Sunday, July 3, 2011

“So—how was Uganda?!”

I have been wondering how to best answer this question for so many of you. (Thank you, friends, for your prayers for us.) If a picture is worth a thousand words and I saw more than a thousand pictures in our week there in Africa, it will take more than one blog post to tell you. Especially if I want you to read it.

John and I traveled with Engineering Ministries International (eMi)—their East Africa branch, which serves eight countries in that area. We have a strong connection to their director, a family friend from my childhood. Essentially, they partner with Christian ministries in those countries to help design and construction-manage facilities for ministries like orphanages, churches, hospitals, schools for underprivileged kids, etc. using local workers. Simultaneously, they disciple and evangelize the local workforce on these projects…men who are doing all of the construction, from excavation to finish, by hand. You can check out eMi's website and/or this very moving video.

We were incredibly impressed with the organization's understanding and holistic, long-term view of how to truly help those in the vise-grip of poverty. EMI's views and methods were similar to a book, When Helping Hurts, that's been critical in forming John's passion for building up the powerless—though it also points out that we all have poverties of various forms. EMI is working hard to break cycles of poverty rather than perpetuate them. They're seeking to work themselves out of a job in developing these men as skilled workers (and husbands and fathers) who can build a strong, godly Africa—rather than make locals dependent upon mzungus (the Ugandan term that denotes a foreigner, usually a white person). This is a challenge, since Uganda's history as a British colony (ending in only 1962) seemed to communicate that white people were worthy of a higher degree of respect, and were a source of opportunity and wealth that could save them. We were definitely Caucasian head-turners in a crowd there.

Uganda is a place of such great contrasts to me. Its beauty is staggering: We stayed on the Nile for three nights in the most beautiful place I have ever been, topping even Switzerland in its ability to mesmerize me with its natural grandeur. We watched monkeys leaping from branch to branch, and oarsmen muscling their way against the current in dugout canoes. The colors alone dazzled this right-brained amateur of an artist/photographer. Even the birds were in jewel tones; the flowering trees were lush and full. Winston Churchill once called Uganda "The Pearl of Africa," and it's easy to see why. Plus, the Christians I met were undoubtedly kind, gracious, and hospitable.

But the poverty, too, was nearly seamless. Next to our retreat center on the Nile were thatched huts of children in torn clothes wandering among goats and chickens and pressing themselves against the wire fence to watch us. Once I was able to absorb the absolutely harrowing road traffic here, I noticed how many travelers on foot were without shoes —many with sizeable bundles on their heads. In fact, many construction workers were also barefoot, clad in flip-flops, or in ill-fitting shoes. You can see why tetanus is common, though a person who dies of lockjaw is still thought to be bewitched. For a country of 32 million, there are only 65,000 university spots. A majority of scholarships go to those from the president's region, leaving the eastern part of the country economically disadvantaged. Fifty percent of the population is below the age of 14; the life expectancy is 52. HIV/AIDS infects 6.5% of the population, which overall is considered "high risk" for infectious disease according to the CIA. (I can attest to this by having to "choose" with my doctor the most critical vaccines before my system would be overloaded, a problem we attempted to aid with an arsenal of prescription medications just in case.) For decades, world-renowned despots like Idi Amin (I understand he's the dictator portrayed in the movie The Last King of Scotland) took hundreds of thousands of lives; Amin even took all the money in the national bank. Joseph Kony, too, has made world headlines with his horrific, systematic brainwashing of children through forced brutality to their own families in order to create armies of violent child soldiers. Uganda's history is painful and at times crippling.

As I spoke to Richard, the foreman speaking in eMi's video above, I was captivated by a story from his childhood. He and his family had spent a night in the bush fleeing some tribal rivalries that had taken advantage of the overturn of power from one despot to another. One tribe was killing fathers in order to make their sons child soldiers. When he told me how old he was, I was surprised: Honestly, he looked older than his years. I mentioned, "You've seen a lot in your days, Richard."

He responded, "Most Ugandan men have."

I thought back to the photos of my sweet sons I'd just showed him from my camera. In grooming them into godly young men of courage who will lead their families, I am aware of how God wires boys to constantly seek out small competitions and battles that reinforce their ability to conquer and guide and protect. Maybe it's by determining the highest stairstep they can jump off without breaking their heads open, or maybe it's another battle between the Nerf sword and the Nerf battle axe. But these little feats gradually instill a sense of "I can." Yet Ugandan men, in this na├»ve, Caucasian American female's estimation, are constantly hearing, You can't. You can't provide for your family. You can't protect them. Richard explained to me—no, practically pleaded with me—that he thinks his country's greatest need are for its men to step up and lead their countries and their wives and their children, loving them well.

Poverty has, in my limited understanding from those who work in Uganda, left many of their people with a survivor's mentality—akin to an orphan's personality, especially since so many are in fact orphaned. Most are concerned with short-term problems of how to make it through the next day. They can lack some ability in long-term planning and foresight, whether that's with attention to quality on the job site or whether or not it would be most beneficial to steal a tool that might lose you your job but earn several days' wages if they sold the tool. As you might expect, poverty motivates many to manipulation and deceit, which are commonplace.
But I have a lot to learn from Ugandans. They tend to see wealth as something to be shared with a community. They place a high value on extended family. Their lack of convenience has brought them remarkable resourcefulness. Their pace of life is governed by their love for relationships. In short, they had—have—a lot to teach me about the image of God they reflect.

Not only that, but I find myself moved to the point of action. I fully trust that God is sovereign and good without me, so I need not be motivated by guilt or by fear for these beautiful people. Yet how can I go away from all that I've seen and do nothing? How should we then live? I found myself returning to that old analogy of the man walking along the beach strewn with starfish who would die unless they were thrown back into the ocean. He comes upon a boy who's picking them up and throwing them back in. The man says to the boy, "Why are you doing this? It doesn't matter; you can't save all of them!" And the boy answers as he pitches one into the surf, "It matters to that one." The question we must answer: Which are the "starfish", so to speak, that God's wanting us to throw back in?