Thursday, March 14, 2013

the brave ones

The time came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud 
was more painful 
than the risk it took to blossom
 ~ Anais Nin

I sat across the table from her and wondered what she thought about me.  With my most encouraging and sincere smile, I asked the same question again, "Can you tell me something about your family?"  She tucked in her chin.  I could see little pieces of grass in her braids on top of her head.  Her baby boy who was nursing at her breast pulled back and looked at me curiously.  I thought he looked just like his mama.  "Tema, tema..."  ("try, try")  the Ugandan teacher sitting next to me gently prodded her.  The mama finally lifted her head and gave a shy smile.  She said something soft in Acholi, and my friend translated, "She said she doesn't understand any English." 
"It's ok," I said.  "Let's try a picture."  I showed her a picture of a Ugandan family in front of a sugar cane field.  "Can you tell me what you see?"
She looked at the picture.  The baby's chubby fingers reached out and grabbed it off the table.  She scolded him in Acholi and put it back, glancing up at me with an apologetic smile.
I wondered again what she thought about me.  Me, a well-dressed white woman with my blue lap top, cell phone, and a stack of test papers between us.  But there was more between us.  Does she know that I've never worked all day just so I could buy some food to eat that night?  Does she know I've never prayed to God that my child wouldn't die or taken medicine to keep my terminal illness at bay?  I studied her and guessed we must be about the same age.  But it is hard to tell... her dark eyes are deep and wise with the lifetimes they have seen.  It seemed I had waited too long for a response - her hand reached up to cover her eyes, and I could see that it was trembling. 
"It's ok.  It's ok!" I said.  She was nervous and embarrassed, and I thought maybe she was about to cry.  Then I felt a sting at the back of my own eyes, because I hated to be the one to make her feel so vulnerable.  I blinked quick and told myself I was just feeling emotional from getting up before 5am to make the 6 hr. trip up to Gulu.  The afternoon heat and the continual English assessments were having their toll on me as well.  
Suddenly, she put down her hand, and her eyes were clear.  She gave me that lovely smile again, pointed to the mama in the picture with a baby on her hip, and in English she said, "mother."
"Yes! Yes - well done!"  I reached out to touch her arm.  Her whole face lit up with her accomplishment.  I felt a surge of energy, not because I finally got an English word out of her, but because, for a moment, there wasn't so much between us after all.  Me and her and the mama in the sugar cane field... we are more alike than different.  She was still smiling when she walked back to the classroom, and I was still sitting in profound admiration of what courage she possessed when the next lady came and sat down across from me. 

All afternoon I assessed them.  Some of them were old women with teeth missing and a scarf around their head.  Some had their babies tied to their backs.  A few seemed so thin and frail, and I knew that HIV had been harsh to their bodies.  Only two of them could I really have an easy conversation with in English.  Many of them had never been to school a day in their life - or else they had only gone to school 2 or 3 yrs.  Either their parents had had no money to pay school fees (if they did have parents growing up), or had given preference to the boys in the family to go school.  Then, many of them had been abducted into Joseph Kony's LRA army.
But now Watoto's Living Hope is giving them a new chance to start over.  It is an amazing outreach ministry to women who are either HIV positive or have been abducted by the LRA.  For one year, they will come to the Living Hope Center either in Gulu or in Kampala, and they will learn a marketable skill with their hands, receive counseling, learn some English, and, mostly, importantly, learn how much Jesus loves them. 
I was asked just a few weeks ago to help out with the literacy aspect of Living Hope by writing assessments, curriculum, and teaching classes at the Kampala center.  My degree is ESL, so, of course, I am thrilled to use it with this special ministry.  But, I've also been ... oh, what's the word??... doubtful, overwhelmed, nervous... there are about 500 women in the program now, and I've only a few weeks to get all the curriculum written, and all my ESL books/ lesson plans are in a box somewhere in storage in the US.  And I do love teaching, but what do I really know about writing a year's worth of curriculum and tests for three different learning levels?
On Monday this week, I walked into the LH center in Gulu with a little knot in my stomach while giving myself something of a pep-talk.  Monday was the ladies' first day of classes, so I bet they had little knots in their stomachs as well.  At the end of the day, we asked the women what they had learned that day.  One stood up and said she learned to write an "E."  The room erupted in claps and kalulu (a shrill, rolling shout of jubilation).  Another stood up and said she could now count to 5 in English  -same excited response from everyone.  On and on, then finally a pretty, young girl in the back of the room spontaneously started singing in Acholi, while everyone else repeated what she sang.  What an amazing, powerful voice she had!  My Ugandan friend translated some of the song for me, then she nodded toward the pretty girl and said, "That one was abducted to be a child-wife for a solider."  Some of the women were crying; all had their hands raised.  They were giving God deep gratitude for a new beginning, a second chance.  I thought about how brave they are.  Such beautiful, brave women- to have never been treated with dignity, yet still have the boldness to believe that they deserve it; to think that they can have more value in their communities than digging, fetching water, and nursing their babies; to be 60 and willing to learn again, to make her last years her best years.  So brave to "tema, tema."  Try, try.  How silly I've been to focus on my own insecurity!  If these ladies are willing to come with trembling hands and brave hearts to learn, then I can stretch myself and give them my best.
by the way, here's a brief video about Living Hope, if you want to watch it. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

this beautiful mess

You know, some days it’s either laugh or cry… and some days, neither seems appropriate.  Today is one of those.  I spent my Sunday morning helping out with the 2 and 3 yr. old kid’s church class.  (I don’t think I will elaborate.)  I then came home to start lunch.  We have no water today.  This is a rather frequent occurrence.  So, I scratched my previously planned menu (bc peeling dirty potatoes and trimming raw chicken is even less appealing without running water) and went with pasta and beans.  While I was cooking, amidst dirty dishes and leftover cornflakes from breakfast, my Ugandan friend came by with her sick little girl.  I could smell the vomit as soon as she walked in the door.  She told me that her daughter has vomited non-stop for the last 48 hrs, and it was obvious to me the girl was quite dehydrated.  I got her some water to drink, but two minutes later, it was back up all over my sofa.  Before I could clean that up, she had thrown up again, and, at this point, I am going to get her some transport money so she can get to the hospital.  BUT, it is Sunday, the mom explains, so the doctors will not treat the patients today.  (I make a note to never complain about the emergency room in the US again!)  So, as the little girl vomits again a THIRD time, I am wondering what in the world she is hoping I will do for her – besides pray and clean up the messes?  I have NO medical expertise.  And did I mention that we have no running water??  My dear T came in then and helped to make some phones calls and found out a private hospital that should see her – if she flashes some $ at the right ppl.  So, he is off in the van with her (after the girl vomited even a 4th time).  I scrubbed my hands, finished lunch, scrubbed everyone’s hands some more, fed the kids, and then bleached down my living room as well as possible.  There is still no water, and my kitchen is still full of dirty dishes.  And I’m not sure why I am retelling all this, except to make a point to you and to me …

Some days, life is beautiful.

Most days, life is a mess.

On a rare day, I will have the wisdom to reconcile the two. 

I love the famous quote by Jim Elliot – Wherever you are, be all there.  I love it, but I usually fail at it.  Used to, I could think of nothing more grand and exciting than to live in a foreign country – a warm, lush country full of beautiful people and exotic animals and enigmatic culture.  In God’s providential plan, He saw fit to give me my wish, for a season at least.  Now, it has been two yrs since we first came to this lush land (can you believe it?!).  The people are still beautiful, but, otherwise, life is normal.  Yes, having no water and having my floor peed and puked on is rather normal.  The little vervet monkeys that scamper across the road while I jog are not so exotic anymore.  The white, frothy mosquito net draped over my bed is really not romantic… no more so than the pale gecko that drinks out of my toilet bowl every night.  Life in Uganda is usually messy – not just in literal ways.  Our role here is still very undefined and ever-changing.  Things take so much longer to accomplish, as Africans are on much friendlier terms with time than we Americans are.  People we’ve invested in have disappointed us, and some relationships feel like they are two steps forward and one step back.  (ok, some even feel like 2-forward/ 2-back, and I’m not sure if we’re going anywhere!)

 I admit - I’ve been tempted by such frivolous thoughts as, “It’s too hard.  It would be so much easier if we were back in the US again.  We could have a real home and some privacy and a legitimate title/position and secure salary. .. T could have an office to work in, and people would understand us better…”  But this is immature thinking.  I know.  Life is messy EVERYWHERE, ministry even more so.  I will always be misunderstood and taken advantage of – wasn’t Jesus?  I will always have to overcome the boredom of the familiar, the tediousness of the mundane.  I will always have dried cornflakes to scrape off my cereal bowls.

So, I know that at the end of the day, a title doesn’t matter.  What I accomplished that day doesn’t matter.  Being recognized doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that I am HIS – and that, in being HIS, I am completely content.  Moving to Africa 2 yrs. ago confronted me with my sin of discontentment with what I HAVE or don’t have.  Now, I am being confronted with my sin of discontentment with what I DO or don’t do.  Humbling.  If I can center my world and my will, I can see the beauty in the mess. 
 Like the beautiful interruption in our day when he stops by to just talk – he who was a former child solider, now soaking up his new-found purpose and calling.  
  The beautiful, giggling mess in my kitchen, making memories that every little girl should have. 
 That beautiful moment – after he joined me and T and our boys on a jog around the village, and, reaching the end, T clapped his shoulder and said, “Well done, son.”  He ducked his head, but I saw that quiet smile that went deep – an orphan boy who knows a man is proud of him. 

I really can’t tell you how many times we say it to each other.  It has become a sort of catch –phrase between me and T since moving here.  We look at each other and say, “It’s such a beautiful mess.”  Watoto has custody of over 2,500 orphaned children now.  Feeding, clothing, educating, counseling, discipling ALL of them… when you see it from the inside, like we do, it can look like a mess.  But it is such a beautiful, glorious thing that it is even happening!  Sure it can be chaotic, but God’s fingerprints are all over it. 

I am learning that the packaging doesn’t determine the potential.  I could compare it to Reynah’s crayons – I don’t know why, but I REALLY love new crayons.  Using a new crayon is like being the first to dip a knife into a new tub of butter.  (ok, well, for me, both bring great pleasure!)  But Reynah has no affection for new crayons.  She, in fact, likes to break them in two, and she especially loves stripping them of their paper coating.  What a mess!  And I want so bad to just throw the whole bunch away – but new crayons aren’t so easy to come by here.  So, I look at these old crayons and think, “What does it matter?”  Can’t these dreadful-looking things draw just as lovely of a picture?  Of course, they can.  The essence of color is there just the same.  And I look at beautiful Africa surrounding me – broken and stripped of dignity – yet still vivid, full of life, blessed with potential. 

I know your mess looks different than mine.  Maybe yours is dirty diapers and sippy cups.  Maybe it is sleep deprivation and assignments past due, or a lonely heart and estranged family.  Anyway, we all have a mess somehow, whether visible or not.  I ask you to join me...

Let's find the beauty.  See the potential.   And be content in Him.  

P.S. I wrote this blog yesterday, but didn't get a chance to post it.  So, a quick update... the doctor said the little girl had taken poison (they think probably rat poison).  So, it is a very good thing she got to the hospital yesterday!  I talked to the mom this evening, and she said she is improving.  Also, our water came back on finally this evening (it's Mon. pm), and promptly busted our neighbor's pipe, so that water was gushing out of the bathroom and flooding the whole apartment!  After 30 min. of trying to find a solution (and T getting soaked!), one of the neighbors thought to hammer a stick wrapped in plastic into the pipe.  It is working for now.  We all spent another 30 min. mopping up the floor, and appreciating the fact that there is a mess we can all have a good laugh over.  :)