Sunday, June 24, 2012

to all the living...

there is a banner that hangs behind the platform in Suubi's main hall.  it reads -
Eri bulimulamu waliyo esu esuubi. 
which in English means -
To all the living there is hope.  Eccl. 9:4

Suubi is how you say "hope" in Luganda.  so, in essence, i live at Hope Village.  this verse caught my attention when we first moved here, and it has since settled deeper and deeper into my heart.  here, i am surrounded by countless testimonies of redemption and restoration, so that i can never doubt the miracle of hope.  in the community around me, however, hope can seem hard to find.  one day this week, i came home from an episode involving a witch doctor, a missing baby, and a shattered mother.  (i know that sentence begs for an explanation, but you will have to forgive me.  i'm afraid anything i write about it now would sound sensational.)  i have struggled this week with feeling like "how can there be hope when there is no justice?"  so, this morning, during Sunday worship, i studied the verse some more and let it burrow deeper still.  i am reminding myself today that justice is coming, but  hope is here now.  in every situation there is hope, my friend.  if you are breathing, there is hope.  if your story is still being written, there is hope. it is for all the living.

if you don't feel very convinced of that, then please let me introduce you to Isaac.  Isaac is a former child soldier for the LRA, and he is one of the boys Thomas wrote about in an earlier blog here.  awhile back, he asked T to help him write his life story.  so, for many afternoons, he would come sit in our living room and dictate while T typed.  this is his story.  it is long, but it is worth every minute you take to read it.  please read it, and let God remind you of how unrelenting His hope is!

Odong Isaac Testimony

            As a child, my world was only as big as my compound.  I knew of my father, my uncle, and a few other friends and relatives in my village.  I was born in the village of Kalongo in northeast Uganda.  My life is full of close calls.   I almost died of scurvies around age 3 but a kind soldier shared some medicine with my mom and it saved my life.  In those days, our land was being terrorized by armed bands of men called the Karamoja.  By the time I was 5 my family was using me as a look-out by the road.  It was my job to warn everyone in the compound if I saw Karamoja coming.  Once I saw them coming while my family was cooking a meal.  My parents grabbed the pot of food and we all fled to the bush for five days.   Later, the Karamoja even beat my father and stole 100 cows from our family. 
One distinct memory I have from childhood is a very sad one.  When I was about age 7, the Karamoja came through our village and neighboring communities.  They corralled all the people into one place.  Children were separated from parents.  The Karamoja then began to interrogate and terrorize adults and children in our community to learn where they kept cattle and livestock.  I even watched them beat some people to death.  No one could stop them because they had guns and we did not.  It was a terrible week for our community.  People were beaten, stripped naked, and tortured for several days.  Finally the Karamoja left us to bury our dead and count our losses.  These years were desperate times for many people in north-eastern Uganda.  Government soldiers were not available to protect us.  They were only used to protect cities and trading centers.  Many people tried to look for a way to leave and start their lives over.  Some traveled to Kampala, some to Gulu.  But many ended up staying or returning to their family’s land because it was too hard to make a living if they left the village.  My family often depended on the generosity of others just to eat a meal.
I started school at age 6 and I discovered that the world was in fact a very big place with many different kinds of people.   Uganda was a very unstable place during my school years.  Soldiers could not be trusted.  Sometimes we would skip school for a week because we feared to travel.  Sometimes we would arrive at the school building and find it empty because others were too afraid to come.   I grew up in a culture where alcohol and drunkenness were common.  I learned to avoid my father when he was drunk.  I feared his anger.   I even remember one night when my father threatened to burn my mother to death in a moment of anger.  From that time on my father was in and out of my life.  He was not faithful to my mother.  He often worked and stayed in other villages.  I went months without seeing him.  My mother took me to Catholic church with her as a young boy.  I enjoyed going to church and behaved very well when I was there.  I did not attend church enough to know the ways of God but I knew that God was good and that I could pray to him.


            The LRA abducted me when I was 10 years old.  The year was 1997 and it was during  2nd term of my Primary 3 school year (around July).  My mom had sent me and my sister to live with our uncle in a nearby village of Pagoo.  Pagoo was about 15 kilometers from Kalongo.  The children in our area had been sleeping in the bush at night for fear of the LRA rebels.  But this particular July night we had decided to stay in our uncle’s home with his wife and a few other children.  Our uncle was gone to another village to make a purchase.  I awoke about midnight to the sight of fire all around.  The LRA had come to Pagoo and they were burning every home.  They demanded  the children to gather outside.  They forced my uncle’s wife back inside and burned her with the home.  Many people suffered the same fate that night.  Outside I found many (hundreds) of other prisoners- mostly boys, bound to a rope in a single line.  Younger boys and girls were simply told to walk alongside the older captives because the LRA knew they would fear to run away.  Men were either severely beaten or killed.  That night I carried a sack of maize flour for one particular soldier.  He wanted me to personally serve him by carrying his things so he tried to hide me from the rest of the group.  He hid me long enough to spare me at least one beating that the other children received but soon I was discovered by the commanding officer and forced to join the other children in their labors.  We walked many kilometers with no shoes and no shirt.  They took us to Sudan to a mountain called Himotong.  I often prayed during those days that I would make it back home alive.  People died of exposure, wounds, sickness, and beatings.  We mostly ate cassava.  It would be five years before I returned to Katongo.  They gave me the name Samuel.  After two years I finally received a gun. 
      I did not see my sister much, maybe once a year.  She survived the ordeal but came home with a baby girl.  Children who tried to escape were brought back to camp and murdered at the hands of other child soldiers.  Some were trampled to death.  I spent much time fighting during my final two years.  The LRA taught us to always run towards the enemy.  I know it is the hand of God that spared my life during these times.  We traveled as far as Gulu and Lira fighting government forces.  Most of my five years with the LRA was spent in Sudan.  I only spent about one year in Uganda.   During our time in Sudan we captured a group of about 80 people from a certain village.  The LRA quickly realized that these people practiced a form of occultic witchcraft.  This was offensive to the LRA soldiers so we marched them to a certain field some distance from our camp.  They were all blind-folded and told to get on their knees.  Then they were systematically executed by gunshot.  This included men, women, and children.
            Feb 2003 was the turning point for me.  I had been left in our camp to guard new children who had been abducted as well as supplies.  The government forces raided our camp and everyone ran for their lives.  When we regrouped, our commanders demanded to know where our supplies and prisoners were.  We had little to show them.  We had left everything behind.  They beat us severely – twice. Then they informed us that we would have to go into battle without a gun until we could find one from a dead soldier.  At that point I determined that I was ready to go home.  Another thing that influenced my decision was some disturbing news I received from a new prisoner.  One particular boy whom the LRA had just recently abducted was from my home area.  I began to ask him about people and we in fact shared many acquaintances.  I asked him about my mom and he informed me she was dead.  This made me want to go home.  I decided that even I should die at home like my mother- rather than die out here in the bush.  So I began considering how I might leave.  I spoke with a couple other young men about leaving but they were hesitant.  So I determined to keep the matter to myself. 
My opportunity came when they sent a group of us to Kitgum to steal some food for our camp.  Fighting had been fierce.  We had been moving a lot.  The LRA soldiers were tired and decided to send some of us younger ones out without them.  We left in the evening to walk towards town and I knew that I would not return.  Once we reached the edge of town I told the others that I would check a certain house.  That was my moment.  I never looked back.  I knew that they could not look for me long because we were on the edge of town.  I traveled a little distance and slept in the bush.  I was excited but still very fearful.  If I met government soldiers or LRA as I traveled alone I could be killed quickly.  For one week I traveled without eating.  I was nervous, relieved, and very anxious.  Many people ran from me as they saw me coming.  I eventually hid my gun to draw less attention to myself.  The fact remained that anyone who saw me could immediately tell that I was a soldier from the bush.  I learned to counter my own fear by instilling fear in others.  If I approached a group of people I would simply tell them that the LRA was coming behind me and that they had better run.  At that point they would be too busy running to give me any trouble.  Once, two men followed me and I had to pull my gun on them.  They ran when I brandished my weapon and I continued my journey.  I finally reached my uncle’s home in Kalongo.  I found a young boy there that I knew and asked him of my uncle’s whereabouts.  He brought my uncle to me and my uncle immediately began to ask about my condition and health.  I learned that my mother was indeed dead.   She had suffered from heart problems after we were taken.  I cried for my mother many nights.   

Life after the bush-

My uncle was content to leave me be but his brother reported my presence to the local police station.  The next day a plain-clothes officer came and spoke with me.  He asked me about my experience in the bush.  Then he took me to the police station for interrogation.  I was terrified.  They asked me many questions about my movements with the LRA and where their camps and supplies were.  All I could do was cry.  I did not want to be part of the war anymore.  I simply did not want to talk about those things.  I couldn’t handle it emotionally.  They took me to a large army barracks some kilometers away where they had received other boys from the bush like myself.  I was denied food, interrogated, invited to join the army, and they even threatened my life if I did not give them information about the LRA.  Once again, all I could do was cry.  I told them to kill me if they wanted.  I had been living on the edge of death for so long that I was tired of running from it.  Finally someone came and instructed them to send me to a World Vision project in Lira for boys like me.  I stayed there for some months and was treated much better.  There I received some counseling.
I returned home to my uncle.   It was one year after my return that we learned my sister was alive.  She came home from Gulu with a baby girl (fathered by an LRA soldier).  The next two years proved extremely challenging.  I wanted to go to school but now I was 5 years behind.  I completed Primary 6 and 7 during the next two years but it was a difficult time.  My uncle’s new wife did not like me.  She reminded me often that I had been a ruthless killer in the bush.  I learned to just be silent around her and many others who despised my past.  Then I learned of a school near Gulu especially for boys like myself who had returned from the bush.  It was called the School for War Affected Children.  I was glad to leave my uncle’s home and try a new environment.  At this school I was given the chance to learn construction.  I was also exposed to some church choirs.  I loved listening to and singing with choirs so much.  It was also at this school that I heard a true gospel presentation from a guest speaker.  My first genuine faith in Christ happened during this season.  In 2008 some people from Watoto began visiting our school and talking to us about Christ and Watoto Child Care Ministries.  We were invited to join a Watoto village outside Kampala called Suubi.  The conditions in our school had degenerated and Watoto sounded like a good opportunity to me. 
I spent the next three years of my life living at Suubi village near Kampala.  Suubi is home to 1000 students plus house-moms, teachers, ministers, and staff.  In Watoto we lived in homes of one mum assigned to eight students.  I enrolled in Hope Vocational School and continued to learn construction.  In Watoto I learned many things about serving God and living a life that pleases God.  We had church services, cell groups, school chapels, and life-skills lessons to help disciple us as believers.  Suubi is a beautiful and peaceful place.  I am grateful for my time there.
Some people are curious about the changes that Christ has made in my life.  Most men my age in my village drink much alcohol and remain angry at people who have hurt them.   But being a Christian  has taught me to let go of the pain in my past.  I choose not to focus on the bad things that happened to me and my family.  I choose to focus on my future.  I want to have a strong family.   I want to bring healing and hope to other people.  I know that I am forgiven and Christ has told us to forgive those who sin against us.  Therefore, I am going to pursue what is good with the rest of my life.   I know the pain in my past is a testimony that I can use for God’s glory.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

another reality

Her name is Mercy.  She came to me about a month ago carrying her 3 mo. old baby, wearing torn clothes, and with haunted eyes.  I was in the middle of cooking lunch and not feeling very hospitable, so instead of inviting her in, I stepped out on the balcony to talk to her.  She explained that someone told her there was a mzungu (white person) living at Suubi, so she had come looking for a job.  She is not the 1st person that has come to me wanting employment; most Ugandans can’t believe that I don’t want a housemaid or nanny for my kids.  So, as I start to explain that I’m not interested in hiring, she asks if she can tell me her story.  I go add water to my boiling potatoes and come back out.  I wasn’t ready to invite her in, but I knew I had to listen…

Mercy grew up as Jemilah, a Muslim girl in Tanzania.  She came to Uganda with her mom and her mom’s new Ugandan husband when she was 19.  A few months after arriving here, her mom died of a sickness.  Jemilah was alone here now, and had no contact with her extended family in Tanzania.  She soon met a young man, they fell in love, got married.  She and her husband lived in the village with his family and had two daughters and was expecting their 3rd child when her world took a devastating turn.  One night her husband went out to buy milk and never returned.  3 days later his body was found by a field worker, mutilated.  It came out that he had been murdered by his half-brothers who resented the fact that he was first born and would receive the family inheritance.  (archaic I know!)  Jemilah was soon visited by the same family members and was “abused” and threatened to be killed if she didn’t leave the house and village immediately.  At this point in her story, she pulled back her blouse to show me the scars of where they had beat her that night with a panga (like a dull machete).  A local pastor gave her enough $ to have transport out of town.  She left with her two girls and a small bag; she was 7 mo. pregnant.  

So, this was only 5 mo. ago.  She is now widowed at 26, living in a stranger’s unfinished house (think shed with no walls) in Maya, a community a few kilometers down the road.  She digs randomly in people’s gardens with her baby boy tied to her back.  On the days she is able to dig, she makes about a dollar.  Her daughters are 6 and 3.  The oldest one has sickle cell disease, and you would have a hard time convincing anyone she is older than four.  She had left her girls that day with a God-sent lady in her community called Mama Blessing.  Mama Blessing is her sole friend in the world.  

She concludes her story explaining to me that she changed her name to Mercy after her husband died, because that is all she was asking from God... for mercy.  Her words to me: “I became a Christian when I married my husband, but, in those days, life was good and I never thought about God.  Now, I pray to God all the time so I will not go crazy.”  Then, with pools of tears in her eyes, she again begs me to give her a job.  I don’t need to say how my heart was wrenched and I wanted to give her moon if I could.  But I have lived here long enough now to know that my charity is best done through the hands of Ugandans.  Every time I walk into the community, people look at me with hungry eyes that tell me they want me to be their savior with white skin.  Many will lie and manipulate and do whatever it takes to get that.  It was obvious that she was desperate, but I still was not sure if I could trust her.  Call me cold and cynical, but living here 11 mo. has made me much more guarded in these kinds of relationships.  I’m kinda beyond the warm fuzzies I used to feel passing out stickers and candy on short-term mission trips.  So, I hugged her, prayed for her, and promised her only that I would talk to my Ugandan cell group about her.  I drove her down to the main road, bought her a few groceries, and took back to where her girls were with Mama Blessing. 

In an attempt to make an already long story short - I have befriended Mercy, taking baby steps and praying for wisdom along the way.  I give her transport money to come to church every Sun, then I take her home – otherwise it is a 2 hr walk for her.  (which is what she did when she came to my house the 1st day!)  She visited our cell for the first time last week.  I am praying that they will share my burden to help her.  I am hoping to help find her a job here at Suubi in custodial work.  I am learning to trust her and she is patient.  

Today, I spent the whole of my morning with her.  She called me telling me she was very sick and had a bad toothache.  After bringing her to Watoto’s clinic, we found out she had an abscessed tooth that needed to be pulled immediately.  There is no dentist around here, so I gave her enough money to take a taxi van into Kampala and to the hospital and get it pulled.  She again left her children with Mama Blessing.  I wanted to take her all the way into town, but we had previous commitments this afternoon.  She thanked me profusely but I still felt terrible leaving her beside the road to get a taxi, with the fact that she was feverish and had not eaten in two days.  But this is normal in Uganda. 
I still have a hard time comprehending it, but everything about Mercy is too normal here.  To me, to you, her story is horrifically tragic.  But to most Ugandans, I relate to them her story and they tssk and shrug. She is not so extraordinary.  I am far removed from the reality of my Western world, but there is still another reality of life that I am not very acquainted with.  

It struck me hard this evening as I was looking through a new magazine a friend just recently sent in a care package.  I was ecstatic get an American magazine – what a treat! – and I’ve intended to slowly savor this taste of home.  But, to be honest, it tasted weird to me – now – here – with Mercy’s face in my mind.  Every other page it seemed…
 LOSE WEIGHT!  Well, obviously, that is rather a non-issue here. 
LOOK YOUNGER!  I wonder how many weeks it has been since Mercy studied her reflection in a mirror? 
STRESS LESS!  Here, the mantra is just to survive today.

The reality of my world growing up was so secure and stable that the reality of those less fortunate seemed like a far- away exception.  Now, I am 30, and I am finally realizing that, no – I was in the small exception category.  Our Western media and pop-culture dominates everything so strongly that we feel most of the world must be like us.  But WE are the minority, my North American friends.
 To quote Randy Alcorn  - If you have sufficient food, decent clothes, live in a home that shields you from weather, and own some kind of reliable transportation, you’re in the top 15% of the world’s wealthy.  Add some savings, two cars (in any condition), a variety of clothes, and your own house, and you have reached the top 5%.  You may not feel wealthy, but that’s only because you’re comparing yourself to the mega-wealthy.  (Law of Rewards)

Now, I am comparing myself to Mercy and the millions of women she represents in Africa, Eurasia, Asia, South America…
I am not struggling with my responsibility.  I settled that a long time ago.  I am struggling with how to put my responsibility into action – here – in this new reality I find myself in.  Is it even possible to “share a cup of water” and guard my heart at the same time?  Is it ok for me to ration my resources so I won’t be taken advantage of?  I think yes.  But, then, it is NOT ok that Mercy and her babies are sleeping on the hard dirt without a mattress tonight.  I don’t have good answers, so I am using you as my sounding board.

All I do know, is I am grateful, deeply grateful, for a new reality to adjust to.  Because it just makes me long for the REAL reality that is coming.   I am disenchanted with the American dream and the images in my magazine.  I am already wearied by the pain and injustice here.  But both are fleeting in this shadow land.  What we call LIFE is just a portal.  Aren’t you so glad there is a higher reality than this?
So,  thanks for listening … and please say a prayer for Mercy tonight.