Thursday, July 26, 2012

A butterfly effect

Chalk them up to my lengthening "pros" list for Uganda: the butterflies. When John and I first traveled to check out Uganda--most of the butterflies being those knocking around in our stomachs--I remember looking over some low hills in the outskirts of Jinja and Mbale, and blinking. Were they moving?

Nope. Butterflies. Everywhere. Most there were small and white, hovering in little arcs over the multicolored hues of the lantana. I had never seen so many butterflies in one place in my entire life. The entire field was alive.

Fast forward a few months later. Last September and October was a particularly painful part of our journey out of the U.S. Maybe this will reveal where my treasure is/was, but sorting through every one of belongings to sell--my kids' toys, my educational stuff for them, our books, other possessions, choosing to sell at garage-sale prices (10%, maybe?), trash/give away, or store in the limited space we had (do we really need to keep that?), or take in the bags we'd set aside--was mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. Friends can testify. I was toast.

It was a gift of God that the butterflies were hatching just then in Arkansas. Every day in that two-week valley, I believe God gave me a little present: a butterfly sighting--while I patted little flourescent stickers on my sons' bikes, wiped my forehead after carting another load to the trash, or stretched out tape over another cardboard box. With all their associations of new life, of pushing from a dark, crispy cocoon to spread its color and fly, the illustration was not lost on me. Butterflies, to me, are a reminder of faith followed by startling, unanticipated (at least to the butterfly!) beauty and liberty.

And these flighty little insect are one of the edenic parts of living here. Many of these jewel-toned species sport large, indulgent wings. But even the tiny, periwinkle-colored ones still turn my head. They remind me of the gracious hope God gave me, and still does.

As melodramatic as it may sound, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised--and initially dismayed--this week, which was one of those low weeks in the scheme of things. At separate times I found two butterflies the size of C.'s hand beating their wings against the glass in our house. We have iron grates on our windows. The butterflies each became caught in the middle, and their frantic frustration was evident. As W. and I watched, we knew: If they didn't get out, their struggle would eventually slow. They would die.

So imagine the privilege of softly cupping my hands around those black, white, and royal blue wings, or the brown speckled ones with the notch broken out of one side, feeling them tap nervously on my fingers. Imagine the feeling of victory as my son watched, each of us walking to the porch, and--one, two, three!--pushing that butterfly into the air, where it dipped, swirled, and fled, mystified, twice freed.

There was a satisfaction in that opening of my hands. Sometimes, freedom is a lot harder to find for people here. But God still boasts that power to simply open His broad, kind hands.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

From my five-year-old's sketchbook

God loves young babies and young kids.
He loves you always.
He love you when you go to the bathroom, at dinner, and bedtime, and lunch, at breakfast, at bathtime.


Not bad theology, I think. If she gets the idea that God loves you when you go to the bathroom, well, there's a lot to be understood from that.

(Don't miss the illustrations.)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Now entering the time warp

At the risk of adding salt to a wound, I must confess that when the heat waves are sweeping the U.S., we have enjoyed positively beautiful weather here. Every day here is like springtime. December, January, and February were hot. But they weren't even Arkansas-hot. It was dry, and the red dust billowed alongside the matatus (muh-TAH-toos: 15-passenger taxis), while fine rust-colored powder coated furniture and floors and children. But the temps hung only in the upper eighties and low nineties. And aside from those months, aaaaah. Mid-seventies and low eighties. The rainy season began in March and this year, hasn't completely ended; it's supposed to start again next month. Though I've heard November is wet, right now, there are no typhoons of rain like I expected; just peaceful rains. I really like this country.

But it's also weird to have this blissfully cool July, with kids wrapped in blankets at the breakfast table, feel so much like March did. In this nearly seasonless climate, there's also little fanfare for holidays. Because we're an international office, we don't have days off for American holidays, though Ugandans do get Ugandan holidays off. (In all fairness, we take a few weeks off at Christmas, and schedules are flexible!)

The stores obviously don't celebrate American holidays. There really are no decorations or sales hype or advertisements or lightpole banners or anything that suggests holidays and seasons. I did see a large billboard with a hijab-clad woman, advertising styles of modesty for Ramadan. But there were no "Kiss me, I wish I was Irish" shirts in March, no Easter baskets stuffed with basketballs and weird-looking bunnies in April, no "Don't forget Mom!" reminders in May. When my mom e-mailed to tell me that fireworks in Arkansas would be a felony "tomorrow," I thought tomorrow? Well, my goodness! That's the fourth of July! Better get out my America books for the kids and dig up some hot dogs and potato salad.

The Ugandan school year is entirely different from the U.S. school year, and the homeschooling families are often marching to the beat of their own furlough-driven drums, or schooling a little through the summer. So there are no aisles lined with dirt-cheap pencils and kid-safe scissors right now. Mzungus notice the Ugandan school year most when school fees are due, and nationals get desperate for work. Or bribes. One friend of mine noticed that on a trip before school fees were due, he was stopped by police officers at least every hour on his trip; on the way home, after the payment date, he wasn't stopped once. Coincidentally, I haven't thought of marking the seasons with bribes before.

In October, the month of that first snap of fall--also known to my husband as chili and sweatshirt season, when he rubs his hands together in sheer delight--may strike us with a big wave of homesickness. Only the calendar, Facebook, and some American headlines remind us what "should" be happening about now. Christmas will find us in tank tops singing songs about dashing through the snow. Kind of a weird time warp--but there are, of course, worse things.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

And he's off!

Well, tomorrow's the big day: John leaves for his first surveying trip with eMi. (He's already tagged along on some construction management trips.) Tonight I am shoving little notes deep into his bag, praying God will continue to encourage him on this two-week adventure. Some of you will remember from this post that he'll be surveying a camp known as Restoration Gateway, located near Kuruma Falls. Restoration Gateway "exists to join Christ in restoring peace and healing wounds among the vulnerable children and war-torn people of Northern Uganda. Five hundred acres of land overlooking the Nile is being developed into a holistic, reproducible community through Orphan Care, Health Care, Empowerment and Ministry to the Church." This trip is the zenith of John's six week surveying practicum that eMi has taught through Kyambogo (Chom-boh-goh) University.

Here's what I'm praying for, though obviously we'd covet prayer for whatever God brings to mind.

  • One of the local students forgot that he was to lead devotions on Friday morning, so he asked John to lead. John took the invaluable opportunity to lay open the second chapter of Ephesians and explicitly convey the Gospel for these guys, who he's been building relationships with for the last four weeks. Please pray that God would break down any obstacles between them coming to know Jesus Christ, and that He would be working on their hearts while John and Patrick (the eMi Canada staffer who's taught the class) are there to talk with them. Pray for critical conversations to take place and flourish: "keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel" (Ephesians 6:18-19).

  • I'm praying for protection--specifically from disease, insects, animals (i.e. snakes...)--as these guys tramp around in 500 acres of African bush for a week and a half. After seeing some of my friends come home with malaria or digestive issues and John come home with a fever--in addition to the sheer fatigue--I realize that the aftermath of these trips can be just as complicated.

  • I'm also praying for perseverance. This is a long time for an introvert to be with people, a handful of whom don't walk with God, in the wilderness and sun with foreign food. John's continued to amaze me here, and I see that as great evidence of God's grace.
Personally, for the kids and I, I'm asking for peace, perseverance, and just grace while we're here in Kampala without John. All this makes me thankful for a man who leaves such a gap when he's gone because of all the ways he's really invested in his home. And it makes me grateful for these times when he can go out and tangibly do what we've come here for. God's able to do great things in these next few weeks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Open doors

Kind of cool, and I am very thankful: This article on John's and my experiences here was published on Focus on the Family's Boundless webzine today. Please pray that God would use this for his honor.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Photo :: story

So many things I witness here are stories in an instant. I wanted to take you along on this one.

The characters:
Yokaneh: Our guard yesterday, and one of our favorites. Like a handful of our guards, he is Mukonjo, a tribe with mostly smaller, compactly built men (he's 5'3" or '4, maybe?) who have all seemed to be extremely friendly and hardworking. Their people live out in western Uganda by the Rwenzori mountains. Also like many of our guards, his family--his wife Jolly, his three-year-old daughter, and his four-year-old son--actually live back in his village, where they are near extended family and where I would presume it is also much less expensive. He's excited to see them at the end of this month. His name means "John" in Luganda (Side note: "Husband" in Luganda is actually mwami. So to distinguish my husband, I've been told to call my John Mwami Yokaneh. It was a little weird at first, calling him something so close to the word "Mommy". But of course, I digress. Again.)

Oliver: We increasingly love this lady! She's considering starting to sell some of her clothes--something she enjoys and has a great eye for--in order to pay for school in guidance and counseling. She's been asking to work on Saturdays so she can save money for school and to help provide for one of her brothers, since she's an orphan. And she's a good cook. See how she bends in the picture above? Many women bend at the waist for all their cooking and mopping and laundry, which to me seems like a ripe opportunity for a chiropractor. Owie.

C.: Well, we increasingly love this little lady, too. For those of you who've heard of the Leading from Your Strengths personality profile, this one is most certainly an Otter (i.e. she loves people, and loves to have fun!). She's the one who does everything with the door open because she "wants company." She's full of stories, and along with J., likes to hang out with the guards and help them work in the garden or landscaping, open the gate with them, tell them stories, ask them questions, eat dinner with them, etc. I often ask the guards if my kids or C. is disturbing them. They seem to genuinely enjoy the kids' interest and like having fun with them. Yesterday Yokaneh remarked something like, "You see, I am very much missing my own children, so I like this!"

The story:

Since Oliver got lunch at our house, she shared her matooke with Yokaneh, who left his sitting on the table as he rushed to leave for work. (I see her generosity in so many ways!) C. was having a lot of fun with him, so she asked to help him cook.

He is cooking it with sweet potatoes, which are white in color here, on the charcoal stove, or segirit, in view behind C.'s knee. This is how many Kampalans cook their food. It's economic for them; a bag of charcoal the size of John with B. on his shoulders was about $25. And it's how they know to cook, which is why we initially purchased a stove and charcoal for the guards and Oliver to use here for their dinner. But we've discovered that the creation of the charcoal creates a lot of deforestation. So we're still thinking of an alternative. (To give you perspective, deforestation from coffee production is said to be a big culprit in the recent landslide that wiped out three villages on Mt. Elgon a few hours away.)

Oliver, however, shook her head at this guy's cooking methods. Yokaneh has been batchin' it for awhile. She picked up his already-peeled sweet potatoes and peeled off the brown spots, took out a couple of pieces of charcoal with her bare hands (so many Ugandans seem to have built-in oven mitts). Then she stripped a banana leaf from the nearest tree, and can be seen here peeling off its spine with a knife. she then folded it and tucked it around the top of his cooking pot: a homemade lid. It keeps in the steam and prevents the dinner from getting overcooked. Ugandans' resourcefulness continues to amaze me. I have never looked at a banana leaf and thought, man, I broke that pot lid when I first came here (true story). Perfect! That'll work!

Yokaneh just kept laughing and looking happy that someone was going to help him eat better that day. It was fun, too, to see the universal "woman steps in to help cooking bachelor" theme. And I love to see how my kids grow up here, with these wonderful people who are so different than them, as an integral part of their lives.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Whatcha been doin', John?

John has been busy with his six-week surveying practicum at Kampala's Kyambogo University with an eMi Canada staffer. Thankfully, it seems like he's able to keep up really well. A week from Monday, he'll return for two weeks to survey a 500-acre camp called Restoration Gateway about an hour south of Gulu (he traveled there for an initial trip two weeks ago). The camp is primarily for the “forgotten children”—children who were forced into being child soldiers of the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony.

As John gets to know the five other men in his class, the state of the education system is considerably disheartening—especially in light of what it costs people in very real ways to get a “good education” at one of the best schools in Uganda. Though the school offers a surveying degree, it owns no surveying equipment. So we're thankful that eMi brought over enough sets of equipment to train each student, and for this staffer to teach students who, though they've been in the program for two years, have only had classes on theory. It's a good chance for John and the teacher to dig in with these local young men; John's still in the training phase of construction management and currently has a lot of in-office responsibilities. The teacher/eMi staffer seems thankful for John to be there to buffer some of the odd cultural stuff and help him wade through it.

This week we hosted a couple we went to school with from John Brown University/Fellowship Bible Church in Siloam Springs. Nathan and Kendra work about four hours from here around Lake Victoria constructing a camp in a very remote village. They have a three-year-old, and 18-month-old, and she’s pregnant (this sounds eerily familiar...) only she doesn’t have a washing machine, and for 15 km outside of their home, they need a four-wheel-drive. They use a solar electricity system in their house, but no one else around them has electricity or running water. She was remarking on a real sense of God's grace as she manages motherhood in rural Uganda. After remembering my experience as a mother of three kids three and under, I was thinking, you are not kidding, sister.

We had to laugh at some of the dinner conversation around the table. You know you're with a veteran missionary in Uganda when they remark, "Well, thankfully he was only bitten by a python." Trust me, there are a lot more terrible snakes in Uganda--think black mambas and puff adders--and I learned that you don't run when bitten by a snake, because it increases your circulation. It's good to pick up some of these little tidbits here and there. Pass the lemonade, would you?

This wonderful family was in town because a work team from FBC Siloam came in yesterday. John traveled with them to the camp and is presumably (considering he doesn't have cellular service) helping put a roof on a medical clinic so the group can have a medical outreach next week. He plans to return tomorrow. Glad for him to get to swing a hammer for a few days. Maybe it's just me, but with all that's around us, sometimes it just feels good to expend your efforts on something with tangible results.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When your kid bribes the police

It was one of those hand motions I'd dreaded when we considered moving to Uganda. That wide wave of the arm by the police offer clad in all-white: a traffic cop, pulling us over. At times, I have feared the police officers here. Most are toting AK-47's. (Even the guards at the grocery store have those or rifles, which brings a whole new meaning to "mall cop", if you ask me.) And policemen can be corrupt. It's one thing to have a person who doesn't love justice. It's another thing to put him in power and hand him a machine gun of his very own. But I digress.

J. and I were on the way home from a trip to the copy shop and the grocery store that had taken a lot longer than intended. As far as I knew, I wasn't doing anything illegal. (I typically feel like I am one of the tamer Kampala drivers. No comments on this please.) But we'd had a few of these before when John was driving. John and I had previously decided we would not bribe--a decision that has already been challenged by circumstance--and we'd been told not to pay an officer directly for a ticket. All right. Let's do this thing. Window rolled down.

Strategy #1: Pull out the Luganda with a big ol' friendly-mzungu smile. Some would say it was over the top, but in my very limited experience, the more enthusiasm here, the better. "Olyotya, ssebo?" (How are you, sir?)

Strategy #2: Have the kids pull out their Luganda, then have them engage the officer in conversation. This tip, given by a previous resident, has had remarkably positive results.

"J., can you say, 'Olyotya, ssebo?'" J. thankfully is in the mood to respond, and loud enough to delight the officer. Now, I know I am biased. But in the right disposition, J. could charm Castro. Sometimes I look at that impish little grin and think, I could have had six of you!

This obviously translates to the officer that I am teaching my kids Luganda, too. My little guy's greeting brings a huge smile from the policeman, who reaches across the passenger seat to shake my hand Ugandan-style: Grasp the hand with fingers around bottom of the other's wrist (like a normal handshake), then fingers on top of the wrist, then on bottom, then on top, ad finitum. The officer laughs and looks back at J. "Belungi! Olyotya, ssebo?" (I'm good! How are you, sir?--even little boys are called "ssebo" here.)

We continue in Luganda as far as I can. As I've previously alluded to, using the central-region tribal language here is not necessary for most foreigners. The vast majority of people speak English well, because it's spoken in the schools. And I sometimes will attempt Luganda with those who don't speak it because they're not native to the region. But all in all, it's a significant bridge builder. It frequently exposes these huge white smiles on those beautiful African faces--if not an outright laugh, to hear someone with blonde hair and blue eyes speaking this language. Even more, it seems to automatically give them a way to be an expert, a teacher. I can learn a phrase, or even let them laugh at my foibles or little language victories. It somehow communicates there's something to learn--a humility, a teachability, I guess, and a genuine interest in this relatively obscure culture, none of which white people have a great legacy of charging in with.

Anyway, the guy is remarkably friendly. Asks me how I am doing no less than three times. Explains that it's just a routine traffic stop. Does not ask for my license.

In the midst of this, J., who is thrilled with the $.30 pack of gum I've purchased for him from the story, pipes up again around the little wad in his mouth. "Hey, you wanna piece a my gum?" He benevolently holds out a Chiclet-sized square from the packet cherished in his sweaty little hand.

This was not one of my strategies. But, hey--way to go, kid! Wait. Does that count as a bribe?

The officer enthusiastically accepts. Chewing, he asks if I am a teacher for a living (after I've explained my homeschooling run to the copy shop), and finds out what we are doing here in Uganda. For the second traffic stop for our silver minivan, once the officer discovers that we help the poor, we are free to go.

Now, I suppose this may sound manipulative to some. Oliver found it hilarious, particularly about the notion of my three-year-old unintentionally greasing the wheels with gum. But I guess I see it as just trying to spread the fragrance of Christ to people who probably encounter mostly grouchy folk. And I think it's also a little of shrewd stewardship, protecting our support dollars from being spent toward  traffic tickets, some unwarranted.

Overall, it represents an allayed fear. Somehow I had this idea of these fearsome checkpoints around the city, with my kids in the car and who knows what would happen. Grant it, I doubt all of our stops will bring that much relief. But as it was, God was very gracious. And a Chiclet here and there can't hurt.

...I think.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Calling Mr. Fix-It

One of the realities of living here for me is the constant temptation toward discouragement. Wow. Just outside our gate, and sometimes within it, the difficulties here at times feel so pervasive, so systemic, so resistant to change, so complex, and at times, well, so downright irritating.

Slightly funny, minor, and yet true example: We are very blessed with two bathrooms in our home. (In my understanding, most Ugandans don't have running water in their homes.) We also have a shower and Asian-style toilet in the boys' quarters for use by people who work for us. In case that sounds a little too much like The Help, a couple of our kids find it entertaining to use the squatty-potty, and my husband usually showers in the quarters. (And BTW, I do think the guards like not having to bother us to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.) Reason being, that shower, which runs on city water, actually has water pressure: you know, enough to wash shampoo out of your hair, or make you feel like you will truly have less body odor when you get out than when you got in. Our showers in the house have access to our hot water heater (which, incidentally, has a switch so that we can save electricity), but because that tank is in our attic, have about enough pressure to kind of pitifully trickle in an I think I can! manner out of the handheld wand.

So. The Breitensteins hear, hey! Some coworkers had their tank and heater cleaned out, and they got heat and pressure in the same shower. Sweeeeet.

It seemed almost too good to be true after five months of four-minute showers leaving one breathless in the quarters from the uh, exhilarating temperatures.

Our good friend the plumber came. The tank was cleaned. The water was turned on. And...ta-da!

The old pipes burst from the pressure.

Bummer. The mess wasn't accessible through the opening, so tile must be broken--and BTW, no hot water for a few days.

That one wasn't that discouraging. Maybe more eye-rolling! But it is a lighter example of the two-steps-forward, one-step-back realities that hit us much harder when they involve ministry, the nationals we love here, the incessant cultural or developing-nation issues, or just missing family and friends.

Discipleship around the world is S-L-O-W. It is occasionally painful. And when someone signs up for it in a different culture, they're choosing to not only immerse in it, but also to love it, understand it, and root for it (see 1 Corinthians 13:4). I find here that I am constantly struggling, or maybe not struggling near as much as I should, to choose joy and gratitude.

But as I sat in church last Sunday, slumping a little more from weekly discouragement, I believe God brought a timeless reminder. Every toddler wandering around in a dirty shift and bare feet so close to the road, every report of governmental injustice and corruption, every hijab swathing a woman walking by, every report of a doctor giving incorrect and expensive treatment, is an opportunity. It's an opening for hope, for faith, for God's restoration and resurrection of all that's broken around here, or filtering back to me from the States. Jesus wept for the terrible realities around him. But biblically, I believe that He must have mourned with a clear perception of God's sovereignty, His redemption. In fact, He wept right before He raised Lazarus from the dead.

In many ways, it is good for me to be grieved by what is not "on Earth as it is in Heaven" here. But, God seems to be reminding, that needs to be from a heart daily hidden in God and His all-seeing timing and perfection.

I find comfort in the beauty in the parts of the Great Commission that get a little less airtime: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore...And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.