Saturday, 23 April 2011

Big Decisions...

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
I am deciding.
Watch this space...

Friday, 15 April 2011

FINALLY-- an African Recap

"All around you, people will be tip-toeing through life,
just to arrive at death safely.
But dear children, do not tiptoe.
Run, hop, skip, or dance, just don't tip-toe."
-Shane Claiborne

I’m not sure how it’s happened. A mere 5 months ago I was still quaking in my boots about the next step in my walk with God—following Him into what to me felt like a “deep-end”, following Him into a few months serving Him in Africa. Uganda, specifically. A country that I, to be honest, had no special affinity for on a continent I had only curiosity about, not fondness. I have already been back to the continent where He’s planted my heart for 46 days (O Europe, I do love you). 46 whirlwind days of happy reunions, meetings, work, and some scary bouts of serious illness (just thankful that didn’t happen in Africa!!), and sorting out all the details of the move to the next step in ministry, and all these days of reality later… I still feel a sort of vague, “So God, what was that all about?”

Some Unforgettable Moments (both the beautiful and the haunting)…

-          Swimming in the Nile River. The water was so clear and cool & refreshing, yet sun-warmed. We dipped completely under it in a little naturally deep pool under a small waterfall. Some hundreds of mile upstream and some hundreds of years ago, the baby Moses was hidden in a basket in the rushes at the river’s edge. And we swam in its flow, rode its mighty current. Incredible!

- Meeting the street children near Garden City in Kampala. They were mere babies. One little girl sitting by the side of the road all by herself couldn’t have been more than 2 years old and her tiny little unsmiling figure sitting so close to the crazy Kampala traffic literally jarred me. I walked on with stunned tears saying again and again, “But she’s just a baby...” We are told the parents use them to beg and are only hiding nearby, but the image jarred me nonetheless and I felt every bit of my little helplessness the rest of the way home that night and hugged the babies at the home where we were working extra closely the next day…

-          Being witness to little John Mark’s arrival to Acacia Tree on the afternoon of our very first day there. His frightened 15-yea-old mama was sitting outside the front gate for hours as if trying to gain the courage to come. Robin, Acacia Tree’s director, asked her if everything was alright, but was turned away. We could hear his little baby cries through our open windows throughout the day. Finally, Robin sent Blessed, one of the Ugandan staff, out to ask after her. And suddenly a VERY smelly baby boy wearing a dress, and wrapped up in layers and layers of awful, smelly blankets, despite the unbearable heat (I CANNOT understand that about Ugandan mamas…), was laid in my lap. He was beautiful,  just about 4 weeks old, and hungry, but otherwise healthy. I very swiftly fell in love and my favourite way to spend the hours at Acacia Tree each day became to cradle him in my arms and rock him in the corner rocker, whispering prayers over his little life as I did…

- Experiencing a miracle when my Boda-Boda wiped out! I LOVED riding boda-boda, which is one of the main ways of getting around in Uganda. They are simply motorbikes, ordinary motorbikes, used like personal taxis. One day the one I was riding hit a patch of road where the driver lost control. It was only a few God-designed acts of grace that kept me from being seriously wounded or killed when I went flying over that driver’s head. First of all, I was riding “like a man”. Usually when I was riding a boda alone (I most often was  riding along with a friend behind the driver), I would sit “side-saddle” as that’s how most usually women ride in Uganda. But that day I was fed up with it and decided to just let people look at me if they wanted to (they were always looking at me anyway because of my white skin and blond hair!) and sit “like a man”, astride. If I had been sitting like a lady when the bike went down, I would have smacked the back of my head against the pavement and that would have been it…  And we were on the open highway going at top motorbike speeds for about 7km. When the driver lost control our turn was not far up ahead so he had just stopped accelerating…  It all happened so fast I hardly knew what hit me, but suddenly felt the right side of my face scraping against the hot pavement and then… for a moment… had no idea what was happening. When I heard the driver saying to me, “Get up! Get up!” I was surprised to find that I was getting up, pushing myself to my knees, then standing to my feet.  I found myself reaching up and stroking my cheek then holding my hand back to check for the blood which must be there for touching my face, but finding none, again and again. There wasn’t a single scratch on my face… The bike was totaled, and I was in too much shock to think clearly, so on wobbly legs I simply started walking the rest of the way home, about a half a mile down dusty red roads through the village. Everyone was running to the edge of their yards shouting, “Mzungu! How are you?” and I blinked the tears of shock away as I limped along, the blood running from my shoulder and my leg, and called back, “Fine, thank you. How are you?” It was a long limping walk home where Gabi jumped up to clean every bit of dirt out of my wounds and bandage me up, but the whole way I was whispering praises under my breath. It was an act of God which kept me from cracking open my skull on that highway in the middle of Africa, let alone not breaking a single bone, or even spraining anything. Instead walking (albeit limping…) away. It was nothing but His grace… And I felt like I was treading on a miracle. I was very sore for the next few weeks, my neck and knee especially, but the nasty cuts were healed up within the month. And though I felt that I couldn’t share about this experience until after I left Uganda, so as not to worry my family as I had another month to go at this point and much more travel to do via boda-boda and other risqué African means, I cannot help but share of His protective hand on me made so real in those moments… “What is impossible with men is possible with God” – Luke 18:27

- Being rowed along in a wooden, weather-worn boat (by a new friend who owned the quiet island where we were staying) while watching the sunset over the rapids of the mighty Nile river. The sun sets SO quickly on the equator. Within minutes the massive, clearly-defined orange orb slipped behind the silhouette of the trees along the shore. This may be the most powerful “pinch me” moment of my whole 2 months in Africa. My heart was completely lost in praise, as if gazing directly at the beauty of the Lord Himself, and so overcome by gratitude. I can’t find the words to describe how it touched me… 

- Our every day with the boys of Acacia Tree. The four of them joined together to steal my heart away. Moses was especially charming when he started taking my hand in his and pulling it to his lips for a princely kiss on the knuckles one day when I was bathing him in a bucket in the sunshine :) And one of the days that Em and I had all 4 boys playing out on a blanket in the yard and a fussy little zac crawled into my lap and fell asleep, so precious and vulnerable in a world with so much stacked against them.  I could have taken them home and loved him forever…

- The ridiculous come-ons from the men EVERYWHERE we went. They would look us up and down at the markets and say, “My size, my size” when they liked our figures, or call out, “My wife!” after us as we walked by… Of course there was the common, “Hey baby”, but most often it was the overly-friendly, “How are you, beautiful?”-- always accompanied by the classic straying eye. Oh dear. The boda-drivers were the most aggressive and there were times Emily couldn’t control her temper when they were persistent and she’d have a little shriek at them to leave us alone, which always rather cracked me up :) We grew bolder and bolder as time went on and stopped trying to remain polite despite being treated like fresh meat… Especially whenever we had to pass through Kampala. We HATED Kampala. SO crowded with people and traffic all vying for every bit of conceivable space. We saw a man on a bicycle have his hands crushed on his handle-bars by 2 public taxi buses on either side of him. And we had to walk amongst that, squeezed between moving vehicles. So scary! But the scariest bit was the way the men in Kampala wouldn’t just look us up and down or greet us, but physically GRAB us and try to pull us to them!! This would really shake me up and make me angry, and it seemed to happen to me most often so Emily would constantly be yelling at people to let me go…. NOT fun. We were also pick-pocketted here (some guy stole my alarm clock out of a zipped pocket of my backpack) and Emily had a guy run by and rip her necklace from her neck… Ugh. NOT a fan of Kampala!!! But so grateful for God’s constant protection over us.

- Just setting up everything with Gabi in the first month. It was all new and different when doing it in Africa! Everything from stringing up a clothesline in the garden (which was soon overrun by ants crawling all over the rope and anything we had drying on it…), to meeting with Ugandan officials and praying silently under our breath for the paperwork process of starting the ministry, to hiring a guard for the compound with a bow and arrow because they are more feared than the guards with guns (and cheaper!). Unreal.

- The days that our little Autistic/Down’s Syndrome 4-year-old Jonathan at Acacia Tree would feel cuddly and want to be snuggled. He’s wrap those little arms around my neck and just rest his whole self right into me with such trust and abandon. A little like God wants of me. Jonathan was the first HIV-positive child that I have ever worked with and what a trooper…

- Being asked to share in my new Ugandan friend Dan’s lecture at Uganda Christian University the morning of our visit! We didn’t know what was coming and blundered our way through a few minutes of telling the 2nd year University class about what we knew of nutrition in developed countries. We found it rather surreal and laughed long and hard about the experience later. We’re determined to add “guest lecturer” to our CV’s now ;)

- Showering in a bucket. Hehehe :) The only showers I took in Uganda were cold ones—firstly because that was the only temperature available, then in the second month, because the only alternative temperature was scalding hot :) And how the red dust would just pour off of our bodies at the end of each day!!

- Visiting Divine Orphanage for the first time and being literally swarmed by the most precious little children. We couldn’t  communicate together in words, but only in touches and in smiles. My 2 months in Uganda were completely precious but always kind of a mystery to me. Like, “God, why am I here?” But that afternoon, loving on those beautiful orphaned and abandoned children so delighted by any bit of attention, I felt instinctively that even if this afternoon was the only reason why I came all this way, it would be enough just being given the chance to show these little ones His love for them in whatever way possible for whatever bit of time allotted. I was drawn specifically to one little girl called Shianna, who seemed to keep to herself, rather quiet and sullen. But once I scooped her up, she wouldn’t be put down. And she’s still being held in my heart. These children need sponsors to help see them through the treacherous life they’ve been thrown into as orphans or abandoned children. PLEASE get in touch with me if the Lord speaks to your heart at all about loving the fatherless… The lady taking them in is kindness itself with a heart bigger than the whole of Uganda. She would love to be in touch with you. And of course, if you can visit these little ones, do!! They will greet you with arms wide open (and probably want to run their hands through your hair for hours on end like my experience :)) and neither they nor you will ever be the same…

- Deciding that Emily might have come down with Malaria one night at an hour to midnight and calling a boda-boda to the hostel gate under the starlight to be whisked away to the nearest clinic for treatment in the dark of night (we didn’t like being out after dark as a rule, and held hands as we walked along afterwards, looking for a boda and ignoring the come-ons of the men walking down the same road….eek!). Oh the adventure! She was a great sport about it and we giggled our way through it, got the meds, and within days she was feeling 100% again. Possibly the most unreal part of the night was the way the hostel’s guard, Joseph, asked Malaria-ridden and feverish Em if she would cheat on her boyfriend with an African man (meaning: with HIM, specifically. Ha!) Her response was a quick, high-pitched squeal of, “That is WRONG, Joseph!” And she put him right in his place :) 

- The kindness and huge-hearted generosity of the people I met. My overriding opinion of Ugandan people is that they are the most generous people on earth; so welcoming. I was so blessed by how quickly I made friends, and how precious the friendships were. I would go back in an instant :)

- Making friends with the children wherever we would go. We walk everywhere in Uganda and whether during the first month in Jinja or the second one in Entebbe, the children living along the route we walked each day were very quick to run out from their homes and introduce themselves. Soon it was an everyday occurrence to be escorted down the red dirt road by our young friends who would drop everything to walk along and hold our hands and have a little conversation with us on our way to and from work :) Precious precious precious!

- On our last weekend Em and I went away to a place we heard of called Hairy Lemon Island about 5 hours away (when we stayed on the Nile). We stayed two days and on the second day when we opened the door to our dorm there was a gigantic toad sitting right inside the door. Em shrieked and I tried to nudge him out with my toe, but he hopped away under a bed and we forgot about him. Then we made the LONG journey home, over 6 hours due to traffic jams around Kampala, bumping along awful roads, shoving ourselves into crowded public taxis one after the other for hours at a time, with our weekend luggage packed in on our laps. When we finally got back to Entebbe and unpacked our weekend bags to pack our suitcases to fly out, I heard ANOTHER shriek from Em, and the hostel guard came running to our room. As she unzipped her bag to unpack, there, sitting right at the top of her things, was the giant toad! She brought him all the way home with us from that island on the Nile!! It was hilarious :) :)

- Gabs and I making makeshift meals without a kitchen. At first we didn’t even have a fridge! We were hungry a lot. Ha. But when we finally got a gas burner we’d go to the market and pick out delicious fresh organic veg, which is just so plentiful in beautiful, tropical Uganda, and make gorgeous simple veggie dishes :) And I became addicted to Guava juice and Hibiscus juice! Ooh, yum. Also, I have never tasted pineapple like Ugandan pineapple! The markets are crazy with people and everyone trying to sell you their wares, but it is totally worth braving just for the experience of all the colourful fruits and veg!  I had fun experimenting with making fresh juice from scratch—a lot of fresh lemonade and fresh passionfruit juice! Mmm.

- I missed chocolate. The only chocolate to be found in Uganda was very very expensive and looked as old as the hills in its packaging (My wonderful boyfriend had a bar of Galaxy waiting when I got back to England, cuz he’s sweet :)).  Your best bet for anything sweet in Uganda, in fact, was juice and fruit, or chewing on, then spitting out, bits of sugar cane!

- The stillness of the long African evenings at home when the day was done. Especially the first month there were endless hours to read (Charles Dickens' "David Copperfiled") and write (So many thousands of words!) and spend time with God. I ate up  my Bible Study and wished that time would just stand still like that in Europe more often to get lost in The Word. In the evenings, the temperature would cool to just about perfect-- maybe in the 70's?-- and the light would slowly fade and I would sit on the porch and dwell in His beauty and lay out the contents of the day to Him to whisper to me through.... Precious moments Africa gave me!

I actually loved it. I was surprised by how quickly it grew on me; by how even the difficulties of the culture and the weather and the dirt and the distance and the bugs and the inconveniences and the stares and the aggression and the misunderstandings and the overt poverty and the begging and the heat and the brutality and the sheer “lack”, became just part of the whole experience. It is an experience I may never fully understand, but will never ever forget. And it changes me-- it changes the way I see-- to step so far outside of my own comfort zone and deep into facets of His heart I've not had to know before. I may be back in Uganda at times.

People always think of Africa as the most needy, the main area for mission. I suppose the needs are so obvious and so vast. It's undeniable. And I suppose that's why He brought me there, to teach me to hold my hands against the wounds on the dusty red equator. But only so long as I see with His eyes that needs go beyond the obvious, that neediness goes beyond the traditional missionfield of Africa, that it's never been about a place, but about His heart. It's about the fact of His love and the fact of a world bustling with people of every colour, tongue, and tribe who need to come to realize that they are loved by the King...

And so, He brings me back to a stoic and unbelieving Sweden, and He brings me next to an unlikely place in the midlands of England, the job description and the demographic always different, but always with the same overriding message being whispered through this needy-and-touched heart to touch the neediness the world over, "You are loved" and "Jesus"...

May you know this faithful Lover, may you know this ceasless Love.
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