Reflections on Uganda

My time in Uganda can be summed up pretty nicely by three observations I had while I was there with the team. This having been my first time in Africa, I think it is safe to say that I was completely culture shocked. After reading books and articles on the country, watching the commercials you see on TV every day about Africa, and hearing John and the other veteran travelers talking about it, I was still unprepared for the world that was waiting for us the second we stepped off the plane.

My first experience was when I was with my mom, Julie, and Cindy teaching at Canaan Primary. My mom and I were teaching the P3 class (sort of like our third or fourth grade) about magnets, which they already had a little foundation with. My first observation was how amazed not only the students, but the teachers and head master were by the real, live magnets we had brought with us. In America, I wouldn’t think twice about seeing a magnet in action, and if I asked any of my friends here if they wanted to see me pick up a paper clip with a magnet I would be received by a laugh and a swift “No!”. But that’s not the reception we saw at Canaan Primary.

These kids and teachers had all read about magnets, learned about magnets, and heard about ways magnets are used, but none of them had ever actually seen a magnet. I could not imagine a world in which magnets were not in every day life. We see them in our cars, our fridges, and even in some kids’ games. But everyone in the class was dumbfounded as we pulled out these magnets, and gave them small pieces of magnetic tape to practice with. Even the head master came in to see them!

And then, as we passed the magnets around, I spotted a little boy in the third row, cramped between three other children. He seemed a little out of sorts, and not as interested as the rest of the children. His eyes looked sunken and heart broken. As he reached up a tentative hand to grasp a magnet I was completely taken aback by the size of his arm. It could not have been any wider than a glass coke bottle at his bicep, and his elbow seemed to protrude so much farther than the area around it that it looked completely surreal. As he stood at the end of the lesson, I watched and saw that his belly stuck out almost as far as the tip of his nose, and his legs seemed wobbly like a new born foal. He was the first to break my heart in Uganda.

I turned to the head master and asked him, “How much does it cost to feed a child here for a three month term?” His response? Eight US dollars. To put that in perspective, that’s less than three Starbucks coffees, half of one bag of dog food from Target, and about one book at Barnes and Noble. And this includes breakfast and lunch, for THREE MONTHS. Nothing prepares you for that.

My second experience came while we were delivering medical supplies to Jinja Children’s Hospital. We walked around, and I was heartbroken to see all the tiny faces staring up at us from these hospital beds, surrounded by their mothers and fathers. And although we had to come to terms with the fact that not all of these precious little children would make it, it was something else about our trip that bothered me more deeply. Witch Doctors.

I had no idea that this kind of practice existed anywhere in the world, let alone Uganda. I was shocked. We saw a small child with what appeared to be a charm bracelet around it’s waist -- a witch doctors “calling card” of sorts. With that little piece of metal, a Witch Doctor had a claim on this child. It was his to do with as he pleased. The parents of this child had had to make a choice; the immediate death of their child or the hope of saving them by allowing a witch doctor to cast his spells. In the later scenario, the child would no longer be the parents’. It belonged to this “spell master” to use as a sex slave, a child sacrifice, a servant, anything he pleased. My heart was broken for the second time in Uganda.

I couldn’t imagine the kind of internal turmoil and distress that these parents must have gone through that brought them to this point. I couldn’t imagine the kind of courage, although misplaced, to try to save their child by relinquishing their hold on it. But mostly, I couldn’t imagine the future of this little baby, not even aware yet of its life or what was to come. It would never grow to be a teenager. It would never be my age. It would never go to college, or have a job, or a family. No amount of money I had could save this child, or other children like it, from their inevitable future. There was a crushing sense of helplessness.

By now my dear reader, you are probably imagining a dark and barren land filled with only pain and suffering. But ah-ha! My third lesson. These people are so incredibly filled with love and compassion and joy. They are faced daily with death and trials, and yet they persist, and they live, and survive, and rejoice. I know very few Americans who are as happy and filled with love as Ugandans are.

Yes, we have wealth and security in our country, and yes, we have many opportunities and advantages. But it is this opportunity and advantage which allows us to be swept under a current of greed and an ocean of want. Every where we turn there is something new to do or spend our money on. We are so focused on the immediate pleasure, that we forget the long-term happiness. Ugandans have it the other way around. They don’t have much money, or many things on which to be frivolous, and it allows them to focus on the things that really matter; faith, family, and happiness.

They are the most joy-filled people I have ever seen, and the most loving I know that I will ever meet. And so I conclude my message with a little piece to chew on: How is it that we are so frequently pleased, and yet rarely happy, while the poorest of the poor will be so incredibly happy, while being very rarely pleased? We have more to gain from them, I think, than they do from us.