Saturday, 8 January 2011

Welcome to The Pearl of Africa

As I disembarked the plane in Entebbe, taking a stairway straight down to the tarmac, I was greeted by the humid Uganda-at-2am air and a massive sign on the side of the airport saying, “The Pearl of Africa”—a title Winston Churchill left Uganda with after he visited in the 50’s. The interior of the airport was certainly not European. I passed through customs with no trouble, and then settled in on a chair in the arrivals lounge to wait for daylight before I’d find a taxi to Gabi’s home in a little village near a town called Jinja, right near to the source of the Nile…

I really wanted to go home to England.

Even at that time of night, men came up asking if I’d like a taxi and I shyly declined, feeling very nervous of this taxi ride I was doomed to take, especially after my last taxi experience in Turkey and all the stories I have heard about taxis here…

Everything about Uganda held a question-mark for me. Why did the police (I think?) carry semi-automatic weapons? Was there a reason why the airport janitors were all exceptionally small men? And why did one of them have a plastic bag tied around his head? How would my taxi driver the next day be able to find Gabi’s place with such a vague address as they use here? What if he tried to swindle me, or we couldn’t find the place?

A little cockroach crawled up onto my chair and I fought the urge to jump away. Surely the Lord means to toughen me up towards bugs or I certainly wouldn’t be in Africa!

A slightly elderly lady was pacing the airport floor with her trolley of luggage after most of the other passengers on our plane had headed off. About 5 of us seemed to be sticking it out til morning. She sat down near to me and began to knit. “I’m thankful you’re here,” I said to her, “I’ve never been here before and I feel safer having you nearby!” And from that point on, we were airport buddies. I was soon to discover she was sixty-something, from Germany, and a nurse who specializes in Tropical medicine. She’d been to Uganda 6 times, running a project on natural treatment for Malaria, and… can you guess? A Christian missionary :) She gave me all kinds of tips—like using a drop of tea tree oil in some olive oil and running it into your skin to keep the mosquitoes away, and eating a teaspoon of Papaya seeds a day to help prevent against Malaria as well as digestion issues. She warned me that my first time here would be hard and not to be surprised at how hard I find it. That she wouldn’t have made it through it at all, if not for Jesus. But that on her 6th time, she now loves it and plans to move here in the course of the year. We encouraged one another in Christ. And He encouraged me with friendship and companionship throughout that long night waiting for daylight. (I bet my Mom’s fervent prayers might have sent her along to me : ) Thanks, Mom ;))

But when daylight came I was still so nervous about getting the taxi, so intimidated and unsure. Thea, the German lady, was waiting for her German/Ugandan friends to come to her from Kampala, so I thought I’d wait with her until then so she wasn’t left alone, and then I’d go to one of the men who’d been asking us if we wanted one all throughout the night and, praying hard, head off.

But when Thea’s Ugandan friend Moses came for her, he quickly suggested I come with them to Kampala and get a public taxi (like an over-packed shuttle bus) from there as it would be cheaper and I’d be less likely to be taken advantage of. Moses was a pastor and one of the kindest people I have met! Though Ugandan people seem to be especially kind in general…

Leaving the airport, we drove out right along the shores of Lake Victoria glistening in the early morning light. And also straight into an African town, looking just as I imagined one to look. Women walked along in colourful dress, balancing huge bundles of things on their heads! It was only 7 in the morning and already people were all about the streets, sitting around, hurrying along somewhere, or setting up stands to sell their wares. Cows and goats were loitering about too. I could only think to myself, “Is this real?”

The Lord blessed me so much through Moses and Thea who so readily took me in. On the way to Kampala we talked of Uganda and ministry and the Lord and I was inspired again to live like that, so willing to be helpful and to bless even a stranger as if he or she were The Lord Himself—“entertaining angels unaware…”

Kampala was CHAOS. Cars, trucks, buses, boda-bodas (little motorbike taxis—Ooh, they’re fun!), bikes and people all taking the right-of-way on the highway, driving so close side-by-side that I felt like holding my breath! The buildings were dusty and out-dated, and on nearly every street corner there were piles of rubbish, the bags split open and rubbish pouring out! Stray dogs wandering about and everywhere people, people, people! But I was the only white one I saw…

Pastor Moses, with his humble, quiet, but confident nature, parked the car, I hugged my new friend Thea goodbye, and then he took me down a few blocks of streets, where people stared at me outright, and some of the men called out things like, “Hello, Mommy, how are you?” (Mommy??). I would smile, but not answer and just hurry along at Moses’ side. It was warm under the Kampala sun, but not nearly as hot as I expected it to be! I kept my little sweater on the whole time, wondering about modesty. Moses led me to a HUGE open square PACKED with dusty white vans, known as ‘coasters’, going out from here to all over Uganda. He carried my huge suitcase, such a gentleman, and we wandered through the acres of vans looking for one for Jinja. He didn’t leave until he’d haggled with the bus people for a price, worried that they’d charge me more than it was worth, and I was up in the bus on the last available seat, my bags all over me and around me, and squeezing in close to the woman in a burhka (and I thought I was warm!) next to me, and the men in front of and behind me. The bus man climbed in and stood next to the door beside me and then Moses waved and we were off!

I cannot pretend that I wasn’t frightened. The fact that I found myself speeding along in a hot van packed to the max with strangers all eying me up and down in this wayyy foreign place just didn’t seem real! Each time we’d stop, I’d have to stand up so that my seat could be folded away to make room for a little aisle so whoever was squeezing out from the back to get off could get to the door. Then the driver would start moving again before the doorman was actually back on and he’d jump in quickly before we’d gain speed. The journey to Jinja took FOREVER. I was roasting and uncomfortable, squashed in too close to people and holding on to my baggage. I was exhausted having had so little sleep since Turkey. And totally unaware of where I was, where I was headed, or how I would get on to Gabi’s from there. Completely alone and completely clueless! Still, somehow I felt a peace which only God could give. I knew that He knew that I only had Him and so He had to be enough…

A man’s joyful laughter at the back of the bus made me smile in my weariness and fear.

About halfway through the journey the doorman, who had a rather intimidating way about him, began to collect everyone’s fare. Moses had warned me that he might try to get more out of me than had been decided but to stick to what he had settled, which was 6,000 Ugandan shillings—about $3. Thea had warned me to be very assertive when dealing with money with people, because I will be expected to be rich everywhere I go, being white. But when it came right down to it, I had no problems! I had to give him a 20,000 bill and so felt nervous when he didn’t give me my change straightaway, but he didn’t forget and after he’d collected everyone’s fare, he had the proper change to hand around to people and seemed to have a fantastic memory for whom had paid what.

I laughed to myself a little when I found we were on a bridge crossing over the mighty River Nile and no one even batted an eyelid!

Then we finally arrived in Jinja, to a similar huge lot of these ‘coaster’ buses, and the doorman was handing my bag to someone and telling him to take me to a coaster to Bugembe. The unnamed man threw my huge 25kg suitcase up onto his head to carry (how in the world, I will never understand!), and wordlessly started off. I followed swiftly behind him, past the stares of all the people we passed as we headed up the street. He brought me to a coaster headed for Bugembe, a village just up the motorway, and they tied the back of the car shut because my suitcase was too big for it to shut naturally. One thing is certain, Ugandans find ways to carry anything of any shape or size. Even on Boda-bodas!

As we got going, the doorman asked where it was that I was actually going, and I showed him the address I had for the house Racham is renting in a small village called Wanyange. The problem is, Uganda doesn’t have a door to door postal system, only P.O. boxes, so the written addresses for anywhere are very vague. For instance, I had only “Wanyange Village, the Uganda-Kenya Highway, Jinja, Uganda”… right. Soon everyone on the coaster was looking at the address and putting their heads together trying to think of where it might be! It made me smile to see how willing all of these strangers were to help. One kind old grandfather type even took it upon himself to ring Gabi’s mobile for me as my English mobile wasn’t working here. Then he passed it up, hand after hand, up to the driver :) And they discussed where to drop me, along the highway, near to the village Wanyange. After paying a couple more thousand shillings (equaling $1!) and thanking everyone profusely, I found myself, utterly exhausted, standing in the red dirt beside the Uganda-Kenya highway, my huge case beside me, my backpack on my back, baking in the sun, and waiting for Gabi to somehow show up in that exact, random location. Oh, the endless adventures of just one morning!

And then finally, they were there—Gabi, the landlord of the house she’s renting, Daniel, and his friend Isaac, the driver! And suddenly we were off to a bus stop to pick up another friend of Gabi’s, Lydia, whom had come in from Kampala just for the day to see Gabi. We three spent the afternoon snacking on delicious tropical fruits in the gorgeous garden of Gabi’s house, until we decided to make our way back into Jinja because we needed things like drinking water, food, and anti-malaria pills. So, it was a walk through the village to the coaster stop on the highway and as we walked along, the half-naked little children in the yards of the village homes would come running to the edge of their gardens again and again, eyes all lit-up, shouting excitedly, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” (White! White!) and smiling profusely when Gabi and I would smile at them, wave, and ask, “How are you?” They are absolutely irresistible… And after only 2 days here (as I write this), I am hearing “Mzungu! Mzungu!” in my head :) The children are my favourite, is it any wonder?

Running our errands, Gabi and I took my first Boda-boda, both of us together on the back of one guy’s motorbike. The wind in my hair, zipping through the busy city streets :) The other boda-boda drivers pull up next to ours and make comments to our driver as if, “how’d you get so lucky?” haha. I love the feeling of freedom. Taking boda-bodas makes me feel so aware of where He has me, smack-dab in the middle something big and foreign and different from anything else He’s had me doing in this life He owns. Africa, I think, will always remind me of what it means to surrender, and what a trust-worthy God we get to surrender to, with dreams for us which are so much bigger than we ever dream for ourselves.

Daniel the landlord and Isaac the driver have been faithfully looking out for us, joined by a 3rd yesterday, another Daniel, the fiancĂ©e of Gabi’s missionary friend. They are constantly checking in on us and just going out of their way to make sure we’re alright and taken care of and safe. It’s so humbling and kind. Such generous souls! There’s no reason why they should have to go out of their way to look out for us! Daniel the landlord’s pastor, Victor and a sister from their church, Peace, have been visiting us every night about bedtime to pray for us—sometimes it’s a bit *much*, but we are touched by their generosity!

Today, 2nd day, we’ve had an official meeting about the ministry with the two Daniels and now feel that tomorrow, 3rd day, we should be able to start unpacking properly in the house and getting more settled. We’re lacking a kitchen at the moment as the house, though beautiful-looking, is very incomplete and needs a lot of work. Once that’s settled, hopefully by the end of next week, it will feel more like we can settle in to the home and prepare properly to start taking in children by the beginning of February! We met with the Local Council member today as well, to get things rolling with the official registration as an NGO here in Uganda. The Lord seems to be placing us alongside just the right people at the right time, and everyone feels a friend here :)

It already feels like we’ve done so much more than only 2 days would allow! And each day is a brand new adventure… so… who knows what will come tomorrow! For now, I’m going to have another awesomely fresh mango, then crawl up under my mosquito net and write another letter to a certain handsome boyfriend of mine : )

I love you, friends and family! THANK YOU SO MUCH for praying. I have no doubt that it is the prayer that is smoothing the way for us. Keep Gabi in your prayers especially as she makes so many decisions as we settle this ministry in here for the rest of her foreseeable life!

More soon :)
Love from Uganda!

 p.s. I have discovered that my letters to the UK may take around 3 weeks to arrive, and to the states, a month! And we have no postal address here… we’re working on getting registered for a P.O. box!


Hephzibahbeulah said...

Love you. So good to read all of this. Praying for you!! xxxxx

Hannah said...

Wow-- So amazing Leah. You are so brave! I want to come so bad. I have such a yearning and a desire... I'm praying about a way to come for your third month but am running into lots of obstacles... one of them being mom not taking my kids because she is afraid she'd be stuck with them forever. ;-) Really though... someday I will be there... someday... I love you and miss you. I can't wait to keep hearing everything.. I'm thirsty for more!

Gabi Dickinson said...

Oh the days when you still liked mangoes ;)
I'm so tired already, how will we stay awake if Victor and Peace come?!

Deb said...

Thanking and praising the Lord for watching over you as you traveled and guiding you safely to Gabi's house! Sounds like it was quite an adventure ; )

Please stay in touch and let me know if you're able to skype sometime, OK?

Continuing to cover you in prayers ~ Aunt Deb

P.S. ~ That was a lovely tribute you wrote for your Grandpa's funeral! We could feel your presence in spirit.

Brandy said...

I loved the adventure you took to get to the village. So envious of you. :) God provided through it all!

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