Category: Uganda


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.

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*

Welcome to the Bush Life

“Do I look like a dirty little bush girl? I do, don’t I?” Words I never thought I would utter, but I did. My former hutmate Julia and I were going to town for the day after being in the bush for a few weeks. “Nooo you don’t,” she insisted, “you just look relaxed.” Great…relaxed=slob. I was wearing my only clean outfit—a long flower skirt and a white ribbed tank top. My hair was in pigtails, and my feet were filthy . While this was all perfectly acceptable in the village, it made me feel uncomfortable to look like this in town where I might spot another mzungu.

Well after spending three weeks in Gulu, I got to know a lot of mzungus. I didn’t know so many even existed in northern Uganda and here they were all in one place. I felt oddly out of place in my bush attire and got overly excited at their French pressed coffee and tiramisu coffee creamer. I even said “Apwoyo” and gave a Ugandan handshake (distinctly different than a normal handshake in the U.S.) to one American guy. He looked confused. So did I.

Some girls wore leggings with long blouses and belts…like legitimately cute clothes. I didn’t even bring anything like that to Uganda! They had a real concrete building with couches and a kitchen sink and flushing toilet. This wasn’t the Ugandan life I had come to know at all, yet this is how all of them were living. I became aware that while most others working for organizations in the area may travel to the villages to work, they do not actually live in the villages but in town with most modern amenities that we are accustomed to in the U.S.

Even though my hut in Lukodi is only about 19 kilometers (about 12 miles) from our office in Gulu town, the dirt road is so bad that it takes about an hour each way. “So you come to town a few times a week?” some asked, “then why don’t you just live in town instead of traveling all those hours each week?” “Yea, why don’t I?,” I thought. If all these other organizations can put their people up in these nice places, why can’t mine? But then I realized that this life of mine is what I’ve wanted for so long. Why would I come all this way just to live the same way as I did at home, go work in an office and hang out with the girls and kids once a month?? No way. I came here to live like the locals live, to get to know them on a personal level and to love them. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

After talking with some family members and friends I realized that they also aren’t totally aware of my lifestyle here. So here are a few details about day-to-day life in the bush…

Bathing

Each day the girls go to the borehole and collect water. One girl is assigned to me, Janet. She gets my water for me each day and thank God because I fail miserably at it every time. (The last time it fell off my head and spilled all over me leaving me soaking and on the verge of tears in the middle of the field… I finally decided to leave it to the experts.) Anyway, so we get a plastic container of water called a jerrycan and a plastic basin. That’s it. Stand in it, stand over it, everyone’s got their own technique but I usually just splash it up on myself and make a mess in the process. There are special bathing areas for this in the compound. This is a wooden platform surrounded by straw mats, open air. Since I’ve got my own hut now though, I usually just stick to that rather than venturing outside. To wash my hair, I kneel on the ground and hold my head over the basin. I’ve gotten this part down pretty well.

The shower hut. The bottom is a wooden platform. It's nice to watch the stars at night though while you shower=)

Latrine

I’ll avoid too much detail here. So no running water of course. We keep TP in our own huts and carry it with us to the latrine when we need to. There are a few options to choose from here. You can get the squatter style (hole in the ground) or the port-a-potty style with a plastic seat. Both involve a certain level of skill—holding the TP in between your neck and chin with 1 arm holding the door closed and the other balancing yourself in place so you don’t lose a shoe. I could make a lot of inappropriate jokes here, but like I said, I’ll stick to the basics. Long story short though, we’re actually pretty lucky. We have proper latrines because the organization had the money to dig them, but most villagers are not lucky enough to have their own latrines so they just go to a spot in the bush and use tree leaves. I’m living the good life, what can I say?

My basin and jerrycan of water. This is how I usually bathe.

Washing

Clothes and dishes are hand washed in the basins and left out to dry. The girls use charcoal irons to make their clothes nice and kill any bugs that got in the clothes while hanging outside.

Clothes dryer

Sleeping

The girls and kids sleep on bed pads with mosquito nets, but I prefer the hammock. It’s not like our outdoor hammocks at home with the rope. It’s a slippery mesh-like material on the bottom and netting on the top. You jump in and zip up, keeping you safe from nasty bugs flying around and critters on the ground—best of both worlds. It curls around you creating a natural “pillow” of sorts. You have to lie diagonally to be flat. If you lay straight then you dip down which makes your feet go above your head and you wake up with sore ankles and well…sore everything actually. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually quite comfortable, like a little cocoon. I genuinely missed the comfort of my hammock when I was staying in town.

My comfy hammock

Food

Uganda has wonderfully rich land with lots of vegetation most of the time (minus the few months of extremely hot dry season). However, they don’t grow a lot of the same vegetables we do in the U.S. Lettuce is almost impossible to find around here because there is too much sun; same with cucumbers. They have lots of onions, tomatoes, eggplant and corn. That can all get expensive though so at the center they prepare the basics—beans and either posho, millet, cassava or rice. Traditionally, food is eaten with the hands so these starchy, sticky things like posho are meant to be easily picked up and formed into a scoop for the soupy beans. Once a week we have chicken or fish. The fish is whole—scales, eyes and all. I usually opt out on that though—too much work for food. For breakfast, the girls make bread rolls and tea almost without exception. The ladies cook these things using a charcoal stove and mud oven fueled with firewood.  Impressive.

Electricity

Thanks to a new solar energy system, the center has electricity for more hours than ever before. It stays on from about 7 PM to 7 AM now which allows me to get on the computer and charge my phone. This is a recent development at the center and I’m very grateful for it.  Sometimes if there is a storm or there wasn’t much sun that day, then we won’t have it, in which case we just use lanterns and go to bed early.

Even though I sometimes miss showers, carpet, air conditioning and other little niceties of modern living, I am grateful for my experience living among the native Acholi people of northern Uganda. I fall to sleep to the sound of the villagers drumming and singing and wake up to the sound of roosters crowing. The sunsets and stars in the wide open African sky are unlike any I’ve ever seen in my life. No doubt this is God’s country, and I love it.

Talk Less, Listen More

Since the beginning of this year, I have been working with a Christian organization called New Song of Grace (NSOG) in addition to ChildVoice. Once a week I travel to a village called Paicho and teach a business development course to a group of about 100 men and women in the community. It has been an extremely rewarding experience so far and I am so hopeful of the possible outcomes of the course.

A few things are different about this class compared to the class I teach at ChildVoice. Many of these adults have had or currently have small businesses and want to learn how they can improve them. Those who do not have businesses want to start businesses and are ready to do so as soon as possible. Therefore, the participants in this class in Paicho really have a sense of ownership for this class. They don’t have to be there, but they take 2 to 3 hours out of their day each Friday to learn. There is no financial incentive for them as NSOG cannot offer loans, yet each week there continues to be a packed room. Also, I give them a “challenge” each week which they are expected to report on in the following class. This challenge could take an additional few hours each week, yet every week I have to limit it to only a few responses or else our whole class would be spent on their reporting.

Last week I went to Paicho early so that I could spend time out in the community with some local business owners and others who were not a part of the class. I first went around just making conversation and buying an item here and there—relationship building. This is a very important part of the Ugandan culture. Unlike in America where we get right down to business, in Uganda, you’re expected to develop a relationship before you discuss business. So it was on this second visit into the community that I was able to revisit and talk to the people who I previously bought from.

I asked the people about the problems they faced in starting businesses, about savings, spending, education, lots of topics that would help me to better understand the people of Paicho and the challenges they face so that I could (somehow…hopefully) help them to overcome those challenges and begin the economic healing process that is so needed in their community. I also asked questions during class—what did they want to learn about, what were their expectations, etc. What I learned was this: I should have asked them a lot sooner! They had great ideas. I stood there thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?” Of course they did though…they’re living it, shouldn’t they know their own needs? Yet more often than not, people trying to help the poor don’t even ask them if they want help or how to help them. You’d think that would be the first thing you would do, yet somehow, we think we know what is best for them.

At the same time as I am instructing this course, I am also a student in another course through the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. It asks questions that force me to reconsider every approach I’ve ever taken in working with the poor…and that’s a good thing. One thing that the course has taught me so far is that I must seek to address not only material poverty but poverty of being, stewardship, and spiritual poverty. Also, it has reminded me that the people I’m working with are the solution, not the problem. Of course that seems obvious, yet my previous approach to teaching (not asking, but telling), may have conveyed otherwise.

Most of the people in these communities never attended high school and many of them never even completed primary school because of poverty, war, gender inequality, or a myriad of other unfortunate reasons. They are so grateful for the opportunity to be educated that after each class each one of them lines up on the way out and curtsies (common sign of respect in Uganda), shakes my hand, or some combination of all three. It is very humbling. One woman even stayed behind afterward and kneeled down in front of me, asking me to lay my hands on her and pray for her. I felt most inadequate, but I did the best I could, praying inside that God would just speak through me.

Without education, there is little hope for a future here in Ugandan, and unfortunately, even with an education there is much difficulty due to the government systems. These adults have passed the time where they can go back to school, but what they can do is learn enough to create businesses that will allow them to send their children to school so that the cycle of poverty does not continue and there may be hope for the future.

“We Are Tired”: Michael’s Story

Day to day we go about our business and we interact with a lot of people along the way. There are some people that we see every day yet never really get to know them for who they are. We don’t really see them. It could be the bag boy at the grocery store, the receptionist at your office, or the mailman. There are people that are somehow functional in our lives and we expect them to “do their jobs” to somehow make our lives a little smoother, yet we fail to recognize their real worth. Maybe the waitress wasn’t really friendly because she had an argument with her husband that day or a family member passed away. We can never really know what another is going through unless (God forbid)…we ask!

Michael is the gatekeeper at ChildVoice. Every day he sits in a tiny metal building just by the front gate so that he can open and close it as the vehicle passes through. When I go for walks in the evenings, he asks me “ichito kwene?” (where are you going) and I say “achito ka wot” or “achito poro” (I’m going for a walk or I’m going to the farm). Every time…never fails. I assumed he didn’t know much English and he knew I didn’t know a lot of Acholi so we never bothered going any deeper than simple pleasantries. Yet…I often wondered about Michael, or as we call him, “Mose” (it means “old man” in Acholi but is meant as a sign of respect to an elder). Does he have family? What does he like to do? What does he believe? What must he have seen in his lifetime? For some reason, I never took the time to find out.

When I went back to Lukodi this week to check on my hut and the chicken farm (a wild cat was eating our chickens grrrr), I decided I would visit with Mose. Maybe it was the meat and matoke I brought him or maybe it was just because he was bored all alone there, but for some reason, he decided to open up to me that day. Here’s a little bit of Michael’s story…

Michael was born in Lukodi 1952, and he attended Lukodi Primary School (which sits directly next to ChildVoice so he can see it every day from his post by the gate). He was 10 years old when Uganda gained independence from Great Britain in 1962 and he remembers the great celebration that took place in Lukodi on that day. There were parades, singing, dancing and lots of meat-eating that day. He said they didn’t have school for several days just because everyone was too busy celebrating. Before the country’s independence, he says the British treated the Acholi people a bit like slaves. He said, “When the road needed built, the British would just stand to the side and tell the others what to do, making them lift very heavy boulders and other objects without any help. If someone couldn’t do the work, they would yell at them and threaten them.”

The first president in Uganda was Milton Obote, an Acholi man. “After Obote, all the Acholi thought that they were so powerful that only an Acholi person should ever be in charge. So they were not happy because they felt like they lost control,” he said. Of course, then rebellion started in northern Uganda by the likes of Joseph Kony in 1986. The details stopped freely flowing at this point in the conversation since he and I both knew what came next: 20 years of terror, death and destruction by the Lord’s Resistance Army. All Michael said was, “Even though I grew up here, I never knew Kony because I am older than him. Still, he is just a young man. He doesn’t know what he is doing.”

Michael went on to tell me that he was blessed with a wife (Josca) and one son who had given him five grandchildren. I never even knew he was married. He said he sees some of his grandkids every day because they attend Lukodi Primary School. He said they sometimes stop at the fence and say hello to him on the way home and sometimes his wife will come to bring him lunch. I’ve never seen them, but then again, I wasn’t really looking. He told me all of this while smiling and eating the matoke and meat. I felt as if I had now earned this valuable time with him, although really I think he would have been happy to share all this before…if I ever gave him the chance.

Silent now, I looked over at the people lined up to vote in the field nearby and said I was glad there have been no problems with elections so far. Now he was laughing. Not just a polite giggle but like really laughing. Then he said, “Ohhh no…no problems. We are just tired now, don’t you know?” Tired. Tired of war, violence, poverty. Tired of fighting. Or tired of caring. In the weeks prior to elections, some of my co-workers laughed when I made any mention of disturbance, saying that most people did not feel like their votes mattered anyway and they didn’t care enough to rebel. They were apathetic. They were just happy to have peace and did not want to do anything to disturb that peace.

Some might say this is a bad thing when the people feel like they do not have a voice, when the government has all the power. Coming from a free, democratic country like the U.S., I am tempted to agree. Yet I knew that the elections in Uganda would not be “free” or “fair” as they had claimed, and I knew that Museveni had been unfairly elected for more than 20 years, but somehow I still hoped that he would win if only to spare me the disturbance of riots and potential violence. Maybe there is something to be said for apathy after all. Things might not get better, but at least they know they won’t get worse.

I thanked Mose for talking with me, and he thanked me for the food. I told him I would come back again next week to visit, and I meant it.

 

Mose Michael

Election Day Observations

4 AM: I awoke up with some “bright ideas” and couldn’t fall back to sleep. Why is there loud music still playing outside?

5 AM: I heard the Muslim call to prayer and it reminded me to pray myself and to thank God for another day alive. Oh yea, and safe elections please?

7:30 AM: After talking to some people online (shout out to my momma) I’m now at the only opened coffee shop in town eating a lemon scone and drinking coffee (Café Americano).

7:35 AM: Ha…just gave the scone away. That’s the problem with sitting at the window near a Ugandan street. All the little kids walk by and stare at your food and make sad eyes, making you feel incredibly guilty for eating a proper meal. I never really liked it at this place to be honest—it’s a mzungu hot spot and even though I would typically enjoy the windows, here it is as if you’re on display. Am I the observer or the observed? It’s hard to say. Mzungus are scarce in Gulu these days so I’m inclined to say that I’m the one being watched…like an animal at the zoo. It’s a bit unsettling.

I traded the little boy outside the window my lemon scone and 300 shillings (about 15 cents) for a single samosa that I didn’t really want (they’re too greasy). Did I do the right thing? I’m always conflicted. Don’t want to refuse anyone in need, especially a child, but he did have a bucketful of samosas so it’s not like he was starving. Maybe I just contributed to the breeding of dependency and the assumption that Mzungu=Money. I feel bad if I give and I feel bad if I don’t. There’s no winning in these situations. But hey I found out the proper term for my previously held “bitterness”—it’s called “compassion fatigue”, apparently its quite common for people in my line of work. Fortunately God and I worked my way out of that one…hope I don’t relapse. I think I’ll eat a banana and crackers at the apartment for dinner just to be safe.

Kids playing in the alley.

9 AM: So far all is calm in Gulu despite (or perhaps because of) the increased military and police presence on the streets. I watched a video on BBC Online earlier where a reporter…uh…reported…right here in Gulu. It showed the roundabout, Crane Bank and everything! I saw him right here at the coffee shop the other day. Didn’t know he was a reporter at the time obviously. Not that it would have mattered.(Here’s the video…see the Lukodi memorial by ChildVoice at the end!…http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12482717)

“Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye is playing and Brian just brought me another cup of Café Americano…uh oh. Hoping I’ll be productive today with all this caffeine and adrenaline in my system. See…a little bit of fear can be healthy after all.

11 AM: Work stuff.

1 PM: Go to hut in Lukodi to pick up my little paraffin stove for making pasta tonight. Swing by polling centers on the way to sneak some pictures. People lined up to vote. Relatively quiet in the villages.

People in the village lined up to vote.

3 PM: Went running around the Gulu High School soccer field. Polls were set up around the perimeter of the field and people waiting to vote watched me run. Glad I could be their entertainment in my cool once-white sneakers. Just when I was really struggling though, three little kids showed up along the field and started giving me high fives every time I came around to them—10 times in all. It never got old. It made me smile wide every time and keep running so that I could do it again. Everything still normal around town.

5 PM: Calling it an early evening today just to be safe. Failing at making even pasta. I think my little stove is broken. What a waste. Mmm cheese sauce for dinner. Thinking about home now. Can you imagine being nervous or worried about safety on Election Day in the U.S.? The worst our people do is sit around long tables wearing suits and arguing with one another ha.

Boiling water outside the apartment

11:30 PM: So it seems Election Day in Uganda came and went without a hitch. Well, at least in Gulu anyway. The true test thought will be Sunday when they announce who was elected. The man in the apartment across from me said he’s keeping his business closed on Sunday just to be safe…in case there were riots and people tried to loot his store. Don’t blame him. It’s somehow quieter tonight than last night. Is it possible that there was actually a peaceful election in a peaceful Uganda? That would be a first. I pray that it is so. We’ll know for sure on Sunday.

Home is Where…God Is?

Everyone went home, well, home in the sense of that place where your biological families are, that place you call your own whether you want to or not. It is nearing Election Day in Uganda and the ChildVoice center will be closed for the next several weeks. As the girls and children packed and prepared to leave ChildVoice though, I noticed an unusual somberness in many of them.

The girls have become very good at hiding most of their feelings, or at least pretending they are tough. The kids though still show their true emotions. They were clearly sad. When I asked Odong what was wrong he said, “Ojoko, pege. Prisca pege. Alan pege. Achito gang diri.” (Ojoko isn’t here. Prisca isn’t here. Alan isn’t here. I’m going home tomorrow.) Some of the girls and their children had already returned home and Odong was lamenting his same fate for the next day. When I see some of the girls in town who graduated and left ChildVoice in December, they always say that their children miss the center.

As the van full of girls and their children drove away, one of the children, Pitora, banged on the car window and cried as it drove away. Amazing. They didn’t want to go home. How could that be? Didn’t everyone enjoy going home? Shouldn’t this be a happy day? Then again, not everyone has a comfortable living situation or a warm family to welcome them home. The lives these girls and their children live while at ChildVoice is significantly better than their home lives where they work from morning until evening, often being forced to leave their children behind to fend for themselves. The food does not magically appear in regular intervals throughout the day, and they no longer have their friends and playmates around. I guess I wouldn’t want to go “home” much either.

The truth is that for many of the girls and children, ChildVoice IS their home. While there is certainly an adjustment period when they first arrive at the center, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that they have a loving and supportive family right there. They enjoy being able to learn, to worship God freely, and to spend time with their friends. The girls form incredible bonds with one another that many of them have never known before. They are joined by common experiences. They are family.

Something funny has happened though…the girls are not the only ones who have found family at ChildVoice; I feel like I have too. Let me describe this morning to you—I am awakened by the sound of the girls singing worship songs and banging on the drums. I emerge from my hut to be greeted by my neighbor, Beatrice, who thanks me for waking up (a lovely little tradition in Uganda) and tells me how beautiful I’m looking. Matron then comes over, gives me a hug and asks me how I slept last night and she also tells me I’m looking very smart (It was the Ugandan dress I just bought. They love when mzungus try to blend). I take my coffee percolator to the kitchen and Aning (who I call ‘Mama’) does the same, giving me a hug and shortly after bringing the heated coffee to my hut for me. I sit and drink my coffee with my neighbors (CVI co-workers) as we talk about things like the nasty dry season dust, harvesting millet before it goes bad and putting rat poison in the hut to prevent any unwanted visitors while we’re gone…all perfectly normal small talk ya know? A few co-workers welcome me to their homes and others arrange to meet for tea in town later in the week. As I prepare to leave the center, relocating to a co-workers apartment in Gulu town while the center is closed, the remaining girls help me load my items into the vehicle, hug me goodbye and wish me a safe journey until we meet again. I got a little teary-eyed as I drove away. I guess leaving home is never easy after all…

As I prepare to spend the next three weeks in Gulu basically alone, I must remind myself of one thing though—I’m not really alone at all. This is not the first time and will not be the last that I will spend several weeks in my own company. During my travels I’ve eaten many meals alone, explored, ran, worked and relaxed, all on my own. Granted, even though I’ve enjoyed these times of self-discovery and independence, there is something to be said for sharing these discoveries with another. It somehow seems as if it becomes more real when someone else is there. If you are alone, who is there to help you recall the name of that one restaurant that serves the best sushi or the time you wiped out in a giant muddy pothole…well…on second thought, maybe it is best not to remember some things.

I was blessed for several weeks to have the company of two very good friends since childhood, Jessie Blackwell and Sarah Kemp. They experienced the “bush life” with me and for that I feel so blessed. There are some memories I can now share with a knowing audience, some things that people from home can now relate to and understand. When I somehow long for the simplicity of my old hammock and mud hut or want to laugh about the time Ojoko accidently peed on me, there will be someone who knows who I’m talking about, who “gets it”. I will not be completely alone or misunderstood. I am forever grateful for that comfort. Thank you Jessie and Sarah for that gift.

Wheeling girls take Uganda

Now that they have left Uganda and I am one of the few non-Ugandans left in the area, one could say that I am again “alone,” and although that may be true in the physical sense, I know someone who will always be with me. I heard a song by Mercy Me recently called “Homesick.” Here are some of the lyrics:

“In Christ, there are no goodbyes; And in Christ, there is no end; So I’ll hold onto Jesus with all that I have;  To see you again.

…And I close my eyes and I see your face; If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place; Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow.

I’ve never been more homesick than now.”

Yes, I miss my home—as in the place where my family resides, a place I love and feel welcomed. But when I’m alone, that is when I feel God’s presence the most. I talk to Him more and feel Him talking back, comforting and guiding me. I have a home in Wheeling, West Virginia. I had one in Morgantown. For a little while I had one in Dublin, Ireland, and now I have one in the little village of Lukodi, Uganda. Homesick? Sure…at times, but the truth is that my real home (all of our real homes) is with the Lord.

I am grateful for my many homes and many family members around the world and for the One who provides those, the One who never leaves, and the One who is the best travel partner that anyone could ever ask for.

Some of the children in my Ugandan family