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Another Little Piece of My Heart

In the mountains of Nyharuru, Kenya, located about 4 hours from the capital of Nairobi, the temperatures drop, allowing even for small amounts of snowfall. The small city is part of the Great Rift Valley where giraffe, zebra, baboons, and hyena can be seen in great numbers even just alongside the main roads. People on foot walk right by the zebra as if they were nothing more special than a dog or a deer. A vulture feeds on a dead hyena that was roadkill. Locals set up makeshift shops along the road selling sheepskin hats and rugs for the passing tourists. The roads make dramatic twists and turns around the mountains which were constructed by prisoners of war in the 40s. Along these seemingly desolate roads are British-owned coffee shops scattered along the way making for a pleasant rest-stop.

Elephant orphanage in Nairobi. Their mothers were killed by poachers and they were found and taken in until they’re big enough to go out on their own.

This is not at all what I expected and is quite a contrast to the neighboring Uganda that I have come to know so well. I can’t help but compare everything I see to that though. My every other sentence starts with “In Uganda…” I have to catch myself. This is not Uganda, and the issues here cannot be treated with a one-size-fits-all approach.

I am spending only 2.5 days on this first trip to Kenya in order to visit a new potential partner, Mt. Moriah Ministries which is an orphanage for 21 children and an extension of a New York based inter-denominational church, both of which were established by its American pastors. I have only a short time to spend with the children and learning about Mt. Moriah’s programs and visions for the future. I am inspired by this couples’ willingness and ability to answer their calling and serve in this way.

Over the next several days, I got to know the pastor couple as well as an American missionary couple stationed in Juba, Sudan but vacationing in Nyharuru during my stay. They bless me beyond anything I expected with their testimonies about God working in their lives, and I am encouraged by their faith. Despite my efforts to seem professional, I let down my guard and receive the blessings of a relationship that I hope will grow for many more years to come. And I leave another little piece of my heart behind everywhere I go. I know I’ll be returning to Kenya soon.

Children fom the village surrounding Mt. Moriah. They want to come in and play too!

A ‘Godwink’ in Kenya

While in Uganda, I went to the market with a list of names as well as corresponding basket sizes, amounts and colors to purchase. I hand selected each one, going from shop to shop to scour out the best ones. The last shop I visited had a red and white one that was different than all the rest, and I couldn’t help but buy it. I knew that I already had my own baskets and had no need or space for anymore. I had already bought for everyone I could think of who would even want it, but for some reason I just felt I should buy it. Even as I was purchasing it, I thought, “Why am I buying this?” yet, I just felt I should. I didn’t think anything of it after that except to remind myself that it was an unnecessary purchase… until I got to Kenya.

A Guatamalan-American missionary woman named Kenia (coincidentally pronounced the same as Kenya) welcomed me into her temporary home with a warm hug and promptly fed me a delicious meal. Later as we shared stories in the sitting room, she excitedly complimented my large stack of baskets. Her husband told me that she admires and collects baskets, finding a special use for each one of them. He joked that he doesn’t mind it because baskets are a much cheaper fetish than shoes. All of a sudden I felt with complete certainty that God wanted me to buy that basket for Kenia, and I didn’t even know her. She cried when I gave it to her and explained the situation. As it was, the couple was taking a short retreat in Kenya from the constant work and high stress life they had been living in Sudan. God knew they needed uplifting, and He knew Kenia needed a beautiful basket.

“… for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8)

“Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)

Driving on the boda at night through Gulu town, it is pitch black. The driver swerves to avoid a drunk man crossing the road. He stops and stares at us as if to say ‘how dare you drive on the road?’ The light shines barely enough to see also small figures as we pass—young children walking somewhere, maybe nowhere.

I am reminded of what has occurred in this very place over a few short years ago when thousands of children flooded Gulu from all the surrounding villages, walking 8 miles or more each way just to sleep on a shop veranda or even along the street, anywhere at all to avoid being abducted in the middle of the night by the rebels. Racing back from school to gather a piece of bread and a blanket if they are lucky, they made the march to town every evening before dark. They tried to get to town as early as possible to secure a good spot. Crowded together in small spaces, the children slept a few hours and then awoke before the sun rose in order to make the long trek back home to go to school and do it all over again..every single day for fear of their lives.

Even the trek to town was dangerous for the young girls as men preyed on them, ready to take them at any moment and no one to protect them. It was a time without safety and without justice. There was no room for sympathy either as everyone was facing the same struggles. One girl told me this conversation with her mother: “You were raped? Sorry, me too…..so how was school?”

Again as the school children line up to have their pictures taken the next day, holding onto the person in front of them, I am again reminded of what could have been for these little ones and what was for children their age a few years sooner. Innocent children as young as age 5 captured and lined up and tied to the child in front of them as they are forced to march hundreds of miles and taught to be dangerous soldiers. I recall the countless stories I’ve heard over the last year and a half and I am disturbed by these thoughts, but I can’t stop myself from thinking them. But I only heard them...I cannot imagine living them.

Things have changed in Gulu town since the rebel army left Uganda in 2006, but the people cannot forget and many struggle to move on. The city is now beginning to be rebuilt, but the people from the villages are the ones who suffered the most. Poverty inhabits every corner of this place and so does disease as the number of people affected by HIV/AIDS only continues to grow, leaving behind new generations of sick and orphaned children.

Coming back to Uganda has been such a happy and affirming experience for me, but it also brings back unpleasant reminders of the problems the Acholi people have faced, for it is the very reason I am here. Yet through the optimism and resiliency of the Ugandan people I am also renewed in my passion to continue working for change in this great place and take comfort in God’s control.

I have told you all these things so that you may have peace in Me. In the world you will have much trouble. But take hope! I have power over the world!” (John 16:33)

As I drove closer and closer to the ChildVoice center in Lukome, I could barely contain my excitement. I was going to see the girls and kids again for the first time since I’d been gone, and I didn’t know what to expect. As the car turned into the driveway, I saw Concy drop her jerican at the borehole and start running toward the gate. Soon the children were yelling and running too. The Bead Project women and the girls wooped and hollered, surrounding me with hugs and laughter. I thought for sure it would soon result in a massive pileup with me on the bottom. Before I knew it, they were carrying me through the gates into the center and singing. Talk about a warm welcome! True to Acholi style.

I spent the rest of the day catching up with everyone, asking them about their family, about school, about the harvest, everything. I was surprised that the children even remembered me and embraced me rather than shying away like they often do with unfamiliar people. I am  ‘Aunty Natalie’ to many of the little ones. I was happy to have remembered most of my Acholi so I was able to tell the girls about home and they even asked about my family members and friends by name. I remember thinking they didn’t listen to me, but I guess they did after all.

Things eventually calmed down a little and I was able to visit with other people individually. I went to Lily’s hut where she was playing with her daughter, Hope. As I used to always do with Hope’s sister, I sang the rhyme that my dad teased me with when I was little: “There was a little mouse that lived right there, and when he got scared, he went allllll the way up there.” This always ends in lots of tickles.

Lily watched and then proceeded to sing a song with very similar gestures and the same rhythm as mine. Hers also resulted in tickles. I was surprised to see that the Acholi had the very same song that my dad taught me more than 20 years ago; one that was not even very popular among Americans.

As I watched Lily play with her daughter, I was again reminded of how very much alike we all really are, even if we are world’s apart. Everyone at ChildVoice welcomed me back as if I had never left, and I quickly fell into stride, helping prepare dinner and having tea time under the mango tree. It felt good to be “home” again.

On my first day back in the Pittsburgh airport, I sat contentedly waiting for my flight, happily watching people as they passed and playing that game in my head where I create stories for each of their lives. I always wonder. Now, two days later, I’m beginning to really dislike airports and all the people in them. That’s not totally true..just some of them. After my first flight to Johannesburg was canceled due to mechanical difficulties, I kept my spirits up. I decided to make the most of it and enjoy New York City, even seeing Demi Lavato (teenage actress? Singer?…not sure but she was apparently special) and catching a comedy show at Gotham City.

Now that I’ve suffered from food poisoning in Johannesburg which caused me to miss my flight to Uganda, I’m not nearly as cheery. Frustration builds as I go from line to line, only to be told I waited 30 minutes for nothing and need to go to another line. I’m stressed, worried, and overheated now because I’ve literally run from one end of the airport to the other.  Four hours and a few thousand rand later, I’m bunking at a nearby guest lodge and supposedly leaving tomorrow. Very disappointing, but at any rate it’s a step up from last year’s sleepover on the floor under the escalator in the Joburg airport.

But this is just a reminder that when you travel, you’ve got to be prepared to take the bad with the good. The thing is, when it’s at its best, travel inspires me. It gives me confidence to take on new adventures, makes me feel excited, purposeful, and hopeful of all the possibilities that lie ahead in the years to come. It brings back old memories and teaches me about myself and others. I’m hooked. I’m in love!

I’ve gotten to know airports a little better than I’d like over the past few years, but if viewed properly, airports can be pretty great places this way too. They are a holding space as you prepare and patiently (or impatiently in my case) wait for the vehicle which will move you to your next stop, and it could be anywhere in the world! Who knows who you’ll meet along the way or what you’ll learn. You may have a few stops along the way. You may have to take multiple forms of transportation, you may miss a flight, have a delay, or any number of other glitches in the itinerary. But at the end of it all, you arrive exactly where you’re meant to be and somehow, the difficulties you encounter in your journey only seem to make your arrival that much sweeter.

Praying for a sweet, albeit late, arrival in Uganda tomorrow. Cannot wait to see my girls again.

Back to Africa I go. Here in the Pittsburgh airport I’m waiting to board the first flight of many over the next few weeks. People kept asking me if I was excited to go back, and I said yes, but I’d been so busy planning and getting ready that I hadn’t really taken the time to for it to sink in. In looking back at my journal entries from six months ago, I just realized that God has granted me so many blessings and answered so many of my prayers. I said I wanted a job where I could live close to family and friends but go back to Africa a few times a year—and here I am! Working for E4p, Inc, I feel equipped to take on the challenges that are presented to me; I have flexibility in my work but am still held to high expectations.

I work with people who I genuinely love and who love me and care for my well being and personal growth. They guide and mentor me, but are never condescending. I get to do work on programs that help people move from poverty to self-sufficiency both in my beautiful home state of WV and in my second home in Africa, and I’m continuing to grow my global family as I explore new places. I work with people who ‘get it,’ people who have minds for business but hearts for charity.

Funny how I forget to recognize or be grateful for how lucky I am sometimes. While there are struggles to overcome, I know when I look back I will be thankful because they made me stronger. When I tell people that I’m directing a nonprofit organization, they tend to look at me skeptically and then ask “So wait, is this a student group?” or “Ohh you went to WVU. What year did you graduate?” or any number of other not-so-subtle hints suggesting that my age disqualifies me from such a title. Well, I’ll let them think what they want. I learned a lot last year, and the truth is I still have a lot more learning to do and I know it. But ya know what? I’m up for the challenge. Let’s do this. Year Two of Discovery and Renewal in Africa begins!

If I Had Blogged This Summer…

…I would have talked about my return to the U.S. from Africa, about what a blessing it was to see Connor the moment I stepped out of the terminal, how much fun it was to hang out with my family and friends, and how I enjoyed eating my mothers’ food, getting a hot shower, sleeping in my own bed, etc.

Then a few weeks later I would have talked about how shocked I was at my own new behavior in public situations, how I didn’t want to leave the house or see anyone, how overwhelmed I became over simple things like choosing an outfit to wear to the DMV, how I lacked the ability to make decisions like which shampoo I wanted from Walmart, how I sometimes cried myself to sleep, woke up and cried again….for no obvious reason whatsoever. I lacked my old confidence in social situations, and I had a critical spirit which I never had before.

Then about a week after that I would have expressed all of my anger and frustration over life in the U.S. One night as I lay awake in a fit of anxiety, I scribbled things like this in my journal under the heading “Things That Annoy Me Right Now”—

  • “People telling me what to do
  • people worrying over unimportant things like the weather and what to wear
  • people watching television for hours on end; people buying unnecessary things
  • explaining that Africa is a continent, not a country
  • people not caring like I think they should
  • people judging other people who they don’t even know….”

[Critical much?? Remember!: “My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry. If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done.” (James 1:19-20)”]

Then a few days later, I might have admitted that despite being constantly surrounded by people, I was feeling so very lonely. I had gained a different perspective and I felt like no one could possibly understand me or the experiences I had. I missed the girls and the children, I missed my simple life and the relationship I had formed with God, and I missed Uganda so much. The pain of that hit me deeply as I came to terms with the stories I had heard from the girls and how I was completely incapable of doing anything to change their situation. I felt so completely helpless, and I needed time to grieve that loss.

Stages of Transition...doesn't it look like a rollercoaster??

 

After that rollercoaster of emotions, I have to say that I am glad I didn’t make a single post this summer. To be honest, I couldn’t even articulate what I was feeling at the time. One of things that helped me to feel better though was something a woman from ChildVoice shared with me called “Back Home” which is a small book for those who are transitioning from life abroad. All of sudden, I realized I wasn’t crazy after all and that this was a perfectly normal cycle of emotions for someone in this situation. Whew—thank God! For a while, I wondered whether these feelings would be permanent.

Under ‘Day 21’ of the transition cycle, under the heading ‘Grief’, the author says, “You should be happy—you are back home! But you are feeling sad. Why do you find yourself on the verge of tears at the most unusual times? Why are you irritable and easily annoyed? Where are these feelings coming from?” Yea! Where? Why? The book answered those things for me.

In addition to lots of God time, another thing that helped in my transition was the start of my new job with an awesome organization called E4p, Inc. which will allow me to do projects that help West Virginians and will allow me to stay connected to our African partners in Uganda, Malawi and South Africa. What a blessing! More on that later though.

Long story short, the past few months have been a bit chaotic in terms of my emotional state.  I’m still not sure I have everything figured out…not sure that I ever will. Half my heart will always be in Uganda. I am grateful for the experience that I had there and the amazing people I met along the journey. I have a feeling this is not the last time I will feel this either because I don’t plan to end my travels anytime soon. Thanks to anyone who cared enough to hear my stories, catch me up on theirs, pray for me, support me, or distract me with ice cream:)…it worked!

 

This is the true story of one girl from northern Uganda. At ChildVoice, we welcome these child mothers from the bush and begin the process of rehabilitation. They come to us with no love in their hearts, but through counseling and spiritual guidance, they are able to accept the past and find hope for the future. I have been hearing these kinds of story on a regular basis, but up to now have not shared them with many. To truly grasp the situation at hand though, one must first be exposed. For example, did you know that 5.4 million people were killed in what is now known as the Great African War? Did you know it was the deadliest conflict since World War II and it only ended in 2003? That doesn’t even count the war in northern Uganda.

While the war in Uganda is over for now, the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army continue their march of terror through the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic to this day. This is the story of just one girl…there are too many others just like hers. While this story was “lightened” a bit, it is still very disturbing, so please be warned.

My name is *Evelyn, and my life changed forever when I was nine years old. I used to feel safe in my parent’s home, but when the rebels came, even they could not protect me. I was taken in the night. The rebels made me to be one of them. I was young so they knew they could brainwash me more easily. They made me march very far distances and taught me to operate large guns, how to loot and attack. The commanders trusted me because I would commit any atrocity they told me. I don’t know how many people I killed…I lost count. If I refused anything then I was beaten and tortured. They cut my back with a machete to teach me a lesson once, made me sit on dead bodies and participate in ceremonies with their spirits.

I was first given to a man when I was ten years old. I screamed a lot at first…it was so painful. He pointed a gun to my face, so I stopped. After that, he always called on me. When he would go away to fight, other men would have me where they wanted, whenever they wanted. I was weak from lack of food and water, but there was no negotiation.

When I finally escaped, the people there recognized me for what I had done to them in the bush and they beat and stoned me, almost to the point of death. I was taken to another place to be safe, but the man who was assigned to guard me acted just like the men in the bush…I could not refuse. I had nothing to do. I was 13 then.

When I returned home, many people did not accept me. They would disturb me all the time, yelling horrible things to me. I think they were afraid of me because of what I had done before. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t really me then. My parents couldn’t pay my school fees, and I couldn’t go back to a bush, so I felt I had no choice but to go to a man. It was all I knew. So I went. When my brothers forced the man to pay for me, he refused and left me for an older woman, so I was left to care for his child alone. I felt like my life was over at 14.


Since coming to ChildVoice and returning to her home village, *Evelyn started living a good life. She found God and He continues to be a big part of her life. She starting working in a bakery with the vocational skills she learned at ChildVoice and earns enough money to take care of herself and her children now. She lives now with a loving husband and her two children. She hopes to start her own bakery one day. She has a bright future.

*The name has been changed.

"What I Hate Most"

“How Was Africa?”…

I’m typing away in my hut when the sound of beating drums summons me outside. At first I think it is our girls praying in the front yard, but then I realize it’s actually coming from behind the huts, in the village. Hard to tell how far away…the intensity of the drums makes me think it’s not so far…yet it’s so very dark. I can barely see the tops of the huts against the night sky. In another direction I see the glow of a fire in the distance. Another sound added to the music…something I can’t quite distinguish. It’s not familiar, but it’s pleasing nonetheless. There is wooping, clapping and the high-pitched Acholi woman celebration cry (ayiyiyiyi!!). I wish I could capture that sound and replay it on those days that it starts to fade from my memories. For now, I’m grateful that it is so familiar.

I stand all alone surrounded by the darkness, just listening and appreciating the beauty of the seemingly limitless stars across the sky, some blinking more brightly than others. There is a brief flash of lighting…heat lighting. The crickets chirp and remind me of summer nights spent outside star gazing with my Dad, waiting to catch that rare falling star. I always seemed to miss them, but Dad never did. The drums bring me back to the present…pounding in unison…there are several playing simultaneously now. I envision the people sitting around a fire, the men banging the drums and the women dancing along to the beats.

I fight the urge to dance along, coyly swaying my hips back and forth the way I’ve seen the Acholi women do so many times before. I thank God for music, singing, dancing, beauty, joy, resilience and contentedness. I take it all in, recognizing the moment of peace that God had granted me. A woman laughs heartily which makes me smile…it’s contagious. I wish I could see her face as she laughs. It sounds like the kind where you grab your belly and cry…I love those kind. They chant too. I wish I knew what they were saying, yet I feel I know everything I need to at the same time.

I wish my family and friends could experience more moments like this with me, maybe then they could understand better. But you can’t transfer a feeling can you? The chills you get when you have an inspirational conversation, hear the beat of an African drum like its beating in your heart, or feel the very presence of God in a small child, in a neglected person, in a moment….no, you can’t. Those things are not transferrable; they must be felt from within. How will I ever be able to make anyone understand this with words? Will I ever be able to share it in a way that makes sense to people?…in a way that makes people want to know God more?…in any way at all? Will I lack the words, or perhaps worse, sense the corresponding lack of genuine desire to know, to learn, to feel that is so often poorly disguised in the form of polite small talk?

…“It was great, thanks.”

 

Ayiyiyi!

Only God

“In kene Yesu, in kene.” This verse is sung over and over as people close their eyes and raise their hands to the skies. “Only you, Jesus, only you.” Its simple truth nearly always brings about strong emotions, as tears slowly fall down the girls’ faces.

For many of the people here for many years, God truly is all they had. They did not have food, safety, freedom, their families, or even a desire to live at times, but they still had God and that gave them the strength to survive even the most brutal situations. The stories arise at unexpected times…just sitting under the mango tree in the evenings or drinking tea, my coworkers share memories of the past. Little things remind them. For one coworker, it was her feet. She just started laughing, looking down at her feet. I asked her what she was laughing about and she said she remembered in the days of the war, she would purposely walk around without shoes to make her feet extra tough in case she had to run a very far distance. She would bleed a lot at first, but eventually it was as if nothing could break them.

She told of a time when she was stopped by the rebel army on the road while she was trying to get food for her children. She was the first person in Uganda to have healthy, living triplets, and their father had been abducted and killed while she was pregnant with them. She wanted to die then but knew she had to live for the children to survive. She became famous because of the triplets and had her picture taken for the newspaper. So when the soldiers stopped her they screamed in her face telling her how they were going to kill her. She shook uncontrollably and her clothes were soaking wet from the fear. They pointed the gun at her as she put the cross from her rosary in her mouth and prayed in her head that God would take care of her children when she was dead. As she finished her last prayer and braced herself for the shot, a commander came over and started screaming at the soldier to put his gun down. “What is the matter with you?! Do you know who this is?” he said. He told them she was the woman who delivered triplets—“the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” If they killed her, how would those special ones survive? They told her to run away but she was even afraid to move. They promised they would not shoot her as she ran into the bush.

She ran for miles and then came face to face with more soldiers, this time from the UPDF, the Ugandan government soldiers, who treated the innocent people no better than the rebels did at times. They were equally feared, even though their purpose was to protect the people. She looked above in the sky and noticed no birds were flying overhead—a bad sign. Sure enough, she was caught in the crossfire between the two groups and was sent running and dodging bullets. She saw others fall so she stopped where she was at made a sign of the cross in front of her and behind her. . A single bullet never touched her in the 20 minutes of crossfire. She just stood still and prayed out loud

Christ be with me,
Christ be beside me,
Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me,
Christ be at my right hand,
Christ be at my left hand,
Christ be with me everywhere I go,
Christ be my friend for ever and ever. Amen.

When the shots became less, she ran away. Hours later, she made it town to give her boys some food and start her dangerous walk back to the village. If she was caught staying in town and they saw her there, they would kill her because they would think she was lying to them and no one from the village was supposed to escape from the village.

As she told her story, girls and coworkers laughed. One told of watching people and vehicles get blown up by the land minds, body parts flying in the air. Even when another coworker spoke of the more brutal acts such as the cutting off of lips, ears, limbs, padlocking lips shut, etc. they just laughed uncomfortably. I was baffled that they could react this way to such horrible stories, but they said they had to laugh or else they would always be sad. One said, “So many people died. If we mourned for all of them then we too would die of sadness.”

Despite the horrific struggles, most people have incredible faith in God. When asked why most say, “I’m alive, aren’t I? Then it is only because of God.” In other parts of the world people do not suffer like this yet they struggle to believe in God. They think they don’t need God; they have enough other material things and man-made systems that keep them safe. The people here don’t have much, but at least they know they have God.

I have been so humbled by the Acholi people’s resilience, joy and especially their capacity to forgive and love again in spite of the pain and suffering. As one Ugandan friend said, “when you do not forgive, you are only hurting yourself; you are prolonging the pain and you are teaching your children not to forgive also. Hate breeds more hate, but love is stronger than all of that….love and God.”


*Love*

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