Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hope in the Slums: Finding God in Namuwongo

Sometimes it’s hard for me to locate the goodness of God in poverty.

A project with a Ugandan friend of mine, completing her counseling internship, had trailed me into the slums after her. In some ways the dry season made it more tolerable than I’d anticipated. The unnaturally-colored, stagnant water clotted with trash would soon rise bearing cholera, typhoid, and worse.

My heart and my senses were constantly scuffed to a raw alertness. The ten women our project was seeking to assist earned about 1500 shillings per day; about 50 cents. We ducked in their darkened huts, my rudimentary Luganda tripping over my tongue like my tennis shoes over the jutting paths outside.

Unquestionably the most searing moments were those with a large-eyed family of five a neighbor had recommended we check on. Flies circled a large raised, crusted scab on the head of one of the children, reportedly because her alcoholic father always beats her on the head in the same spot. The weeping mother, whom one of our group checked into a government hospital the next day, was emaciated and hacking from tuberculosis.

But the infant scared me the most: a year-and-a-half old, but about the weight of my boys at three months. Remembering my husband’s marvel at Jesus touching lepers and outcast, I reached through the burble of Luganda around us and lifted her frame to my chest, shoving aside concerns of TB. It felt like carrying bones. The next day the hospital would diagnose her pneumonia and obvious malnutrition. Her breaths were so shallow and rapid, I also had to stuff down my fear she would die in my arms. She only fell asleep.

Yet in a day of so many contrasts—my painfully white skin, for one, as I just hoped I wouldn’t cause more harm parading into these sacred spaces—perhaps it was only fitting that I would view such hope. That afternoon ten women gathered beneath a tin roof. They crowded around a teacher we'd found of a beautiful and unique form of basket weaving from local materials. I found myself grateful for her quiet, gentle tones, easy on these struggling women’s ears. I listened as my friend counseled them toward diligence, excellence, and careful savings.

At the risk of getting too sentimental on you here—it was as if not just a basket, but hope, too, were slowly being pieced together as the women leaned around it.

My brain is still detangling what I saw last week, recalled repeatedly in the continued tasks of our basket project and our machinations to help the starving family. Part of me doesn’t want to forget the knobs of the girl’s spine, or her naked ribs beneath my hands. Sometimes I think we are asked to mourn with God over the great loss in this world.

It's relatively easy to thank God around my satisfied stomach, with my loving husband and educated children. But I looked for the goodness of God there in the slums of Namuwongo, somewhere among the kilometer-long landfill with huts perching atop, or the alarming swarms of children with jerrycans around contaminated water sources.

And this is what I know: I saw God in hope.

I saw Him in the clean bathrooms constructed and maintained by Hope for Children, and the mothers relieved because nearly 150 students are sponsored there. I saw Him in the man recycling plastic bottles plucked from the refuse, forming paving stones. I witnessed Him in Maama Violet, our group’s leader, who trudges those 10-12 miles near daily, vigilantly monitoring her charges and, like that day, occasionally tucking new ones beneath her brown wings. And when I am tempted to question God about that battered family, I remember He heard their prayers, bringing not only this group of social workers, but also police to her door that night on her behalf.

Rather than evidence God plugs His hears, Namuwongo felt stocked with reminders that He listens intently and responds ardently, despite circumstances or the choices of ourselves or others that plunge us into darkness. Sometimes, His hope is delivered by human hands, or in meaningful work, or in another relieved recipient of daily bread. I have seen over and over that He is indeed the defender of the poor: God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish (Psalm 9:18).

As much as God is evident in my neighborhood, He is just as fiercely present in Namuwongo.

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