Thursday, May 14, 2015

The accident

Life before we left for our home assignment was a bit complicated.

I've been wondering how to write about this for some time. Even now, whatever I write seems either melodramatic or flat, or simply one-dimensional.

When traveling home ("Uganda" home) from the airport around midnight after a surprise visit to the U.S. for my (Janel's) dad’s birthday, something very difficult happened. A driver picked me up from the airport—a Ugandan friend we know. Running on about three hours of sleep from my 24-hour travels, I was still excited to see my family. The windows were down, allowing the temperate breeze to refresh my skin, which seemed coated in that thin film of mysterious traveling gunk (my son has recently coined the phrase "feeling airplany").

But about twenty minutes into the trip, we saw a taxi minibus swerving in front of us. There was a presumably drunk man who was trying to cross the road. Considering we were probably traveling at least 45 mph, we couldn’t swerve out of the way. The pedestrian turned directly in front of our car. His head hit the windshield above my lap, leaving a basketball-shaped indention in the spidered glass.

He was killed.

After reeling silent prayers and considerable pleading on my part with the driver, we stopped about a kilometer later. But I think my driver was primarily concerned with getting out of there, and returned to his seat after checking the windshield.  (Mob justice is a legitimate concern in Uganda.) He didn’t want to stop at the police station, but finally caved to my wide-eyed pleas.

We stopped, and spent about three and a half hours at the police station, kind of a concrete bunker equipped with a corrugated tin roof, what appeared to be a filing room of tilting stacks of paper, a desk, a bench, and a clock as lethargic as the policemen. (I arrived home at about 4:30 AM.) Another police station found the body. I saw no one actually concerned about the man, another passenger after already another one or two deaths on the road that evening. My time at the station, aside from the ten minutes to take my statement, were largely me declining subtle attempts to bribe and trying to figure out how, in the confusing and, to my Western mind, illogical system of Ugandan justice (would quotations around that word appear cynical?), to keep my driver out of jail. The driver was also trying to convince me to give him $500, ostensibly for the same reason. After all, I had made him stop.

The driver returned bright and early a day later trying to convince me to pay a bribe. This was, I eventually gathered, so that the police station at which we spent those lovely midnight hours wouldn’t contact the station who found the body: "You said you would help me!" I’ve had many conversations with both Ugandans and missionaries to navigate how to actually achieve justice in a system where justice is rarely found. As you can imagine, this situation is extremely complicated.

I was quite shaken. Flashbacks were superseded by a general--but only temporary--feeling of insecurity and unease, though I believe I am past that now (the latter, not the former). Unfortunately, the accident occurred on the busy main road by our new home, which we must take to travel anywhere. God has given wisdom, strength, and compassionate relationships to handle this tragic, baffling situation carefully and with peace.

Still--it took awhile to come to grips with the fact that a man died. That people saw it as an opportunity to make money. And that God still had a wise and loving reason for this situation in which a man's life ended before my eyes--a more common experience for an African, but less so for me--in the vehicle He knew I'd take.

These circumstances, along with moving in the span of a week, John climbing Kilimanjaro, preparing to leave the country and the office for two and a half months, and a number of frustrations with our new home (e.g. dangerous electrical wiring, poor construction and unreliable repairmen, swarms of mosquitoes making it difficult to sleep) found us arriving in the U.S. weary, at my lowest cultural point. This speaks loudly to me, since I hope you can tell how alive I typically feel here. I've been thankful for a couple of months to step away, have a few long chats and no few tears with friends and family, and now to return yesterday--my husband calmly handling the wheel on our drive home--
to the firm embrace and animated chatter of both Westerners and Ugandans.

The ensuing questions I've grappled with around all this, along with their mysteries or consolations, are perhaps a post for another day. I will say that God is unquestionably a healer, and my trustworthy Holder of Answers (whether I know them or not). But thank you, friends, for your prayers.


Glenna Lober said...

My sister, Jan Blunier Martin, had a similar experience some years ago. Your story reminded me of that. It also happened at night in the middle of rural Illinois. Perhaps you'd like to communicate with her about that.
We continue to pray for you and your family. So wish we could be there sometime when you are back in the U.S. We are blessed that the Lord led us to have a wonderful mission-minded church in Sun City! I am busy in church ministry and following the multiple activities of the six grand kids here in the valley. Randy's Danielle will be married in Texas in October, so that will be fun.

mwesige brian said...

Phew! that was such a horror experience on your first day back home. May the Lord comfort the bereaved family. Praying for you Janel and your family. I hope to see you all at church soon.

Seth said...

Grieving with you over this, Janel, but so thankful for your perspective as always. What a mighty and good and mysterious God we serve.

Ben Colter said...

Janel, life is full of so many difficult things. Your faith is courageous. I always cling to God's promise in Romans 8:28: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." "All things" include all the horrible things too. You and your family are precious to Him. Love and hugs to you all. Ben & Mary Colter

John and Janel Breitenstein said...

Thank you all so much for your kindness! I continue to cling to God's goodness in this, and simply His comfort--and I've seen it so much through His people. Truly grateful for your compassion.

Modesto Culbertson said...

There are really circumstances in life in which we are left in silence to grieve. I'm sure what you went through has left you traumatized, and I can only imagine how you're faring these days. However, your optimism about life and tragedy is noteworthy, and we can only learn from you. Thanks for sharing that story! I wish your family all the best!

Modesto Culbertson @ DZ Law Group

John and Janel Breitenstein said...

I'm so grateful for your compassion. I can only say that God's been so faithful to heal me in all this--and, I hope, this man's family...even the legal system here. I continue to pray to that end. Thankful for you encouraging me today.