stories that she writes. Did you feel any connection with Gladys in terms of how you approach telling a story?

I come from a filmmaking background so I tend to think visually. In film, you always want to show as much as you tell. So in this project, I would be taking visual notes, and I noticed that Gladys, especially in working with children—oftentimes traumatized children—she’s looking for visual cues as well. Does this child have shoes? Is their face dirty? Those little visual clues that would help her piece together what the story is. Also Gladys is very excited in figuring out what’s going on—the problem solving is really interesting to her. She likes the drama of the surprise and I’ll tell you, with every single story of the kids, there was always a twist or a surprise. That certainly drives me as well, wanting to see a story through to its end, wanting some kind of conclusion.

The book has the feel of a firsthand account. Were you following her around? What was your research process?

Again, coming out of films, especially in documentaries, there’s always this idea that you want to be unobtrusive. It’s really an unattainable goal when you have equipment and a crew, you’ve got to break for lunch, and you have to set up lights or whatever. I found it so liberating to be able to travel and follow Gladys without any of that. There’s a deeper kind of focus you can achieve when you don’t have to control anything. So I found that I would just follow her and within a few minutes people would forget about the silent Asian lady in the corner.

Gladys is really herself at all times whether I’m there or whether anybody else is around. She just has this groundedness. So that was something that really enabled the observation process to be smooth and intimate and also made everyone else around focus on what she was there to do. For twice a year I’d stay for a couple of weeks and follow new and ongoing stories.  I would just contact her beforehand, see what she was currently working on, and sort of go with the flow. In between those times we’d be in touch via email and Skype to keep abreast of what was happening and when I should show up the next time. And this happened over a period a little over three years.

You talked about her buoyancy, and throughout the book, we see how Gladys is never hardened by the horrific things she witnesses, but maintains her empathy and compassion. To what do you attribute the fact that she’s able to remain solution-oriented as she’s surrounded by such grim realities?

I think she would say she was born that way. She had very strong grandparents who helped raise her with the idea that helping others was just something you do as a human being. What I’ve been able to observe is that she has developed this kind of pragmatic optimism. In other words, doing what you can in the moment, even if it’s very small—this kid hasn’t eaten anything today, where can we get some food for her? She takes pleasure out of accomplishing the smaller goals as well as the larger ones. I think there’s something so attractive about reviving that sense of one-on-one help, of engaging with others on a face-to-face basis, and really being on the ground. That is something that I think is not only nourishing but also motivating because the person you’re helping is right in front of you.

What do you want readers to take away from Gladys’ work?

I came away with this appreciation for the small act as well as the grand gesture. In the U.S, I think we like our problems to be solvable. When they’re large, remote, and complex we get discouraged and throw up our hands. So this reminder that when we engage with others, when we get closer to a problem and it becomes personal, that’s when there’s the potential for more satisfaction on both sides. I’ve been with her when we’ve driven four hours so she can meet with some of the kids she’s helped for literally ten minutes. The first time we did it I thought, “What was that about?” She explained It’s important for her to see them and for them to see her. I realized it’s really meaningful when you’re making that human connection. There’s something really strong about that idea and it’s something I’ve certainly tried to carry with me since getting to know her.

In the book we get a sense of the complexity of the problems Gladys has to negotiate. Can you talk about some of the challenges she faces on the ground?

One of the big things which I wasn’t aware of was transportation, which is such a big issue. it’s difficult to get around and very expensive. So when I’d go see her, I would provide transportation. It just made sense so we could get places. She has very limited resources. She doesn’t have an NGO. She’s doing most of this on her own, although she has allies in different places. She has to wade into different situations where not only doesn’t she know the people in the village that she ends up tracing a child to, they don’t know her. They don’t really understand who is this stranger who’s trying to come in there. It’s hard for people to accept her right away but she goes in there and explains herself. She’s very charismatic and she ends up being very effective.

It’s tough because when you look at what a child needs there might be issues of something that we can all relate to, like school fees, but there’s also shelter, Illness, kids with HIV, or parents who might not be around or might not be in a situation where they can help. I think that’s what would make a lot of people fearful about getting involved in the first place, because one thing leads to another. Gladys just keeps going with it. It doesn’t mean it makes it easier, I don’t want to downplay what a child needs to survive and thrive. The ten-minute visit is nice but that’s just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. She manages to stay in there over time. It’s amazing to see the effect it can have on a child’s life, having one person who’s consistent. And of course there are other people who step in along the way.

The other thing I should say is she’s not a martyr, she’s really a seeker of joy. She has this very self-sufficient bearing and over the time I’ve known her she’s never directly asked me for anything. I just really admire her.

Gladys’ work has such an expansive reach. How did you narrow your focus on particular kids and decide who to follow?

Sometimes there were stories that are just so much a part of her life there was no way her story could be told without them, like her relationship with Ezra. He’s a boy you meet early in the book. He had very large and painful facial deformities. He left his village and went to seek help in Kampala as a teenager, walking there on his own, just thinking somehow he could get help in the big city. He crossed paths with Gladys and that turns into a long thread in the book. Then there are other stories that would take place in one visit, like the story of a girl who goes to visit her father in prison. So those were two types of stories that fell into the book.

There are some stories I would really love to write sometime but either they lacked a sense of closure or I was just not present for enough of the seminal moments to feel confident writing about them. There was really no shortage of stories. I came away thinking I could do another volume. Her world is certainly not boring.

You get the sense that once she’s come across a person, that person is in her life forever. Do you have any plans for continuing telling Gladys’ story, either in another book or a documentary?

I would love to write more about Gladys. One of the stories in the book is this garden project that she starts. That was actually part of the reason I thought the structure of the book would work, because she’s taking on this venture where she was trying to find out ways where she could make her work with kids more self-sufficient. In other words, she’d create this garden, sell the produce, and that would help pay for things like transportation. It sounds pretty simple but it turns very complicated.

You just want things to work out for Gladys, and it’s so frustrating when you read the sections where the garden project is thwarted.

Of course I’m just observing, but I’ve felt so personally betrayed by those moments. That was one thing that was really interesting because I think Gladys is very canny when it comes to kids. Sure, kids sometimes lie very skillfully and she likes to wait and see if what a kid says turns out to be the whole truth, but she’s had so much experience trying to read children. But with this garden project—which is as much for her benefit as it is for the kids, in that it will be income that she can use to support her work—she’s having to deal with grown-ups who don’t necessarily share her sense of mission. I felt like that venture really tested her sense of optimism and the idea that you can give the world the benefit of the doubt and things generally turn out. That was a drama that was very painful to watch at times.

I wanted to end by asking what can people do to support Gladys’ work?

I have finally entered the world of social media as of like last night. (Laughs) I realized I kind of need all that stuff for the book. I have a website, and on there is a link for a crowdfunding page that I’ve set up for Gladys, so that’s a very immediate way to help her.  I think everyone will find their own way to integrate whatever they take away from the book into their daily lives. For myself, I’ve had this idea of trying to take just one act a day. For Gladys of course it’s second nature and that’s really part and parcel of her work, but that’s something that’s worked for me, to keep that an ongoing thing.


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