Allow me to preface this entry by saying that it is a long one, but it is also to help me remember my time North of the Nile…
A few weekends ago I went North of the Nile. That may not mean much to most of you, but if you’ve ever been to Northern Uganda, you know that people say that as you cross over the Nile river, things change. While I didn’t drive, rather I flew with MAF, I could still sense an overwhelming difference. Welcome to Acholi land. Acholi is a large tribe of people who live in Northern Uganda. I’ve experienced so many amazing things in those four days that I can hardly put it into words.
We flew through dark clouds that loomed above the Nile River as we slowly approached the first stop: Gulu. This was not my final destination, but we were almost there. As you can see from other posts of mine, I LOVE rainbows. Despite the bumpy clouds due to the ominous rain, I saw SO many rainbows in that 1 ½ hour flight. Vibrant ones. Rainbows have always seemed to have more color to me here than in America, and from the sky they are even more spectacular. It makes me wonder if the people in the camps down below thought anything of them. What were they seeing? For sure they were happy for the water to come and feed the dry earth and cool down the day, but were they aware of God’s promise that was hung above them? Only He knows.
As we landed in Pader, my eyes kept searching for something: an airport. Was there one? No. Well, technically the locals say that under the big tree is the airport. In reality, it was a long airstrip made of dirt.
Upon arrival to the compound where we would be staying and working, I quickly discovered something quite astounding to me. Emmanuel International, who I was going to be serving with, was there to support The Church of Uganda, Diocese of Kitgum. God works in ways that we may never understand. Three years ago I felt such a strong calling to pursue trying to work along side the Diocese of Kitgum. Nothing had worked out…at least that’s what I thought. Here I was, in what used to be a part of Kitgum, now fully understanding so many things that I had heard spoken of at the church that I attended during University. It may not seem like any big thing, but to me, WOW…
We were welcomed in with the customary signing of the guest book, formal greetings to the staff and then right to work discussing the children’s program that we would be running. This was only interrupted by fresh chapatti with eggs & then Reverend Kenneth wanting us to meet some of the farmers that they work with. We walked into the big hall for the first time to see 4 different groups of farmers. I was happy that we had already learned the word Apwoyo (ah-foy-yo), which respectively means hello, goodbye, and thank you in Luo.
Our first adventure really came with attempting to get into ‘town’ for lunch. The car keys could not be found…so we used a small locker-like key…successfully no doubt! We made it all the way there and back perfectly. Amazing.
Lunch in town came with my first experience with Boo (B-oh), a green in a soupy sauce made of g-nuts, tomatoes and onions. Not bad at all when I worked my way around the tomatoes and onions! I rather enjoyed it with my posho (a thick grainy block of food made from corn flour or cassava (a root) flour). When we finished our food Jill wanted to snap a photo of me before they took my plate.
I asked Jill if I had anything in my teeth, and she responded by claiming only that if I did it would make the picture better. I didn’t think to ask again until we were going back to the truck and kind stranger asked me if I had a mirror. I thought she said “no”. Turns out, I had something in my teeth. Thanks mister for pointing that out to me J
After resting a bit and reading at the compound, we hopped in the truck to head to another village to attend the Sports day for the district -a track & field event! I honestly had no idea what to expect. Upon arriving in a crowd of hundreds of children staring at us and calling out “muno (white person)” we were seated in the front row next to the man who organized the event. He is also the brother to someone who works at the mission. He was so kind to me explaining exactly how things were working. The first event we saw was the 3000 meter race. Yes, you read that right, three-thousand! They have these blocks that they clap together to start the race. He laughed hysterically when we informed him that in America at races people shoot off a gun. We all came to the same conclusion: that wouldn’t have the best effect in a land hit heavily by the LRA. He also explained to me that the woman holding up sticks at the finishing line was going to drop one each time the leader passed to count the number of laps remaining! Pretty clever. Some of the children must have been overwhelmed at the thought of running 6 more, because after only one lap they began passing out. The closest hospital is 1 hour away. There’s only 1 doctor in Pader town and some unofficial nurses. There’s no first aid anywhere. No physical trainers to slap an ice pack on a strained muscle. They just assign students to run and pull the kid off the track and walk around supporting them until they are functional again.
We also watched the 700 meter race in which kids picked bottle caps off the ground to determine which line they would start on. Of course there was lunch unexpectedly prepared for us, which we were not able to turn down. It was 5:30pm already. It’s really rude in this culture to turn down a meal when you visit someone. We were quite full and skipped our dinner that night.
When we returned back to the compound, there was enough battery on Terry’s computer remaining for us to huddle around and watch the movie Blindside. It has such a triumphal message of a child who has nothing, but is so strong nonetheless.
As we tried to fall asleep that night we heard a much different background than usual. I’m used to hearing dogs yelping, cows mooing, chickens crowing, babies crying, cars bumping along, and a whole slew of city-like mysterious sounds. Being in Pader, a small city without a single grocery store, was quite different. The only sounds to be heard? Frogs, crickets, a noise that sounded like tiny elves building with tiny little hammers. There’s really no other way to explain that sound…it was beautiful. I’d rather fall asleep to that sound than my fan any day!
The next day I woke up at 7 am to get ready for the main event- a Children’s program that we went up there to run. By 7:30 kids were already at the gate. Jill and I decided to go out and blow bubbles at them. It was hilarious as they didn’t know how to react, then slowly realized what to do and they got so excited! I then got to work blowing up balloons and making more play-dough. Others got chairs ready for musical chairs, mixed paint for kids who may have never painted before, or laid out crayons and coloring pages. Those kids were SO quiet as they sat waiting for us. It was touching how well they listen and are so eager to learn! Jill and I co-taught the story of the Good Samaritan. Two of the big elements of “Bible storying” are reading directly from the Bible, and getting your audience to tell the story back to you. So, we got the kids involved. They acted it out as I read the story from the Bible, then we had pictures and they had to tell the story back to us. We followed by sharing a bible verse and had the huge challenge of getting tons of kids in order it! Thank God that we had an amazing translator who is in charge of the Education Department on the compound. She was so precious and did a fantastic job. One of the words that I have handily learned in different languages here is ‘come’. ‘Jangu’ in Luganda, ‘kuja’ in Swahili and now I’ve learned ‘bean’ in Luo! Knowing only 2 words in a language may not seem like much, but those two words sure got the point across when trying to tell the kids where to go.
There were lots of special moments interacting with these children. One of them would have to include meeting Jack Johnson. I cracked up when one of the few kids I asked the name of was a famous singer. He didn’t understand why I was amused and so I quickly explained why. One sad moment was when I saw a picture that a child painted of an LRA truck with a dead body on it. Despite everything that those children have seen and gone through, they are so joyful.
While the children got their porridge, the woman who is in charge of Education there expressed her gratitude. It was incredibly touching how through the barred window she explained to me how much she had learned from me and urged me to come back again to do another program. In my mind I had thought of it as a fun time to bless the kids, not realizing the impact it would have on the people who work at Pader’s Diocese of Kitgum office.
The afternoon finished with the children washing their porridge cup in the stream and laying them out on a tin roof to dry, then onto dancing! I had great fun with the children taking the most random pictures and getting them to laugh hysterically at my crazy faces (after staring at me oddly, they did join in).
We left with the staff to get lunch at the same local joint we had enjoyed the previous day, although sadly the boo was finished, as well as the sweet potatoes and posho. I stuck with the rice and beans.
We went back to the compound and rested up a bit, Jill and I working on our Bible reading and discussing the little things we picked up along the way.
That afternoon we all went to a Home dedication ceremony. I’d never been to one of these before, or seen Acholi women dance in person (though I have in War Dance- definitely a movie to check out!). The entire community gathered around this vulnerable woman to celebrate with her. She had no family, but in a way that wasn’t true, all of those people around her were her family- they were holding her up and making sure that she had a home, something she hadn’t had in years. It may not have been a home the way that Americans would think of it, but it was a place of her own. That little mud hut on the outskirts of an IDP only cost the mission $125.
Imagine! Not being able to put down that basic amount of money for a home. Some of you may be thinking “why put up a home in an IDP camp? Aren’t they supposed to be encouraging people to go back home?” While it is true that the best choice would be to go back home, there are obstacles in the way: land disputes and water sources.
Before the war, people had natural springs to get water- however if these are not tended to, they disappear and move. It’s a big challenge to find new sources of water.
Not long after sitting down, some women came over, grabbed Jill and my hands and pulled us up to dance with them in their circle. It was not the easiest dance…and I don’t consider myself a dancer. Nonetheless, I was enjoying every moment and soaking it in. One old woman dancing next to me held my hand as we laughed and danced (see photo).
I was watching carefully to find the right foot movements, but in turn wound up messing up the hips, shoulders & neck movements. It’s so intricate! You’ve got to be coordinated to do that dance! At one point the ginormous pink flag that one woman was waving got caught on my face. I kept dancing, assuming it would flow off. After about 30 seconds of trying to dance blindfolded I eventually grabbed it and moved it off, not knowing if that was alright to do. It was, however, much easier dancing without the pink banner blinding me, though I didn’t master the dance. Walking back to our seats one woman called me over. Once I reached her I got down low to greet her, as is custom here. Upon doing so she pointed to my necklace, and then pointed to herself. Then pointed to my necklace and pointed to herself. I got the hint quickly that she was asking for my necklace. The very instant I went to pull it off to give it to her, she was happy to pull it off for me. In the same motion of taking it off of my blonde head, she swiped it happily onto her own brown shoulders, jumped up and began shouting her call of jubilation! I laughed it off as something funny and cute, all the while being told at my seat that it made her day and that she would be telling her grandchildren about me. I was humbled for sure. I have so much, and this one little thing that I was willing to give will be spoken about for generations. It’s too much to think of.
Before the official ceremony began, a few people gave speeches. Then, being the honored guests, Jill got to cut the ribbon as they prayed for the hut! We ducked down under the thatch to enter into the dark abyss. It was such a dramatic experience being in this tiny space with a woman crying tears of joy. A woman whose foot is so messed up that she couldn’t walk straight. Venturing out into the bright sun again, one of the first things I saw was another rainbow in the sky behind the truck. What an amazing experience…ending with seeing God’s promise.
The Reverend spoke some more, then some women danced more as we headed out. From the car window, I asked my friends if it would be ok for me to do the shout of jubilee. They kind of responded by saying, “You can do it? Sure, let’s hear it!” Almost the instant I did so, all of the women turned their heads and joined in with me and then they wound up cheering for me. I loved it! Three old ladies came up to shake my hand. Two of them were pointing to their eyes, and we later found out that they were wanting glasses because they couldn’t see. As we pulled away I did one last shout (if you don’t know what this sounds like, it’s a loud high pitched trill that turns into an “eee” at the end). I have to say, it feel pretty good to shout like that. I can see why they do it J
On our way back to the compound, we needed to stop for petrol gas. Being as every gas station in town was out of gas, we had to stop at Total for it. I’ve never seen an old fashioned pump in action, but this thing was literally pumping to get the gas out of the machine. The man on the other side churned a knob round and round vigorously until the appropriate amount was dispensed. Quite fascinating.
Dinner that night was made by Millie, a woman younger than me who is widowed with children and works for the mission. We ate under stars, talked and listened to some music. Everyone slowly left that evening, so I sat and sang worship songs while looking at God’s amazing galaxy. It was simply a blessing to be out in creation alone. It’s not very often that I get that privilege here.
Sunrise the next morning was amazing. And we got to eat donuts. What could be better? We started off super early for the 2 ½ hour drive to Gulu along a road to Kitgum then across a short cut to see more of the country. Reverend wanted us to see more of Acholi land in the deep bush.
We arrived at Reverends house early and greeted his family. We were ushered into their vastly decorated living room to drink chai and eat bread & butter. After resting a bit we were shown our rooms where we would spend the night in Reverend’s home. From the outside, the home doesn’t look too big, but when you enter the door you find a small courtyard leading to 4 bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and what seemed to be a study-ish room. The kitchen is a separate hut outside. I later learned the amazing story behind that home. We then went to a church that was on Reverends land in a school room. Some other pastors kindly sat between us muno’s (word for white person up north) to interpret for us. The youth group even got up to show us a special song and dance. Such talent in those walls. When the service was over Jill and I passed out sweets to the children. I even had some adults telling me they used to be children and asked for one :D I gave them one just for their creativity. Before we headed back to his home, Reverend showed us his father & sisters graves, then the place where he grew up (which was now just a plot of thick tall grass) then some of his land and all of his crops.
We went home to eat a wonderfully prepared lunch after getting to take a short nap. It consisted of Malakwang (Meh-leh-kw-ah-n) which is a green cooked with g-nut paste, simsim butter (sesame), water, tomatoes and onions, and then there was also another type of bitter green with simsim paste, all with sweet potatoes- an AMAZING meal cooked by his college-aged daughter.
After lunch the four of us got to go swimming with Reverends youngest son, Martin. He was scared to hop in the big pool, so we made sure to bring him to the deep end on horseback.
Upon pulling up to the Reverend’s home we were greeted on the roadside by a group of women dancing and singing. We were instructed to get out of car and follow them. This of course led to more dancing! I struggled to grasp the first dance, but totally nailed the second one when they were bent over holding sticks. Some of the women came over and cheered for me as I kept the beat and got my shoulders and feet moving in the correct pattern. Before it ended I just had to get my picture taken with a little old lady who was fully decked out in Uganda gear. She was so cute!
That night we went out to eat in town with Reverend’s daugher. I was totally blown away by the size of Gulu! I wasn’t expecting it to be filled with IDP camps, but there were just SO many buildings. Mbarara in Southwest Uganda is supposedly the 2nd biggest town in the country, but I honestly think that this might have been bigger than Mbarara. It’s grown so much due to the number of NGOs basing themselves there. After dinner we drove Reverends daughter to the campus of Gulu University, which pretty much out in the bush outside of Gulu. She’s worked so hard to get where she is! On the way back to Reverend Kenneth’s home, the boys told us the story of Reverend’s capture by the LRA. He was with them for a solid week, then managed to escape while he was sent to pick sugar cane in the fields. At that time hotels in Gulu were expensive – the cheapest being 60,000/night (when most people still live on less than 2,000/day). So, Reverend Kenneth fixed up his home, sealing all of the cracks with tar so that no light could be seen from the outside, to make it appear as though no one was home. He then housed people in his home. The danger in that was that if the LRA came to a home and the owners refused to open the doors, the soldiers would kill the closest neighbors. The next day the entire community would angry with them for causing the death of innocent people. Thank God that LRA didn’t come knocking.
That night Jill and I discovered that we only had 1 bed net and 2 beds. So…we pushed our beds together and stretched the net as far as we could. That night I slept half out of bed net- waking up randomly to hear the boys next door claiming there were rats & cockroaches in their room.
The next morning was slow, reading the bible under the mango tree and watching the ducks waddle about the yard. There were some kids that came to greet us on the way to school… then brought friends back to greet us as well. It’s funny, yet normal to me now somehow, to be treated as a celebrity. People came to buy milk from the Reverend’s wife- they produce 30 liters a day- though most of it goes to orphaned kids that World Vision pays to feed. Before we packed the truck and headed to town we had a great breakfast of chai, rolls & butter and cassava chips. Mmmm…
Once in town we made our way to the Invisible Children (IC) office to check it out. Oddly enough, I was recognized by the man who does Communications and Education programs there. He had seen me at the IC ballet earlier this year. You run into people everywhere you go around here! In the boardroom he told us of all the projects they do here on the ground. I was really impressed at some of the things they are doing. This past summer they even ran a teacher-training program, sending US teachers to Uganda, and Ugandan teachers to the US!!! It’s so neat to see one of my passions being played out- teacher training in 3rd world countries.
Before heading to the airport to leave we walked around the market in town. Our best find was the bells that women tie around feet while they dance! We each bought one to remember our amazing dancing experiences, and the amazing ways that we blessed people, but most of all that we were blessed by them!
In a way I wish I’d never left. Their culture is SO amazing and welcoming. I know they have problems, but with their joy that surpasses understanding, who wouldn’t want to be amongst that?I never want to forget that joy. There’s joy to be found at any moment. Even in an IDP camp wearing no shoes and sitting in the dirt…there’s joy…in Christ.