Wednesday, October 24, 2007

my first african birthday

My birthday was such a nice day. In addition to receiving messages from so many friends and family, I still had a birthday party! My fellow guests and the folks who run the B&B I'm staying at managed to put together a real party complete with presents in just 24 hours! What nice new friends!

Delicious lemon poppyseed cake created by Lucia, the chef who runs the B&B. The electricity stayed on just long enough for Lucia to bake this!

Hmmm, what did I wish for?

The party crew: Lucia, me, Andra (my Africa University contact and Lucia's sister), Julia (guest lecturer from Memphis along with husband Chris--who's taking the photo)

The beautiful jacaranda tunnel on the street the B&B is on. The mountains in the background remind me of home.
Jacaranda flowers, are you ready for your close-up?


For various reasons, I didn’t get to go to church this past Sunday, so I’ve been particularly looking forward to the Wednesday morning chapel service at Africa University. As I walked up the chapel steps, strains of “Rock of Ages” greeted me. Ah, something familiar.

At the end of the opening prayer, together with people from all over Africa I prayed the Lord’s Prayer. With them, I prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We prayed this while standing in a country in which that very thing is hard to come by. To pray for daily bread in a place where actual bread is scarce brings the whole of the Lord’s Prayer alive in a new way. Profound.

I’ve had similar experiences other times these past two weeks as I’ve read passages of Scripture, usually in the morning. It’s amazing how much your physical location can change the way you hear God’s words.

This morning – 2 Chronicles 7:13-15

“If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayer offered in this place.”

Does this apply to such a place as Zimbabwe with the problems that plague it? Are the problems here man-made? Is that different than God sending locusts? What would happen if the people of God in this place began a movement of prayer? Would he respond as He told the Israelites He would?

Last week – Matthew 6:25-34

“’For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“’So do not sorry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’”

The imagery alone of this passage reads differently for me after spending almost three months in places that are alive with flowers almost everywhere. And birds, too. And I even think of grass differently now. When we were in the village of Kisaba in the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria, we entered the church building where the Jesus Film services were being hosted. We were greeted by a floor covered with a thick, soft, light green carpet of freshly cut, sweet, sweet smelling grass. Such a wonderful, fresh, gentle scent. But, eventually that grass will get old and have to be thrown out and replaced.

And then to read the words about worry and trust while sitting at a breakfast table in a country where people don’t know how much further down they must go before they reach the bottom and begin to climb again. It already seems impossible to go lower, short of some sort of war. Yet in this place, too, somehow Jesus’ words must be true. Today and tomorrow and the next day.

This morning’s service ended with a second song, this one in Portuguese, by the Africa University Choir, filled by beautiful voices from all over Africa. I could have sat listening to them for a very long time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

teaching school

Greetings! I’m in Zimbabwe now, celebrating my last day as a 31-year-old! :-) Thanks for all who prayed for my travels here. Everything went super-smoothly and easily with my entrance to the country. I’m staying in a really nice B&B and am not personally experiencing any real ill effects from the things that are affecting so many of the people in this country right now.

So far I’ve mostly had to focus on finishing my writing work from Uganda, so I haven’t been able to explore this place much yet and haven’t had enough free space left in my head to ask people too many questions yet. Still, people talk and it’s hard to avoid gathering a few impressions even when you’re trying not to. Those will have to wait for another blog post, though.

Instead, I’m going to try uploading some more Uganda photos. These are from the one day I sort of took off after nine straight days of gathering info (hence, the full head). My good friend Mary’s sister happens to be studying this semester in the Uganda Studies Program. The program is run by
the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They have a bunch of great semester-long study programs. I was a student in their American Studies Program my last semester of college. They’ve added a bunch of new options since then. USP is hosted by Uganda Christian University, a vibrant-seeming school where students look much more professional than they do at most American colleges and universities.

I met up with Annie, who reminds me lots of her sister and so seemed like an old friend immediately, and chatted for a while before heading out with her and another USP student, Kelly, to their service project at a local primary school. They’d only been there once before to meet the headmaster and get a tour of the school, so they didn’t really know what to expect on this day either.

Well, the headmaster wanted us to use some Child Evangelism Fellowship materials he had and each teach a class. So, after about five minutes or less of glancing through the materials in my hand and choosing to do the lesson on Jesus’ trial, I entered the class of 56 P3 students (probably equivalent to 3rd or 4th grade or so in the US; the education systems are different, and I never completely figured it all out) while Annie and Kelly were introduced to their P1 and P2 classes. After introducing me, the teacher and headmaster left the room, and I was left with the help of the P7 student, Miriam, who was my translator.

So, it was quite an experience, as the lesson in the book was WAY too long to read and have translated the way it was written. I did a lot of summarizing and ad libbing. The first “example” story was about a kid whose sister spilled ink on the carpet but let him take the blame for it. I haven’t seen carpet in two months, so I imagine most of those P3 kids had never seen it. But, we made our way through and had a good time, and the kids asked really good questions at the end. It felt like quite a moment of responsibility to answer “Why did Jesus die on the cross for us?” and “Why did the people want to kill him?” and to make it translatable. As far as I can tell, though, Miriam did a really great job translating, and hopefully the kids learned about Jesus.

After the 45 minute class, Annie, Kelly and I were supposed to take our classes together to the church and do something with them!? We scrounged around in our heads for songs from our youth, especially ones with motions. We got the kids to sing a few of the songs they knew. And still there was lots of time before they were supposed to be dismissed for lunch. So, we dug deeper into our shallow bags of tricks and decided to have Annie be the narrator for the story of Noah’s ark while Kelly and I acted it out. Let’s just say, we’re glad there weren’t any video cameras around. :-)

After we returned to campus in a downpour, I got to sit in on Annie’s African literature class. It was fun and interesting and now I can’t remember the name of the book they were reading. It was Mission to ?? and it was originally written in French. All in all, it was quite a nice day off. It was also neat because the USP students arrived in Uganda about the same time I arrived in Africa, so we’re on about the same schedule in our Africa semester and are absorbing some similar things. It was fun to chat with them.

Here are photos I took of “my class.” To keep the photo session from turning into mass chaos, I asked them to stay in their seats while I took a picture of each section of the class. See if you can find the student who managed to get into all three pictures anyway! :-) (here's a hint: you can see him best in the third photo. there might be more students who did this, but I’ve only found one so far.)

Miriam, translator extraordinaire

Annie and me (notice the water running off the roof behind us!)

Kelly and Annie, Noah's Ark actors extraordinaire

p.s. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to leave birthday greetings in the comments section of a blog. (that’s a shameless hint, in case you didn’t notice! :-) I think I’m relegated to a virtual birthday party this year. :-) )

p.s. #2: Stay tuned for a post entitled “pictures that make me laugh!"

Saturday, October 13, 2007

want to see what uganda looks like?

It's so hard to choose just a few photos to share with you. Here's a start, though. These photos chronicle our visit to the islands with Sam with Jesus Film Ministries. We visited two islands in Lake Victoria, but these pictures are just from our stop at the village of Kisigala on Kome Island.

First we landed on Bulago Island where we would catch a boat to Kome Island.
Bulago Island is a tropical island in Lake Victoria that has something of a private resort on it. This isn't what we were expecting to see when we landed!

This is our first glimpse of Kisigala. The church is the larger building on the far right.

We were greeted by very cute, friendly kids!

Layton (the photographer freelancing for MAF) and some of the pastors looking at a map of Uganda at the end of our overnight stay in Kisigala.

These are some of the Kisigala church members outside their home. Harriet (in front with red tinged hair) was my pal during my visit. Her English was good, which made it easier to be pals. :-)

Here's a little self-portrait with some of the women from the church who helped cook for us.

This is where we slept that night!

Sam (in the black shirt) prayed with these pastors before we left Kisigala.

This little girl slept on my lap during the film the night before. I sat in the midst of the kids and had about five or six kids sitting on me or leaning against me throughout the movie.

Here's the boat we took back to the resort island to catch our plane to the next island.

This is our breakfast being cooked. If it took me this much work to make a meal, I'm sad to say I'd probably starve.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

in the quiet of the morning

My head and heart are full. And I’ve still got as many weeks to go on this continent as the ones I’ve already lived here. It will, of course, take a long time to wade through the fullness, and it will probably never be fully waded through. There’s always more to be mined from the simplest experience.

When I began planning this trip, as people shared my excitement they fairly regularly came to describe my grand plan for four months in Africa as “a trip of a lifetime.” Not knowing yet what I would encounter here, I usually didn’t correct them then. But now I’m more certain that this is not a trip of a lifetime. It’s a beginning of something that is somehow part of what I’m going to have to do because it’s what I’ve been given to do.

I have no real idea what that means or what that will require of me or what it could possibly look like. And in the deepest part of me, past the part that’s slightly nervous about the unknowns and about the challenge of convincing my community to come along with me into a new chapter of unpredictability and abnormalness, my soul celebrates and rejoices because the reality of a statement like that places me in God’s hands. Fully. Completely. Trustingly. Absolutely.

This morning I’m delaying my encounter with the rest of the world by lingering in the cocoon of my bedroom at Pam and Simon’s. I’ve pulled out a delicious book from my small-ish stack of carefully chosen travel books. I began this one months ago but, with the frenzy of preparation for traveling, didn’t get very far. After heavy blowing rain last night, the day has settled into being that good kind of drizzly, gentle rainy day, the kind that’s good when you’ve been needing some quiet, cozy time inside a cocoon.

Kathleen Norris might be described as a writer’s writer. Mostly I just mean that I love the freedom her writing somehow gives me. She dips deeply into life and then shares her journey with the rest of us. It’s a spiritual journey that doesn’t leave real life. And here are the lines from The Cloister Walk that have prompted me to stop reading for a moment:

“To make the poem of our faith, we must learn not to settle for a false certitude but to embrace ambiguity and mystery.”

…and a few sentences later…

“The hard work of writing has taught me that in matters of the heart, such as writing, or faith, there is no right or wrong way to do it, but only the way of your life.”

It’s that ambiguity and mystery that I feel like God’s been teaching me more and more about these past couple years in particular, teaching me to celebrate them, teaching me to embrace them, teaching me how wonderful it is to trust Him enough to exist comfortably in their reality.

Ghana provided the chance to begin learning how to listen to Africa. Kenya began to take me deeper into the life of this continent. Uganda has somehow felt more profound. As I try to understand my response and what the time here has awakened, the closest I can come is to say that there are stories here that I haven’t gotten to hear yet but want to because I sense that they will teach things about God that all of us need to know. In the midst of the pain and suffering and beauty and hope of the people who live here is a God who is alive and active yet mysterious and unfathomable. He’s sometimes obvious. Sometimes not. And somehow the things that are true here are true everywhere there are human beings alive and interacting with each other, but perhaps some of those things are just displayed more obviously here.

So, we will see what these things come to mean. Wherever the story goes, may God be praised near and far.

Friday, October 5, 2007

some people call it hitting the wall

This week has been incredibly challenging. Arriving exactly at the mid-point of my four months of travels has been a week in which what's expected sure doesn’t seem realistically possible.

To be honest, I struggled today with being angry at the position I've been in this week. That was after I struggled last night with a moment of overwhelmedness and about the same time I was trying to take interview notes as we jounced down the less-than-smooth dirt-rock road. To begin to do real justice to these visits and collect all the information that was requested, I would need to be able to spend at least a week in each place. Instead, I've had roughly 24 hours in each town.

Here are some of the professional challenges encountered so far during this trip and especially this week (for the reading pleasure of all you working writers out there ;-) ):

--Having such little time in a place that interviews have to be as quick as possible, disallowing the chance to really connect with the folks I'm interviewing. That's not my preferred style. I consider myself a writer more than a journalist, someone who's in this for the opportunity to connect with people not just in it to get the quick sound bite and move on. It's about relationships, not just information.

--Having to work around language barriers and be vigilant to discern what people really mean when their English is poor or when someone else is translating for them.
--During the Bundibugyo visit, all of my interviews except for one happened either while we were walking or while we were driving on bumpy roads. Both activities do wonders for note-taking.
--Being unable because of time limitations to tell the whole story that I am beginning to glimpse in a given location and feeling the internal ache that accompanies the act of grazing over the surface of a story.
--Feeling like it's unprofessional to admit that you can't do it all and inhuman not to admit it.
--Accepting that gathering info and writing actually use up a huge amount of energy.
--Working within a tight time frame but being unable to actually control or dictate your schedule during that time frame.

So, that's the rant. Now on to more pleasant things…

Beyond the above-mentioned challenges, it was a delight to visit Bundibugyo. This district of Uganda is located in the Rwenzori mountains. The flight there was absolutely beautiful. We flew over a stretch of hills covered in small farms whose green fields were outlined with the darker green of trees and shrubs and then we came to the stunning mountains. As I understand it, they have a very high elevation, but they have the rounded tops and all-the-way-to-the-top foliage of the Appalachians rather than the severe angles of the Rockies. We flew up and over them and the clouds hugging their tops. On the other side was the lush green of jungle vegetation and the grass airstrip where we were greeted so warmly by folks working for World Harvest Mission.

The visit was great. The World Harvest folks are all Americans. It's been a while since I've been around so many of my own kind. :-) The non-Ugandans I've been around most here are all Europeans. In addition to visiting a couple of the projects World Harvest works on in Bundi, we got to participate in their weekly team Bible study and prayer time and be guests at a birthday party for one of the mk's. It was really nice to be included in all of those activities. I haven’t gotten to do much group Scripture study or prayer time these past couple months.

I ended up staying up late last night talking with Amy, one of my roommates-for-the-night and one of World Harvest's missionaries. She’ll be heading back home to the States in a month or so. It was so great to meet up with one of those people who is an instant friend and enjoy some refreshing conversation late into the night, especially since none of my old friends were on hand to help me out last night. :-)

For some reason (beyond, I think, the aforementioned professional challenges) this visit was more emotional for me than any of the others so far. The emotion was partly in the sense that somehow there are important stories there that should be told, but that I can’t tell this time around. It also hit while we visited two hospitals. At the second hospital we were in the room while the doctor we were accompanying performed four quick ultrasounds to check out four very different patients.

The first patient was a woman maybe in her late 30s suffering from abdominal pain. The doc wasn't able to discover the cause of the pain. He said gynecological care is very bad here—partly because the tools for providing good care are in short supply--so such pains can be very difficult to diagnose.

The second patient was a 36-year-old woman who is HIV-positive and pregnant. She hasn't felt her baby move lately. Happily, the ultrasound showed the baby to be okay still.

Patient #3 is the one that got to me the most. He was a decent-sized 6-year-old boy who came in with a woman I'm assuming was his mother. He looked so scared as he stripped off his shirt and shoes and climbed onto the bed. He never actually cried but was awfully close to it. He had a slightly swollen area in his abdomen that was causing him pain. He winced when the doctor put pressure on that area. The ultrasound showed it to be some sort of abscess that is apparently fairly common here but not in the States. It should be treatable with antibiotics.

After he got off the table and put his shirt and shoes back on, he stood by the door beside his mother. I was on the other side of her sitting on a chair and leaned around to wave and smile at him. I didn’t expect to get much response from him but wanted to comfort him somehow. To my surprise he shyly smiled back. Eventually I reached my hand out and he quickly and smilingly, though still shyly, came forward and shook it. We exchanged some more smiles though I really wanted to reach out and hug him.

The final ultrasound patient was a tiny one-month-old baby boy who’d been vomiting and was referred from an outlying hospital. Upon seeing the patient, Dr. Myhre immediately starting shaking his head, saying that this was not the right test for this baby. He performed the ultrasound anyway, but as he suspected it didn’t show anything. Then while he was feeling around the baby’s abdomen, it peed onto the floor. That, Dr. Myhre explained, actually told a whole lot more than the ultrasound did. “That tells us a lot. The baby’s vomiting breast milk but it’s not dehydrated.”

So, that’s a small snippet from the day. I was closer to tears today than I have been at any other point on this trip so far. I’m not sure why that hospital and those patients hit me so forcefully.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

how to use a pit latrine and other stories from the field

I'm here with quick greetings during my 12 hour sleepover back in Kampala. The past three days have been jammed full of good things. It would have been great to stay in each place so much longer, but it was good to get to go to them at all.

Layton and I felt more like "normal journalists" than we like because our tight schedule didn't allow nearly as much time as we had during last week's visit to the islands for sitting and talking with people. Instead we had to focus on getting the info and pictures we needed and had little time for much more than that.

Kalongo and Patongo are villages that became huge IDP (internally displaced persons) camps over the past few years during the height of the LRA's (Lord's Resistance Army) brutal terrorizing of people in northern Uganda. Peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government commenced last year. The talks aren't completely over, but things are much on the mend for northern Ugandans for the time being.

People who lived out in less congested areas moved into these villages because that's where government soldiers were posted to provide protection. Many of the people who moved were farmers who owned land. When they arrived in the IDP camps, they had no land to farm and it wasn't safe to go out of the camp to the ample farmland anyway because of the roving LRA soldiers. That's why you've heard stories about the lack of food in IDP camps.

These days people are starting to move out of the crowded large camps. Many people haven't moved all the way back to their original villages--where they own land--but have begun to move to new camps/villages part way home. It helps folks to spread out of the tight quarters of the original IDP camps. Things are also calm enough for people to begin farming again. From the air you can see many cultivated fields throughout the area. We learned that people are now growing enough food during the growing season to last them for about 9 months. Before (during the fighting) they were only able to grow 2-3 months worth of food.

Layton and I visited Kalongo Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Kalongo that had to close for a couple years during the worst of the fighting in the area, and GOAL, an Irish? ngo (humanitarian organization) working in Kalongo. Yesterday we headed to Patongo. Fortunately, the road between Kalongo and Patongo that had been closed down by the recent flooding in northern Uganda was passable, though we drove through several yards of knee-deep water outside Patongo. In Patongo, we were hosted by Medair, a Swiss humanitarian org. We went along with them yesterday when they distributed tarps and household supplies to an IDP camp affected by the flooding and today when they distributed school supplies to students at three schools.

It's been terribly interesting to taste life in the international ngo community where people from all sorts of nationalities work together. On our flight from Kampala to Kalongo, there were 9 people on the plane with 5-6 different nationalities represented (British, American, Colombian, Danish, Ugandan and maybe South African). It was also interesting to help distribute notebooks to kids at one of the schools today. The kids lined up and we handed the notebooks and pens and pencils to them as quickly as possible and then they went back to their classrooms. Out of the two groups of students I handed notebooks to, I probably had real human interaction (eye to eye contact and exchanged smiles) with fewer than 10 of them. With the rest, our eyes never met, whether because I was counting out their 5 notebooks or because they were looking away or because their eyes were on the notebooks. It was interesting to see that side of aid work and the sometimes challenge--and impossibility?--there is to really connecting when you're passing out materials to large numbers of people.

On the flight back I was struck again by the beauty of creation. The sky and clouds here are so beautiful. The big wide sky on so many days has offered such a perfect color of blue for providing striking contrast with the white, white clouds that vary in shape, number and type from day to day. And below the land is green and full of varied types of vegetation. The area we were flying over was fairly sparcely populated, but the glimpses of small huts and of larger tin-roofed buildings pointed back to the connection between creation and the people God's given it to. Viewing these things from the small plane we were flying in helped their grandeur show through better than it usually does when you're flying so much higher in jets. Such beauty can't help but elicit a prayer of praise and thanks to God for His creation! (If only I hadn't been so tired, I might have been able to keep my eyes open more and do even more praising. ;-) )

Both last week at the islands and this week in the camps by the second day of the stay I hit my wall of info-gathering and people-interacting energy. By the afternoon/evening of that second day of pretty intensive immersion, I've found my curiosity, my ability to establish a social/emotional connection and my desire to absorb everything possible from the experience overloaded. It's an exhaustion that turns physical. When I'm able I'm trying to give into that exhaustion by pulling out of the experience into my tent or guestroom for even an hour alone. It's so hard to do that, though, when you know your time in a place is limited and want to take in as much as possible before you have to move on to the next place. Today when I arrived back in Kampala, I did have a feeling of wishing I could "take a vacation" by going back home for just a couple days to be surrounded by things that are familiar and require less constant processing. Since that's not possible, I guess I should instead wrap up this post and head to bed in my home-for-the-month. :-)

p.s. In reference to the title, I'm excited that if there were a girl scout badge for good pit latrine usage, which requires the ability to keep yourself and the floor around you clean and dry without grumbling about it, I think I would have finally earned it these past few days. :-)