Sunday, May 26, 2013


Saturday morning found me standing in the rusty carpet of dust forming the soccer pitch of a local school. Lines were marked out in charcoal granules, which I found novel. The closest thing to bleachers was the elaborate root system of a tree bordering the field, next to the corrugated tin fencing. On the opposite side of the field, a chain-link fence thinly separated the pitch from the exhaust, clamor, and matatus of Ggaba Road.

But there, gazing at the middle of the field, I felt a rush of pride. My middle son, now seven, warmed up with the other boys at Saturday-morning soccer (ahem, football) camp. Normally timid and decidedly comfortable taking up residence in his older brother's shadow, he'd faced a dilemma today. All of the friends and siblings he normally attended with were wiped out, victims of an unrelenting stomach bug distributed evenly through the recycled water supply of eMi Family Fun Day's rented inflatable waterslide. Presenting the options to my son, I expected him to opt for home rather than go it alone. But there he stood in cleats and shin guards, rocketing balls toward the goalposts-sans-nets. He was the only mzungu child among at least twenty; his friendly coach was named Abdul. Our silver, high-clearance minivan was the only vehicle in the parking lot. No other children had arrived in the luxury of a vehicle. In fact, no other parents were in sight.

In the distance, the hills of Kampala lay like a reclining woman's hips. They undulated with crowded roofs of terra cotta and whitewashed concrete, blurred by smog and cooking-fire smoke. I thought of the landscape I'd grown up with, where flat emerald fields stretched themselves as far as the eye could see, down to my uncle's house in the west, and around the usually-vacant intersection to my aunt's house in the east. African-Americans in my small midwestern town drew about as many glances as my son did now, running around with his equator-bleached hair curling up in the middle.

I thought of how landscapes shape us; how different my son's surroundings are from how I grew up. And I thought of how God is in both of those situations, working them together for our good and His honor.

As much as I wish my son was running around with his cousins, his grandparents on the sideline, I'm deeply happy that my kids are growing up in Africa. I'm invigorated by the people they're becoming, the stories God's writing in their lives, the compassion He's pressing on their little hearts. And I'm thankful for inexpensive, character building soccer camps where my son doesn't see that he's the odd man out.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Class no. 2: The truth

Class no. 2 at the YMCA has presented me with a classic blogging conundrum.
  • Because of certain Scriptures--a lot of them--it's important to me to not be disparaging to anyone, even if the chance that the person would find the post is about the same as if they were to grow horns. Personally, I would not want to happen on a blog that portrays me specifically, particularly by name, as stupid, selfish, rude, or other qualities, no matter how colorful and amusing the story (if you perhaps think I possess one or more of these qualities, I am not actually inviting use of the comment section for such purposes). Therefore, I hope not to portray anyone else in such light. Obviously, this eliminates some potential posts on cultural misunderstandings and other bewildering encounters.

  • As always, I feel the tension of verses like Matthew 5:16--letting your light shine before men so they can glorify God--and that whole not-letting-the-right-hand-know-what-the-left-hand-is-doing issue. Knowing my own vast propensity for genuine, homegrown pride, I would rather err on the side of not telling you what's going on over here. Yet many of you pray for us, care for us, support us, and praise God with us. So if perchance you are tempted to think we're just great, we would like to kindly draw your attention to the real Source of Greatness.

  • Blogging by nature is honest. It can also, by nature, be self-absorbed. Not to mention a bypassing of giving grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29), since pretty much anyone can hear. There are times I lack the know-how to both give grace and be honest. In which case, the old adage serves me well: If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything a'tall.
How does this apply to class no. 2?

Well, let me attempt to be true to said guidelines, and still say I found myself both very encouraged and quite discouraged. The students continue to be quite responsive. I'm amazed by what they seem to find novel and exciting. I continue to be impressed by the need for this class, and flabbergasted that I get to teach it. The ladies loved making playdough, and I got the impression that most, if not all, had never seen anything like it. It was a smashing, squashing, rolling, kneading success.

But, as indicated, I continue to be amazed at what has not been part of their normal experience. Just last week as J. completed puzzle after puzzle on the rug, Oliver told me she'd never had a chance to do puzzles. This reminded me of the story of a friend, who reported a woman dropping off a number of puzzles to a school. When she returned some time later, each student was holding a piece. The idea of what to do with the pieces was not apparent to the recipients. Now, I have seen some shape puzzles made by another group of YMCA teachers. But considering class sizes, I don't see these as a plentiful resource. A school principal reminded me this week that Ugandan law a handful of years ago restricted primary school class size to 200 students. As the principal mused, one wonders what conditions might have brought such a law about. (From what I can gather, it seems that U.S. states who do restrict classroom size at this age usually limit it to 18-25 students. Preschools are recommended to have an average ratio of 1:6 to 1:10). I believe usual class sizes at this age in Uganda average 40-80 students. Many classrooms are filled to the brim with desks, leaving little room for getting down on the floor with students, or tasks other than deskwork.

In watching my students present their ideas of creative teaching, I'm reminded that these ladies have likely never had circle/carpet time, calendar time, free reading time, or so many other things that characterize Western early childhood. Puzzles. Popsicle sticks. Goldfish. Cheerios. (Okay, okay, you can obviously have a thriving childhood without those last three.) Playdough. Watercoloring. Children's literature. CD's of bouncing (occasionally grating) children's music.

Though I was discouraged that three of my seven groups did not show up--but 25 or so new ladies did, who'd missed the foundations of the first class--I was soon distracted by how to respond when the assignment completed was not technically the one given. Or how to grade these assignments...from 90 women, 20 of them max who completed the assignment...and if not grade, communicate its importance. (Roll call would take 20 minutes at this point.) How can I show enthusiastic, patient encouragment, but communicate clearly about what I expect?

I went with sheer encouragement, considering that a) so many groups didn't actually do the assignment, and b) some of the terms I'd given them as descriptors, like "artistic" or "interactive", weren't words they understood. In the end, I suppose I just felt a bit lame. I wondered what else was whizzing over eagerly nodding heads that didn't ask questions.

This was confirmed by the five-question, "Are you getting me?" quiz I distributed. Briefly, the answer seems to be an energetic "Not really!"

The icing on my tilting cake was complicated by logistics, like the inane, lay-yer-little-head-on-the-steering-wheel-cause-it-will-be-awhile traffic that eliminated my prep time. Or by arriving with my 15 kilos of stuff at the top of the six flights of stairs to find the classroom door locked. I needed to go downstairs and back up the other side, because this set of doors was to be "locked forever."

Oh, well. At least I would glow with a sheen of fervor, i.e. perspiration when I launched myself through the doors, since I was now tardy to my own class. Again. The girls got a good laugh as I rubbed my hands together and thanked them for their promptness.

I knew that head-shaking, inconvenient frustrations would present themselves. And those are really not a big deal; consider them character development, or at least good blog fodder. I knew, too, that the need was great. It's greater than I comprehended. Or still do comprehend. With each class, I'm getting the idea that I need to simplify, streamlining my goals and aiming only for the most pressing, the most pertinent. I'm hoping things are not just taught, but caught.

Next Wednesday, my strategy is once again altering. I'm "taking" them to preschool: We're having a massive learning-center time, with bins of rice and games with clothespins and sorting beans and the obligatory playdough. (Did I mention that when I tore open the brand-new five-kilo bag of flour last week in the middle of class, it was infested? I had to laugh. After I muttered something like, "Are you kidding me?" So our playdough actually has narrow little bug, uh, "confetti." ...Yeah. Confetti.) I may even bring along my daughter (?), and see if I can "teach" her a little, to show them how they could teach a class. She'd play the centers with them and sing the songs with us. We'll see.

Then, we'll make a file folder game. And again, I will pray for God to do great things--the most important things. In devotions, we're covering the concept of grace this week. If they get that, God is reminding me, it's far more important than techniques for fine motor skills.

As I sat on my porch early Thursday morning, shoulders tipped downward over my tea, God brought to mind a startling verse for missions from our eMi training:

And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. (Ezekiel 22:30)

God reminded me that Jesus was the man, a man among us, who perfectly built up the wall and stood in the gap. He built up the wall, and reconciled humanity to Himself, to other people, to creation. That's the work of missions, whether we're in Kampala or Poughkeepsie. And that's why I can trust Him to buoy me up six flights of stairs--or twelve--and trust that He'll complete this good work.

See you next week.

Monday, May 13, 2013

First YMCA class: The verdict

Last Wednesday was a big ol' day: I completed my first two-hour class session at the YMCA for their prospective teachers. Around fifty of the one hundred ladies showed up.
The verdict: I was really encouraged. God was so faithful to hear those of you who prayed, and my own prayers that kept squeezing out of my heart in the last handful of months.
It helped that many friends and my husband had advised me to anticipate many things going wrong. Thus, I wasn't flagged when the department head showed me to my classroom late, or when no one was there, or when I figured out I would be in a large cafeteria-style room teaching my conglomeration of students at the same time as two or three other teachers in other corners of the room.
I also just got a little chuckle when I asked them if they wanted to guess what country I was from. (There are a lot of mzungus here from the U.S. and U.K.) Spain? No. (I've been told I can have a Spanish accent when I speak to Africans...?) Germany? I can see it in the ancestry. But no. Japan?
...Maybe I should just tell you where I'm from.
This week, we began class discussing verses about God's workmanship, and His plans for each of their lives (the teachers and their students). Did that apply to the student with HIV? The student who was poor? The student who was rude or stupid?  Successively, their answers got louder and more confident. We talked about the power of the tongue, and the power these teachers had to shape students toward God's plan for their lives. Or crush it.
Then, we built more on the concept of why to teach creatively--different learning styles, multiple intelligences; you get the idea. They looked at me like the crazy mzungu I was as I made them get out of their chairs and move to different areas of the room based on their own learning styles and intelligences.
This week's area of focus for teaching methods was phonics and reading. So we sang songs to introduce letters and letter sounds. I yanked out blocks and trays of maize flour and games from a plastic sack. We made a "sound train" of ladies holding up letters that formed words, chugging faster and faster. Basically, we had a lot of fun, laughing and cracking jokes at the little mistakes I made (kicking the toes of the students in the front row, pointing at the wrong group, pronouncing words with an American accent that they couldn't understand). They split into small groups, and each was assigned a pre-reading task--like learning the first sound of a word--along with a creative method to use, like a game or music. I'm curious to see what the groups will present next week.
Afterward, the students were so encouraging--and even the faculty, who'd received word about how things went from the others who taught in my massive room. The latter recommended that I prepare for more students to attend next week. I was humbled. And just so thankful. I'd prayed that God would steal the show, and it seemed He did. I'm praying as I type that He will help the concept of grace and His craftsmanship of each woman, each student, to percolate down to their souls. I'm praying He does greater things than what I can see. This verse has been scrawled in  blue dry-erase marker on my glazed kitchen tiles for the last few months:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant... (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)
This Wednesday, we're making playdough together--a recipe you don't have to cook (no stoves except charcoal), but a recipe all the same, which Ugandans typically don't use. So we'll make it together, then roll wobbly little letters and etchletters and images in flat slabs of dough.
We’ll see what next week looks like. So far, I'm still just amazed that this class has become a reality. It's not all the time that God somehow allows us to play a visible role in the big things we pray for. And only He knows the end game here.
But for right now, I'm excited for Wednesday.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Next Wednesday: Bring it on.

Seven hundred and ninety copies. That's what I hefted, collated and stapled, into the van this morning as I finished up preparation for my class commencing at the Y's Comprehensive Institute this Wednesday. Ninety-six future teachers, mostly from (and going to) lower-income and lower-education scenarios. This past week at a meeting, I discovered that not all of them will be able to read and write fluently (they will be early childhood teachers, but clearly this still creates a significant obstacle in class). I looked skeptically at my copies (i.e. the time and cash I forked over), hoping they'd be read, understood, and even kept.

The more that I have come to understand about education in Uganda in the last few weeks, the more that I have been
a) convinced that effective education is in positively crippling demand,
b) education is affecting a definitive angle for the country as a whole, and
c) been grateful for this opportunity that I've prayed over and troubled over, but am now incredibly humbled and daunted by the size of the task.

So many of the women I teach will be going into mammoth-sized classes of young children (2-6 year olds)--to the tune of 40-120 children, likely with only one other teacher. Many of them will make the equivalent of $2 per day (plus two meals and a simple room). Sometimes they will not be paid on time, or what was promised. Their students may arrive hungry, unable to speak or not yet out of diapers, tired from the journey to school and a cold night sleeping behind thin walls in a noisy neighborhood, and without supplies. Some of these women are teaching not because they've been "inspired" to teach, but because they need food on the table; perhaps they didn't receive high enough scores to pursue professions like medicine or business or another coveted profession, and teaching was the only profession left. I wanted them to bring scissors and glue to class to create our visual aids, but Oliver warned me that they may not be able to afford glue.

Right now, one of my challenges has been to recreate my educational resources into those which a teacher with incredibly limited resources can purchase. I am experimenting with straws, toothpicks, g. nuts (like Spanish peanuts), beans, rice, maize flour, bottle caps, sand. I continue to ask myself, how can I inspire these women and give them the best education possible, yet not overwhelm them or teach entirely above their heads? I was reminded by a friend that the goal in my six class periods is not award-winning teachers, but simply to move one or two steps up.

I am excited. Of course I'm also a bit overwhelmed. There's going to be a big learning curve for all involved! In more than one area of my life, I feel blind right now.

The verse for me in so many ways this week:
I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them. - Isaiah 42:16

I am thankful tonight that He sees--that He loves these women, loves the kids of Uganda, sees the raw need here and doesn't turn His face. Praying that He'll show me what to do in spite of myself, and triumph in the ways He made me and planned to do this good thing. I'm trusting that God, like the last year and a half--heck, like the entirety of my life--will blow in and steal this show.