Return from Africa

Fair warning – this post will be long, as it is a series of impressions from the trip to Uganda… I wrote it on the plane back to London, lest the freshness be lost. Remember that each country in Africa is different; I am speaking of Uganda here. Future posts will not be long…

The flight to London is going to take approximately 1 1/2 hours longer than usual. Due to some unexplained security issue, Sudan and Chad are not permitting us to fly over their airspace. This is new!

This trip has been very special to me. All my trips are special, and this is my fourth trip to this continent. Yet I feel that Africa – “real” Africa – the countryside, the papyrus reeds, the dust everywhere, the beautiful children with so little ownership of anything… one shirt, maybe two… perhaps some pants… shoes? Not likely. This Africa is close to my heart.

Here it seems that everyone has lost someone to disease – generally Aids – in some cases they have lost not someone but everyone… Here the buses get there – eventually. This is where the human drive for survival seems indomitable. Where taxi drivers come close to blows fighting over passengers, where curious eyes follow us mzungus (the “white” people – the name allegedly has the meaning of “one man in many places” since in colonial days they would spot a white man, then another and think they were seeing the same man again, and again, as all white people looked the same to them. They would wonder how one person could possibly be in more than one place)… and more often than not, when our eyes meet theirs we see a timid offer of friendship – we see a gaze that says, “wave at me and I’ll wave back” – particularly when you are a woman and the eyes that meet yours belong either to a woman or a child. This Africa, the one I encountered on this trip, says to us whenever we check into a guest house, “You are most welcome here,” with a warm smile. Here the younger people cross their left arm over their right, clasping their right forearm, when they shake your hand, as a sign of respect.

This is the same place where 15 boys crowd into a dark room with a tattered privacy curtain, sleeping two to a bed, to find refuge from a cruel world – 15 boys who used to roam the streets and have now formed a family. Here I meet the “jaja” (sp) – a grandmother who herself has no riches other than a massively generous heart and has given those boys that safe haven from their pasts. She and the boys cook on a small bucket-shaped coal cooker. The boys take turns preparing their own meals and doing the shopping. They make a living playing music as a band for special events. And they have a wonderful older “brother” – Luutaya – who checks on them daily, caring for them, their studies, their spirits.

This is a country where you drive along a bumpy red-dusty road lined with shops and shopkeepers, their red-dusty wares on display… with men and boys washing their bicycles in the creek and women washing clothes… with recently butchered animals hanging, their flesh ready for sale…

As you follow that road, you turn into another, more bumpy, more red-dusty, until it seems to dead-end at a slaughterhouse. The “house” consists of nothing more than a large concrete slab surrounded by a few poles and topped by a thatched roof. On the slab are remnants of a recently killed and “processed” cow – the hide, the head with its massive horns pointing at the thatch and sky beyond. The slab is being hosed down, and on the concrete wall surrounding the slaughterhouse is an audience of fifteen or so… fifteen huge and dramatically ugly storks, creatures that look like mutant vultures and are highly toxic scavengers (believed to be so contaminated that nothing will eat them!).

Just beyond is the raw wooden church building, with the two-thirds walls and the uneven dirt floor. The roof is zinc, and now and then the birds of prey land on it with their screeching claws, the metal amplifying their noisy dancing on the roof.

If you stand in the church doorway, and look directly ahead, there is a slope with several heads of cattle grazing, and a hundred feet away is a huge and majestic tree, with a rich canopy (shaped not unlike a giant piece of broccoli!). This beautiful tree is the ugly storks’ other home. They sit atop this tree, more than a dozen of them, like so much spiky icing on the cake.

Again, as you stand and look out from the church, down toward the left you see a small building – the pastor’s office, a square made out of concrete. Slightly beyond that is a small rectangular building – this is Restoration House.

At Restoration House, twelve adolescent girls have found a haven from terribly wrong situations – abuse (most likely sexual), abandonment, despair. They have formed a family, caring for one another as they live together in cramped quarters. In front of their concrete rectangle is their well-tended, beloved garden. They have taken bricks to outline a flower bed, and planted a few sprigs of this and that. An old tin can serves as a planter. So little they have, and they treat it so well. The pastor and his wife oversee the home.

In Kampala we met a taxi driver whose sister had died of Aids four days prior, a year after her husband had died of the same disease (said husband had previously lost his first wife also to the disease), and after she had lost two of her children to some cause undisclosed to us.

This addictive land is where we saw children caring for children, boys walking hand in hand, schoolchildren in bright knit sweaters with their arms around each other’s necks… Children loving children, acutely needing one another.

More impressions: Our bus to Kabale was three hours late… and the driver tried to make up time by driving violently and recklessly, for what seemed like a very long time, only stopping after 4 1/2 hours by the side of the road for a “short call” – which we quickly discovered was a toilet break as we saw the people streaming from the bus and heading for the bushes. Here two of our party of mzungus made a good humoured spectacle of themselves running laughing and desperate toward said bushes, emerging three minutes later with arms raised triumphantly – triggering some bemused glances, some indifferent.

The same driver careened the bus to our destination and then had to offload nearly 20 of our suitcases from the rear passenger section of the bus – while my daughter and I refused to disembark until the last of the bags was taken off – lest the noisy pressure from the passengers cause the driver to take off with our bags still on board; he needed to get to the Rwandan border before it closed and the other passengers were energetically protesting the delay.

Then we stood by the side of the road, next to a dusty pile of bags, surrounded by eager and aggressive baggage handlers until they understood that our group did not want their services. Kabale at that moment, close to dusk, seemed hostile.

Nearly a week later, waiting at the same place for the same careening bus to take us back to the capital through the same countryside, where nature is rich and people are poor, Kabale had become friendly, the people helpful. A week of living there transforming our feelings and perceptions. This bus, a creaky old friend now, had to wait for us to find seats in its tired frame, since most of our already-paid-for-and-assigned seats had been taken… And so we stood doggedly in the passageway, as one by one the driver discovered which passengers had no tickets and forced them off the bus…

“Slowly by slowly” as is the way here, it all sorted out, and I found myself seated next to a young university student from Rwanda, who at the age of 13 had lost both his parents in the genocide. After initial niceties he spoke to me of some of his dreams and conflicts – a young man full of strength and fears, needing parental guidance and hope, yet radiating a sense of compressed potential, with a sharp mind and good command of English. He was so much a reflection of this East Africa, a region desperately in need of mamas and papas, having lost an entire generation (their parents’) to Aids and wars. My new young friend would not tell me which tribe he belonged to in Rwanda, fearing backlash from other passengers… would not speak a word of his language, for the same reason…

In Kabale, this town that went from hostile to home in a week, we had visited a newly established House of Hope. A widow is the mama, with three teenage sons of her own and thirteen other children. All orphans, or abandoned, or about to become orphans because their mother or father is dying – four of the children were living on the streets only a few short months ago. Now all were becoming one family, each countenance transformed from mourning and fear to joy and anticipation. The kids hugged us, watched us, danced with us. In Kabale also is a church with worship so joyful you feel it heat up your blood; the members are working to help transform the neighborhood many of the HOH children come from, communities accustomed to shadows. The process is slowly by slowly… but even one person at a time, it is worth all the effort.

A frozen moment in time had come at the House of Hope one evening, when the children sang a hymn for us – sixteen voices harmonizing in perfection – one a young man’s rich voice tenderly elevated above the others in a solo (a young man man appropriately named Joseph, the brother who’d found favor with Pharoah and saved his family, though he’d initially been betrayed into slavery). The sixteen perfectly harmonizing voices sang “Hear my supplication, o Lord,” and at that moment all of Africa sang through them – we could hear the voices of their ancestors and of their future seed – I could hear the slave ships and the jungle palaces echoeing – but more than that, as time stood still and we were breathless, I knew God was present. Listening. Saving.

Back in the creaky careening bus: as I sat next to my new Rwandan friend and shared some Bible verses with him – as his face lit up and he said again and again that this day was “too wonderful” for him – the window was open, the air gushing in, the smell of Africa invading every pore, the fields of papyrus reeds moving like an army of dancing muppets (the reeds have a round fluffy crown) – time stood still for me.

I felt God’s heart pounding in my ears.

Arriving in Kampala, having survived the bus ride and such odd experiences as a communal toilet (a square concrete slab, sloping from all sides toward a hole in the middle, while all around ladies face each other and…), (remember the holy and the mundane coexist quite peacefully!), I thought on all these things.

How God had set the lonely in families. How much we must appreciate our own families. How we can take supreme guiltless joy in hugging our own loved ones, and yet what a responsibility we have when so many need so much. How it is really not that complicated…

We were driving to our guesthouse to wait for the next day’s flight to London. We drove past a compound of some sort, surrounded by a high, dirty concrete wall. Written in large faded green letters were the words “Eagle’s Nest.” I remembered another “Eagle’s Nest” – “Nido de Aguilas” in Spanish, the name of a fancy prep school full of “diplomats’ brats” I had attended for a short time in Chile, when I was 17. I hadn’t quite fit in.

How far I have come. God’s ways are not my ways.

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