"I rock back and forth on my chair like a baby, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong somewhere… To scrub the hundred years' war off this white skin till there's nothing left and I can walk out among my neighbors wearing raw sinew and bone, like they do" (Kingsolver, 474).
The summer before my final year at Gordon, I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (from which the quote above is taken). It resonated through me. As a double major in Theatre Arts and English Literature, places such as Oxford or London seemed the obvious choice for my desired semester abroad, but entering college and knowing I wanted to study abroad, I was acutely aware of where my heart was drawn to.
I have always had a preoccupation with the African continent. Since college, my passion for theatre and social change collaborated, leading me into the world of politically imbued theatre. I want to participate in theatre used towards reconciliation. I love when the potential of theatre's power is tapped, such as how it was used in South Africa to fight apartheid and in Rwanda post-genocide.
I spent four months, the fall of my senior year at Gordon, studying at Uganda Christian University in Mukono, Uganda. At points I wanted to rub my skin off. It was a difficult semester. I also wanted to stay though--I want to be a person who stays. The Poisonwood Bible was my first assignment of the semester and it prepared me for the challenges I would immediately face in East Africa. This picture was taken just a couple weeks after I arrived there; the day I left our ten day stay in Rwanda.
I met the USP group of 38 students in the Washington, D.C. airport and together we flew to Amsterdam and then Entebbe, Uganda. Just one week after soaring 37,000 feet above the Libyan Desert, we bobbled along Ugandan roads towards Rwanda. Before classes started on campus, we were to spend ten days experiencing this nearby East African nation, and learning much about the 1994 genocide.
Rwanda is beautiful. Walking across the airport runway under the huge, African, starlit sky was dramatic. A week later, driving through and around Rwanda's mountains took my breath away.
Rwanda is best known for the 1994 genocide of over 1 million people. Among the most disturbing things I learned were of the churches, convents, and schools turned into killing centers. Pastors herded their congregations into house after house of God, to purposefully turn around and watch death win: Nyarubuye, Kibungo- 20,000 dead; Nyamata, Buyesera- 10,000 dead; Nyange- 2,000 bulldozed with church.
General Dallaire, UN General in Rwanda, had estimated that as few as 5,000 troops could stop the genocide. Instead, by fall of 1994, refugee camps bulged with over 2 million people.
Ibyangywe na jenoside. Devastation.
We went to several memorial centers while in Rwanda. Before entering the Kigali Memorial Centre, we were toured through the gardens. Amidst flowers and sunlight, overlooking Rwanda's capital city of Kigali, I froze in the midst of fifteen mass graves, resting place of 258,000 genocide victims.
I fumed with fact after distressing fact. Then I was pressed back into my place by the reminder that it is easier to get angry than be humbled. I shook my arms and turned my eyes upward to see the life that shunts forward in the mountainous beauty of Rwanda. The depth of the wound Rwandans unveil for those willing to peer testifies to their unconquerable hope. Their need for us to move forward in humble recognition that we take part in the very crime that caused genocide in Rwanda and continues to cause it all over the world: the crime of self-interest.
Leaving The Murambi Memorial Centre, where I walked amongst lime-preserved bodies for over an hour, I wrote in my journal:
I see my mannerisms mirrored in those of the Rwandan genocide victims: sleeping hands curled quietly under a face, just the way I drift away each evening. But these quiet hands are white laced with lime, and this face is not gently drifting into rest. Hundreds of bodies, room after room, of white skeletons. Rid of the skin that deemed them fit to die.
This place is so beautiful--each ride gasps at the landscape. Yet, it is not the beauty of the mountains that seek out God in me. It is the depth of pain. A yearning for some relief to the struggle to stand in the knowledge of such evil. The presence of such evil.
The staggering paradox of Rwanda was the presence of joy and beauty, in the midst of such extraordinary ache. I watched traditional Rwandan dancers caress the air with their arms and twist their bell-bestowed ankles, and was then pulled up to dance beside them. I laughed at myself--my clumsy, red-faced self, juxtaposed with the depth and grace of this Rwandan woman.
And I left Rwanda the same in at least one way--in awe of the country's beauty. The same mix of surprise, joy, and frustration at each "mzungu!" (white person!) I heard yelled in my direction. The same admiration for each man or woman carrying a world unknown to me atop their head.
That is what so much comes down to--this is a world far and wide unknown to me--over my head and I'm without the neck to lift the weight. Still my heart aches to try though, prods my hands and feet to move forward in placing bits and pieces above my snow-white complexion.
Public transportation in Uganda was a hoot--sometimes a death-defying, fear-inflicting, hoot what with the state of roads and driving, but usually just blatant entertainment. On a routine matatu (taxi) ride into Uganda's capital city Kampala, my roommate and I looked down at our feet to realize we were surrounded by chickens. These 14 passenger vans often crammed 25 people aboard, children sitting on laps and mattresses strapped to the roof. Eighty live chickens shoved under seats and in the slim trunk was a new experience though. One laid an egg next to my roommate's foot! Just outside Kampala, the matatu stopped so the owner and his flapping trade could de-board. They piled onto two motorcycle taxis (boda-bodas). Each boda-boda had forty chickens draped over their respective handle bars.
Chats about spending four months in East Africa prevailed in my last weeks pre-departure. A commonly asked question: "Are you nervous about anything?" My immediate answer: "I'll do a two week homestay within the first month. And I'm terrified."
The homestay seemed an abyss of awkward forced social interaction. I imagined myself committing every cultural faux pas; imagined breaking down while struggling to bathe with a bucket of cold water in the dark, desperate for a conversation without endless exhausting miscommunication. Yet, for two weeks I stayed with a Ugandan family in Mukono and walked back and forth to campus along the road in this picture for class every day. And I am alive to miss it and tell about it.
Our latrine was outside, across the small cement courtyard shared with the neighbors. I loved using it at night. I did not foresee experiencing joy in the need to unbolt the back door to use a pit latrine, with my headlamp aglow and toilet paper in hand. But the view shivered with radiance resonant of David Crowder:
"I look into black skies strewn with shimmering dots of light - nights with stars that sometimes seem to hum and buzz with word of their maker. Moonlight you can feel on your skin if you pay really close attention…a touch of remembrance that the sun is shining just as bright as ever and dawn is coming."
No really, you should use a pit latrine at night sometime in East Africa, you won't regret it.
Later in the semester, we traveled as far North as the United States Embassy would allow for a rural homestay. Uganda's population is eighty percent rural, and in Saroti I experienced a bit of it. I laughed nervously and placed my head in my hands as the truck turned off the main dirt road and began the 15 minute drive through the bush to my rural homestay. The driver asked us to roll up the windows to keep snakes from coming in off the branches that hugged against the vehicle. Potbellied children could still be heard yelling, even through the closed windows, anticipating the tears I would soon receive from the two year old twins that became my niece and nephew, frightened at the anomaly of my white skin.
My life (thus far) felt as if it were culminating when I was suddenly ushered to my hut by my Toto (Iteso for Mom). This clearing in the midst of African bush--a small compound of huts, a latrine, and several graves, was my home. Toto and Papa, a couple in their seventies, became yet another pair of parents. I was alone in my whiteness, and incredibly welcome in my self.
This is my hut.
My Tata, Iteso for Grandmother. She is the idyllic image of an African woman. I estimate her to be at least 5'9" and in her nineties. She walked with a (at least) six foot tall cane, and when she lacked her cane, she would crawl across the compound to greet me in the morning. She spoke absolutely no English, yet we managed to communicate. She lives in her own hut to the edge of the compound, still hand washes all her own cloths, cooks her own food--even butchers her own chickens. In this picture she is wearing a traditional Ugandan "gomez" (dress). She stares quizzically at a handful of Jelly Bellies, my gift for them brought from the States. She was puzzled, but soon gave into trying one, and then required a taste of every flavor.
Ruth, one of my sisters, stands in our "gardens." Surrounding the compound are fields of the food they garden and farm for sustenance. I attempted to help weed cassava and dig sweet potatoes and ground nuts. My work with the sharp, heavy hoe (what Ruth holds here) was a fumbling gag next to her strong and graceful work.
Along with farming, dish and clothes washing, grinding flour and ground nut butter, I also attempted to help retrieve water from the bore hole. My family was proud of my humorous, tipsy effort. Ruth carried a jerry can twice the size of mine on her head, while also carrying one this size in her right hand. She didn't need a hand to balance it atop her head either.
I crumbled when I rode back along those footpaths. My niece and nephew, Mercy (pictured here) and Opio, had stopped crying at that point--stopped "fearing." I cradled Mercy in my arms in the moments before leaving. Opio tugged at my skirt. Toto gave me millet flour we had pounded and ground together.
I crumbled upon departure. Days later I continued to crumble, though less. And I continue to pick up these pieces, and will. I hope not to gather them all. I do not want to recover from this.
My arms were sore for a week from planting grass at St. Stephen's Primary School. I arrived one Tuesday to work at my service project, and was presented with a large metal hoe and pointed toward a grassless red dirt area (about a ½ basketball court). Hard, cracked, and dry dirt, aching to be dug and planted so the rag-clothed children could play barefooted on green rather than perpetual red. For the next thirty minutes eight year old boys put my hoe-digging ability to shame. When we ran out of grass to be planted the project paused until the following week. The teacher supervising retrieved four badminton rackets and a birdie, handed them to me. Suddenly the 50 or so boys were clamoring to be the first to play. Yes, at least a 50 students to 4 rackets ratio, with one non-Luganda-speaking mzungu to organize. Thirty minutes later I was laughing amidst them all though, watching this somehow work, and remembered once again that I am in Africa. I stood on a hillside, amidst so many dark faces, looking out at the Mukono dusk, and wondered again how it is that I got there. This is where we played, a few of the children still scampering about.
Among everything else in my semester abroad, I was able to volunteer with Life in Africa (LiA), a community center which helps provide microfinance loans, craft sales, and community groups--all sustainable aid and change, organized by and for Ugandans. Once a week I went to Banda or Ntenda and surveyed LiA member families, helping the community center's attempt to create a comprehensive survey from which to track growth. The center is located through the pictured path, in an Acholi Internally Displaced Persons camp. Many of the members live in slum-like conditions.
One Wednesday I surveyed Zuan Chandini who provides for her sisters five orphaned children. The 5 year old, second to youngest, is HIV positive. Even with the prevalent reality of HIV/AIDS here, the translator I was working with struggled to move to the next question after hearing of an infected toddler.
"Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation? Now God be thanked that here is a beloved one who can lift up the heart in suffering, that one can play with a child in the face of such misery…Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle, and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us? Who knows why the warm flesh of a child is such comfort…" (Cry, The Beloved Country, 56-7).
The experiences of the LiA work refuse to sink into my reality. I think asking questions of food intake, future goals, and past experiences with child abduction put my emotions in a distanced state for the sake of sanity. Sitting in a mud room that is home to three adults and three children, with the walls covered in cardboard, I attempted to acknowledge the depth of the interaction. Instead I am left with an inarticulate flow of facts. In return for two hours of my questions Molly Kyomukama (pictured) gave me half an ear of roasted corn and a hug. What could I give her? I hugged back.
I dreamt of Africa. I did so growing up, and while I studied at Uganda Christian University, and have since my return. My presence there never really felt a part of me. When I was in fourth grade a woman visited Fitchville Baptist Church in Bozrah, Connecticut. She worked for a school in Kenya. She gave me a small, leather, flip-flop keychain. Seven years later my car keys flopped along with that piece of East Africa. A few years after that, it held my first Gordon dorm keys and meal card. It held the keys to my first apartment the summer before my Ugandan semester, before I left the keychain to come back to its origin myself.
Walking off the plane onto the runway in August, the huge African, starlit sky engulfed me. Yet, it let me be. I went to Africa and was still following myself around. I shook my arms to attempt to feel what remained so far away. And as I left that final Tuesday night, I again walked across that runway. Ached up into the starlit sky, and knew this was going to be hard. Arriving in Uganda was simpler. Exciting. I left a place I love for a place I did not know. That Tuesday I left a place I love for a place I love. I whisper to myself: "live in the tension!" while I wonder if I'll ever live out of the tension again.
I do not know what will come next. Well, that is only somewhat true--tomorrow is next, but more long-term, more wide-frame panoramic, how long I will stay or go? Will I do good or just be present? I stay right now because it is the truest form of faithfulness available. If staying in six months is still the only blatant way to live what seems to ought to come next, I hope I have the courage to do so. If flying off somewhere, whether Chicago or the Lybian Desert or Phnom Penh, I hope the same. I don't know if I believe in moments of epiphany or promise for changing the world any more. I do believe in following opportunities to give of myself--here and far, and wherever I end up. I desire to give of myself. Faithfully.