rotating header

Monday, April 26, 2010

safety in isolation

Yesterday I completed mission impossible, penetrating the US Embassy in Kampala, for the controversial and delicate assignment of . . . adding pages to my passport.  You might think I was trying to extract trade secrets or subvert national security for all the barriers one must pass to get a dozen small pieces of blank paper attached to a passport.  

Background:  When you go in and out of Uganda to take kids to boarding school in Kenya several times a year, the pages go fast, since Kenya now has a lovely colorful full-page stick-in visa, and border agents everywhere delight in stamping and signing.  We rarely spend more than a day or two in Kampala, and always have an arm's length list of things to do.  So a couple of trips ago Scott thought he'd swing by the embassy for this relatively simple procedure, during the hours they have set aside for "Americans only" service (there are other times of the day when the poor Ugandans who want to travel to the US have to queue up, and I can only imagine how brutally difficult that is).  But nothing doing, he found they had changed their system so that no American can just enter through security for open hours.  One must apply on-line ahead of time for a designated slot, fill out all the correct computerized forms, and then be issued a computer-generated ticket.  I suppose so they can do a background security check on us, in case we're dangerous spies posing as missionaries.  So before his last trip to Kampala, alone, he did all that, and even though he was thinking several days in advance (which is a lot for us) he had a hard time getting an appointment.  But at last he did.  He approached the fortress, submitted his passport, emptied his pockets, went through security in the concrete surrounding walls, was escorted through locked doors to the waiting area, then sat in the bullet-proof cubicle behind glass to turn in my passport and request pages.  But no go.  Even though he did this for our kids some months back, he could not do it for me, his wife.  I had to be personally present to authorize the blank page addition.  I was 8 hours travel away in Bundibugyo manning the home front.  So he left, having wasted two precious hours of Kampala work time for nothing.

Back to yesterday:  I clutched the precious e-ticket, went through the same tough security, sat in the same chair.  With, I might note, ONE other person.  In the hour and a half I was there, only two of us got seen and taken care of. Meanwhile I had left a distraught American woman standing outside the fortress entrance speaking desperately into her cell phone, catching phrases about how she had tried to get an appointment but there were none available, could she just be seen today???  As I sat for an hour waiting for my passport to be expanded with new blank pages, I thought about all this.  

The new American embassy was built to withstand terrorist attack after the Nairobi and Dar Salaam embassies were bombed some years back.  This was not an idle fear; real terrorists did real and terrible damage.  We were in Kampala on that day, staying at the ARA no less, and it was frightening to come close to that potential, since our embassy was slated for destruction too but the plot here failed.  America reacted with a show of concrete and bullet-proof glass and procedure and protocol, with rules and guns and power.  The new embassy is much, much safer.  Most of the people who died were Africans, and everyone I encountered yesterday was too.  I'm sure there are Americans in there somewhere but even deeper and safer behind the protective perimeter. I'm glad the diplomats and the Ugandans who work for them have such a spacious and secure environment in which to work.

But I also have to wonder if the obsession with safety has gone too far.  Even as an American I felt alienated by the whole procedure yesterday. Our culture is one of no-risk, of insurance and law suits and seat belts and safety.  Which results in many people living long and healthy lives.  Wonderful.  But taken to extremes, also results in us being unable to truly encounter the majority of the people of the world, where life is unsafe.  All that protection leads to some serious isolation.

When we told the church elders we would be working as Field Directors from the Nairobi area for a couple of years, one of the first responses we got was this:  you stayed with us in the war, and you stayed with us in ebola.  All the medical care and projects and funds did not speak as loudly as our physical presence during the two most dangerous and frightening periods of recent Bundibugyo history.  We certainly have taken many isolating precautions in our life here (we drive a car, for starters).  But it was good to be reminded that sharing in common risk is a powerful communication of love.  That is the message of the incarnation.  

An option for missionaries; not for embassies I realize.  But I wished yesterday that America could present a less formidable face to the world.  I guess that's part of our job.


scruffy said...


Rosiroo said...

Heh, this reminds me of what it was like trying to extend our visa at the Ethiopian foreign consulate. It was an infathamable process and I still forget all the details when trying to explain the madness to outsiders!