When Brian and Angela Rowe and their three children traveled to Uganda as part of a mission effort, they expected to embrace new experiences in that land so vastly different from the USA.
What they didn’t expect was to add to their family — and to do so in a way they never would have imagined possible.
The Rowes recently returned from that primitive area, bringing with them not only the three children they took with them, but also a fourth child who is a walking testament to Christian faith and the fundamental will to live in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Brian and Angela (the former Angela Hoyt) — who grew up in Benton and graduated from Benton High School — explained how they got to Uganda in the first place.
“We were working with a children’s center in California – basically a boarding school that was started by some of our friends,” Angela said. “We had always wanted to do an overseas mission, so we established our own personal mission, ‘U.S. 2 Uganda 4 Life.’
“This came about through our friends, who are from Europe and were living in California,” she said. “They had taken over an organization called Euro. They had worked with a medical center in Uganda — Masaka — which included a baby home that we partnered with.
“This is a a rescue facility where social workers and police officers bring abused and/or abandoned children to the facility to be cared for,” she said.
“We had no intentions of adopting a child from this facility or anywhere else,” Angela said. “We already had our family — our own three children — but apparently this child and God had different ideas.”
It was through the children’s home that the Rowes connected with the child who was to change their lives. His name is Joseph — they call him Joe — who now is healthy and happy and appears unscathed from experiences that few could have survived.
“The people from the baby home would bring the babies to the missionary church where we were helping in Uganda,” Angela said.
“Each Sunday they would pass out the kids to families to hold during the services, and every week they would put Joe in our laps,” she said.
“He was in terrible shape,” she said. “He was 2, but was the size of a 6-month-old. He had just been rescued and had been abused and neglected. He had a broken leg, and we learned that his biological father and stepmother did that to him.
“Then we learned that he was ill,” she said. “We were told that he had pneumonia and he probably would die. We wanted to see him one more time and they asked us if we wanted to take him home for the night. They asked us to watch him through the night because he wasn’t breathing well.”
Angela and Brian held Joseph and prayed for him, she said. “We trusted God that he would heal him or if he needed to take him, he would.”
The child miraculously lived. And four days later, the Rowes were asked if they would be willing to rehabilitate this boy at their home for two months, Angela noted
“We knew what to do because our kids have had breathing problems,” she said.
Still, at this point, there was no intention to make the arrangement permanent, she said. “But during this time, he became part of our family.
“We fell in love with this little boy who had been so terribly abused. He had not been fed and his stepfather had tried to kill him several times, but he just would not die.
“This little guy’s a fighter,” she said. “Every day he improved. The doctor came to our house to care for him.”
Joseph had many problems, she said.
“At first, his facial muscles did not work,” she said. “There were no smiles, no expression at all. He was so malnourished that his little body had to regenerate muscles.
“It took two months for this to begin to happen, but when it did, he began to talk,” she said.
And his first words were the ones the Rowes needed to hear: “Mama and Daddy.”
At this point, the children’s home director asked the couple if they would be interested in adopting Joe.
“We still had never thought about this,” she said, “but when the question was raised, ‘we said ‘yes.’”
Doing so wasn’t as simple as it might have appeared, however.
“We learned that because he had living relatives and we are not Muslim, they wouldn’t agree to let us adopt him,” she said. “His father and other family members didn’t want him — remember they had tried to kill him — but they had rather let him wander as a homeless child than give him to a non-Muslim family.”
Reports of Joe’s progress traveled throughout the area, she noted. And ultimately he father’s curiosity was aroused, Brian noted.
“They suddenly became interested and wanted
to meet these white people that had this child,” Brian said. “First, we met with the social worker who couldn’t believe the changes that had taken place.”
At that point an agreement was reached to allow the Rowes to serve as Joe’s foster family while the biological father considered the adoption prospect.
“Three months later they invited us out to their village,” Angela said. “We didn’t know we were in danger at the time, but we later learned that, according to their tradition, they should have killed our whole family.”
They went to the village three different times before learning of their perilous state, Angela noted.
“Amazingly, they gave us their blessings because they thought we had brought this child back from the dead,” she said. “They thought they were looking at a ghost. They decided that if these people can do this, they can take our child.
“While we were at their village, a man came out of the crowd, who said he was Joe’s uncle, and we learned he was the chief of the tribe,” she said. “He said he would sign the paperwork for us to adopt him. He hand-wrote out a birth certificate right there. That’s how they do this.”
The only thing they asked was that part of his original tribe name be retained along with the name the Rowes had chosen.
That request was honored and his official name on his birth certificate is Joseph Freedom Sseremba Rowe.
Angela explained why the family had rejected Joe.
“The story begins with a teenage girl getting pregnant by a Muslim man,” she said. “Their goal is to make as many children as possible with 14 set as the magic number. Joe was No. 6.
“But the mother was kicked out of the village, and after the baby was born, she dropped him off at the biological father’s house,” she said. “Only by this time he already had chosen another girl and didn’t want him. So they starved him, beat him, pushed him off a veranda to break his bones. They burned him by pouring hot cereal on him; he had deep lacerations; and he had a black eye. They kept him out in the yard, in the dirt, where he apparently stayed with the dogs.
“We didn’t understand at first why he was so afraid of dogs, but he would become hysterical when he would hear a dog bark,” she said. “Then we learned that they had kept him outside with the dogs.
“Today he’s no longer afraid of dogs because Brian took him out and helped him see that dogs here are safe, and now he loves them,” she said.
“God just kept his hand on this child,” Angela said. “His abuse had gone on so long that even the Uganda people called the police to report it,” she said. “And it takes a lot for them to report anything about their own people to authorities, but finally someone told the police that there’s a baby that no ones takes care of. They were told how his family kept him in the dirt and beat him and didn’t feed him.
“They accept death and murder there as commonplace,” Angela said. “Child sacrifice and beheading women aren’t considered atrocities.”
An example of this was demonstrated through a front-page picture of a newspaper of the area, she said.
“It showed two heads in the grass — a woman and her child,” she said. “Her husband had suspected her of being unfaithful, and he could get by with that because it’s acceptable behavior there.
“Kids disappear and are sacrificed,” she said. “There are a lot of new high-rise buildings going up, and it is rumored that the remains of children are buried in the foundations.
“They believe that God will bless their businesses if they sacrifice their children,” she added.
Now dividing their time between their mothers (Julie Hoyt of Benton and Brenda Still of Lonsdale), the Hoyts say they are “catching their breath” from the events of the past four years.
“Our long-term goal is to return to Uganda and install water wells in the village where we got this child,” Angela said. “We asked his grandmother to tell us their greatest need and she said ‘water.’ Their water is contaminated, and typhoid and yellow fever are killing the children.
“It’s a place where it looks like time had stood still,” she said. “It’s very primitive. In most areas there’s no electricity, no running water, and the roads are the worst you’ve ever ever seen in your life,” she said.
In the meantime, the adoption process for Joe is continuing here. “We want nothing more than this little boy to have an Arkansas birth certificate,” Angela said. “He will be adopted from Benton once it is finalized. He is starting life over here.
“He now has a permanent American card — he’s a permanent resident, but he’s not a U.S. citizen yet. We are meeting next week with an international adoption attorney who specializes in this.”
Through their experience, Angela said her family learned “to live simply. We learned what you need to survive. We completely let go of our Southern California lifestyle.”
“We had left everything to go to Uganda — we left a four-bedroom house with everything — and took only 11 bags,” she said.
“We want Joe to understand his heritage,” she said. “We hope someday to go to a different part of the country and serve wherever we’re needed.
“We’re enjoying our time here with our families,” she said, “but our moms know this is temporary — whether we’re here for a year or four years — because we have a heart to serve.”