Class of ’63 | When Katherine “Kitsie” Converse CW’63 CGS’95 was 67 years old, she met a 13-year-old girl on a dirt road in Uganda. The chance encounter would change both of their lives.
A decade earlier, Converse had gone to hear Gloria Steinem speak. “It’s not midlife crisis,” Converse recalls Steinem saying. “It’s midlife exuberance. You have another 30 whole years of your life to do what you want. Go!” Converse responded to the call.
“It just gave me wings,” Converse says. She took on several charitable ventures, including biking across the country to raise money for Planned Parenthood and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for breast-cancer research. Then, in 2008, a friend asked her if she’d like to come for a few weeks to teach art at a secondary school in Uganda. Converse packed up jugs of paint and a collection of brushes, then set off for a remote school in Bududa.
One day, walking along a dirt road filled with bikes, goats, and people, she started talking with a woman who was a teacher at the local elementary school. As they chatted, Converse shared her bananas with some children gathered nearby. The next day, one of those girls came to visit Converse, carrying a carefully folded note.
It began: “Dear My Best Friend in America …”
And that is how Kitsie Converse met Victo.
Converse went to visit Victo’s elementary school, where the teachers told her that Victo wasn’t there because she was running. “It’s lunch hour. She has nothing to eat so she runs barefoot in the foothills.”
Running barefoot to stave off hunger was just one of Victo’s hardships. “Her mother had died when she was two,” Converse explains. “Victo was the youngest of five. The other four had moved away to relatives.” Her father had remarried, and now he had another five children. One day, Victo quietly told Converse that her stepmother physically abused her.
Just before she left Uganda, Converse gave Victo a bracelet, telling her, “You have touched my heart.”
“Do not forget me,” Victo replied.
“I will not forget you.”
“I do not forget you,” said Victo.
Back in the United States, Converse communicated with Victo through emails she sent to the director of the secondary school, who would then send her housekeeper, Mary, to take the messages to Victo. Converse arranged for her young friend to take a supplementary Saturday class at the secondary school.
“In the first week of November, I got an email from the director of the school,” Converse says. Victo had been missing her Saturday class, and Mary went to find out why. Soon, another email came: “Victo was raped and she’s five months pregnant.”
Converse was devastated by the news. Although Uganda has been aggressive in combating HIV, she worried that Victo might have contracted the virus. Victo could die in childbirth, or she might develop a fistula. And Converse knew there was a very good chance that this would be the end of Victo’s education.
Victo had kept her pregnancy secret for as long as possible—by running, among other things. Just two months before, she won her school races and her district races. Converse explains. “She was sent to nationals and she didn’t have any money to go. She was running barefoot and pregnant. But nobody knew. And when they found out, she was kicked out of school.”
Converse managed to get through on Victo’s father’s cellphone. She told Victo: “I hear that you are pregnant. I want you to go to a hospital and be safe. And we will find a secondary school and a place to live. And I love you.” Victo cried, and they ended the call with “I do not forget you.”
When Converse returned the following February to teach, she helped Victo arrange for her delivery and paid the doctor’s fee. (The HIV test came back negative.) Converse also helped her young friend get out of the abusive situation in which she was living, then took her to visit relatives the girl hadn’t seen in years.
To get to Victo’s grandparents, they rode on a “little motobike,” Converse recalls: “Me at that time 68 hanging on for dear life and she seven months pregnant sitting sidesaddle on the back. I thought ‘There’s something hideously irresponsible about this.’”
Then they took a jitney for two hours to Mbale, the closest large town, to visit Victo’s Auntie Irene. Although Irene was a full-time maternity nurse with children of her own, she welcomed her pregnant niece.
“When I take the baby,” Irene told Converse, “I will need help with food and a nurse to watch the baby while I work.”
Much to Victo’s joy, she was going to live with her Auntie Irene, where she would be able to attend school. Mary offered to help Victo with the move.
In late April 2010, Auntie Irene took Victo to her hospital, where she delivered a healthy baby boy. When Converse reached her on the phone, Victo told her the baby was named Graham, for Converse’s son.
Converse has arranged a sponsor to fund schooling for Mary’s daughter and another for Victo’s son. She has also organized help for Victo’s cousin, Lydia, who is HIV-positive and orphaned. Peter Steffian Ar’59 is sponsoring Lydia’s education, and Auntie Irene has invited Lydia to live with her while she is studying. Given that Irene now has nine children living in her two-room house—her own children plus Lydia, Victo, and baby Graham—Converse is starting to raise funds to build a larger house.
Meanwhile, Victo is running for her school—still barefoot—and nursing her baby between classes. Converse believes Victo can run in the Olympics some day, or run the country.
“Victo is for victory,” Converse says. “Not for victim.”
—Emily Rosenbaum C’95 GEd’96