Better late than never….
The holidays were challenging, but in a different way. I missed my family, friends and the subtle sounds of falling Champagne Powder with its glowing pink glimmer under snow capped lights. I reminded myself daily that many people would love to be in my shoes (or barefoot in the red dirt), but it didn’t make things much easier and in the end I couldn’t deny what I was feeling. It’s not the worst thing to become more grateful for you life, your family, your roots and the lovely souls, near or far, that make your life what it is. After spending almost 3 glorious months soaking in every possible aspect of village life, I had come face to face with feeling disconnected with life here.
But like all things difficult, this too has passed, revealing more of myself…to myself. This brought about a time of questioning my skills and purpose here. I think this questioning was necessary to see where I could improve and push myself further. The most empowering and often frightening aspect is that I have the opportunity to use my creativity as a catalyst for change. The foundation is approaching its fourth year and because of its nature, I have some freedom to co-create and implement programs as the foundation grows.
January contained many big events for me. I hit my half way mark in the village. My brother, Cassidy arrived for a three month stint in the village. His coming allowed me to test my knowledge of the organization as he is technically the first volunteer I am working with. It has also given me a chance to re-experience what it was like to first come into the village. We enjoyed many family meals and I got to witness him try foods for the first time and stumble over greetings. It is exciting to be able to share this experience with family. I swam in the Nile River with him for the first time and then spent some time washing clothes with the women along the river bank. His introduction to the community has been effortless and to see the village so excited to meet him has been nice to see.
Traveling is such a source of happiness for me, but traveling with family has become one of favorite things in life.
Whose God do you believe in?
I was asked some questions by a good family friend, Darrell, about my experience here. They were good questions and they got me thinking about issues I haven’t really touched on yet…things like religion and the cultural relationships between mzungus and mutugovs.
I’m not certain what is was about the month of January, or perhaps it was that I was more open to it, but it felt like there was big sign on my forehead that said “CONVERT ME.” Phoebe had been asking me for months to go to church with her, so one Sunday I went. They were having their bi-annual chorus concert so it was nice to be able to support her but church commenced at 9am and went through to five. There are very few things except for work days that take long.
During lunch I was able to meet more of her family. One of her sisters inquired as to why I had not come the church before. I explained to her that although I believe in God, church isn’t for me. I have my own practices that I do but they don’t consist of congregating at church. She looked at me and asked point blank, “If everyone keeps tell you something over and over, don’t you start believing that it is truth?” Meaning, if everyone is preaching the word of God and Jesus Christ, shouldn’t I start following it as well. I think it took me a good couple of seconds to respond. I was partly in shock, and partly not wanting to say something offensive. I responded by saying that everyone can have their own way of honoring God and just because I don’t follow a Christian doctrine to the tee, doesn’t make it any less right. It’s right for me.
Next week I board a mutatu taxi to head to Kampala with a sample of chicken for a big potential market. A well-dressed man sits next to me and starts fiddling with his high tech phone. We get to talking and it wasn’t long until he asked if I was Christian or had been saved. Then asked if I was Muslim. That makes up the majority of the religious population here.
He was curious to know what religion I was. I said I can appreciate practices and viewpoints from many religions but don’t adhere or define myself to one. He told me how he used to be Muslim and then became a born again Christian. He asked if I read and seek answers from the Bible. I said no. I said the Bible is a collection of beautiful stories and there is knowledge to be gained from the scripture, but that I often try to find the answers to life’s hardest questions from within. Although it can be comforting at times to seek these answers outside of myself, inevitably all the answers I need are within. Likewise, God is not something separate from myself. Our conversation turned scientific towards energy and matter and carried us all the way to Kampala. I will say his openness to conversation and listening is what kept the conversation going. Had he pushed too hard to convert me, it would have ended a long time ago. He asked for my contact info for whenever he makes his way to Jinja again. Although I have not heard from him and may never will, it was a beuatifully woven exchange of two different viewpoints.
Later that week there was a student in S.O.U.L.’s computer class that had seen me dong some road work (running) and asked if we would go sometime. I agreed, not knowing at the time we would spend the forty minutes zigzagging through the village presenting our views on religious vs non-religious equality. He is a sweet boy but he was very eager for me to join his view point from the beginning. By this point I was pretty good at articulating my personal views in relation to God and how I accept Christianity but that it isn’t something I formally practice.
I told him I don’t consider myself religious. I have faith and trust in a divine source but that it does’t necessarily coincide with that of Christianity. My views don’t make me greater or lesser than those who do. He said that based on what I had told him, I partake in some Christian practices and that I should just call myself Christian. Even if I practice something that doesn’t mean I want to be defined by or narrow myself to one group or label.
Here it isn’t uncommon for you to met someone and immediately they ask if you have been “saved”. I expressed that by doing this I believed one is immediately putting someone in a category with a sentiment of “good” or “bad” next to it. It’s as standard as asking what someone does for a living or where they come from.
In my opinion, a misunderstanding comes about when we begin to define a person by their responses. It’s human nature and I am just as guilty as the next but I was trying to explain to Road Work boy that as soon as he finds out that someone is saved or not he categorizes them. I asked him if on some level if he thinks that someone that is saved is better than someone who isn’t. In a round about way he said yes. Then I asked him if he thought I was lessor or not as good of a person since I am not in that category and he said no because he knows that I have a good caring heart. But what if he didn’t know I had a good caring heart…what then?
I was throughly worn out after the run. Not only had I run for forty minutes but I was talking most of the time about a complex matter of the heart and mind. I haven’t gone on another run with Road Work boy but I feel like I’m very clear on my standing with religious matters and can convey them in a short and sweet, concise way. Sometimes it’s better to keep mum all together since potential converters are like non-profits around these parts, just a dime a dozen. And like both, you have to be selective about the ones that are worth spending your time with.
There are even those that take to the street to preach the word of God. And by preach I mean yelling the gospel at the top of their lungs. It appears to me, that yelling in the streets is their only platform to be heard but even with the thousands of passerbys each day, I’m not sure how many stop to soak it in.
This being said, just to make it clear, I have nothing against religion whatsoever nor am I trying to offend anyone. What makes me uncomfortable about it is when people have a narrow view of acceptance because of it. There are many paths to God and our experiences will be just as varying. If two people travel from Jinja to Kampala on a taxi they will have two different stories to share afterwards, one is not less valid than the other. That is how I view one’s experience here on earth. Whether or not you believe in God or some higher power, one’s path is not less real, true or valid from the next. If energy can neither be create nor destroyed, we have all come from the same place anyway so how could we not all be equal.
And on a completely different note…yes, Darrel, I have seen a lot of Crocs around these parts. Although I have been really against those shoes based on their sheer appearance, I broke down and bought some on the street in Kampala for 10,000 ugx ($3.75 us). They are the most practical and functional shoes to wear in the mud, dust, chicken brooders, after a shower and around the house. I’m not sure where Crocs donated their millions of shoes, but the style has certainly been picked up here. Locally the are called something like bedicoat, meaning they are affordable for everyone.
Time and time again I am shown that there are so many aspects of this experience that I cannot intellectualize (some good advise from Ken Stern). I usually best gain understanding from a chance meeting, experience or conversation which reveals what I am trying to comprehend. Not surprisingly, conversations with good friends and family back home have also been a wonderful source of grounding and perfect forum to better understand and remind me that my everyday life is anything but common.
God put Africans in the oven for Longer
Pheebs has a vast knowledge of the Bible and its history. She loves to relate situations to biblical stories if she can. I’m not sure where she got this one, but she told me about how when God was creating humanity, he used a big oven to do so. He placed Mzungu man into the oven and left them there for a short time, so they remained a nice white color. Biindy (Indians) followed. God decided to leave them in the oven a bit longer so they turned a nice toasted color, their hair turning a darker color. Then with Africans, God left them in the oven too long and forgot about them. When he pulled them out of the oven they were so black from head to toe, some so black you wouldn’t be able to see them in the dark of night.
Field Trip to Entebbe
I can’t imagine the feeling of heading to an unknown city just 110 kilometers away to meet someone from a completely different culture who you have never met, but who helps support you in paying your way through school. Basti, Jonah and I made the trek to Entebbe (meaning chair in Lasoga), to meet Garth and his family, an American family who sponsor the two brothers. The family was spending sometime traveling through Africa and made a special stop in Entebbe to meet the boys. Even though the distance is short, third world traffic and travel makes the journey nearly a full day between a boda ride to town and two mutatu taxis to Entebbe, the 2nd largest city in Uganda and where the airport is located.
We met the family at the quaint and charming Karibu Guesthouse. It is owned by a French and American couple and is a lovely option for anyone traveling through Uganda. It’s a great middle priced option (about $80/night) which is hard to come by in Uganda. The boys were excited to meet their sponsors but clearly felt out of place having a three course dinner of pumpkin soup, lamb shanks and banana fritters. Garth’s son couldn’t get enough of the boys, firing off questions about what sports they like and what their life at home is like. He compensated for Basti and Jonah’s shyness in the situation.
They spoke up more once they received some gifts of school supplies and soccer balls. With huge smiles, they adored the gifts, having never received anything like it. No one in the village owns their own soccer ball, so they will certainly be the big boys among their friends.
It was a colliding of two worlds, but a special one at that. Later Garth emailed S.O.U.L. and said it was his son’s highlight of the entire trip; a memory he will cherish for the rest of his life. As for the boys, they thoroughly enjoyed the unique opportunity to meet their sponsors, something that rarely happens with the exception of those S.O.U.L. volunteers who visit Bujagali and are sponsors. From both sides, they got a deeper glimpse of a completely different life, something hard to explain in a hard written letter. It was a very cool night to be part of.
Since we were spending the night in Entebbe, I thought it would be nice to see some of the town before heading back to the village. I had read about some botanical gardens nearby so with bags full of gifts in hand, we hopped a few boda bodas to the park. At first sight it was very unassuming. We entered the gate, paid the entry fee (I was very pleased to get the locals rate of 7,000 ugx/$2.60) and found a large open space with old trees scattered around. It was unlike any botanical garden I had ever seen and more like a well manicured forest.
I turned to the Jonah and said, “you lead the way.” We started on the set path to find Ugandan herbs and vegetation. This is when Jonah really came out of his shell, telling me about the different purposes of each plant. We took our time strolling off the path to find another segment of the garden with huge ancient looking trees with immense exposed root systems. The roots resembled elephant trunks and were too large to even climb. I felt a stroke of satisfaction when Basti, the quieter one, stopped and gently said, “This is nice.”
As we continued the tall trees vanished and opened up to Lake Victoria where we found a perfect spot to sit and rest by a lone picnic table. There we spotted a Gold Crested Crane, the beautiful national bird. We observed it for some time in silence and then ventured on. When I asked them if they had seen that before they said no since they are rare.
Within the gardens were several different environments, consistently changing every fifteen minutes or so. After passing a family of bamboo trees we entered a forest of towering trees where leaves dressed the ancient trees like clothes. The serenity was overwhelming. We walked silently together enjoying our walk. Being just three miles from the equator, we passed many familiar flowers that I had seen traveling in South America. It served as a nice reminder of where I have been.
Towards the end, gentle rain drops kept us company along our walk, but we didn’t mind; it suited the mood and honestly made me feel that much closer to snow.
As we finished our nearly three hour meander through the gardens I was surprised with how impressive it was. They were vast and ever changing, completely peaceful and calming. It was the best $2.60 I had spent in a while and as the first outing of the village in months, and served as a wonderful mini-getaway.
One random and strange observation from Entebbe: everyone smells good. From boda drivers to passengers in the mutatus, everyone smelled of fresh flowers.
Rat Tooth Fairy
In the States when a young one looses a tooth, a whimsical winged pixie eases the pain and trauma with a small gift beneath a sleeping child’s pillow. That is all pleasant and nice, but this is Africa so there aren’t fairies because there are rarely even pillows. The African version goes like this: when a child looses a tooth, they dig a hole or hide it some where outside their house. Then during the night a rat comes along and swaps the tooth for some small shillings.
Araphat told me about how one time he suspected there wasn’t actually a rat so he refused to hide his tooth and alas did not receive any money. Although the tales may differ, the manevour to find faults in parent’s execution remain the same. It makes sense now why there would be no need to fear little rodents like mice and rats. In this way, they are endeared.
The last two months have flown by. In many ways I haven’t had a moment to stop and thus haven’t had a chance to write, which I have missed since writing is my catalyst for deeper understanding of the things my mind grapples with and tries to make sense of.
The last two months have elapsed in what feels like a blink of an eye and definitely have not been lacking excitement and amazing experiences. With Cassidy’s arrival came a renewed sense of home in the village as well as a great addition to the S.O.U.L. crew. I can best describe him being here as effortless, comforting and so right. He had a seamless transition and fit in very well. He has been staying with one of my favorite family’s in the village. Sal is the father of Musa and Kaliphan (newly accepted S.O.U.L. University student and hardest working volunteer). He lucked out by staying at one of the two homes with solar electricity, which is also conveniently located right by the Nile. He has taken on the hobby of swimming the River Nile daily. It is clearly one of his passions here and he is able to paddle around like a local to different diving spots.
In addition he is adored by all the children, particularity in S.O.U.L.’s preprimary. Several kids climb him like a jungle gym showering him with innocent love and leaving dirty hand prints all over his body. I think we are both equally surprised to see how natural his interaction with kids are, but it is amazing to watch. I could not have imagined this time with out him and feel like he is getting just what he needs from this his time in Africa. This is an experience we will always be able to share and as Cass said, “Thirty years from now we can still be speaking Lasoga, while no one else understands. It’s our secret language.” A metaphor for this whole experience perhaps.
Despite having seven weeks left, I’ve hit a time were I can feel my first seven month stint drawing to a close. There are far fewer ‘first time’ experiences and I have been drawn back to a feeling of enjoying every opportunity to connect with people and daily life; whether it be cooking dinner with Mama Ali over the charcoal stove or bargaining over 50 cents in the local market.
I have a sense of gratitude for the fact that this is not the final countdown of my time in Africa. I get to return for another six months after spending five weeks in the states. I will hit the ground running in a near polar opposite environment surrounded by family, friends, indulgences of every kind and far far less red dirt and dirty skin.
In some ways, I have only begun to dig deep within this experience and have only scratched the surface of this culture. Like learning a language, it happens for me in spurts. There are periods of immense learning and growth and then it seems to plateau for a bit. It feels like there are check points to learning the ways of a culture and certain rite of passages that one must go through.
My deepest craving is to continue to decipher that which is left unsaid and understand the implied meaning of actions that one can only comprehend after time and experience. My time here has provided me with many confirmations, one being my love affair for culture and the world runs deep…and it’s far from over.