a few thoughts on transition

About two months ago BMCF experienced a notable “first.” It wasn’t our first morning devotion- party combination. I don’t think it was the first time a goat urinated in our morning devotion shed, either. That morning we said goodbye to Bishop Masereka as he entered another retirement. I say ‘another’ because he’s now offering family therapy and counseling services, something there’s also a great need for in town. But with his retirement as Executive Director, BMCF officially entered into the period that is known as (sometimes with affection, other times with fear, always with uncertainty) transition.

Somehow in the few organizations I’ve been a part of, I have encountered transition. Two summers ago (that’s June-August for those of you tuning in from East Africa) I interned with the Crossing, a vibrant and life-giving church in the heart of Boston. The woman who provided the spark for such an inspiring and necessary community seven years ago, Stephanie Spellers, was on her way out. Needless to say, this caused a few ripples, even for people who hadn’t been there very long. About three quarters through my summer, Stephanie officially left, so much of my time there worked around the theme of transition. How do we prepare the community? How do we decide where we’re going next? Who will take over? Will anyone care anymore?

Fast forward to August of last year, when I spent two weeks with Tatua Kenya in preparation for my arrival in Kasese. While there I had a chance to delve into the work that the organizers were doing in their communities, and experience a powerful model centered on grassroots solutions working to address injustice in both Kenyan communities and “development” in general. Natalie Finstad, one of the co-founders of Tatua, is a woman with a similar drive to Stephanie and a contagious passion for relationships and community. In March of this year, when I spent one week with the Tatua crew in Nairobi at the half-way point of my fellowship. I was humbled to be a part of all our conversations that week that centered on refining the vision and mission of Tatua. To watch this big idea, “we want to work toward a just world,” distilled into very clear objectives and a value-laded vision for the future that everyone believes in was incredible. This happened in part because Tatua is in a time of transition: Natalie is soon leaving, and the organization is taking on new challenges and dreams.

Now I find myself involved in another period of transition at BMCF. It is equally exciting and feels just as unwieldy as those I experienced at the Crossing and Tatua. We are thinking about ways in which the foundation can anchor itself more deeply in the community. We are thinking about ways we can bridge the education and clinic programs for more holistic care in Kasese. For BMCF this is the first time without an executive director, just as it was in the Crossing and is in Tatua.

What one might see as a void can also be seen as a blessing. Of course, Bishop Masereka is missed and his absence is felt. At the same time, though, transition carries with it the unavoidable reality that the rest of the organization has to take initiative. If we sat around waiting for the next ED, people would inevitably feel frustrated about something or apathetic towards some new leader. At the Crossing, we pulled together the community and the very people who were experiencing loss and anxiety were the ones who cared for others in the same boat. At Tatua, a clear vision statement was painstakingly developed with contribution from everyone:  co-founders, drivers, organizers, administrators, trainers, friends and volunteers. Periods of change allow for stronger relationships.

Last week in morning devotion we read a passage from the Gospel according to Luke (17:20-37), and it came with no small amount of debate. The Pharisees ask when the Kingdom of God will come, and Jesus responds by telling them it can already be here.

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.

 

Jesus goes on to say that the disciples will long to see the Son of Man, but they shouldn’t go off looking for him. I can imagine, if the disciples were hearing this at a time when they realized they were soon going to lose this guy that has radically changed their lives, they would also be nervous for such a transition phase. The disciples seem quite ready for the quick return of their savior; they wanted a short transition phase with a well-defined end. But Jesus tells them the point isn’t to wait until the Kingdom comes, and certainly not orient their lives around looking for his magical return at the expense of living here and now.

In these times of transition, I think it is far simpler to expect the next savior’s triumphant arrival. When a founder leaves, the quick move might be to hire a new one right away and then pretend as if nothing much happened. But that’s not what we’re called to do. That’s hardly ever a fulfilling or healthy response. The “Kingdom”, our vision and mission for an organization for example, is already here. It’s just up to everyone else left in transition to make it visible.

holy week

Yes, it’s now been nearly two weeks since we celebrated Good Friday and then Easter, but it’s been on my mind since then. For those who don’t keep up these sorts of things, Holy Week basically celebrates the final lead up to Easter and the end of Lent. It begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), and includes the last supper, the last supper, the betrayal of Jesus, and obviously the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus.

During Holy Week, I found myself in Kigali, Rwanda taking a vacation from life and work in Kasese. I happened to be surrounded by people who “don’t keep up” with these traditions because many of the wonderful people I know in Rwanda are Muslim. I also happened to be surrounded by a country that was in the middle of remembering the 20th anniversary of the April-June 1994 genocide. In Rwanda, the whole country participates in at least a week long remembrance in which there are walks, events and speeches; shops close often and people take time off work to either attend official events or be with family. Participation isn’t exactly a choice, but nevertheless it is a time of national reflection.

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For as long as I can remember, Maundy Thursday meant the beginning of the “holy” part of Holy Week. At seven in the evening we would show up at church, prepared for a very solemn service. This is the one that includes “washing of the feet.” At Transfiguration, my church growing up, this was one of the most powerful parts of any service in the year. Approaching the altar, bare feet on the cold lacquered bricks, the sense of deep sadness and confusion was overwhelming- mirroring for me the disciples’ emotions in the story of the last supper. Having your feet washed by someone else (not to mention by someone your respect, like your priest) is a humbling experience and you can’t help be moved by the charge given: “love one another as I have loved you.”

On this particular Thursday, I took a trip about 45 minutes from downtown Kigali to a place called Nyamata. Nyamata holds one of many many genocide memorial sites in the country, and here it is a church. When the mass killings really got underway, many people fled to churches, thinking they might be a kind of safe haven from their pursuers. Tragically, this only facilitated killing a large number of people at one time. The Nyamata church is a stark reminder of this.

Inside, every single pew holds piles and piles of dusty and tattered clothes and on the altar sit trinkets- rosaries, ID cards, rings, eyeglasses. The church and its content stand much as they did in 1994, a reminder of the thousands killed there. A far cry from the museum at the main memorial in town, full of information and videos, Nyamata slaps you in the face. The clothing of victims are there to touch, not behind glass cases.

Outside, however, I ventured down into the mass graves. Unlike going anywhere in the US, there are no “do not touch” signs and very few safeguards on “exhibits.” The first crypt my companion and I entered held dozens of coffins, many unmarked. The second held shelves and shelves of human skulls and bones. A quick calculation put the number of skulls around four thousand.

After the Thursday service at home, the altar and the church are stripped of all ornamentation and life until the great Vigil service on Saturday night- when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. So for those three days, the church is eerily empty and purposefully more contemplative.

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Now the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 is not a clear-cut event, as much as the government tends to portray it as such, with one group as victims and the other as killers. The lack of international attention during those hundred days remains largely unresolved. From what I heard, the reconciliation efforts don’t take nearly as much care as flashy New York Times op-eds want us to believe. Even so, what happened then was very obviously a terrible thing and left many deep wounds. 

Standing amidst piles of clothes and in between rows of neatly packed skulls certainly distills the events of 1994 past any sort of political and moral issues that remain. This Maundy Thursday was one of only a couple times that I was even inside a church during Lent. I think it was fitting, though. Just as we empty the church of all signs of life- including the holy sacrament- so too was this church very empty of life. It was very full of the opposite. I couldn’t help but imagine getting my feet washed in the spot where surely at least thousands perished, being told to obey this one commandment…to love others.

In my opinion, we often ascribe much more meaning to the church building, and the Church, than is safe. Twenty years ago, it didn’t make a shred of difference if you were huddled in a “holy place” or out on the open road. It’s not uncommon to talk about taking God outside of the church walls, of course, but even the Church is our own construction. Yes, we the people are the Church, but religion is not faith. Faith is faith and religion tries to make sense of it. At least that’s my general understanding. For many the Church can be a dangerous place- just as many churches were in 1994 in Rwanda. How can that be combated? How can we remember and honor the fact that even if all the structural parts of religion fall away we can still be left with real belief?

Holy Week was always the climax of the liturgical year for me precisely because we try so hard to bring these events that we talk about close to home. We make them very tangible. My Holy Week was highlighted by a much closer smell, touch, and feeling of death. I have realized that a lot of my questions about faith recently stem from a desire to make sense out of everything through our religion. When we rely only on our Church’s traditions we can seriously harm people; when we forget about belief we can create a dangerous place. What does make sense is the commandment we give on that Thursday- to love. I don’t know if I’ve felt a better reminder of the necessity for this love than two weeks ago in church. 

dust

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.

For as long as I can remember, I heard these words or something like them on a certain Wednesday in February or March. Whether at morning or night, back home in Transfiguration or at the Davidson Campus, these words and what they conveyed marked for me the beginning of Lent.

This Ash Wednesday I was in a very different place. I had stepped off the bus in Kampala, a seven hour ride from Kasese, and hopped right on a boda-boda. This isn’t my usual practice; I like to get a distance from the bus park before hailing one, partly to avoid the mass of motorcycles and partly to see how my sense of direction has improved since the last visit to the big city. But this day was different. I wanted to get to the booking office of another bus company so I could book a ticket for Nairobi on a bus that was slated to leave early the next morning. So off I went just to make sure everything went smoothly.

On the ride through town, we left the terrifying streams of people, motorcycles, taxis, cars, busses, exhaust, and vendors to get to Kampala Road. Kampala Road was only slightly calmer with traffic moving at a comfortable pace and people staying more, mostly less, in their lanes of travel. It didn’t do anything for the dust and exhaust, and I still had to stay alert- none of this relaxing and feeling the wind as I do in Kasese- because if you don’t pay attention you might lose an elbow or a kneecap. Shooting onto another street I noted the location of a Catholic Church in relation to the rest of our drive, thinking something along the lines of, “I suppose I could see what’s going on there later since it is, it seems, Ash Wednesday.”

The booking went smoothly and I left within ten minutes with a ticket to Nairobi in hand and an hour or so to kill before meeting friends for dinner. I walked back in the direction we had come on the bike and this time my sense of direction was working. Rounding the corner onto what I was hopeful was the street of Christ the King, a swarming mass of bodies confronted my path. It took me a few seconds to figure out why this crowd was spilling out well into the street and was complete with armed policemen. There was no great shouting or hollering, it wasn’t the scene of an accident, it wasn’t mob justice. Walking closer I saw a robed figure in the middle spinning around in a circle and touching foreheads as the mass of people shuffled and formed rough lines to wait for the service. I followed suit.

After receiving my ashes from the priest on the sidewalk of an otherwise relatively quiet Kampala street, I sat down in one of the dozens of plastic chairs outside the doors of the church. The service had just ended, and it seems like I probably made it there just at the right time to experience a little bit of Ash Wednesday.

 

Here in Kasese, dust has taken on a whole different meaning for me. Thankfully, the rainy season has started again, but throughout January, February, and much of March, it was dry and hot here. Dry and hot means lots of dust. Yes, there are occasionally big waves of dust as the wind picks up on the afternoon tarmac road, but more often the dust is just there. One finds a thin layer of dust on the desk at work each morning as the computer puffs up a sizeable cloud as its fan revs up for the day. Even when my windows are closed, I find an absurd amount of dust in my apartment. Most of all, it exacerbates the hotness, it magnifies the dry season.

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Coming from a world that is largely based inside, whether at an enclosed office, an air-conditioned home, or a climate controlled car, I don’t think I truly understood dust. In this world, you can’t escape the heat, rarely are you “inside” and sealed off in the way that one can be in the US, and you always feel dusty.

I always envision Lent as a time of spiritual cleansing, reflection, prayer, and a more intentional look at my place in this world/universe/Life with a capital L. Penitence, sacrifice, and self-examination sound fairly dreary, but Lent is also a time of anticipation and devoted preparation for the climax of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The very tangible symbol of the ashes brings home our mortality, yet also comes with a promise of renewal. Yes, “to dust we shall return” once we’re all dead, but Life is much bigger than that, it goes on after we do.

At the risk of sounding too trite, I’ve realized while being here that it’s much harder (that is, impossible) to overcome “returning to dust.” In the literal sense, there is about zero hope for keeping anything dust free here- the dust permeates life. On another level, it seems like people are always going to bury someone. Working at a hospital, it’s not uncommon to hear cries and then see a huge number of people gathered outside the gates as the word of the death spreads rapidly. To me, death is far more present.

The promise of most faiths or religions seems to be that there is a point to it all. We’re reminded that we are intimately part of the earth, but also that we are all part of it. Living in a state of dust, I’m tied more to this earth, more at the mercy of the forces of whatever it is we have faith in. self-examination, therefore, is needed so that we might more fully recognize how we’re connected. We can’t escape this dust, but we are in it, and that means we are responsible for how we face it.

Of course Lent is not about depriving ourselves of chocolate or social media sites, but what is it about? This Lent, to me, means living more fully in the recognition that we connected in our mortality. It means that whatever poverty we live in, it’s not something fought alone and it’s not something to be ignored. While introspection is important, we can’t forget we are communally preparing for new Life. We are always working toward renewal, and we’re all in it together.  

 

what I’m doing here, part 2 of ____

8:30 am

It’s really a shame that this region of Uganda grows so much coffee, yet all of it goes to Kampala or elsewhere to be processed. When I buy coffee in the supermarket, its genesis is in the Rwenzori Mountains (my backyard); something is just strange about it being so nicely packaged when many weekends there are thousands of coffee beans drying just outside my front door.

I mention this because it’s an important part of my morning. The “Good Africa” coffee goes into the African Press (a plunger from a Chinese-made French Press with a 10 cent plastic cup…my glass carafe had a date with the concrete floor in my sitting room), and out pops a nice cup of non-instant coffee. I’m now ready to really get going on my day.

Rushing out of the house and leaving the dishes until the evening (or next morning- motivation decreases significantly when you don’t have a kitchen sink), I set out of the compound. After the alley way, I emerge into a bustle of activity at 8:20 in the morning. On the edge of both the bus/taxi park serving Kasese town and the large used clothing market, things are already in full swing. While the clothing market is only really hopping on Saturdays, there are a few vendors who haul out large nylon sacks of clothes (these are the ones that tend to be from the US) or wheelbarrows full of coats on hangers. I walk past the roadside breakfasts cooking over a wood fire, chimneys of charcoal being stoked for the clothes irons, and sewing machines whirring away on bright pink or green primary school uniforms. Another alleyway brings me to a street of furniture workshops where beds and sofas are displayed alongside wooden coffins. Another twenty-five yards and I’m at the clinic.

All in all, it takes about 5 minutes from my front door to the BMCF gate. Once inside, everyone greets with wabukire’s all around. Morning devotion starts at 8:30, Monday through Friday, all staff are supposed to attend. We start with a praise song, from Uganda Youth Praise, and then a Bible reading and a reading from a daily guide published by the Bible Society of Uganda.  

I think I’ll have another post devoted to some thoughts on religion soon, but suffice it to say that I don’t always connect with the way that Christianity is talked about here. Anti-gay bills aside (though everyone around the office knows my views pretty well, I think), this is not the Christianity I was brought up in. Even when I was still only thinking about coming here, I knew this would be a challenge. Our daily Bible passages are taken a little more literally; much of the commentary reflects straight moral teaching instead of something a little more open-ended. The songs are usually pretty familiar, and even when we sing out of the Lhukonzo hymnal I recognize most of the tunes. Our discussion doesn’t always last long, because sometimes 8:30 really feels pretty early. By the end of devotion, however, everyone is ready to start or continue work, and everyone is laughing.

I have a hard time speaking up in these devotions. I am a natural listener anyway, but when the conversation isn’t what you’re used to, then it becomes even harder. When I speak to groups here (whether in devotion or in schools to a group of students), everyone usually has a tough time understanding me. Without the ability to suit my tone and pronunciation to the individual speaker, I usually forget that I have a difficult accent. With all that working against me, I prefer to lean back on the wooden benches and enjoy the sun while I listen to others. Occasionally I do feel compelled to speak, and I’m grateful for those moments because I know that’s part of why I’m here- why anybody goes anywhere- to be able to share from their experiences or unique ideas. For now, even six months in, it’s still a waking-up process to be able to share those thoughts in a familiar-unfamiliar Christian environment. 

what I’m doing here, part 1 of ___

I realized that I haven’t devoted much space in this infrequent blog to explain what I’m actually doing here. Hopefully, trying to explain more fully the day to day here will keep me on track, at least for a few weeks!

6:15 am

Learning times in Lhukonzo is not as simple as knowing the number from one to twelve. For the Bakonzo (as well as other tribes in Uganda), saha nguma, or hour one, is what we would call 7:00 am. If at first this seems arbitrary, one only has to spend a week or so here to realize that on the Equator, the sun rises at pretty much the same time every day of the year. It only makes sense that the “first hour” would be the first full hour when the sun is up and work can really get under way.¹

By 6:28 or so it’s light enough outside to go for a run in the precious hour or so before the budding sunshine translates into searing heat. This time of day is by far the most beautiful. On most mornings, the sky forgoes its usual haziness for a crisp, clear view of the Rwenzori Mountains.² The jagged peaks towering to the west and north of Kasese become illuminated in a deep pink glow. Past eight am, the mountains merely loom as shadows, not these clearly defined figures of the early hours. At this time, the air is cool, almost chilly, and not yet inundated with exhaust from passing motorcycles and trucks. The only problem is I tend to snooze my alarm when it rings at a 6:15.

On those mornings when I can successfully pull myself to a vertical position at 6 am, slipping under the protection of the mosquito net, I do some quick stretches, read my Bible, lace up my running shoes, unbolt the gate, and hit the road. Running here is not easy. Well, I can handle the uneven surfaces that cover most of the country (though my right knee might disagree), even the bikes and motorcycles that use all of those available surfaces can be dodged if you pay attention. All around Kasese Town are hills, and most of these can be pretty challenging. Even those I’ve gotten used to, though, and they provide a good workout. Unfortunately, running attracts a lot of attention.

The first few times I went for a run I was living at Mama Stella’s, and traversing the hills in that part of town quickly brought me into a village. It was the late afternoon on a Sunday, which meant that many people were out cooking dinner or just hanging around. Recognition started as a whisper of, “mzungu, mzungu” by the little ones, followed by shouts of increasing intensity until everyone under 16 in the vicinity knew I was there. Then I felt sort of like Rocky as he ran through the streets of Philly. The children seemed genuinely excited and beyond entertained to see me running as they sprinted after me.

While zealous kids can be construed as endearing, other times I feel more like I imagine a supermodel would while, um, bouncing down a busy street. Reaching the main roads I’ve seen boda drivers nearly crash straining their necks to look at me. It’s hard not to feel a sting of self-consciousness. At dawn there are still plenty of men drunk from the night before hooting and hollering as I pass by. This is certainly not Davidson.

Uganda’s current golden boy might be Kiprotich the marathoner, but that doesn’t mean running is a popular leisure time activity out here. Running for fun or exercise is, not surprisingly, a luxury that is not often found in developing countries. Why would you run when you don’t have to, don’t have the extra calories, or don’t have the time? I’ve realized that I’m very sensitive to being watched all the time; I don’t like being the center of attention. I’m both a minority here and a natural introvert, neither of which are traits very conducive to learning new social and cultural interactions.

Rather than feel too guilty or anxious, I know that running is one of those ways in which I can easily help myself do a better job serving in my role here. As I try hard to develop a routine for getting physical exercise, I have been constantly reminded that it’s big privilege to even attempt it. The women who are walking barefoot to the market on Monday and Thursday mornings carrying loads of produce on their heads don’t yell, they just stare. It’s just one other way in which I clearly don’t “fit in” here.

I spent the first three months of my time here straddling two very different worlds. On the one hand, I was thrown head first into visiting the homes of our students. Those home visits included asking questions such as “how many times a day do you eat” and getting responses that were usually far from “three.” Many homes consisted of women taking care of five or six, or many more, children on their own. Every time we took a seat outside, just about every child in the block radius came out of the woodwork to stare at, laugh at, or touch the mzungu. This was not running around the periphery of people’s lives, but marching right up to the front door and coming inside.

I love to listen to problems and consider myself an understanding and generally empathetic person. But carrying all that “data” back home, up the hill to the Mama Stella Guest House, felt at time like crossing continents. I shifted at the end of December into a new place (more to come on that later), not because there was anything wrong with the guest house.³ In fact, it was incredibly comfortable and spacious, and I was well taken care of. I left to be closer to the town I was working in and to be able to have a space that more fit my size requirements.

I’ve learned how to ask better questions, be more comfortable with failing to provide answers, and be more patient when everything has to be translated for me from Lhukonzo (though I’m getting better!). While it can be awkward to bring my practices and norms into another place that operates under far more constraints than I’m used to, I think it’s best to simply be comfortable with discomfort and extremely respectful of the differences between people. Whether or not this type of short-term “development” work by mzungus is good at all seems to be a question for another time.

Before the workday starts, it’s back home to stretch and make some coffee and a quick breakfast. The upside of running in the morning is that the ridiculously cold shower wouldn’t be remotely as enjoyable otherwise.⁴

¹ This is also where an analog face watch or clock comes in handy. Instead of remembering that 7 is really 1, you simply look at the hour directly opposite. Thus, 12 is 6, 1 is 7, etc.

² Also called the Mountains of the Moon by Ptolemy, so maybe that’s why you can only see them so clearly when the sun is not yet fully awake.

³ I would highly recommend staying at the Guest House if you ever find yourself in Kasese for a short stay, it was just too much space, and too far out of town, for me for a whole year!

⁴ Perhaps I am experiencing some withdrawal from the “academic life.” Sorry for the footnotes.

merry christmas from Kampala

I think I’ll stop apologizing for not getting more blog posts up, but just wanted to send a short message now that it’s almost Christmas.

Yesterday I arrived back in Kampala by bus from Kasese. The bus was the emptiest I’ve ever seen it as we jostled over the million speed bumps and dozens of hawkers selling goat on a sick or plantains on the grill. In Uganda, it feels like Christmas is approaching, but not int the same way of course. At the equator, not surprisingly, there’s very little snow and very little cold. What we do have is a huge portion of the population in a mass exodus out of the city and into the villages to see family. Around Kasese there’s a flurry of activity as people buy big bunches of matoke, goats, chicken, mangoes, potatoes and everything else in between. Cars are loaded to the gills with people and luggage, decorations are up around town. The garlands and lights of all different colors evoke more Mardi Gras than Christmas for me. The supermarkets are selling Charlie Brown-esque fake trees, but I haven’t seen anyone buy one. Trucks pass through the streets blaring “Feliz Navidad” instead of hip-hop. Ringtones have changed to Christmas carols. You can tell something is in the air.

Returning to Kampala to be with my friend James (who so generously hosted me when I first came to Uganda over three months ago) has almost transported me back in time. While I’ve taken two other short trips to Kampala, it feels all over again as if I’m new in the country. Compared to the relative calm of the Kasese streets, things happen in Kampala pretty quickly. The soil is a deep, deep red not found in the western parts of the country. It coats the backs of bright green banana leaves as you bump along the back roads or miss my inches the passing boda drivers in the congested city streets.

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a selfie, since I hear those are popular now, with James’ son, Jetton

 

Life is different in Kampala, and always exciting. In the past three months I’ve gotten pretty used to the rhythm of Kasese, even as that rhythm accelerated in the last few weeks. As school let out for the holidays, work has been a flurry of running around to houses (on one day two hours up the mountain- the most hiking I’ve ever done in dress shoes!) and talking with students in a different environment.

Last weekend before I was formally inducted into Kasese’s own Rotaract Club. The weekend before was another trip to Kampala to witness the beginnings of another very cool project focused on education (more on that soon). The past three days found me moving into my new double room in town.

I’ve been traveling enough on Sundays that the Advent season has more or less passed me by. Reflecting on the last month, however, it truly has been a period of emptying, of shedding old habits. In so many ways I’m becoming less and less of a visitor (even if Kampala will still take many more visits to get used to). Many of those changes are happening beyond my awareness. But I know I’m getting more comfortable with the Ugandan way of joking, loving life, and always being in community. I know that time doesn’t bother me as much (even if it has bothered some other people and appointments I made). I’m no longer going to be a guest when I go to Rotaract fellowships. I have a renewed sense of independence that I’m now renting my own room (there was absolutely nothing wrong with the wonderful Mama Stella Guest House, I simply decided it wasn’t what I needed in a living space). I’ve even started going more by my kikonzo name- Baluku, or first-born male.

This Advent I’ve been planting the seeds that hopefully will yield a more fulfilling way of interacting with my community in and around Kasese. Three months has been a very short time and a very long time, but I’m certainly still learning and being challenged. Tomorrow I will receive my first visitor in Uganda as Kaela makes the very long trip for a relatively short visit. I’m looking forward to this Christmas season being one of renewal, recharging, and then returning to Kasese ready to start the next chapter of my time here. It’s not always a tangible new chapter, but that’s what it feels like to me.

So, thank you to everyone who has supported me during my time here. I know it takes me a long time to respond to emails and facebook messages, and it will probably be February before I get my Christmas cards to the USA. I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I’m missing nearly all the traditions of home this season, but I also keep discovering new ones here.

happy November 28th

Meant to post this on Friday, but at least it’s here!

I ate a lot of food yesterday. I was even looking “smart” (see picture below). I took off work and drove about an hour and a half to see lots of people I had never met, and a few whom I only vaguely remember meeting. We even said some prayers. But that’s about where the comparison stops. It certainly wasn’t Thanksgiving Day here. In fact, here a “thanksgiving” is something a family or individual sponsors at church on a given Sunday. Often times there are gifts and offerings, sometimes food for the family. Why should there be a “day” set aside for thanksgiving?

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As you may have guessed, the 28th of November was just a Thursday here in Kasese. It didn’t feel like Thanksgiving; my family wasn’t there, I sweat just as much (if not more since I was wearing a suit jacket the whole day) as I do and will every other day of the year here. But for us here at BMCF it was still a special day. Yesterday was the introduction and giving-away of one of our former and long-time staff members, Carol.

Anytime you get a lot of people together here, you have to have a lot of food. This day represented the “cultural” wedding for Carol, who was a beneficiary of the BMCF education program. It began of the process of marrying, which concludes this Saturday at the church service. For many couples, it could be weeks or months between the two days…sure seems to me like that would be a little frustrating.

Our small BMCF delegation’s plan, of course, was to leave around 10:30, because the festivities were scheduled to start around noon. I had bought my kanzu the day before, made sure I had money to help pay for fuel, and even sent some emails. I was all ready to go at 10 am. My coworker Sharon and I went outside to take some pictures. It was about 10 minutes past noon by the time we pulled out of the BMCF property. It’s not that everyone I’m around is slow, that’s just the pace here. While many events start around when they are supposed to start, it’s just not a problem to show up 2 hours late. While I think I fully understand that part of the culture, it’s one of the most obvious clashes to my own cultural values and general way of going through the world. 

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my thanksgiving meal

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the muzungu gets interviewed

So, we arrived just in time. There was a DJ, a public bartering over the dowry between the men of both families, the new couple exchanging gifts and words, cultural dances, hugging (public kissing here is a no-no), lots of thank yous and introductions, a man on stilts, two energetic and overly-talkative emcees, and a big, big lunch. It wasn’t turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, but the rice, matooke, beans, chicken, beef, and millet bread piled high on my plate made a good substitute.

In many ways, it was truly a day of thanks-giving. A woman who faced incredible challenges has now reached another milestone, and an especially important one in this culture. 

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I am thankful that I have a chance to see inside the lives of so many people here, to witness new life as it occurs in so many forms. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking here about the differences between being thankful in this town and being thankful in Davidson, NC or Plano, TX. It’s harder, I think, to be thankful when there’s so many obvious obstacles here- the extremely high rate of HIV/AIDS, early pregnancy, non-communicable diseases, orphans, and child-headed homes. Corruption, inflation and ever-rising school fees for even basic primary education don’t make life easy either. At the same time, of course, you can be even more thankful for the good that does happen- every time a child is successfully able to go to school, whatever the challenges he or she will face next; a family of eight or ten somehow getting food to eat for supper; relatives stepping up to take care of a new orphan when they have enough problems of their own; someone using a condom to help prevent the spread of HIV.

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I don’t mean to sound to cliché or cheesy, but I think there are so many things and ways to give thanks. 

I have begun to recognize this even more being so far from home, constantly learning new things and seeing new challenges.  

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