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Saturday, May 30, 2009

on police and providence

Having spent a cumulative 3 to 4 hours at the police post in the last 24 . . . I've had some time to observe and reflect.  My purpose for being there was to support our younger missionaries and national staff friends as they filed their testimonies in regards to the two house break-ins in May.  The first day we were met by a tall thin older man who was teasing and brusque and craftily bordering on hostile.  But we greeted and sat patiently, adding our smoothing friction to benches worn smooth and shiny over the years of use.  While Heidi spoke slowly and concretely so that a subordinate could write out on an official form just what was taken from her house, and just how she found it . . I chatted with the in-charge.  We had invited him to a community security meeting last week and though he did not come, the gesture served us well.  We left with assurances of concern and action and official file numbers.  However they needed one more testimony, that of a mission house-worker who initially found the second breech and reported it to us.  However, when this young man compliantly reported to give his statement this morning, he was promptly arrested.

This is the dilemma:  complying with a system of justice that involves the slow and questionable process of local law, or giving up on reporting crime altogether?  No wonder lots of people opt for the latter.  We had no suspicion of this man's guilt and no intention of dragging him to jail just because he was the one who was first on the crime scene when he reported for his job one morning last week.  By the time I got to the post for the second time, emotions were high, with the police angry that we missionaries were interfering with their investigation, our worker angry with being treated as a criminal (they took his shoes which seems to be part shame and part collateral), some of us angry that this police force seems impotent to investigate crime and bring justice.  Picture the station:  a bare grimy office with one desk, one chair, one bench, and one locked cabinet; a closet-sized plank partition in the corner with no windows except the gaps between the slats that serves as the holding cell (about 5 men were in there judging by the shoes, but it was eerily quiet most of the time), two women apprehended for beating up a third girl sitting on the floor in the corner, two impounded motorcycles taking up the rest of the space, and a half-dozen milling on-duty policemen.  Their general mode of operation is to sit in this office and the porch in front of it and wait for trouble to come to them.  So a disagreement over an arrest was probably one of the more interesting things to happen that day, and drew everyone's input.

But a few hours later, we walked out with our worker set free, all the statement dutifully recorded and filed, and a plan for some preliminary arrests of more likely culprits on Monday.  God's grace in calming words, and in a providential accident.  While we were waiting, and tempers were cooling, there was a sudden crashing commotion just outside the door.  I looked up to see a girl Julia's size sprawl across the road, her green dress in a tumble of limbs, as a motorcycle skidded to a stop on its side and a young man tore off running into the market-day crowd.  In an instant a handful of policemen were chasing the hit-and-run driver, another group proceeded to impound the motorcycle, and only an old lady and I seemed worried about the girl. By the time I reached her side the off-duty surly policeman from the first morning was there too, and grabbed her, though I was trying to protest, stabilizing her spine and assessing whether she was alive or dead.  She was unconscious and limp and I could not see any effort to breathe but the policeman was not releasing her . . . and the crowd was telling him to take her to the hospital (which is a half-block away).  Off he ran, and after excusing myself from our other investigation I followed to see if I could help them.

By the time I caught up with them in the hospital a minute or two later, she was crying.  I was quite relived to see she lived.  She followed commands and a cursory neurological exam and inspection of all her limbs and head did not reveal anything more than bruising lumps.  I wanted to admit her for observation because of the head trauma, but no one else was too convinced that was necessary.  It turned out the tall rough policeman was her grandfather.  By the time we all got back to the police post, we were no longer enemies but allies.  The in-charge was also thankful and cooperative (admittedly I hadn't REALLY done anything for this girl, though my time at the hospital did allow me to evaluate and write orders on a few other worrisome kids . . ).  

So . . a morning of negotiating peace, strangely facilitated by near tragedy.  The little girl sprawled on the road formed a Christ-like picture, a cross-solution to enmity.  Tired but thankful for a reasonable ending, at least to this phase of the story.

A notable family

One of "my" girls from my old CSB cell group is back in town, on holiday from nursing school. Since she is a sister/cousin to two CSB teachers, we invited them all up for Friday evening. We ate and talked and reminisced and played a hand-slapping two rounds of Speed Uno. But what struck me the most was the prayer requests they gave as we ended our evening in prayer: that hearts would truly be transformed at school; that my children would grow to be God-fearing; that God would give me wisdom to be a good father because I'm young and it is such an important job; that I would be a good wife to my husband; that I would not grow weary in serving in my job . . .These were real and important reflections of the Spirit of God on the move.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


While the modern economy seems to be predicated upon skill specialization, as noted in our post below on practical work, missionary life requires a broader set of competencies. Just this week one of our favorite quotes on this subject came up in a correspondence. We thank Alex Hartemink for pointing us to the actual author…

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

--Lazarus Long (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love, 1973)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More on celebration and sorrow . .

Not long after the post was written blow, in a moment of post-hard-soccer-practice, pre-dinner-hunger-and-tiredness, there was a brief whole-family meltdown in which Julia sobbed:  I MISS MISS ASHLEY AND LUKE AND ACACIA!!!  This had nothing to do with her immediate brother-frustration which triggered the storm, but was insightful.  The wear and tear of daily life occurs against a hidden background of loss when those we love deeply are far away.  

And along those lines, please pray for Scott's dad today, who will be undergoing a heart catheterization procedure to eliminate a potentially dangerous area of tissue that stimulates abnormal rhythms.  It is possible that a burst of irregular beats precipitated his recent bike accident.  He's amazingly strong and resilient but we hate being so far away at important times.  Thanks for all who extend our family into the world by supporting us in prayer.

celebrations and reunions

Laura May, who has taught the Chedester kids and at Hope School in Fort Portal all year celebrated her 23rd birthday with us last night! We knew she wanted to come for a goodbye visit with our team before her term ends in June . . but the birthday was an unexpected honor! She was accompanied by Amy Hudson, who finished her term as a teacher here about a year and a half ago. Amy is traveling with friends who support orphans in the Kampala area, and carved a few days out of her trip to reconnect with us here in Bundibugyo. A few hours later packages arrived from PRAGUE for the knitting club Julia participated in, sent by former team mate Joanna. Another former team mate sent a package for baby Jonah, and yet another has been emailing involving potential recruits. These team connections that persist over time are heartening. They speak to the long-term nature of relationship forged by shared experience. They make more sense when our colleagues function as extended family than as fellow-employees. Scott and I have been processing about that lately. What is the nature of team and relationship, of the servant-leadership we are called to with our fellow missionaries? For many people who pass through our lives for months to years, the team pulls around them the way a good family should, offering meals and prayer and wisdom and empathy, or at rare times caution and concern and protection. And this makes missing milestones lonely, not just our biological family's events but important things like Lydia Herron's upcoming wedding. We are thankful for all we have learned from our own parents, and though we miss them we enjoy passing on some of their love to our extended team family here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Working hard and practically

Scott found this article in the NYTimes called " Working with your hands" :
And it gave us some satisfaction, to know that as Scott comes in soaked with sweat and grime, he's living out the new American dream . . ..
The author, Matthew Crawford. finished a PhD in political philosophy and landed a prestigious job in Washington DC. Then he realized that he was being pushed to do and say things he did not particularly believe in, and that he really loved the intellectual challenge and hands-on satisfaction of motorcycle repair. So he moved to Richmond and opened a shop, and now he's written a book called "Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work". He promotes the value of education designed to give people skills for serving others as plumbers and mechanics and cooks. And I think that is part of the lure of missionary medicine. A very hands-on and practical profession, we are always touching broken people and making do with what we can, sometimes with needles and scalpels, sometimes with books and articles. But because of where we live, we also end up making bread and ice cream, or cutting down trees and fixing chain-saws (read Jennifer's day and Scott's day in the last 24 hours, for example). One can spend a morning hour delving into the nature of forgiveness in the face of war, then the next milking a cow or making yoghurt. We can apply ourselves to programs for nutritional education, and then actually hand out food. I'm sure Adam and Eve had such a balance, walking with God in the Garden of knowing, then digging their hands into the soil.
So here's a plug for shop-class and soul-investment, for living fully as humans.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Distance and Belonging

I will be blogging occasional thoughts from a tremendous book gift from Bethany F, entitled Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf.  Let me say this is, so far, a challenging read but well worth the effort, even though I'm only a quarter of the way in.  The themes of culture, conflict, identity, are presented in the context of the author's context of a war-torn Croatia and his wrestling with the theology of the cross as a professor at Yale.   So the quote for today: 

Both distance and belonging are essential. Belonging without distance destroys .. but distance without belonging isolates.  

This applies to us as missionaries.  We do not erase our own background; we live out of who we are.  But we do so in a way that connects us to the culture here.  We look for ways to be authentic and yet to lay down our will  in order to approach others.  Always a dance, a give and take.  Volf points out that in creation God separates and binds:  separates light from dark and land from water, but then binds all of creation together in an interdependent and complex web.  In marriage we leave and cleave.  In parenting we raise children to independence, but we do not cut off relationship.  So much of the task of life is to discover who we have been created to be as separate from others, but also in relation to others.  

In this culture the belonging is protected by an extreme distancing from anything aberrant.  I am humbled by the task of crossing the distance without erasing it, of belonging without completely assimilating.  And as a parent of teens I want to help them develop a healthy sense of distance, of identity . . while giving them the solid foundation of ever-belonging to our family.  When these two forces proceed imbalanced, we can see the wreckage for years down the road.  And when it works, it is beautiful, such as the dreaded reality of boarding school turning into a strengthened loyalty.  Lord, have mercy.

Friday, May 22, 2009

On Language and Learning

Here is a link to a well-written article on Uganda's policy that local languages be the medium of instruction in the first three years of primary school, switching to English in P4. 

The issues are extremely relevant to Bundibugyo:  teaching primary literacy in Lubwisi and Lukonjo has long-term potential to enhance the neural connections that will allow students to love reading and become life-long learners.  However in the immediate future, it could put our students at a disadvantage when competing with children who have a multi-year jump start on English.  Last night we invited a few friends for dinner.  One of our sponsored medical students described his primary school experience learning to read in Lukonjo.  He is a bright and poised man who is headed towards leadership and responsibility.  His colleague, another sponsored student, also talked about how he walked over the mountains each school term to attend a better primary school on the other side, also in Lukonjo.  But we also had seated at the table a child of a CSB teacher whose primary language is English, his parents choosing to ground their children in that tongue since infancy.  And the teacher herself has spent much of her career in the field of linguistics, with a great interest in the connection between language and learning.  

Certainly my kids spend HOURS of their days on break absorbed by books.  I can't imagine the impact on their lives if all the printed material available to them was in a language they struggled to understand.  Sobering and fascinating.


Elections were held yesterday in Nyahuka, which used to be a sleepy
crossroads when we moved here, and is now a rapidly growing and
organizing town council in need of a mayor. There were a half-dozen
contenders, but the top two were a relative of our member of
parliament (think, insider, lots of clan pressure to keep the money in
the family) versus the local businessman who originally hails from a
neighboring country and a minority religion. Since the latter is
perceived to be a bit lighter-skinned and a relative outsider (in
spite of decades of residence) he ran under the nickname, Obama.
Really. People connect him with Obama, and he's been quite popular.
People respect his business skills and hope he'll be less under
pressure from local interests. Initial returns had him in the lead by
a 2 to 1 margin, and people began to celebrate. But the news of the
morning was that the other man won by 73 votes (in a city of
20,000 . . but maybe only a thousand voted, not sure). And the gossip
on the street was that the parliament-connected politician was paying
about 2 dollars per vote. So Obama and his supporters zipped off to
Fort Portal to protest. I believe the political process probably has
the greatest potential for good, or evil, than any other grouping of
people here. So we pray for clarity and justice.

In the meantime I arrived this morning to learn that Nuela had taken a
sudden turn for the worse around midnight last night, and died. I
would like to picture her now in the rich brocade robes and nose-
diamond-stud of Ezekiel's story, a beloved young woman of grace and
wholeness. I would have liked to say goodbye to her grandfather, whom
I may not see again. Very sad.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ezekiel 16

Is the passage I meant to refer to in the post below.  The story of Nuela made this Gospel-picture come alive for me.  Read it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Trench Slogging to Hope

In a 24 hour period on Monday, 5 kids died on the Pediatric ward, including the child I wrote about with such hopes mid-day on Monday, and another who breathed his last as I tried to revive him that evening, leaving my dinner cooking on the stove as the sun set and zipping down in response to a distressed call from a clinical officer. Tuesday we met for three hours or more about the future of one of our team's ministries that needs direction and funding. Today we met for another three hours with community leaders to get advice about the rash of break-ins. Earlier today I saw a newly diagnosed AIDS patient: a girl who is within a week of exactly Jack's age, her grandmother dating everything from the first rebel attack, which means this girl and Jack were both embryos when her mother and I ran. Now she's an orphan, half Jack's size or less, with a potentially lethal complication of those stressful and uncertain months in utero. Another mother today told me a disturbing tale about her child being lured away by a stranger whom she suspects was a child trafficker, right under our noses there at the hospital. Heidi challenged us to pray along the Peacemaker lines: that all of these situations would be opportunities, in proportion to the difficulty, for God to be glorified. It is a bold prayer and one that injects hope into the trenches filled with muck.

So, a few glimpses of glory. First, Nuela, a little girl from Congo whose name refers to her being born at Christmas, though her grandfather is uncertain WHICH Christmas it was. I'm guessing she's about 4. When her father died, his relatives shunned her mother and her, and her mother ran away. Then the paternal relatives sent word to the maternal grandfather who lived in Uganda to come and collect the child who was very ill. So in a counter-cultural move (children belong to the father's family in patrilineal descent) this somewhat elderly lone widower of a grandfather carried this terribly ill girl whom he had never before lived with back to Uganda and to our hospital ward, and there they are. She is listless and swollen and scabby and miserable. But I find it remarkable that her grandfather is making this effort and pray it is a story of redemption ( ).

Second, on community, Jack was invited before the first day of school this week to visit one of his best friends, Ivan, who lives pretty much on his own in a small room in Nyahuka. Ivan had saved back some of his school money and bought eggs and cabbage, and he and Jack cooked themselves dinner on the charcoal segili, then played cards until dusk. While many friends hang around our house, it was rare for one of our kids to be invited to someone's home, alone, as a human being not as part of a missionary family, just to be a guy. He had a great time.

Third, partnership. Though I dreaded this week with several of my missionary co-workers gone. . . Ugandan colleagues have shone. Our nutrition workers Pauline and Baguma Charles have been fantastic. And I realized this morning I was rounding with three of my favorite nurses! One is about to begin maternity leave any moment, the second is a mature lady (like me!) whom we sponsored to become a nurse years ago, and the third is an energetic and capable young man whom we sent for training after seeing his faithfulness over the years, who just finished his course. And to top that off, one of the three medical students we sponsor from the Dr. Jonah fund is here for a week of his school break, a breath of competence and a hope for the future.

It strikes me that these themes: prayer, community, partnership, compassion, emerging leaders . . . are the core of what we've asked God for this year. And in a week that seems mired in evidence of evil, those payers are being answered.

Monday, May 18, 2009


This morning, I was trying to run an ICU and Scott was trying to run a CSI . . .
Well, we were wishing for those two things. An Intensive Care Unit conjures images of glistening equipment, beeping monitors, tangles of IV lines, humming oxygen. Picture instead, a listless cold baby in shock, wrapped in a filthy cloth, unconscious and grunting, on a bare mattress with a litter of spent IV cannulas as two nurses use a razor blade to shave his scalp and a rubber band to try and pop up his empty veins, his mother and aunt seated on a low wooden bench anxiously watching. When they were unsuccessful after ten minutes, I decided to try an intra-osseous line. In a baby the tibia is not all that hard to penetrate, and inside the bones there is a spongy sinus of tissue that absorbs fluid well. The trick is to jam a needle into the bone, which takes more courage than fine motor skill. I do not have any more sturdy short needles designed for this task . . . so instead I used a lumbar puncture needle and merely held it in place in his floppy leg, trying to keep clear of the copious and odiferous diarrhea flowing out. We also don't have any syringes bigger than 10 ml, so it took 45 refill-and-push refill-and-push procedures, counting out loud, to get a half litre of fluid into his body. When we started I could not feel any pulses, by mid-way his heart was racing, and by the end he actually put out a little urine and began to move his arms, warming and looking a little more life-like. All the while I was praying him back from the edge. At first his mother claimed he had become sick only that day . . and I worried about cholera, which can rapidly kill. But towards the end he vomited a brown mixture of herbs, and I slowed down enough to look at him more closely and suspect that he had been dosed from above and below with local enemas which are part-witchcraft and part-local lore. Delick still may die, but I left him on antibiotics and anti-malarials and with a bag of blood warming for transfusion. And he was next to another baby with severe malaria (an advanced case with very high parasite counts) and another with severe anemia (from sickle cell disease), any of whom would attract a bevy of specialists and thousands of dollars of care if they walked into an ER in America, but who will hopefully limp through on a ward of 30 patients staffed by a couple of nurses and me.
Scott, meanwhile, was investigating a crime scene, as if he had nothing else to do with half his day. The thievery spate continues with this time someone who KNEW THE COMBINATION opening a lock in a temporarily vacated house. Interestingly the thief "borrowed" a bicycle and pair of crocs to lug the loot, and Scott and others were able to follow the characteristic tread in the muddy road (it rained hard last night) for about a mile up the road before losing the trail. The mud-caked bike and shoes were returned, and the door closed and locked by morning. We had already initiated a night-watchman plan (which starts tonight, unfortunately too late to prevent last night's episode) and invited the local community leaders and police chief to lunch on Wednesday to express our collective team distress.
These two mornings starkly remind us what we are up against: our enemy is not the desperate parent who nearly kills her baby with herbal enemas, or the desperate person who takes sugar and a mattress and dishes from a house full of much more valuable things. Our enemy is the force of evil itself in this place, the strongholds of disease and ignorance and greed and jealousy and hatred and laziness and fear. And our enemy is not only external, but we have to deal with our own self-righteousness and self-protection and entitlement and judgmentalness. A tall order for sure, which is why the cross had to be so gruesome and bloody, so serious and painful. God's ICU for our own CSI.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

REAL missionaries . . .

As part of yesterday's hooplah, the pilot of the AIM-Air plane ended
up hanging out at our house, and in between driving and supplying
snacks and water I had the privilege of doing my own interview. It
was RVA that provided the connection, I find that it is a way that
most missionaries in East Africa are somehow related. But as we sat
and talked I was awed by the real commitment and experience of this
family of AIM missionaries. The pilot's grandfather entered the
Belgian Congo in 1922 in a canoe with CT Studd, one of the pioneers of
19th and 20th century missions. His grandparents served over 40 years
as did his parents, and he and his wife are on their 26th year . . .
with four kids who will probably follow into this fourth generation.
Makes our saying "we've been here over 15 years" sound pretty paltry.
I was fascinated by first-hand accounts of Congo when it was a
functional empire of railroads and order, as well as by first-hand
accounts of the rampant corruption and deterioration that make it
almost impossible to survive there now as an outsider. But more so I
applaud the quiet heart of mission aviation, to connect people with
gifts to share in preaching, healing, teaching, etc. with those in
very remote and difficult terrain. It is often Africans ministering
to Africans these days, but the plane still enables those with more
opportunities to reach those with less. It reminds me that we are a
young mission, and I humbly soak in the history of those who have laid
down their lives long before we were born.

Kabonesa's Story

This is the title of a short booklet that was recently translated into Lubwisi by the literacy project associated with the Wycliffe/SIL Bible translation work. It tells the story of a young girl whose father dies of AIDS, and how she helps her pregnant mother and then siblings. The format of a story, with simple line-drawing pictures, is an effective tool to bring up all sorts of issues: stigma, the response of the church, medical facts, family dynamics, the emotional side of HIV infection. For most of last week the literacy workers held a workshop, largely populated by people living with HIV/AIDS, to teach them to read and use the book for community education. The hope is that dialogue will combat rumor and misinformation, and encourage testing and care. And that the Gospel will be what it is: good news, that life has come, that death is reversed. And that the process will promote READING in general, and the use of the indigenous language in particular, to speak to peoples' hearts and give them value. A tall order for a slim booklet!

The week culminated with a plane-load of media, as Christian Broadcasting Network, Moody Radio, and Wycliffe sent in a team to interview people, film songs and dance, and generally lend a stamp of approval and admiration for the work that is being done. We played only a minor chauffeur and communication role to enable the real stars, the literacy workers and the people struggling to survive with HIV, shine. Still it was fun to watch from the side lines and to catch the sense of hope!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sunshine and Beans Galore

Yesterday was one of the longest but most worthwhile days of the year - our quarterly Kwejuna Project Food distribution. Clouds which had smothered us all week lifted for a gloriously bright and hot day, allowing travel and transport for all the families involved, and no small miracle because it has rained heavily for the 12 hours since we finished. A real gift in response to prayers. The day began ominously when we discovered the store room where we were keeping all the food had been broken into during the night, the locks pried off with a crow bar. Again, either angels scared the thieves away or they opted for subtlety over greed, because only 4 of about 250 bags of beans and a few bags of salt were missing. And the oil delivery had been delayed, so the most expensive component did not arrive until morning.

As always, the women gathered early, jostling for their places on the lines of waiting benches. Each was registered and interviewed individually by one of five nurses and trained volunteers, and any gaps in care discussed, counseling given to those that were not taking their medication or attending regular clinics. Then I reviewed each child's status, sending the infants for a PCR test done with a drop of blood on filter paper that can identify the presence of virus earlier than our conventional tests, allowing early treatment. Uganda's new policy is to treat ALL infected children under the age of 1 year because of the historically high mortality in this group. These tests are sent to a lab in another part of the country, so many of the women were also looking for the results from last quarter's tests on their babies. We would search through the file of papers while they searched my face, more skilled in reading my emotions than the writing on the page. All but one new result I gave back yesterday was a negative, very fun. Each woman and child was weighed and measured, to track the impact of the food. About 80 of the 259 opted for family planning services which we offer on the spot, allowing women to remain non-pregnant as they care for their own health and their child's. Two elders from the local church sat in a side room to pray for any who wanted prayer. Those who were waiting in between weighing and testing and prayer stations sat sipping the cups of porridge we provide to give them stamina through the day. It takes about 5 solid hours to process everyone. By 3 they re-gathered, the only time in the day when the entire group is addressed as a whole. Scott preached briefly about the Good Shepherd who goes to find His lost goat (we don't have sheep here)--appropriate in a day when we are counting and numbering everyone, calling them up, and demonstrating that they are valued. The day ends with each person being handed a 20 kg bag of beans, a kg of salt, and a large bottle of cooking oil, plus a small transport stipend to get all of that home.

And as always, I came away from the day awed by team work. Locally, our entire team present right now in Bundi pitched in, working solid through the day without a break to serve these women. Another dozen health workers and community members joined us, lifting bags or praying or recording blood tests. The entire process is made possible by former team mate Pamela's heart and vision as she raised the funds from a very generous couple from her church in New York, whom we prayed for as a group yesterday. It was our first time, I think, to manage without Pat, who is usually the soul of the entire process on the ground but is currently on HMA. After some rounds of cheering as Scott greeted the women and announced what they would take home today (biggest cheer was for the salt) . . . he told them that Pat and Pamela would both be back for the next distribution in July and the entire place erupted in a spontaneous and thunderous roar of shouts. Pat and Pamela have made a real impact on the lives of HIV positive women in Bundibugyo. There is even a pair of two-year-old twin girls named after them, who happily escaped transmission of the virus from their mother, thanks to this program, and were toddling around yesterday.

By 5 we were beat, drifting back to our house for a late team meeting . . . which was subsequently taken over by the unexpected arrival of a delegation from a nutrition NGO called NuLife. Along with a Save the Children representative, they decided to come and meet us to set up plans for the training of community nutrition outreach volunteers within the next month. Very good stuff, I do think their coming was a God-send (literally), just a lot at the end of a long and hungry day. By 7 it was almost dark, rain was threatening, our kids were past the point, the meeting was not ending . . . so we invited them to stay for pizza, and the same great team who rallied through the distribution re-rallied to make dinner and serve our guests. As it began to rain, we sat by candlelight under the bougainvillea eating hot pizza and laughing with this group of energetic and committed Ugandans.

A real Kingdom day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why we're here

Today one of the boys who was implicated in breaking and entering a mission house last week resurfaced, audaciously delivering a note begging for money to a different missionary. Within a half hour he was seen slinking back around his home and pulled into a meeting with our local government and mission leaders. There is talk of caning (beating), talk of requiring work to repay the debt. There is not talk of jail, because the three boys who stole the money are juveniles, and there is no functional juvenile justice system beyond the wrath of the family (and that may be more dangerous than the police; I've known cases where the family burns the thieving child's hands to teach a lesson). The sad fact is that in this case none of the culprits have a parent who cares enough to administer a just punishment, or that feels enough responsibility or shame to force compensation. And in a country where neighbors steal the food right out of each others' gardens, three boys taking money from a missionary home just doesn't invoke a lot of public outrage. And this has left our team feeling betrayed by the slow pace of the response.

Which has left us also feeling discouraged. Loving Bundibugyo is like having a baby with colic. I know, because I've been there. The baby cries and is so unpleasant that no one else wants to be around him. Bundibugyo is that way at times: hostile, dishonest, unjust, apathetic, manipulative, unfair. It is not the quintessential community of mythical cooperation, where poor people work together for the common good, or where those who want to help are respected and welcomed. Centuries of fear and lies have driven wedges into every relationship. It is not just the physical harshness of bugs, bites, infections, rats, snakes, mud, heat . . . though those are painful to watch our team mates suffer. It is so much more the entire societal system that conspires against Heaven.

A couple of days ago I did some half-hearted CPR (because I was pretty sure there was no reversing this death) as Oscar, a 1-year old, faded out of life, those last gasps of breath signaling that his soul had slipped away, that his heart had petered out, as his mother threw herself in agony to the ground. He had been admitted for almost two weeks, and we thought we had caught his TB infection in time to save his life. But his reserves were too strained, his margin too slim. Today a frightened toddler with terrible malnutrition cried while I tried to understand her grandfather's explanations: he did not know the child's age because she had just been dropped off at his home, abandoned by her mother after her father died. Just two examples of how blatantly WRONG this world can be. Evil should provoke us, to tears or to battle. We should not gloss over the thieving, or the sicknesses. But to continue on we have to choose which wrongs God has called us to pursue, and know when to protest and when to merely accept the suffering.

Because that is why we are here: the world goes not well. But we serve One who has overcome, by love, the worst that evil can throw at us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What we're up against

The national paper published cut-off points for students for admission
on merit scholarship to various courses of study. In a country where
over 50,000 students qualify for university, there are about 25,000
freshman places in all of the universities combined, and only 4,000
scholarships. Of those 4,000, 3/4 are merit-based and 1/4 (1000) are
distributed among the nearly 100 districts in Uganda (11 per
district). Those are the 11 spots we aim for at CSB . . but sadly
we're finding that families whose children attend wealthier Kampala
schools then trickle back to Bundibugyo at the last minute to take the
qualifying exam from here, snapping up the scholarships. And the
scholarships are supposed to be allotted 75% for sciences and only 25%
for arts . . yet we have difficulty getting anyone to pass sciences
highly enough to get in, and most of our students opt for arts
combinations. For medicine for instance, the total points required (a
complicated system that assigns numbers to various scores so that
higher is better) is about 50. We have yet to break 20 at CSB. Today
I sat with one of our boys, who will be lucky to break 5. In other
words, we have a LONG way to go. Beginning with marginal prenatal
care, poor nutrition in early childhood, lack of early stimulation,
absence of books or libraries or head start programs, crowded and
poorly run primary schools, and a constant battle with energy-sapping
infections, a struggle to get text books or to retain qualified
teachers, our students have an uphill battle from birth. This is not
a one-generation process. Perhaps the children of the boys who now
spend their vacation days poring over our books, eating lunch with our
kids, playing soccer and scouring for mangos, will be the ones to
reach university routinely. Or their grandchildren. We are up
against the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" as it
says in the Bible, the systems of injustice which perpetuate
inequality and despair. And the battle requires a very long view.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A painful praise

We had excellent, encouraging, amazing news this weekend: Caleb was offered a place in the 10th grade class at RVA for the 2009-2010 school year. Since Luke has thrived, and since Caleb's options in Bundibugyo continue to narrow, and since he misses Luke so much, and since we have asked God for the gift of the ability to send him to RVA . . . we are grateful for this. The admissions counselor and guidance counselor had both told us that an opening was unlikely for next year; it is the largest (most full) class in the school. So once again we are amazed by God's ability to bring something out of nothing, to open a path where we saw none. But the good news carries a small barb, of course, the reality that our family will once again be shaken and shifting, that now 1/3 of it will be in Kenya with 2/3 in Uganda. That Jack will have to experience the grief of saying goodbye to another brother for large chunks of the year. That the continuous living together we have known for the 14 years of Caleb's life will end in a few more months. And so we praise as we wince, aware that this is a blessing from God, but one that also extracts a painful cost.


Wending through gardens and homesteads on a path barely wide enough for our motorcycle, Scott and I made our way to a pre-wedding "introduction" ceremony this afternoon. In the old days, this would have been a smaller and more impromptu negotiation between the families for exchanging women (to marry used to require giving a sister or other close female relative to the bride's brothers in exchange for her!) or later for paying the goat bride price. In the last few years, with influence from Baganda culture, it has morphed into a full-scale party which rivals the wedding for preparation and expense. The groom's delegation comes to the bride's home, bearing a pre-negotiated load of gifts. His relatives and the brides sit in the yard under temporary pole and tarp shelters, made festive with balloons and the ubiquitous decorating material: toilet paper. All the neighbors are there too, easily a hundred people or more, anyone who helped contribute to the inflated budget or who is attracted to the blaring tinny music or who wants a peek at the fun. There is much good-natured jesting and verbal riposte around a dramatic search for the right girl. The bride's family will parade out 3 to 5 young women at a time, often with sparkling chiffon wraps over their heads and faces, and he will have to decide if one of the hidden women is the right one. Once that is settled, the gifts are presented and evaluated. In today's case two very good looking goats were brought, and let me say the people of Bundibugyo are all about goats. The first was passed but the second, which was trailing twin kids, caused a lot of flurry and argument. Proverbs were exchanged in a witty way, until finally the bride's family accepted the supposedly sub-standard goat with the addition of some money. Marriage is more than the formalization of a passion, clearly there is a large element of the pragmatic, of money and family and loyalty and alliance, of survival. We did not stay through the whole ceremony.

The day reminded me of a picture of redemption. Today's bride was a school girl some years ago whom I wept over, a girl who ran away after being abused by a teacher, who dropped out of sight while she bore a child. Improbably, there she was, dressed in white, with styled hair and her strikingly beautiful face, being received into the family of a Congolese bishop. Those goats were for her, a symbol of her value. Her lost education, her stubborn refusal to implicate the father of the child, her abrupt graduation into the maturity of motherhood as she continues to raise the little boy . . all were forgotten in this day. Straight out of Hosea, a concrete picture of our hearts, loved by God not because we are innocent but because we are we.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

J and J's NFTA part 4: Coming Home

After our last game, I treated the girls to cold sodas as they shared their last lunch of posho and beans. They rolled up the mattresses, collected the cleats and balls, crammed their sheets and skirts into their small suitcases. And then, incredibly, in an intricate process involving a lot of twine, 27 people (team, chaperones, coach, cook, driver, and conductor), stock for someone's business including 50 kg bags of flour and 20 L jerry cans of oil, 10 mattresses, and everything else, piled onto a very small pick-up truck. Eunice and I, as the only two over 40, were given the honor of sitting in the cab. And the responsibility to hold everyone's bags of bread, tomatoes, bananas, extra coats, the soccer balls donated to the team, a thermos, and who knows what else. We were packed, which was good because then the jostle of the road did not bounce us too far out of place, we were so weighed down. We had a personable and careful driver, Sam, and I only felt real concern when we stopped to rearrange once and the horrible smokey acrid odor of burning brakes floated in the window. This is a steep and winding no-guard-rails kind of road, not one to be undertaken without the ability to stop.

Usually, when we drive into Bundibugyo, our kids pave a way of good will. They wave to any and all, and most people wave back. They anticipate seeing their dog and their friends. They are happy, and it is contagious.

So it was very striking to me to enter the district disguised among the CSB team. Though the girls were in uniform, and singing, almost NO ONE greeted them. I expected the same smiles and waves my kids get. I hoped for a sense that these girls had represented the district, and were appreciated. Instead I saw only glares or indifference. The spirit of jealousy was palpable. The people on the road side were not glad for these girls, they were envious. Then it got worse: we ran into a mob. Men who had done a minimal work to fill a pot-hole had barricaded the road. As we rolled to a stop they aggressively rolled large boulders right up under the bumper of the truck, and shouted for money, waving a panga and pick-axe. One even wore a CSB t-shirt . . but did they care this was the team? No, they wanted money. A couple of dozen onlookers merely watched the drama, not offering any help. The driver of our truck refused to pay, and the mood became tense and ugly, until Eunice decided that we were in danger of being stoned, and paid them off herself. The driver told us later that he spends 20,000 shillings each way paying off the traffic police at every road block, and had no more money to pay this impromptu group of thugs! I was shocked. Our status has protected us, and if we had been in our recognizable truck we would have been waved on through. But this time I got to see the hostility that people pour out on each other.

Envy and aggression, the further we went the more heavy-hearted I became for our home. Bundibugyo is a place of spiritual darkness, still. Glimpses of glory, yes, in the girls and their opportunity, but these are flickers in a sea of shadow. Lord have mercy.

J and J's NFTA part 3: Cultural Immersion

When Julia and I arrived in Fort Portal, I really had no idea what to expect. But as we jumped off a taxi-pick-up and entered the campus of the girls' school housing all the teams, we were met with a warm welcome as the girls on the CSB team yelled "Julia, you're here!" and ran to hug her and carry our bags. Our team of 20 girls and one chaperone was housed on one half of a sturdy cement dorm: a dozen metal frame bunk beds and a roof, and a nearby pit latrine. Everything else: mattresses, sheets, plastic bowls, cups, sacks of corn meal and beans, firewood, jerry cans for water, kitengis for towels, soap, basins, salt, sugar, etc. had been brought from our school. As we milled about greeting the excited team, anticipating the first match the next morning, they invited us to stay. And so we did. At first I thought, let's see if we can make it one night. By the end I realized, this is a rare privilege.

Sure, the wafting odor of urine and garbage from the congested latrines was unpleasant for all of us. It was a challenge to bathe with a gallon of cold water in an outdoor tin stall. We improved our eat-with-your-fingers from shared bowls skills. I resorted to asking teachers at schools we played to plug my phone in to recharge the battery, a luxury I had previously taken for granted. We washed out clothes by hand with our little ration of water. And since Julia and I borrowed mattresses from the Chedesters, we each had a bed, while the girls slept two to a mattress on the bottom bunks, using the top as a storage shelf. But as the days wore on, none of that seemed very consequential.

Instead I marveled to witness the way 22 of us functioned as a single organism, everything shared. Once they settled down for the night, almost no one stirred. Then between 5:30 and 6 someone would wake, and all would begin to get up, opening the creaking metal door to creep out to the cho in the morning darkness, pulling on shirts and shoes for dawn training. Each day began and ended with the harmonizing voices of the girls singing from their beds, and then a short meditation and prayer. As the dorm emptied the chaperone, counselor Eunice, and I would relax with our Bibles watching the sun paint brilliant pinks across the cow pastures below us. When the girls returned we sipped cups of thick hot posho porridge, and divided up gear for the games. With 5 games in 6 days there was a lot of down time: reading, hearing stories, getting to know Eunice who is delightful. Time to reflect, and pray, time away from normal responsibilities and the distracting burden of possessions. Julia had brought along scrabble tiles and a card game called 5 crowns, and quickly taught groups of girls to play each, so that she became the main instigator of entertainment. The team captain, the only girl who is in the Senior 6 class on the team, was in my cell group Bible study for her first few years, but most of the other girls I did not know very well. I began to learn their names, and listen and watch and absorb more about life for a teenage girl in Bundibugyo. They talk about boys, They talk about spirits who have disturbed their families. They talk about worries that their aunt will no longer be able to pay fees. They sing. They giggle. A lot.

So much of our life involves being different, being on the outside. So the gift of going undercover so to speak, was a precious one. I went from feeling doubt, to feeling some pride (!) in "coping up", to wondering why I shouldn't cope since we are all human beings.

On the 5th day we learned abruptly that our game had been delayed until the 6th day . . . meaning Julia and I would miss a ride home to Bundibugyo with Scott, meaning one day longer away than I had geared up for by then. I complained, quite a bit, wanting the whole schedule to work out more conveniently for me. But the Spirit convicted me (quickly, one of the advantages of praying for revival and repentance). Was I pretending to live by faith, or really trusting? I confessed my attitude to Eunice. That turned out to be one of the best days of all, lots of time to listen and visit. God was giving us a gift, and I almost didn't take it, like Mary at the tomb missing the whole beauty of the situation in the disappointment of my expectations.

Who would have thought that living in a dorm of 22 with nothing much more than a sleeping bag and a few books would be a real vacation?

J and J's National Football Tournament Adventure, part 2: the games

The Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports organizes a number of yearly competitions, football (soccer), volleyball, netball, as well as music and drama, and scouting. After watching "War Dance" I was eager to see one of these events, and after a week at the National Football Tournament I'm an even bigger believer in their value. Coca- Cola sponsors the boys' football, but the girls' national gathering is relatively new. This was the first year they tried to hold both the boys' and girls' tournaments in the same town at the same time: 80 boys' teams and 26 girls' teams, with their retainers of coaches, chaperones, cooks, and drivers, probably easily two to three thousand Ugandans, Julia, and me (and one other American, a peace corps volunteer who was coaching a team). We arrived just as the impressive lady in charge was screening all of the players to be sure they were legitimate students . . . and though she was surprised to see Julia, she accepted her papers and welcomed her in.

The girls' teams were organized in four groups of 6 to 7 teams each, so that each school could expect five games as they played the others in their group for the first round. Since our team had only played ONE GAME EVER, we knew this would be great experience! As one might imagine, housing four to five hundred girls at one school and well over a thousand boys at another, scheduling dozens of matches a day using pitches all over town, providing referees and line judges . . . was a monumental task done in daily meetings, with no computers, just posters and charts and markers. Fluid schedules were the order of the day. But the officiating was professionally done and the pitches were in excellent shape.

Our team came in 4th in our group of 6. Not bad for our first time out, especially considering that our group included the national champions for several years running, a team that had represented Uganda at the East African Championships. We tied one game, won one game, and lost three. In every game the girls played with strength and endurance and real heart. Even when they were behind they never gave up. I was extremely proud of them, knowing how new all of this was to them, yet seeing them gel as a team and fight for victory. Two of our losses were very close games in which we controlled the ball much of the time. Since Ashley had gone back to the US for the month, the boys' coach Alex served as coach for the games. He's a pleasant and respectful young man to begin with, and it was fun to see him really start to believe in the girls more and more as the week went on.

Julia played in the second half for three of the five games . . not bad for a 12 year old among girls who average 16-20. She held her own, well trained by her brothers, and had several completed passes, steals, and one good shot on goal. Interestingly her main value was probably spirit. Clearly when she came on the other team wondered who she was (I heard some girls query if she played for the Netherlands national team!), and the spectators reacted with cheers (and some jeers). I saw her laughing with the girls she guarded as she stuck close "marking" them. She had a blast.

All of the girls came away inspired to train hard for next year. They tasted a small dose of success, a precious draught in their lives. They interacted with girls from all over Uganda, different tribes and cultures and schools and backgrounds. They saw women confidently coaching and refereeing. They spent a week in a place much different from Bundibugyo, for many of them the first time to be so far away from home for so long. Back at the hospital yesterday I remarked that most of the young mothers of children on the pediatric ward were within the same age range as the girls on the football team. What a contrast, to be a 16 year old representing your school and district in a national tournament, wearing a uniform, running and playing, hearing applause . . . or to be a 16 year old cradling an ill child, education over, a husband who probably drinks and beats you, a mother-in-law who expects to be served by you, very little opportunity to be affirmed except in producing more children.

Three cheers for girls' sports.

Julia and Jennifer's National Football Tournament Adventure

. . . began with a bus ride. Which should not be so adventurous, except for the fact that public transportation is the most death- defying activity for an otherwise healthy foreigner in Africa. I had long clung to the safety of traveling in our own truck, with our own defensive driving, and I admit that in over 15 years of living here I had never braved the bus before (I know that makes me a wimp of a missionary . . . ). Our family had arrived in Kampala from Kenya a week ago on a Friday evening, and we knew that if Julia was to participate with her Christ School team mates in the Girls' National Football Tournament in Fort Portal, she and I would have to take the bus Saturday, parting ways with the guys who needed to stay and buy medicine and food and do all the usual Kampala errands. So we packed as little as possible in bags we could easily carry, and Scott dropped us off at a congested intersection in the heart of the city. I pretended to know where I was going to discourage the inevitable hustling offers of dubious guidance, which involved several confident but wrong paths shouldering through throngs of people in the market mazes before finding our way to a fenced lot full of buses. We paid our fees (about 6 dollars each) and were jostled onto the already full bus. The conductor wedged us into the back bench seat, with people blocking the window and the aisle, our bags on our laps and under our feet. I protested that Julia would surely throw up, but he cheerfully said, no problem, we'll hand her a caveela (plastic bag) to vomit in. Friendly passengers greeted us with "Obama, Obama", but after a few minutes I started to feel claustrophobia and mounting panic. I think it was probably a bit of an obnoxious thing to do, but I felt like I had to make and effort for my daughter. I offered two women nearer the door and a window a few dollars to change seats. They jumped at the chance, and we were all happy, them with pocket money and us with our own two-person bench and an open window!

First we filled up with 384 litres of fuel, which I calculated cost within ten dollars of the full amount one could collect from the 60 seats, so either the profit margin is very very small (basically the passengers over capacity), or that fuel must include the return trip. No wonder so little is spent on vehicle maintenance. No one budged from their hard-earned seat, but it would have been possible to buy anything from bottled water to socks, dictionaries, school books, gum, or a suit jacket from vendors who wiggled up and down the aisle. Finally we were off, peering over walls and into compounds and shops from the high vantage of the bus window, twisting and turning and bumping over the rough back ways of the city. Within a few minutes a small boy three rows behind us had thrown up all over himself and the floor, the stench of which made us even more thankful for the open window bringing air. Once we left the city limits we gathered speed, so there was a good breeze as the papyrus swamps and small villages flew by. A small TV mounted at the front played Ugandan music videos, with cheerful reggae rhythms and girls in scandalously skimpy clothes, a sharp contrast to the respectfully dressed passengers clutching their bags and holding on for dear life, or kids in their best suits heading to visit grandparents in the ancestral villages. At the half- way point we stopped for the swarm of fast-food street vendors to shove their meat kabobs, roasted cassava, or chapatis through the high windows. After that the bus stopped more frequently (which slowed our progress but in my opinion also improved our safety) until the aisles were also too full to accommodate any more people, chickens, boxes, or other items. A young woman with a baby struggled to balance beside us, but when I tried to hold the baby for her he began to cry, so she instead sat on the arm rest, practically in my lap.

And so we reached Fort Portal, amidst banners announcing the National Football Tournament. Our adventure had barely begun, and I was glimpsing some of the purpose of God in our lives: to dismantle a bit of the carefully constructed safety net we had accumulated, which after many years had become a barrier between us and Uganda.