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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bee calm

The swarm of killer bees mysteriously moved on after a day in the mango tree.  Not sure what they're looking for, but hopeful that they find it far from our home.  Our workers and friends are relieved, too.  We've heard of them killing goats by stinging, so we were a bit worried about Star whose house is directly under the mango.  But before we could form a plan of defense, they left.  However, within hours of their departure a major caterpillar migration ensued.  These are toxic-haired little beasts that we have learned NOT to touch at all costs, as they raise welts on contact.  Dozens were crawling up the sides of our house last night.  Makes the roaches and mosquitos and obukuni (midges) seem rather benign.  

Monday, September 28, 2009

you know you're in Africa when . . .

You're washing dishes and hear a peculiar almost electronic hum, but there are no electronics around, so you walk out to see what is happening and notice the air around the mango tree thickened, wavy, shimmering with a cloud of thousands of bees . . a colony has moved in, a huge mass of bee-bodies forms a dark growth on the trunk today, a deathly danger.  This is not a few bees pollinating flowers, this is a hostile takeover of the mango tree.  Which is usually infested with fruit bats, by the way, and has been declared off-limits to our kids since ebola was linked to bats . . not to mention that previous climbs have resulted in broken arms. In Africa the back yard is not necessarily a benign place of refuge.

You're biking down the sandy damp road to work and almost wipe out because a black hairy pig decides to trot across the road, taking no heed of down-hill bicycle speeds, and then stops squarely in the middle to root out an interesting smell.  Thankful the brakes work!

You're counting your blessings because the ward had only two patients overflowing onto the floor after filling every bed, and no one died all weekend or all morning, and the two nurses on duty actually came to work and were less than an hour late, and the theatre nurse was actually present running the charcoal pressure-cooker sterilizer so that there is hope the burn patient will get his dressings changed today, and everyone waiting for consultation had straightforward issues like malaria and pus-ridden skin.  A good start to the week, in spite of it being a Monday.

You're invited to a meeting with the member of parliament who also happens to be a Minister in the Education department, and spend the entire morning waiting for the big man to arrive, knowing that the hundreds of other people also waiting mean your chance of actually connecting with the MP is slight, but the fall-out of being seen leaving is also potentially harmful, so you're stuck.

You're awakened every morning by the new Nyahuka taxi, which finds it essential to gather customers by beginning to blare it's horn every 90 seconds from approximately 4:30 to 6:30 am, a marketing ploy that does not seem to be impacted by the fact that NO ONE comes to board at 4:30.  Remember that none of our houses have window panes, just open screen, so outdoor sounds are not muted at all.  Some of us are distant enough that it is merely an annoyance, but for those closer to town it must feel like a traffic jam in the driveway every morning.

You're preparing to cook and remove approximately a quarter cup of grass, dirt, sticks, and two live worms from the two cups of beans from the market.

You look at the clear morning sky suffused with pink, shiver a little in spite of being on the equator, and know that by noon it will be intensely hot and by 4 pm it will be raining.  Every day.

You see more smiles than tears from people around you, whose lives you could only barely imagine living, they take it in stride and still find the humor.  Humbling and amazing.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Occasional thoughts (2): communalism

The same book referenced below (Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview, by Ysusfu Turabi) shed light on a conversation with our students.  Today is "visiting day", when parents are encouraged to drop into the school grounds (preferably with food from home) and see their kids.  I got up early to bake cinnamon rolls, boil eggs, and brew chai so that we could attend chapel at CSB and then invite our five boys to a brunch picnic.  After discussing the recent Premier League football standings and news of everyone's family, the topic turned to a long and convoluted story about roll calls, dorm duties, jerry cans, accusations, and the discipline master.  The details are a bit obscure, but the bottom line is that the two boys who are responsible as leaders in their dorms debated quitting that role, because they are blamed from above, and scorned from below.  Sigh.  

Turabi looks at human relationships from an African standpoint on four axes:  harmony (the ultimate value is to live in harmony with the spiritual and physical world, not to obey some transcendent rules of right/wrong), spirit (meaning is found in pragmatic interpretation of spiritual matters), power (seeking survival by manipulating the dynamism of the universe for your own ends), and kinship (pursuing harmony and meaning and power are all done in the context of promoting one's own family/clan).  

So in this context, how do teenagers relate to their dorm mates?  Well, they don't want to create enemies.  This is not a question of truth, or right.  For them it is a question of survival, of staying out of trouble, of keeping harmony in relationship.  I didn't have much to say, other than go to a trusted staff member regularly, don't let things build up, lead by example, and pray.  Perhaps if these kids learn to lead in their dorm, the ripple effect in decades to come will change leadership in Bundibugyo.

Occasional Thoughts (1): spiritual arbirtrariness

A few weeks back we entitled a post "arbitrariness and stress", about the experience of crossing borders and being stopped by police where the rules are unwritten and unclear, the response variable, the potential for disaster ever-present.  Once again this week Scott had to spend three hours in unmoving traffic crawling through Kampala in order to take Melen and her three youngest children to a medical conference where Dr. Jonah's memory was being honored.  Due to situations beyond his control, he reached Kampala at dusk, and due to our friendship with Melen, he had to persevere into the heart of the tangle of the city.  And due to our truck's ever-tricky electrical system, the lights were once again on the blink, brights only and then only if held manually in the flash position on the steering column.  So with three small tired children, in the dark, on Kampala's uneven potholed narrow unlit over-used streets, he had to endure hours of  creeping forward while holding on the brights, while every other driver yelled and cursed his bright lights, and any random policeman could have extended the three-hour torture to an all-night police-station escapade.  It was rather frazzling.

I picked up a slim book that is proving to be a treasure:  Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview by Yusufu Turaki.  And I realized this morning, that those hours of traffic torture are a window into the every-day every-hour experience of many Africans.  Because besides benevolent and evil spirits, they also perceive a that all of creation is "infused with . . impersonal power" which can be used "for both good and evil.  The existence of wicked human beings and wicked spirit beings, who also have access to mysterious powers, makes life full of uncertainties--rife with unpredictable wickedness and and evil and dangerous to human beings.  Thus traditional Africans who  believe in the impersonal powers feel they are at the mercy of benevolent or wicked users of these powers."

So I suppose it is a good thing for us to enter into the experience of unpredictable malevolence.  We are so used to a world that contains some order, some limits, some laws, some assurances and protections, that it is not until we are in the dark of night in a city of dangers that we can glimpse the world view of our neighbors.

And it makes the good news that much better, that the Creator is not only benevolent (willing good towards us) but also imminent, involved, and interested enough to take part in this world "densely populated" with spiritual beings and forces.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Truth Will Make You Free

This phrase popped up in our kid cartoon movie last night (Meet the Robinsons . . ).  But Jesus actually said it first, in John 8 . . . the topic of our weekly team Bible study this week.  Truth is not a very American PC topic these days I suspect, and it is not very central to African thinking either.  Expediency would be more to the point.  So it was interesting to study this chapter on Thursday with our team, and again on Friday with the Health Center staff.  (Yes, I did it twice, because I can only lead and prepare so many meetings a week . . .and God was still working on my own heart from this story anyway).  The pithy statement about truth is preceded by the dramatic encounter between Jesus, a ready-to-stone mob, wily political agitators, and a woman who had been caught in adultery.   To a Ugandan audience, the communal response to adultery, the idea of involvement in marital conflict and negotiation of penalty, the way a new leader challenges authority, and the scene of it all playing out in the public market space, makes perfect sense.  One nurse actually admitted to helping stone a suspected rebel once.  So the story was very relevant, very alive, the discussion very participatory.  No one particularly sympathized with the victimhood of the woman, and one man in particular who hails from a law-oriented world religion was quite offended by Jesus' refusal to condemn her.  But before I could say anything to that, another participant from the same religious background stated:  "But Jesus came to SAVE sinners, didn't he, so it makes sense that he would forgive."  Wow.  We talked more about the way Jesus transitioned the law from being an external set of rules that protected community cohesion to an internal code of character and conduct, a matter of the heart.  And this is the scalpel edge of truth:  only in a confrontation with the judgement and love of a person such as Jesus can the kind of heart change occur where a woman does not just become more careful in her adultery, to not get caught, but actually chooses faithfulness.

And me?  I realized I would like to SEEM loving, more than I actually want to BE a lover of people.  I want to SEEM wise and trustworthy, more than I want to put in the sacrificial time to BE those things.  I want my family and team and neighbors and coworkers and supporters to FEEL cared for, whether or not I actually AM caring for them. I don't want to be publicly caught out in my selfishness, more than I want to root it out of my heart.  It is the kind of subtle distinction that needs the freeing light of truth.  Jesus stoops, writing in the dust, aware of the implications, not forcing His opinion, but offering that freedom.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

East Africa's "Perfect Storm": HOLD ON!

From a news report yesterday:  

The African continent is no stranger to humanitarian disasters. Climatic changes, war, financial hardship and infrastructural chaos seem to regularly take turns in plunging one region or another into desperation. The latest crisis is centered on East Africa, where countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are currently experiencing a 'perfect storm' of suffering.

These countries and others in the Horn of Africa are facing a combination of below-average rainfall, the prospect of serious crop failures, increased instability through regional and civil wars, and the overburdening of less severely hit areas through the displacement of populations.

A report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also warns that an already serious food insecurity situation in the region could worsen. The FAO report ominously predicts that if El Nino, the oscillation in ocean temperature which usually brings heavy rains towards the end of the year, delivers as expected, floods and mudslides could add to the misery by wiping out existing food stocks, killing livestock, damaging infrastructure and making thousands homeless.

This is sobering news for running a school as food prices double, for managing nutrition programs as patient loads multiply, for living in a jungle on a mud road as floods threaten.  We are warned by the FAO to plan ahead.  If the World Foot Program and the United Nations can't manage to get enough food or stop the conflicts, I'm not sure how we're supposed to solve these problems locally.  I suppose bearing witness to what we see, giving what we have, and praying.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


A massive rain storm swept in this afternoon, catching me at home between hospital rounds and chapel.  After half an hour of relentless pouring, I realized I was NOT going to make it to chapel.  So I embarked on lingering homework, updating the simple database of HIV exposed children that I try to keep.  These are the kids who come to clinic, or to Kwejuna Project quarterly gatherings, where we can follow-up their testing.  The denominator is problematic, because only the children who survive long enough to see me, or whose mothers are motivated to come regularly, are counted.  The sick kids are probably over-represented in those that seek care.  But I still found the big picture rather interesting.

There are 286 kids, from age 2 months to age 15 years.
73 are infected, which is 26% overall.
Of kids born in the last 3 years 30 of 216 are infected.  That is 14%.  (More reflective of PMTCT, the Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission, since the older kids are in our care because they are SICK not because their moms were screened).
PMTCT is supposed to cut transmission rates in half.  Again, the math is not perfect, but the general trend there looks good.
Of the 30 kids infected in the last three years, it struck me tonight that 10 were born in the time of ebola.  It looks like a 3X risk for infection between Nov 07 and Mar 08.  The health care system, particularly PMTCT, essentially stopped functioning in that time.  Our numbers are not high, but that's a pretty dramatic rise in risk in a very defined time period.

I keep the list so that when these kids show up on the ward or in the clinic, where the medical records are almost always NOT available, I can quickly find out their status.  It is a list for reference, but when you look at it for trends, I think it encourages me that the medical effort is accomplishing something.  Though there are also reminders of our failures.  At least 7 have died.  As I type in data I can see some toothy skinny smiles and some plumping-out cheeks in my mind, more than just names and test results, these are nearly 300 human beings who did not choose to have their existence defined by a struggle with AIDS.  

Never too old for homework.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

snapshots of a day

Three hundred chicks, in a mud-walled and screened shelter, Jack helping our agricultural extension workers under John's supervision to vaccinate them all, the future of egg-protein for malnourished kids.  Dusk falling, the charcoal glowing in small screened towers to keep the chicks warm.  Three weeks old and so far 100% survival.  No small miracle.

The two widows of my late neighbor, knocking in the afternoon, we sit on the porch, they reminisce and we all shake our heads to realize that their son John and my son Luke will finish high school this coming year, when it seems they were just playing trucks in the sandpile together.  They ask for ibuprofen for their aching backs, but I know the visit is not about the ibuprofen, it is just a check to be sure we're still in relationship.  My heart aches for the way their husband's clan disinherited them, and how hard they have to work now to survive.

Another knock, on the hospital store room door as I'm getting on my doctor-coat and preparing to begin the day.  A father holds a bundled child, having just arrived from who-know-where, and says the child is very ill.  As they all do.  But I tell him to lay the child down on a bed and begin to examine him.  The hot little body is too still.  No heart rate, no respiratory effort, vacant eyes.  He died sometime along the way.  I tell the father, who quickly re-wraps the body to walk back to wherever he came from.

Blue suede shoes, Israeli Birkentsock-type sandals, appear on a patient's dad.  Unusual, not just because of the style choice, but because the very same shoes were stolen from Heidi's house months ago.  I confront the man, who assures us he bought them in the Mpanga market in Fort Portal (3 hours away by car, who knows how much time it took the thief to unload them there).  Heidi wisely decides that she does not particularly want them back off this man's none-too-clean feet.  We laugh.

Greens, dark for the mountain tops, bright for the trees, a palette of shades for the landscape, as Pat works on her mural covering one whole wall of the Paeds ward, a touch of color and beauty and entertainment for some very sick kids.

Guvena Yona, the name on the immunization card, of a 3 year old admitted over the weekend, a child from our own village whose parents I know . . then I remember that he was called "Governor" after his political ancestry, but "Yona" because his birth was the late Dr. Jonah's first C-section when he was posted to Nyahuka Health Center.  Dr. Jonah saved his life, and his mother's life, but lost his own.

Chocolate zuccini cake, my mother-in-law's recipe, for no big reason.  We had zuccini from Kampala, and a precious can of cream cheese frosting from our summer of visitors.  So an hour of stirring and grating and mixing and baking, in honor of my family.  

Hands slapping, we play Speed Uno (taught to us by Lydia Herron years ago), which is hands down (ha) the best cross-cultural game ever.  My CSB/hospital mixer attempt for four young staff who are far from home turns out to be a lot of fun, laughing about how each was shocked how FAR away Bundibugyo is, sharing stories from our days and prayer requests.

The good news that Caleb's arm has healed enough to remove the plaster cast!  He calls from the hospital, cleared to resume full football privileges wearing only a splint.  We rejoice.

A moaning woman and a pool of blood, the midwives ask me to call Scott, who brings down the portable ultrasound and diagnoses a placental abruption and a dead baby . . . but still in time to save the mother's life.  Scott calls the surgeon in Bundibugyo town and we help arrange her transfer.  A few hours later we learn that the fetus was removed by C-section and the mother is recovering well.

A soberly distressed nurse tells me that a doctor from Kampala has arrived and wants to see me.  I am called into an office like a mis-behaving school child, as the imposing man chides me.  Why have we started so many children on anti-TB therapy?  I guess our disproportionate numbers got noticed all the way up the chain and he was dispatched to bring us in line.  Just then Kagadisa shows up for a medicine refill.  I call him in, and show his records, how this child was dying and now is alive and thriving.  And I begin to explain why we suspect the diagnosis on so many kids, though we aren't always right, we see lots of response to treatment.  So just possibly it is not Nyahuka that is OVER treating, but the rest of the country that is UNDER treating.  What starts as a hostile lecture ends as an interested and collegial discussion of TB diagnosis, and as he departs, the official doctor promises to come back and study this further.  Amazing.

Another day in Bundi, snapshots of sorrow and tastes of victory.  And cream cheese frosting.

One step forward, two steps back...

Occasionally, the stars align...and the health care system in Bundibugyo works.

Today, I (Scott) received a call from Jennifer who relayed a request from the chief midwife at Nyahuka Health Center that they needed an urgent ultrasound, because they could not hear the fetal heartbeat of a mother in labor. I biked down with my trusty SonoSite 180 in my backpack, the noonday sun blistering hot. In the delivery room, I began to unpack my ultrasound while the tiny mother began to climb onto a step stool to get on the delivery table. Ker-splash. At least a liter of bright red blood splashed out between her legs onto the white tile floor. Yikes. She began to scream and cry. There's really not many possibilities medically speaking here. The placenta has separated from the uterine lining before the baby is born (placental abruption). I quickly got her onto the bed and confirmed with my scanner that the baby was indeed dead and that the placenta had indeed separated.

The midwife mobilized the family who mobilized a pick-up truck. I called the medical superintendent of the hospital who prepared the surgical theater. So, she was loaded into the back of a truck and rushed over 8 miles of the worst road in Uganda to the District Hospital. Within an hour, she had a Cesarean delivery and her life was saved. She could have very, very easily bled to death.

Not every anecdote from Nyahuka is so happy. Amon Bwambale, our clinical officer from Nyahuka who is now studying medicine at Kampala International University is on break between first and second year and returned to work (!) this week. He joined us for dinner this evening and during dinner we went around the table sharing "highs and lows" of the day. Amon described how frustrating it has been this week to see patients, diagnosing and prescribing, but the cupboards of the health center are empty of drugs for outpatients (note: World Harvest funds the drugs and supplies for pediatric inpatients only). Outpatients are instructed to go to the private clinics and purchase the drugs which have been prescribed in NHC Outpatient Clinic. The reality is that most patients proceed to purchase one or two capsules of an antibiotic or antimalarial, an inadequate approach to nearly any infectious disease. Many of them return to outpatient in worse condition than when they were initially seen.


Paul Miller in his book A Praying LIfe reminds us that "God wants us to come to him empty-handed, weary, and heavy-laden." (p.54). I think we qualify. Let's go.

frozen chickens

When we moved to Bundibugyo, we joked that we would stay here until frozen chickens came to Nyahuka.  This was a way of gauging development:  a place with electricity, and enough development that there were people around who were willing to pay for their chicken to arrive dead, plucked, and in a bag rather than running out the door.  It was also a way of saying, we may stay here forever, because the idea of a shop with a freezer seemed impossibly remote, and by the time it came there would be other needier places to go.  Well . . . . drumroll . . . the power lines which we've watched go up this year, are, as of today, CARRYING ELECTRICITY.   Scott just came back from dropping friends off post-dinner, and announced that the transformer is humming and AN ELECTRIC LIGHT IS SHINING IN NYAHUKA.  Amazing.  Hard to imagine or predict all the changes this will bring.  We aren't leaving yet (!) but the frozen chickens can't be far behind.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Proud Parents

RVA is off to a stellar start in this year's soccer season.
We are very, very thankful for Luke and Caleb's opportunity to play on the teams this year, but
it is a sacrifice and a loss to have hear their reports on the games from a distance. There is nothing Scott would love more than to be on the sidelines watching and cheering his boys on.
We are scheming if it might be possible for him to get to a game, but it is two days travel each way. We'll see...
For now we're thankful to Greg, one of Luke's dorm mates who's learned how to handle Luke's camera quite well.

first call

One of the important strategies for CSB to move into the second decade of existence will be to hire a fully qualified and spiritually alive Ugandan Head Teacher.  This has been the goal since the beginning, and on the priority list for years, but now the time is right.  A Head Teacher (HT) who understands this school system and has managed other schools will not struggle in the same ways we missionaries have done.  And a HT who manages the bulk of the school's day to day operations will free missionaries to focus on long-term vision, discipleship, staff development, extra-curriculars.  In our recent meetings we affirmed our commitment to CSB as a mission, and affirmed our readiness to take this important step.  Scott chairs a search committee and made fliers to be forwarded through board members, consultants, church leaders, community leaders.  

Today we got our first phone call from an interested applicant.

This is our A#1 prayer request for the next two months.  It is the top request we gave to the WHM board when they met this year.  It is the main thing we asked our churches to pray about.  That God would provide a man or woman with the professional excellence, character, spirituality, leadership that will make CSB a place where the Kingdom comes.  


We've felt a bit like beat-up-sheep lately, walking through dangerous valleys.  On Friday we had two good reminders that we are not shepherd-less.  First, a kind, sensitive, encouraging email from the pastor of our main supporting church.  This smallish congregation faithfully prays for us by name every single week in their service, and gives us a level of financial support few mega-churches would match.  We know we are loved there, but it was nice to read it in an email, too.  The same evening our local pastor and elder came over for dinner with their wives.  We see them as partners in mission, and wanted to bring them up to date after Paul and Ward's visit, and dispel some rumors they had been hearing about the mission.  They prayed for us, and then did so again publicly in church this morning.  We are in a privileged and unusual position of prayerful support in two continents, of sharing our lives and dreams and struggles with wise people in many places (WHM leaders, family, supporters, and local friends and colleagues).  As it says at the end of "It's a Wonderful LIfe" :  no man is a failure who has friends.  Amen.

One blood, groping for the Nearness

Today's sermon came from Acts 17.  Paul's sermon in Athens is a pretty amazing example of crossing culture and presenting God.  We are all of one blood, all looking for the same thing.  But we grope in the dark, worshiping what we do not know.  Yet God is near, all around us, findable.  He does not overwhelm but leaves humans to seek and choose.  

Musunguzi preached on the same pattern.  He talked about how Africans, like ancient Greeks, approach the unseen spiritual world with shrines and ceremonies, seeking what they do not know.  It is rare to hear someone describe witchcraft as a first-hand witness, but he did, telling stories of the clan shrine to the ancestors that he visited regularly with his family, offering a rooster as appeasement to the spirits.  Later, a windstorm blew the huge tree which marked the shrine down.  And his father had to make a choice:  to rebuild, or to see the presence of a more powerful God in the wind.  He chose the latter, the unseen God whom we worship but can not manipulate.  Then Musunguzi boldly challenged the congregation to grope for God, to trust the Creator rather than resorting to witchcraft, or to education or money, the new idols of Africa (and everywhere!).  It was the kind of sermon an American can not preach with nearly the same authenticity.  

I left thankful for the one blood which makes us all seekers, for the shared journey to approach the unseen God, for the truth with which He gently awakens us to His presence all around us.  The "Unknown God" is Near, and Knowable.


One thing I appreciate about African world-view is the sense of integration and wholeness, the acceptance of spiritual, emotional, relational and physical dimensions to illness and health.  I'm not very good at exploring and caring for all those axes, but I wish I was, and several opportunities have arisen this week.  

Case one: a neighbor family whom we have known for many years.  We got messages when we were on our trip that the wife was ill, attributed to malaria (as most things are initially) but with an uneven and incomplete recovery.  By the time she came to see Scott there was no definable physical illness, but he treated her for gastritis/ulcers and anxiety.  She told me that she needed to stay with her parents for a while, because her house and kitchen were "not good".  Hmmm.  I thought this was probably a typical marriage dynamic, women are relatively voiceless and use temporary separations or vague illness to draw attention to their needs.  But as it dragged on, I talked to the husband, and a deeper story came out.  The land they live on is owned by his uncle and others in the clan, not himself.  His first wife and child died while staying there.  This wife, even though a decade has passed, believes that the land-owner relatives are trying to curse her to get the family off the land so they can sell it for cash. She has run for her life.  He seems to find the fear legitimate, and wants to move, to land he owns nearby.  But that means building a new house, from scratch (mud and poles, actually).  Our medical advice?  Do not run away from curses that can not harm you because God is more powerful than greedy clansmen.  But do consider whether this is an opportunity to show love for your wife and kids, and choose a better environment for all of them, by moving.

Case two:  a friend of a friend, a lady I had never met, wrote an eloquent letter of desperation, then came to visit.  My friend confirmed that though she teaches at a primary school, she's rarely paid, and that this lady's husband does not care for her because of his alcohol problem.  The woman was concerned because her 1 year old had been ill three times recently.  She is not from Bundibugyo, and she believes people are against her as an outsider.  Her only recourse in the marriage, really, is to turn to her male relatives to put pressure on her husband's family (they are both from another district).  Her presumably ill child looked fine to me, perky and cute and babbling and walking.  Medical advice?  A small gift to help her with transport to go to her relatives, the only people who could really solve her problems.

Case three:  Another young woman who has come here to work, her tall thin frame and deeply black skin marking her as a Northerner and clear outsider.  Almost as soon as she arrived, she fell ill.  At first it seemed like a typical dysentery one might encounter in a new place, then possibly malaria or typhoid . . but as it dragged on into the second week, with lots of nausea and abdominal pain, we thought again of ulcers.  These have a bacterial component, but the stress which she feels here clearly contributes to the acid environment of her stomach in which bacteria can grow.  She is far from her family in an insular culture that excludes foreigners (even those from within Uganda), a sincere Christian trying to work in a corrupt health system, and a quiet woman trying to supervise recalcitrant staff.  Medical advice? Treat ulcers, but connect with other young women, offer friendship and food, and bring two ladies home after church to pray for her, who also welcomed her and thanked her for returning.

In all of these cases there were physical symptoms of illness, but a pill would not reverse the underlying social and spiritual and emotional discord.  Wholeness takes a listening ear, better language skills, more time, persistence in relationship.  Wholeness demands more of the healer. More than we have to give.  Trusting that in our weakness God's power comes.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

small smiles

Kyomwenda's smile at six months of age is a small miracle, if any are small. He had come to us shortly after birth, unable to breast-feed and dwindling from hunger due to a congenital anomaly. Thanks to a team-effort to get him milk (purchasing from Pauline, accounting from Sarah, organization and documentation from Heidi, distribution from Nathan, donations from our supporters, and faithful care from his mom) he more than doubled his weight over the last five months. And last trip to Kampala, I was able to visit a spiff new mission hospital specializing in surgical care for children with disabilities called CoRSU (something like coordinated rehabilitation services for Uganda . . ). Amazingly, the program coordinator explained that under a special charitable funding program, cleft lip and palate repair is FREE. All we have to do is get him there, connect him with the services. I was so excited to bring this life-saving news back to Kyomwenda and his mom. Tomorrow they will travel to Kampala for the surgery that will enable him to feed, to talk, to smile unobtrusively, to lead a normal life. His family already received a dairy goat from the Matiti program, so he'll have milk to drink once he can actually use a cup!
And his story helps me reflect on an aspect of life here that I find satisfying: entering the battle, small-time. The struggles are local and tangible. One child whose mother abandoned him and whose grandmother has to scramble to provide gets connected to food, and good triumphs. One miniscule triplet is brought to us because we've taken an interest in her survival since well before birth, and her little spleen seems too large and her breath too labored, so we divert her to the lab and catch a potentially life-threatening malaria, hopefully in time for rescue. Another one-year-old fails to improve on two full weeks of treatment, prompting further investigations which reveal probable TB, and a life that would have ended in the next few months now should continue for decades. An 8-month-old shyly smiles on her second day of admission, and her tired HIV-infected mother breathes a sigh of relief when her child's test shows that the virus has not been transmitted thanks to treatment and grace. Another baby's subtle lip-smacking is recognized as a seizure, prompting a lumbar puncture (only after arguing to convince the lab to give a specimen container) which reveals cloudy amber fluid of the wrong sort coating her brain, and she begins treatment for meningitis instead of marching inevitably towards death. All of this really happened, today. There will be more tomorrow, more small stories of grace and healing, of averted disaster and renewed hope. One child here, another there. Small steps towards the Kingdom Come, slow progress towards the New Heavens and New Earth without empty stomachs, infected brains, lonely people, or gaping lips.
Some people need to legislate justice, some need to delineate diseases, some need to change the agricultural approach of a whole nation. Many need to manage programs, to plan projects and see them through. God has asked us, over these many years, to do a bit of all that. But mostly He asks us to just engage on the very specific, obscure, remote, unnoticed field of battle day by day, to struggle for one life at a time. Just because it's the right thing, and He cares about individual lives, even small ones. Just because one baby's life struggle in Palestine a couple of thousand years ago was a local focus of cosmic war, and the same danger and desperation that is repeated in a million little lives every day. Eugene Peterson writes about the necessary privilege of staying grounded in the reality of one unglamorous locale, with a view of how that hand-messy real-people service fits into a glorious behind-the-veil unimaginable drama.
So Kyomenda's smile represents all that: the final triumph of good over evil, foreshadowed in one baby at a time.

more thanks, for community

Last Thursday, Jack's bike was stolen right out from under our noses, parked under a car-port by our garage-like containers, in the dusk or early darkness WHILE the whole team was here and we made pizza.  When people left and Scott was locking up, it was missing.  Later some of us remembered Star barking a lot . . but frankly the chaos of the team and the nightly nature of the dog's noise made this warning go unheeded.  We decided not to go to the police, but to pray and tell a few friends and see what happened.  Jack's bike had been stolen once before years ago and a friend recovered it for us.  I think we did pray with some heart once again because it is an emotionally stressful time for Jack to miss his brothers and re-orient to school . . . and he uses his bike for all his transportation, so it is a pretty significant thing to lose it.

Today we were at Christ School when we saw our normally quiet pastor, Kisembo, running across the football field to call us.  I thought someone was sick, but soon we saw our neighbor and friend Buligi wheeling the lost bike into the gate!  It turns out that two teenage boys who are our neighbors climbed over the cow-pasture-fence and stole the bike.  They took it to a pretty distant village and tried to convince a man to find them a buyer.  The man noted that blue child-size multi-speed mountain bikes are not exactly common in Nyahuka, and became suspicious.  He took the bike straight to his LC1 (local elected leader) who made enquiries about where the boys lived, and called on Buligi.  Now we have the bike back, and the families of the two guilty parties in cooperation with local leaders made a plan to call all the kids of our area together and publicly punish the boys.  I don't want to see that (I suspect it will be a beating), and in fact we don't want the consequence to come from us, it is stronger coming from their own families, a community statement that stealing (even from the rich foreigners) is not right.  I think I'm most amazed at how this played out on our behalf, with care from our community, and pretty much zero input from us.  Maybe that seems small, but it gives us a sense of peace and belonging.

Perhaps because last week was so consumed by other issues, we appreciate the re-entry into more community this week.  This evening we were delighted when our "grandson" Arthur visited with his dad Ndyezika and demonstrated his crawling and pulling-to-a-stand skills, as well as his dimples.  Then he was joined by Melen and Sophia (the late Dr. Jonah's sister) and their kids, so it was pretty raucous for a good while with bouncing balls and clacking blocks and babbling in many languages.  After dinner Scott tried to explain the whole concept of banks, investments, interest, and wise use of money.  Melen reminds me of the Proverbs 31 woman, who works early to late to care for her family with wisdom, dignity, and calm in the face of crippling grief.  Later Assusi came back from visiting another mutual friend, a nurse who is also coping husband-less with work and children and finances and survival.  These friends remind awe me with their courage in difficult life circumstances.  I'm honored to be part of their community, to offer a meal or an ear or just work alongside them as they cope in ways I don't think I could manage.

Monday, September 14, 2009


A tribute to the leading hunger-fighter of our times, from today's Washington Post:

Norman E. Borlaug, 95, an American plant pathologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for starting the "Green Revolution" that dramatically increased food production in developing nations and saved countless people from starvation, died Saturday at his home in Dallas.  "More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world," the Nobel committee said in honoring him. 

Let us thank God for a tough Norwegian farmer-stock no-nonsense and hard-working hero who used science to save countless lives.  As I was doing rounds today on some pitiful kids, I was strengthened in my conviction that no child should die of hunger.  There are many diseases we can not reverse, but a simple lack of food is unconscionable.  And as thankful as I am for UNICEF milk and the generosity of our donors, agricultural improvements which percolate through the whole society over a decade or a generation give the best hope for real change.  And mental and spiritual changes which make those agricultural improvements possible (embracing hope, working cooperatively, living in stable relationship) are the real source of lasting development.  I'm thankful this evening for Dr. Borlaug and all those who follow in his footsteps.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


We had a chance to experience thankfulness from two sides this weekend.  First, as the thank-ers.  Team mate John came over about dinner time on Saturday night very distressed.  A few weeks ago he accidentally injured the cornea of his left eye when a metal shaving became embedded there after he was sharpening lawn-mower blades (a little recognized essential missionary task for remote stations with grass airstrips).  We were in Kenya then, and he ended up driving to Kampala where he received good but delayed care at Mengo Hospital.  The nature of the injury left him with a spot of blurred vision after the tiny fragment was removed, that may or may not improve.  So when he felt a similar irritating foreign-body sensation in his RIGHT eye last night, he was understandably upset, thinking it could be glass from a broken pitcher earlier in the day.  We could see an area of swelling of the conjunctiva, but no piece of glass.  Over the next hour or two with nurse Heidi and most of the team we (read Scott, I just held the flashlight) flushed with high pressure using a half litre of saline, took high-resolution photographs to blow up on the computer and see if we were missing something, PRAYED, anesthetized the eye surface and gently swabbed with a sterile q-tip, and flushed some more.  By this time it was pretty late, and we were all projecting worst-case scenarios of emergency MAF flights the next morning.  But even that looked bleak since the eye care in Kampala is at a hospital right smack in the middle of last week's violence and may not have been accessible.  These are the moments we realize we are hanging by a thread.  We have talked this week about God's strength in our weakness, and we were weak last night.  We could not see the piece of glass John felt, we did not have the proper equipment or experience, and even the means of connecting him to better care looked tenuous.  We sent John home to sleep hoping that God had miraculously removed the problem through our feeble efforts.  After he left we gathered and prayed again.  

So when he woke up feeling healed this morning, and looking almost normal on exam, we all rejoiced.  John's relief was giddy.  And after church a group of us gathered and prayed prayers of thanks--we are so quick to pray the desperation prayers, but forget to pray the thanksgiving when our worst fears are not realized.

We also had the rare privilege of being on the other side of the thankfulness relationship.  Among the many people who come and ask us for help with this or that problem, there was one who was a bit different--a man our age, a good friend, whom we respect highly, who has stood by us in some hard times ourselves.  He did not ask for a handout, but was in a desperate state for tuition for one son, and wanted to sell us his land.  Scott and I talked about it, and really felt led that this was not a time to draw the line, but rather a time to stand with someone as a friend.  We can not solve all his problems, but we could take on the university fees for two years for this one boy.  Scott told him carefully what we would commit to do, as a gift and not a land purchase that would impair his ability to survive,  and said it was not because we particularly believe in this kid, but because we appreciate his father's friendship with us.  I don't think Scott has ever quite experienced a similar reaction:  the man burst into tears and hugged and kissed him.  I think it was a measure of the anxiety and pressure men feel to provide for their children, and the unexpected nature of the gift.

I suppose the combination of events reminds us that we who have been forgiven much, given much, are called to generosity of spirit and of life.  When we live in a sea of need and demand, that is a difficult posture to maintain.  A daily discipline of thankfulness to God would probably help.  Pray for us to pursue that.

On Riots, Kings, and Truth

Central Uganda has been thrown into turmoil this week, on a scale we have not seen for many years.  Scores of people have been injured and at least a dozen, probably many more than that, killed, as mobs burned tires and buses and cars, attacked police stations, looted shops, blocked roads.  We have talked to friends and read the local papers and seen the photos of armored tanks and military men patrolling to restore order, smoke wisping in the background from the charred shells of cars.  Stories abound of one ethnic group (tribe) attacking strangers whose appearance indicates they are from a rival group.  Three radio stations have been shut down for inciting violence.  In church today most of the prayer requests came from parents who were worried about their kids in schools there, or students needing to travel and start the term but afraid to pass.  We have not had any hint of this violence in Bundibugyo, though I asked a nurse and a patient on Friday if the two main tribes here would fight each other, and instead of a reassuring "no" they said "we don't know."

The trigger issue involved the Kabaka, the king of the largest and most powerful ethnic group in the country, the Baganda (from whom the name "Uganda" was derived).   Back in the late 1800's the British found a handful of kingdoms already in existence here in the pearl of Africa, and used their rivalry to the colonizers' advantage.  They favored the Baganda over the next-strongest Banyoro.  At some point certain areas of the country, and their sub-groups, were designated as part of Buganda (the Baganda kingdom).  And of course there has been jockeying for power ever since, heightened by the resurgent recognition of kingdoms as cultural institutions with certain powers and rights to revenue under Uganda's constitution.  As I understand it lately, a sub-group of the Baganda were breaking away (or perhaps never really agreed that they were included) and seeking recognition of their own kingdom or cultural institutions.  The Kabaka decided to visit this area to reassert his power.  The central government put restrictions on the Kabaka's movements for security concerns.  The Kabaka sent his advance team to prepare for the visit anyway.  Youth began to stone the police, and it all escalated from there.  It is probably true that pushing this visit was unwise, also true that some in government may want to weaken the power of the Baganda by supporting break-away groups, also true that the vast majority of violent people over the last few days have no political agenda beyond looting for profit, or expressing anger in their poverty by reacting the way people with little to loose often react.  My reading of the president is that he has been decidedly anti-tribal, making every effort to unify the sense of identity of his people.  But he's also accused of favoring his own people, the Banyankole.

The reaction of these few uncertain days has revealed that the latent tribalism is close to the surface, ready to blow.  There are some disturbing parallels to Kenya in 2008, or Rwanda in 1994, though nothing here has happened on those scales yet.  One big difference is that Uganda has an intact and functional government and military who are acting to stop rather than increase violence.  The root issue seems to be the insecurity of living too close to the edge of survival, the nagging doubt that the world just may require that one kill or be killed, grab or go without.  For once we're thankful to be in Bundibugyo, far from the action, in a place unaffected by the powerful players and among people who have little access to the resources.  The swell of panic seems to be subsiding, and order and calm are being restored.  Please do pray though for full resolution and peace.

Grief, waves

Last week in Kampala Scott and I split directions for a few errands, and I found myself alone in a bookstore on Kampala road, smack in the center of the city, looking for a few last-minute-addition art supplies. I had to go up to the second floor, and ended up in a sort of party-supply corner, which reminded me that Julia's 13th birthday is only a few weeks away.  Suddenly it hit me that the little-kid oriented stuff (cheap plastic dolls or too-simple games) would not ever be appropriate for her again, and I got all teary-eyed. It was probably the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" muzak in the background, but I was paralyzed there by the whistles and paint-by-numbers, sensing our kids' childhood slipping by, with two of them in another country far away and the other two wishing they weren't.  Not sure how long I stood there before being rescued by a phone call from Scott that propelled me on to the post office for stamps. . . . and since that moment between meetings and life-survival the grief has been pushed down.

Until church today, a good sermon about God using persecution to move believers into new areas (as in the pattern with Paul in Acts).  That had little to do with Caleb and Luke, but I suppose it was the half-empty family bench, and the mind-numbing effort of listening in Lubwisi that let my heart drift again, and the wave of sadness was right there, waiting.  I suppose it helped just to gently remind myself that in the background of an intense week of meetings and decisions, there is the always-present rarely-acknowledged fact of grief.  And like the ocean it can ebb, or we can float on the surface, but then a killer wave topples us again, and there is nothing to do but scrape over the sand and close your eyes and wait for a breath.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Broom Tree Blues

This has been a FULL week, and one of intense spiritual challenge.  We have questioned our vision, our calling, our leadership, our community.  We have listened to the struggles of our team mates, and our Ugandan co-workers.  We have examined the challenges of running CSB, wondering if they represent normal first-decade developmental growing pains or insurmountable structural deficiencies in mission management. In between meetings we have juggled malfunctioning kerosene fridge wicks trying to preserve a month-plus supply of fresh veggies and meat from Kampala, or attacks of biting ants marching up our sidewalk.  We've begged our two youngest for patience with our busy-ness as they have faced their first week at home without both older brothers, and as they have had exams at school.  We've similarly begged our health center colleagues, especially Heidi, Biguye, and the midwives, for equal patience as we popped in and out to assist without being fully available.  We've welcomed Paul and Ward and tried to be mentally and emotionally present for the rare gift of their on-site friendship, and at the end of the week received Asusi back from her nursing degree program to temporarily stay with our family.  

In the midst of this fire and storm of stress, God showed up, as He promised.  Day by day we were awed by answered prayer, by meeting of the minds, by unanticipated insights, by that-makes-sense-agreements.  By tears and by relief.  By blessing.  

The three main messages God has brought to us from Scripture this year have coalesced:  I will fight your battles and bring Myself Glory just march on (2 Chron 20); Drink the cup of My will even it it is bitter (Mark 14); and Find Me in your weakness (2 Cor 12).  So here we are, emerging from a week of intensity with a testimony that God has not forgotten us here in Bundibugyo, that He loves us and the people we serve, that He is not finished with any of us, not punishing any of us, but calling us to move into the unknown of the future with faith.  We know that the next year will not be easy (was there ever an easy one?), particularly as Scott has been asked as Chairman of the Board of Governors for CSB to significantly step up his oversight and involvement at the school.  WHM affirmed our commitment to CSB and decided for now to forgo the proposed paths of government-aid or other-organization-donation.  We know God led in that direction.  We also know that we will struggle to love, to accept our weaknesses, sins, and failures as the very place where we encounter the presence of God's grace.  

God speaks through His word, and also through our leaders.  We're grateful to be part of a missionary-order, a family of believers, in which the Director of Ministries with responsibility for 170 missionaries in dozens of fields could land on our doorstep and listen and give us perspective and call us to grow.  We're grateful that the mission leadership prayed for him, and us, and that we were a witness to the way God works through all that, which increases our trust in following.

But, as they say in Uganda, the struggle continues.  This district is a place of oppression.  It is hard to live and work here.  The spiritual push-back from evil is palpable, the physical demands are heavy, the risks are real.  So even as we emerge with a testimony of God's presence, we feel a bit like running to the nearest desert and sleeping for 40 days under the broom tree eating angel-cooked bread.  So we would appreciate prayers for renewal of strength and steeling of faith as we keep on.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

welcome home (!)

As one of the UNICEF visitors said today, this is a hard district.  The national reputation of Bundibugyo is one of inefficiency and corruption, and the objective indicators of disease and death are as high as the more frequently spotlighted areas of the post-LRA-conflict north in Gulu, or the drought-stricken east in Karamoja.  And while we feel at home here, we also feel the weight of these issues.

And if that were not enough . . . let me just describe Scott's first morning back, while I went down to the hospital to see patients, he went out to load the medicine we had purchased into the truck.  Only to find that after driving thousands of kilometers through four countries, we had our first puncture of the trip in the last few meters, right in our own yard.  Which would not have been so bad, if that discovery did not lead to the discovery that when the car was serviced in Kampala, the mechanic's minions broke the bolts holding the wheels on then welded them back together to cover their error, leading to an entire morning wasted by Scott in phone calls, tools, help, and frustration just to get the tire changed (the mechanic apologized on the phone up and down and is giving us a new set of bolts free . . ).  Perhaps that would be easier to take in stride without the roach colony which expanded in our absence to become a roach universe.  Or without the line up of needs, or the days of rain.  Let's just say that the sheer effort of daily life in Bundibugyo is a pretty quick wake-up call back to reality.

So why stay here?  I suppose because we cling to the hope that the school fees we are helping with are gathering a core of children with a new view of the world, a new way of living.  Because the infant whose mother bled to death yesterday should not face starvation.  Because we've known the elder dancing in worship for a decade and a half and resonate with his joy and leadership.  Because we followed (to the best of our ability to discern) that pillar of cloud and fire that leads through wilderness before reaching the promise, that refines and cleanses as we plod along the way.  

So in spite of roaches, mud, broken bolts, theft, and dependency . . . this is the place, for now, on this earth, that we call home.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Unless You Go With Us

We need prayer this week, serious God-seeking prayer.  Paul (Director of Ministries for WHM who started his missionary life here in Bundi for 9 years) and Ward (the Missionary Care Manager for WHM) landed to meet with us and our team, focusing specifically on the way forward for the next decade of Christ School's growth and development, but also with a heart for each person on the team and their future life and calling in ministry.  We hit the road running, so to speak, meeting again with both of our consultants before we left Kampala.  I was struck once again with their wisdom and godliness, their overall passion for Christian education and the good of the country of Uganda.  One has already begun to recruit for us (he teachers masters-level students in education at two universities) and both seem eager to continue in their advisory role.  Both believe in the value of the school and have been willing to put hard time into a long list of very concrete suggestions for improvement.  An interesting fact that came out at the end:  Church of Uganda is now starting "model schools" that step back from the government-aided path they have pursued for the last two decades, and are more intentionally Christian and academically excellent, with values similar to ours.

Paul preached at Bundimulinga, ostensibly to the congregation but by grace words that were very encouraging for us.  He talked about Moses, in the scene in the cleft of the rock where he begs God to go with the Israelites, and then asks to SEE GOD.  This is a good picture of where we are as a team:  we want to move forward, but only if God goes with us, and in the process our real goal is God Himself, not a successful school or an easy life.  God answered Moses, not because Moses was articulate or persuasive (remember he always made his brother do the talking), and not because Moses always did the right thing or was strong or smart.  He answered because He delighted in Moses' asking, because once again His intention is to make His power known in our weakness.  That gives us boldness to ask this week that God would show up in our meetings and plannings, not because we have the right formulae, but because He delights in our dependance upon Him.

We ended the day with team worship and communion, led by Ward, with a similar theme.  Jesus gave the beatitudes not as a list of things to do or be, but as a demonstration that God's blessing flows to people who lean on His promises.  Again we were encouraged, that our hunger and weakness and poverty of spirit can be the very place where God brings His Kingdom.  As we closed with a rousing chorus of "For All the Saints" with it's view of the final fulfillment, I sensed God's presence to lift our eyes to the future inevitable reality of His continuous presence.

So please pray for us this week, as a team, to keep our eyes on God's power and promise, not our own deficiencies and struggles.  We probably can't handle even the glimpse of the trailing end of glory that made Moses glow weeks later . . . so let us be content with whatever He chooses to give us.


We are extremely grateful and relieved that both Luke and Caleb made it through a tough week of try-outs and were selected for Varsity and JV football (that's soccer in America) teams at RVA.  It is an extremely competitive sport there, and we do not take their inclusion for granted.  They love the sport and will benefit from the exercise and team-work, but most of all it is a boost to their sense of belonging, and one of those islands of success in a lifetime of being the younger/smaller/excluded foreigner on the field, being allowed to practice but never really on the team at CSB.  Luke missed most of last year's JV season with his knee injury, so it feels like a new opportunity as he plays this year.  Their relief in making the roster was tempered by sadness (for Luke) about his friends who did not . . . and soberness for all as a boy suffered a concussion during the last practice, very frightening for all the kids and coaches as he was unconscious and convulsing briefly.  As we rejoice, we pray for his recovery (prognosis is good) and for safety in the fun ahead.  We gave a little party of appreciation for our RMS teachers last night after team worship:  Nathan and Ashley's coaching, playing, challenging, encouraging are responsible for developing the football skills, and Sarah's patience with teaching Luke a bit about singing for the "Saraphim" (Sarah, Luke, and Acacia performed a couple of times) enabled Luke to be selected for choir this year too.  

The deeper message to my mother-heart is a picture of God's mercy.  When Caleb broke his arm, it was at a picnic stop that was MY idea, and over the complaints of everyone else. So I felt vaguely responsible for ruining his chances.  But I wonder in the end if his insistence in giving his all in SPITE OF a broken arm communicated to the coaches his passion for the sport.  Which is a way that God is teaching us right now, the 2 Cor 12 truth, that His power is discovered in our weakness. He takes the very things that look like loss and turns them into gain for His glory.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

It was God's plan

Today's New Vision ran a full-page feature article in the "People" section on Monday Julius, the young medical student sponsored by the Dr. Jonah Kule Memorial Leadership Fund.  The top of the page quotes Julius as saying "I do not count myself a hero, it was God's plan to use me to serve His people" and then in bold print "He stayed behind to fight Ebola when his fellow medics fled". In spite of that hype, Julius' humble and serving spirit shines through the article, calling him a "born-again Christian" and noting his World Harvest scholarship.  And his smiling but studious picture features a wedding ring, too.  He may not feel like a hero, but I hope he is a role model for many other young men in Uganda, simply doing the right thing in caring for patients and remaining faithful to community, marriage, and job.


Kampala:  people, potholes, laughter, shouts, blaring music, outdoor pool tables, garbage, puddles, construction, traffic, police, whistles, lights, shadows, neon, buses.  Kampala:  lines, forms, rules, meetings, come back tomorrow, try again later.  Kampala:  oranges that are actually orange, apples, incredible Indian food, pizza, icy cold water, hot tea.  Kampala:  the ARA staff who comment on our kids' growth since they've known them since birth, running into old friends, but also the anonymity of being awash in a city sprinkled with foreigners.  Kampala: optimistic lists of tasks that fizzle in the reality of crawling traffic and inevitable inefficiency.  Kampala:  the awkwardness of being in Uganda but not quite home, of abundance that is not quite America either.  Kampala:  the pressure of thinking ahead for weeks or months of grocery shopping, of juggling visas for 6 people in two countries and movement back and forth, of last-chance-to-do-this or that for another three months, of the truck being in the shop for days, of seeing piles and piles of clothes or pots or fruit or suitcases or shovels or books spilling from tiny shops onto sidewalk displays and wondering "do I need that?".  Kampala:  going out for dinner (imagine!), being uninterrupted as a family, sitting in a friends' garden all day for quiet prayer without a call from the hospital or the panic of work undone.  Kampala:  a few days is enough, but I'm glad we can come here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

On arbitrariness and stress

I wish we had counted the police road blocks one must go through to drive the thousands of kilometers we have passed over in four countries.  They are ubiquitous in Africa, where police do not have the vehicles or communication equipment to cruise the roads or chase the wrong-doers.  Instead they set up rusting spiky metal strips staggered half-way across the two-lane roads, and then raise their arms heil-Hitler like if they want you to stop, or wave you on to weave through the barriers if they are less interested in you than the next vehicle.  Usually they just seemed bored and wanting to look us over, ask where we're coming from or going to as they assess the interior of the truck, ask what we're carrying, ask about the kids.  They check the insurance sticker on the front windshield (our favorite slogan:  "we won't make a drama out of a crisis" . . which is probably true since I doubt the insurance would do ANYTHING dramatic  or otherwise for us, but we're required to buy it).  Or they scrutinize our Ugandan drivers' licenses.  I have talked to taxi-trucks in Bundibugyo who expect to pay about 5,000/= per roadblock (or 20,000/= per trip from Fort to Bundi) in "fines" which might be interpreted as bribes.  We had no problem other than an inebriated after-dark police-man when we were on the way to dinner in Nairobi, who slurred his words then was impatient with us for not pulling out the proper papers . . . but no fines or fees.  

Then add to those dozens and dozens of potential stopping points, four borders, each with a set of exit officials and entry officials, each a 45 minute to two hour process.  And in no case is there a clear posting of fees, or a procedure to follow, it is all hit and miss and obscurity.  There are offices for stamping passports, for dealing with the vehicle, for paying for visas, for declaring the luggage.  There are immigration officials, police officers, and numerous other bureaucrats, plus hawkers of everything from peanuts to dress shirts, prostitutes, beggars, and fellow travelers, all in the hot equator-intense sun.  At the various windows the idea of a queue is replaced by the huddle of push-your-way-to-the-front, but most people in the no-man's-land of the border zone seem to be merely spectators waiting for a scene.

If it was just a matter of time, or inconvenience, I think we would take it in stride, this is Africa, efficiency is not expected.  But at all these police checks and border offices, there is the hanging cloud of uncertainty.  Did we do all the proper paper-work, or not?  Will it cost nothing, 10 dollars, or a hundred?  Will we be waved through, or told to turn around and go back to the previous border or town?  Are there rules of justice here, or are we at the mercy of greed?  The reaction of any one officer can be so completely arbitrary.  For instance on the way INTO Tanzania, we were told the official who clears the vehicle had gone far away to his home for the night, so we would have to park in the border area and wait for the next day.  However after hanging out with the immigration people for a half hour, they took pity, and walked a hundred yards to the home of the correct official, and he walked briefly back and cleared us.  But it could have gone either way, and perhaps we were just so oblivious to the bribe hints in this case they gave up .  On the other side of Tanzania, the first official we came to at the initial border gate looked at Scott's paperwork and said:  you were in the country 8 days.  Yes, Scott said, we told them at the entry border it could be up to two weeks (which was clearly marked on the form), but it was a bit shorter.  Well, the man starts to yell now, you have broken the law, if you are in the country more than 7 days with a vehicle you have to pay a tax.  Fine, Scott says, I'll pay, I'm very sorry sir, they did not tell us that at the when we entered by the other border.  By now the man has worked himself up, and keeps screaming angrily at Scott, waving his arms threateningly, accusing him of not knowing the laws, saying it was Scott's job as a visitor to search out the regulations, not the other border agents' job to tell him, spitting out angrily that we have not respected the laws of Tanzania. This goes on for about 20 minutes while he makes Scott wait in his office listening to his outrage, practicing the wisdom of turning the other cheek.  It is unnerving and unpleasant to say the least, the degree of hostility spewed forth, over a mere $20 that we were quite willing to pay.  

The stress of these encounters tends to fatigue Scott more than the rest of us, as he always bears the brunt of the interrogations and bureaucracy.  One evening I watched "The Great Debaters", a movie about racial tensions in Texas in the 1930's.  And I see an echo of the same emotions in our experiences here.  We are not at risk of lynching, so I don't want to take the analogy too far, but I think we perceive a small taste of what it was like to be constantly at risk of being the victim of a small-minded, insecure official deciding to put our class of people (in this case, white foreign aid workers) in their place, to push us into obsequious apology, to demonstrate to nearby companions just who is boss.  Our skin highlights our difference, our otherness, our not-belonging, something anyone can see from far away.  And in our case, the legacy of oppression and colonization gives Africans a legitimate suspicion.  So I think Scott is one of the few 21rst century American male doctors with white skin, who can empathize with the discomfort and tension and potential harm of being stopped by a police officer without having done anything wrong.  I suppose there is some value in that, in spite of the cost.

a joy in the journey

This long journey around Lake Victoria is nearing its end.  And one of the joys has been the moments of slow dinners, reflective conversations, soul-encounter, with fellow travelers.  We took off the time to be with our kids, and that was gloriously necessary and good.  But in God's providence, looking back, I am amazed at the number of times our road intersected with others.  Ashley was our initial companion, we drank in three days with the Massos in SW Uganda, our former intern Joel met up with us in Rwanda, we visited another former intern and family in Mwanza.  Then of course Kijabe, where in addition to the reconnections with RVA folks we had a fireside evening of catching up with a doctor-family who also worked in Uganda two decades ago, and several shorter visits with people we have known over the years.  Back in Kampala we spent two nights with Soctticus and Jane, who have one-month consultant jobs with UNICEF, and who are gourmet cooks on the side, and expert at  making us feel welcome.  We even met the Pierces yesterday to see G-force, which was probably the most fun for Jack and Quinn but the rest of us enjoyed their joy, too.  And then to top ALL of that off, our former pastor who is now a missionary in Karamoja with his family, was also in town running errands, and the 9 of us caught up over lunch at the mall's food court, commiserating (they left two daughters in college in the US, just as we have left two sons in high school in Kenya).  As we parted and Al hugged Scott and called him "friend", it hit me deeply how valuable this connection was for our souls.  So as we begin to look towards home, I am thankful for the friendships which God brought along to sustain us along this journey.  We are designed for community, and the draughts of friendship we have enjoyed over the last few weeks have been life-giving, and reminders of how thankful we are for the team to whom we return soon.