She reaches up to take my hand. And for the first time in Uganda, I have to consciously force myself to NOT pull my hand away. We stand together in the slums of Kampala. The alley way is so narrow between the shacks, I have to turn sideways to move. The muddy pathways are littered with used condoms, beer bottle caps, and cigarette butts imbedded in the ground. I step over human waste. Frayed blankets hang in doorways but cannot block out the distinct body odor and the smell of fermenting rot. The CLD team has warned us: "Every child here has some disease and most of the adults are HIV positive."
Despite my desire to cringe at her touch, I squeeze her hand and bend down to look at her. She wears a green and white checked dress. Her right eye drifts slightly inward so that only her left eye focuses on my face. "Wa ani?" I ask her. What's your name? She answers so quietly I have to ask again.
"Precious," she says a bit louder. And my heart is wrecked.
The pictures I have of this day are as inadequate as my words. The photos are blurry and rushed. Using my camera on this day feels invasive. Finding beauty, joy, and hope proves challenging. So I take pictures quickly, then stash my camera away hoping no one notices.
The poverty of the city slums differs vastly from the poverty of the village. The sights of the slums assault my heart again and again. Smiles are rarer. Men emerge into the sunlight, staggering. They hold plastic bags filled with clear liquid and sip from a straw. One man makes a lewd jesture toward one of our female students, "I'd like to wife her" he says to me. His boldness frightens me.
There are other sights that wreck me. A mother bathes her child in a bucket. When she sees us coming, she ducks into her shack and leaves the child. He cries but stays put.
Children pour from the crumbling buildings. They giggle. They call out, "Hello Muzungu!" (hello white person!) And we feel like pied-pipers as we lead the children to the med clinic.
The med clinic is basic: five stations: hand washing, de-worming pills, bandaid station for small cuts, antifungal station, and tooth brushing.
Izzy, a students from JIS and Carrie, another teacher form JIS, work for three hours straight cleaning open wounds and applying bandaids.
In this steady stream of children, a girl looks at me while I take the above picture. Her stare still haunts me. It is only later, when I'm home and reviewing the pictures that I notice who is sitting next to her.
It is Precious. Do you see her green and white checked dress? Do you see the freshly treated cut on her arm, gleaming with neosporin?
On the way to the CLD van a JIS student asks me for a hug. And even though I'm supposed to be the one comforting (I am the adult, afterall), I fall apart. As I hold the student in an embrace, tears start, and I can't stop. I retreat to the van unable to talk. It is too much. Too much suffering. Too much unfairness. My small contribution on this day - handing out toothbrushes - feels too inadequate.
Later, my friend, Shana, says, "It's okay to cry. It means your heart is soft
and you care. It's when the tears stop that you should worry." "Baby steps," she encourages. Change doesn't happen all at once. It is a culmination of lots of tears and many, many, small steps.
And so I promise myself: I will keep crying. I will keep trying, however small. And no matter how dirty and sick, I will always accept a child's outstretched hand. For that moment, standing in the muddy slums of Kampala, was my most precious of all.
In Kaliro Village, I learn to do without, to take things slower, to shed conveniences. The house where we stay has no running water or electricity. If we want water for washing, laundry, cooking, or showering, we must walk with empty jerry cans down the dusty road to the village well, wait in line, fill them, and then lug them back to the house (they are extremely heavy!)
There are no toilets, only an outhouse with a long drop (a deep deep hole in the ground).
Bathing is an adventure. Here's our open air shower:
I fill the blue bucket with water hauled from the well and use the cup
to pour water on my head. The chill of the water makes me shudder and
gasp with each pour. I juggle the fear of being seen naked by some
village children (the door is broken and another house stands a mere ten
feet away) and the fear of being attacked by the large black pig who
roams freely. I can hear the pig's grunting as he forages a little too
close to the shower.
We wash dishes outside in teams and it feels kind of like camping, except that for the villagers around me, this is their way of life...not a recreational experience.
And because the living of life takes on a new meaning here, everything takes more time and everything requires more physical effort, I recognize another difference in the people.
Family matters because they truly depend on each other.
I watch a family working together in the muddy rice field early in the morning; their pants lay folded neatly on the side of the road because they have waded into the mud, past their knees, to plant. Two parents and four children. The mom carries the youngest on her back, tied with a swatch of fabric.
Children also take care of each other. Time and time again I see young children taking care of even younger children.
Like this girl and her baby sister:
Like this boy and his brother.
Like these brothers who walk 2 km to fill their jerry cans together and walk back home together. (Love the Seahawks shirt btw!)
Like this girl who sits with her sleeping sister on her back while the rest of the children play around them.
Family matters. Of course I know this. I love my family. My family matters to me. But perhaps we've been living below our potential. There is something beautiful about seeing siblings take care of each other - without promise of babysitting payment, without an allowance, and even without an attitude of their responsibility being a burden. Taking care of each other is just part of life.
Sometimes my family gets so caught up in our own interests (case in point - I went to Uganda by myself!), that we lose sight of the importance of each other. Of working together. Of caring for each other. Of looking out for each other. Of being responsible for each other.
Again, in a place of so little materially, I learn so much about what really matters.
My shoes leave impressions in the dry red dirt. The grid pattern of my soles look foreign amid the imprints of bare feet. With a few exceptions, we visitors are the only ones with shoes.
It is Sunday morning. I walk down the road from our house in the village past banana trees and cultivated fields of corn and beans. The family compounds - clusters of brick huts with grass roofs - are alive with the sounds and sights of morning chores. A young boy feeds goats who are tethered to a mango tree. A mother bends over a charcoal fire while her daughter kneels in the dirt, blowing the stubborn coals.
The road slowly populates with people heading to church. I can already hear the drums and songs calling to us. I walk past a family. The girls wear dresses, clean and bright in the morning sun. I greet them good morning. Moments later I hear the soft pattering of feet near me. One of the girls reaches up and takes my hand. And before I know it, her sister joins me on the other side.
I have never held a "stranger's" hand before. And I am surprised how easy, natural, and happy it makes me feel. To be accepted so quickly. I walk hand-in-hand with these two girls all the way to church.
Church in the village is held in an open air pavilion, and it is an all-day-long event. When we arrive, children offer us the wooden benches while they sit on the dirt floor.
The pastor stands. He delivers the first of many sermons. A young man translates into English. I expect a sermon about trials and tribulations. Or perhaps about how to see past our afflictions. Surely, I think, their lives must be so difficult: huts for houses, a charcoal fire for cooking, food only through hard work, and rags for clothing.
The pastor smiles at his congregation. His teeth gleam white against his black skin. "God is good..." he begins "....always!" An echo of amens ripples through the congregation. His entire sermon is praising God. Thanking God. Acknowledging God's goodness...always. The pavilion reverberates with joy. Soul-stirring singing. "Precious Jesus" from the Sunday School choir. Hand-clapping. An old woman stands to share her testimony. She begins, "Hallelujah!" Then she yells at the top of her lungs, "Hallelujah!" She pumps her hand in the air with victory. And I believe her.
The children keep looking back at us, encouraging us to join the celebration and worship.
At first I try to hide my tears, wiping them quickly away. But they come too fast. I let them fall. I have never seen nor felt such rejoicing - not even watching Handel's Mosiah at the Kennedy Center. There is a tangible joy here. It is raw. It is real. It is unshrouded by pride. It is unprompted by material blessings. It is a pure love of God and His goodness...always.
I'm not even sure how to write about Uganda. I'm worried I can't possibly contain everything I want to remember in this blog. As I compose in my mind, it either comes out like a travel log (boring) or it comes out like a Stephen Covey instruction manual for life (too over-the-top). The conclusion I've come to is just to share five stories from my experience...just a glimpse of some defining moments for me. Here's the first one:
Knees to my Chin (or the Drive to Kaliro Village)
We arrive in Kampala! After twenty-one hours of traveling, we load into the van--four students crowd in the back seat, while the remaining nine of us share the other seats. I find myself on the first row in the center - a good vantage point to see the road. Squished between Carrie (Jesca's 5th grade teacher) and Alex (Shana's Ugandan son), we settle in for the three hour ride. A box of water bottles stashed on the floor in front of Alex forces him to keep his legs bent. My over-stuffed backpack takes up my foot space. We get to know each other very quickly.
I think to myself, "No problem. A three-hour drive. I can do this." Alex passes around our snack - Ugandan chipates (thick tortillas, still warm from the grill).
One hour into the ride: I have lost all feeling in my bum and toes. I take turns stretching my legs, one at a time, careful not to bump the gear shift.
Two hours into the car ride: my lower back aches as though I've been repeatedly punched. I coordinate with Carrie, who is experiencing the same symptoms, to crisscross our legs in the available space. We look like we're playing a game of Twister.
Traffic is worse than expected. At the three-hour mark, we are only half way there. The new projected time in the car is six hours.
It is now a mental game for me.
Surprisingly, none of the students utter a word of complaint - I'm not joking here or exaggerating. They are troopers. So I try to settle in. I try to ignore the tingly, achy, stinging sensation slowly working its way down my legs.
Alex distracts me. He points out the window to where a group of Ugandan children play on a huge pile of sugar cane in the middle of a cleared field. They climb and jump as though it is a mound of hay. Some children sit on the dark, plowed soil and gnaw on sugar cane
remnants. The sugar cane is thick and green.
And slowly the pain is replaced by pictures and sights: Ugandan taxis with painted signs on their rear windows. My favorite=THANKULORD4DRIVING US EVERY DAY.
A child rolls a black tire along the side of the road. Goats dot the hillsides and graze
along the roadside. One man carries a goat wrapped in cardboard on the back of
his motorcycle. At first we think it’s dead. But then the goat bleats loudly in
protest as the motorcycle weaves between the traffic.
Alex points behind us. "The sun is setting," he announces. I strain to see the
sunset, craning my neck as Alex points to the blaze of yellow dipping behind
the towering African trees. The sky burns a bright orange and red.
The next three hours slip by like the setting sun.
And even though it is dark when we finally arrive, a group of village children
cheer and run after the van welcoming us. We emerge into the cool night, stretching our stiff legs. The children come to shake our hands and hug us. Their laughter rises in the night and mingles with the stars.
As a full time mom, writer, and adjunct professor, my life is full of ups and downs. This is where I celebrate the ups, and hopefully either learn from the downs, or just have a good laugh.
I have five lively children, a patient husband, and lots of stories to share.