"The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land."
During my junior year at Gordon, I spent four months living and studying in Uganda, Africa. As a double major in Biblical/Theological Studies and Political Studies, the people, politics, and religion of the developing world fascinated me. I was drawn to a world that was so different from mine. I wanted to meet and befriend brothers and sisters who had different presuppositions about faith and life, who had struggled with different things but had come to similar beliefs. I did not expect a semester abroad to answer all my questions. In fact I anticipated that my time in Africa would only further muddy the waters of my understanding, yet I knew that such challenges were necessary for my spiritual and intellectual development.
From my journal:
January 13, 2008. Uganda… a place that has already calmed my soul and alleviated my fears. I stepped onto the tarmac; I threw open the bus window and inhaled the thick but delicious smells of tropical summer; in the absence of electricity I stood at my window and watched bugs dance and shadows grow; and now I know that this is right. Flying over the Sahara desert, and later the orange lights of small villages, I poured out prayers to God. Somewhere in the fear of the unknown and in my shame at being white, I'd lost my excitement. Now there is something better: assurance that this semester will be hard, messy, different, challenging and good. The LORD your God goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you.
The majority of my time in Africa was spent studying at Uganda Christian University in Mukono, a suburb of Kampala. The students in my program lived together with Ugandans in the Honours College (pictured here). This was an incredible opportunity to befriend people from around East Africa in a low-pressure situation. We all grew close as the semester progressed: late night dance parties, tea time, and hiking out to the street vendors for rolled eggs or "rolex" became daily occurrences.
I lived with other upperclassmen in Rachel Hall, where the rooms were simple but adequate. Concrete floors, a thick halo of mosquito netting over the bed, and lots of little critters to keep me company. The walls were thin enough for me to hear music and conversations all around me--a swirl of African and Western sounds as I fell asleep each night.
Meals in the Dining Hall were another great way to meet Ugandans, especially students who didn't have the educational opportunities necessary to earn a spot in the Honours College. This picture shows "DH" food on its best day.
From my journal:
January 15, 2008. The food is rice, beans, posho (a parallelogram of solidified flour and water), rice, beans, posho. Tonight we had cabbage with our rice and beans, which was a nice change. Sometimes we have matoke (steamed plantain). Breakfast is white bread and tea with whole milk. Tea is served twice daily in addition to meals. So far the monotony is manageable, but it's only been three days. I'm already dreaming of cheese.
My host mother Jen Kagolo, two of her sons, a niece from Kampala, and me. I lived with the Kagolos for two weeks, walking the 45 minutes to and from school each day. My beautiful mama spoke to me only in Luganda as we scrubbed dishes, visited neighbors, and watched the African Cup (when the electricity worked). Mama Kagolo is a community counselor who works with everyone from families that have had their chickens stolen to rapists like the eleven-year-old boy who got brought in for counseling while I was there. She also heads a local micro-finance group that pools resources in order to loan capital to would-be entrepreneurs.
Mukono town, the road I walked to get to school. Companies like Pall Mall cigarettes and cell phone providers maintain the paint jobs on shops and fences in exchange for free advertising. A white girl against the red earth, I stood out as starkly as the brightly painted stores. "Mzungu! Mzungu! Come lie with me…" Propositions and (mostly) good-humored jests followed me wherever I went.
Tea was a regular part of each day. In between fetching water, doing chores, and attending classes, everyone would pause for nourishment of body and soul. The work was not complete and yet we took time to simply be with one another.
My host sister Esther taught me to scrub clothes with a dishwashing detergent called "Omo." Her skillful hands moved quickly to clean while my knuckles simply grew sore and bruised from the foreign task. Esther and I became good friends during my two weeks with the Kagolos. She was on break from school in Kampala so we would scrub dishes together, visit the local butcher, and practice kiganda (pronounced chee-gone-duh), a traditional Ugandan dance.
Sleeping Mukono town; sunrise on Monkey Hill. We hiked the trails behind campus for a breathtaking view of African sky. Best part? We actually saw monkeys.
Exploring Entebbe Zoo I came across "The Elder Tree," a gnarled giant that is home to insects, spiders, snakes, and a number of Uganda's 1000 bird species. There's an African myth that if a girl climbs a tree she will be "deflowered" and no longer pure, but I couldn't resist.
A hippo wandered into the residential compound near Queen Elizabeth National Park in the Western Rift Valley where we camped one weekend. He wove in between children playing and mothers hanging the wash to dry. We stopped to take pictures and the kids shouted, "Mzungu!" (white person). Apparently we were more interesting than the hippo.
Part of our group in Jinja at Lake Victoria--the source of the Nile River. Water takes 90 days to travel from this spot all the way north to the Mediterranean Sea. The source is absolutely gorgeous--fishermen in wooden boats, birds dive-bombing the lake, brightly colored buildings on distant hills. Gandhi's ashes were even sprinkled here.
We spent a weekend with the Honours College at Sipi Falls, a series of three waterfalls and hiking trails in eastern Uganda. Time with our new friends was always precious. One day we went for a beautiful but strenuous seven-hour hiking tour complete with Swahili praise songs and a rickety wooden bridge. Ugandans are all about community. Unlike our Western culture that takes as its starting point "I think therefore I am," Africans begin with, "I participate therefore I am."
Every once in awhile our group would take a break from Mukono's culture in order to experience something touristy. I have rafted quite a bit in the United States, but nothing compares to the fury of the Nile River… or the ensuing adrenaline rush.
From my journal:
February 18, 2008. The first rapids of the day were Level 5 (the highest in the world is 6). I entered confident and excited, but that didn't last long. Our boat flipped on the first set of rocks and I plunged deep into the river. My paddle was wrenched from my hands, I couldn't find the boat to grab onto, and I couldn't get air. I fought hard against the tumbling waves to reach the surface, but even my life jacket was no match for the angry churning water of "the washing machine." I was thrown around and around, unable to find my way up, increasingly desperate for oxygen. When I finally did break the surface, I only got one gulp of air before the next set of waves crashed down. I was under for a shorter period this time, and when I surfaced there was a safety guide right next to me. I heard his voice telling me to wrap my arms and legs around the kayak and then he paddled me out of the rapids. Even though I was safe, I felt like I couldn't get air. My life jacket seemed to be suffocating me. There were still waves crashing all around, and whenever they hit my face my body tensed again. I'd also lost a contact and was feeling dizzy and disoriented. When I finally reached my raft, I found I was the last one there. Bujagali Falls had hit me hard.
The gracious Okol family welcomed me as a daughter to rural northeastern Soroti District of Uganda for my second homestay. Life in Kyere is slow but beautiful. We spent our days lounging in the warm shade of a tree whose bitter fruit can treat over forty diseases, including malaria and high cholesterol. We shelled g-nuts (similar to peanuts) until our fingers were numb and calloused, and then spent hours more grinding the nuts with mortar and pestle. We made chapattis and macaroni and hiked to the boor hole to fetch water. The Okols had a house, but only my parents Steven and Janet slept there. Keely, Esther, and I slept in a thatched roof hut made of mud and cow dung. Every night before eating dinner we would bathe under the stars with water that had been heated over the fire.
My brothers Daniel and Anthony draw patterns in the dirt, while Mama Janet goes about her work in the background. In addition to playing with the kids and helping with chores, I spent a lot of time reading, praying, and journaling while I was in Kyere. Desmond Tutu's African Prayer Book was wonderful in helping me mold my praises to African rhythms. There were certainly many frustrations being in the village. My daily time alone with God was the only way I got through. I focused myself on simple expressions of faith like this one from Ghana:
Lord, my joy mounts as do the birds,
The night has taken wings
and I rejoice in the light.
What a day, Lord! What a day!
Your sun has burned away the dew
from the grass and from our hearts.
What erupts from us,
what encircles us this morning,
In dry and dusty Kyere, water is life. We hike two miles to fill these jerrycans so that we can cook and clean. The walk is long and hot, but neighbors join us along the way. Walking for water is daily routine. My mama does not think twice about the task before her. Although she might dream of color television and sponsors for her children, this is the life she knows. Mama Okol reminds me of the personification of wisdom found in the Proverbs 31 women. "She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family… She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks… She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy… She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come… Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate."
Back in Mukono I spent a good portion of my semester volunteering at a medical mission called "Cherub," which focuses on providing quality medical care to kids with bone problems. Cherub has a clinic, school, and dormitories for patients who are there on a long-term basis. There were some really cute kids with some really awful looking deformities. The clinic always had medical work that needs to be done--dressing wounds, assisting with procedures, etc.--but when they found out I was a Bible major, they asked me to teach the weekly class on Wednesdays at 8 a.m. So that was my focus: Cain and Abel, Noah, even a unit on fasting. I also taught them some simple English songs and they returned the favor with beautiful Luganda harmonies. When I wasn't teaching I would sit with the mothers and listen to the rise and fall of their conversation. If I sat there long enough someone would put colored reeds before me and move my hands back and forth until I was weaving a basket on my own. Then the kids would come tackle me and demand to be thrown in the air, giggling hysterically all the while. I was often late for class on my Cherub days.
I tried not to have favorites at Cherub, but I really couldn't help it. This is Muchala, my big-eyed troublemaker. She spoke no English and had both legs in casts, but even that couldn't slow her down. "Robinah," she called me.
Nothing breaks down walls like an inter-cultural dance party. Jenna and Niyo get their groove on at the Honours College farewell party. The Ugandans showed us all up with their sick beats and dancing skills.
We ended our semester with two weeks in breathtaking Rwanda. The scenery provided a stark contrast to mass graves left throughout the country from the 1994 genocide. 800,000 dead in the span of 90 days. Brother murdering sister. Doctor killing patient. We walked through a technical school where people gathered together for protection before 25,000 of them were brutally slaughtered. The government has preserved many of the bodies in lime for visitors to see. There are women skeletons clutching babies, skulls with twisted looks of open-mouthed horror, tufts of hair still sprouting from those long dead. A bonfire burns in front of the graves, smoke drifting into the striking blue sky. The scenery is beautiful--brilliant sun rests on the terraced green hills. Thick trees surround the school that once was. Rwanda is gorgeous and terrifying.
At church that Sunday we ended with a time of communal prayer. My friend Boniface from UCU preached on Ephesians 4--unity in the Body of Christ--and shared his own story of losing brothers, sisters, and parents in the Northern Ugandan war. So here we were: eight parishes, Rwandans, Ugandans, and Americans gathered together with everyone calling out to God at once. We were people from different tribes, tongues, and nations worshipping the Lord, staring at the depths of our human brokenness and praising God together that He's forgiven us, that He's redeeming even this.
I did not conclude my thoughts while in Africa because I did not know how. And now, exactly one year since the day I boarded that flight to Entebbe, I'm still not sure what to say. Uganda makes me groan at night when I'm in that place between wakefulness and deep dreams. At first I praised God every day I was home for hot showers and skim milk, but now, I realize how much I have left behind. I am torn between so many worlds… pieces of me scattered through cities and countries, places I have judged, known, hated and learned to love.
Pictured here are the girls (and dog) of Rachel Hall. If I am still without answers to the world's questions, I am at least sure that any good I want to see in the world must begin with me. Uganda taught me about the micro level--when genocide rages and children are abducted into armies, you make peace with the people around you. It helps to remember that Christ has already accomplished the world's redemption. My part is to make that Kingdom visible in the here and now by choosing to live in it. So I leave you with the prayer for peace that shaped my semester in Uganda.