Tuesday, June 24, 2008


This has been a tough week. Almost every single student (and staff) has been deathly ill at one point or another. Okay, not exactly death, but it sure felt like it (and looked like it) sometimes.

Morale was really low. I think our students have really felt discouraged, and sadly, the other night, they took it out on us. The culture shock, the time change (I think we're still adjusting), the insane heat, unmet expectations, frustrations with limitations, the food, the lack of sleep in our hammocks, and of course, being so sick has really worn on all of them. I've heard a lot of grumbling and complaining lately-- even plans for the first meal back in the States (not for another month!), and a strange silence during our team sharing times.

I think they are in that critical breaking point of really digging into the culture, and feeling the hardships that they knew they would face (the things they knew would change them & make them stronger)... but now that they are here, they're wondering why they came. So, the other night, it finally came out: it's all our fault. It's the staff. They made the schedules, they make the rules, they keep us from getting online & emailing our families, they misled us, and they are the ones who are making it so difficult to save Uganda.

Okay, I'm exaggerating a little bit... but not all that much, really. It didn't really bother me that much that they were blaming us-- I know that it's part of leadership. And, I understand where they're coming from, and feel the same frustrations & discomforts. What sucked is that they have been talking about us behind our backs-- grumbling & complaining & blaming without coming to us.

I think we're working it out, though. I really think that was the beginning of some good changes. What really makes me sad, though, is that I can feel a lack of trust, or intimacy in our team. The first week that we were here, we trusted each other-- we were opening up to one another, crying in front of one another, and experiencing the struggles together. Now, there is a rift in the group, and I'm not quite sure of how we can fix it.

Part of the problem is that we have no where to meet as a group. We are all paired up in our little mud huts, which are too small to meet in. At night, we gather into the one lighted classroom (with a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling), and compete against the roar of the generator and our heavy eyelids. It's not the best environment for deep discussions. Our only other gathering point (during daylight) is on our reed mats, under the shade of the mango tree. Sadly, the tree is right next to the fence that separates Child Voice from the Refugee camp, and the local children love to hang on the fence, staring at the white people, and practicing their English. They sound like little parrots: "Howayoo? Howayoo??" ("How are you?"). Very entertaining (for the first five minutes), but a little distracting.

Please pray that we would find a way to develop intimacy and a sense of team again. There really is a tangible difference in our students & the way we are all interacting.

Another battle we have witnessed/engaged in has been spiritual. Last night, as we were all settling into our huts, we heard a girl screaming & crying. I stepped out of my hut, and looked across the fence to where all the girls (the Child Mothers) were bathing for the night, laughing and joking over the noise of a blood-curdling scream.

No one seemed to be phased by this awful screaming noise, and I couldn't tell where it was coming from. Chris walked around the fence to the gate, to find out what was happening, all the while, the screaming continued. He was told that one of the younger girls in the program (14yrs old), who has had a lot of maturity & emotional problems was throwing a tantrum-- trying to get attention.

Strange, I thought, Sounds like a lot more than getting attention to me. The screams were just awful. They continued on so much longer than I imagined possible-- sometimes fading out, and then coming back even stronger than before. After about 15 or 20 minutes of screaming, some of our students went over and began praying for her. She was rolling & spinning in the dirt, screaming & writhing in pain. Once people started praying for her, she calmed down into a trance-like state, and finally went to sleep.

Apparently, she is one of the girls who has experienced a lot of the demonic attacks before (but has also had some strange emotional outbursts-- which is why, at first they thought she was just acting out). One of our non-Christian students there (who had previously said she thought those outbursts were purely psychological), said that she definitely believed there was something spiritual happening in that girl.

I'm sure that I am not communicating all this very well (I'm racing against the clock-- our ride back to the camp is rapidly approaching), but write all this just to say that it has been emotional-- that I deeply believe there is a battle being waged against our students, against those girls, and against this broken community.

One thing I am sure of, though, is that God is bigger. I wasn't present when this girl was being attacked/possessed, but I heard her screams and felt her pain. Despite that, I was not and am not afraid. God has given me such a sense of security in Him, and a strength that I wasn't sure I could have in these circumstances.

Thank you for praying for us. I really believe it's because of your prayers that we are still going. Please keep praying-- it really is a battle out here...

Oh, and to lighten things up a bit, after the screaming calmed down, Chris and I were attacked in a completely different way. We were about to go to sleep, when we noticed that our walls were moving-- Indiana Jones style. Apparently, mud huts also make great ant hills, and there were millions of baby fire ants coming out of our walls.

We moved all our bags to an empty hut, but there were no hammocks there, so we had to sleep in our ant hill for the night. When we woke up in the morning, they had receded into the wall, as though they were never there. We decided that we would do our best to live together in peace with our hut-mates, knowing that it would probably be the same in any other hut.

So, I after the attacks by stomach bugs, grumbling students, demons, and ants, we are still standing-- and I would say, doing remarkably well. I feel good. I can handle pit latrines, hammocks, beans & rice every day, and even a gaggle of grump students. I won't go so far as to say that I can handle demonic attacks, but I will say that I am confident in my God.

My Ginormous Birthday Party

It took me a week from the time I wrote my last blog until I was able to actually post it online (actually, Chris posted it—I still haven’t gotten a chance to get online!), so who knows how long it will be until this is actually made public! I am sitting on a reed mat in my mud hut on the night of my 30th birthday, and even though it is only 8:30pm, almost everyone is quietly tucked into their huts for the night.

Usually at this time of the evening, our team is gathered in a classroom in the Child Voice compound, having just finished our dinner of rice & beans (curiously similar to our lunch of rice & beans). From 7-10pm, we enjoy the light illuminating out of the single bulb in our little classroom—some of us chatting, some of us tucked in a corner, reading a book.

But tonight is a little different—we had a change up from our normal routine of rice & beans in the classroom. Instead, we had no dinner, and rain—meaning that everyone skipped the 5 minute walk to electricity, and went to bed early. About half our team is sick, anyway, so I don’t know that anyone minded much.

But lest you feel sorry for me, I should tell you that I had a great afternoon. The reason we didn’t have dinner was because we had a huge party today, officially celebrating the opening of Child Voice (which actually opened in October, but I guess they’re running on African time!). After about 4 hours of speeches (yikes!) the celebrations began with a huge feast for the 300-ish guests, and then morphed into a giant dance party. It was incredible. Africans really know how to celebrate.

As I leaned against the tent pole and looked out on all the festivities, I had a smile glued to my face. It was beautiful. Women dressed in their traditional African garb perched on reed mats, feeding the babies out of colorful plastic bowls—and there is something so vibrant about the colors of an African dress or a green plastic bowl when it is help up against the blue-black skin of an African. A band played, children danced, women belted out the chant/scream that means they are happy (similar to the war whoop a little boy would make if he was pretending to be a Native American, but louder & higher pitched). As I took it all in, I noticed that a group of elderly women were all looking at me, trying to get me to dance. They were sprawled on their mats, sipping sodas with wrinkled faces, bobbing their heads and shrugging their shoulders up & down to the music, trying to get me to join in. When I did, they exploded in giggles, and one even got up to dance with me.

The party lasted for hours, and everyone was truly celebrating what God had done to restore the community & the lives of the girls at the Center. It ended dramatically with a huge rainbow sweeping across the sky, as though God was giving his blessing. Everyone noticed & was struck by it.

After the party was over, I treated myself to a “shower”, and just as I finished, it began sprinkling and grew dark, signaling the end to our evening. Apparently, Chris had bought a ton of fruit & chocolate, and the plan was to have a little birthday party for me tonight… but he is sick in bed with an asthma attack, as well as half our team (only they are sick to their stomachs). No problem, though—I am happy to celebrate with our treasured fruit (which is surprisingly difficult to come by up here) in the morning.

This has definitely been one of the most memorable birthday celebrations ever (even if the celebration wasn’t really for me!), and it was truly beautiful to be a part of such a joyful cultural experience. Even now, I can hear the girls laughing & quietly singing African praise songs from across the compound as they clean up & get ready for bed. It has been a good day.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Slashers and Stoney


Slasher: a machete-like tool used to cut down grass and clear land.

Stoney: a Coca-Cola product that I’ve only found in Africa (one of the best parts about traveling is discovering new kinds of soda!). It’s a super-strong ginger ale that’s so gingery, it’s spicy. Quite a kick.

We spent our first real day in the North clearing land for Child Voice. It is extremely difficult to obtain land (it’s usually passed down from father to son), and almost unheard of for outsiders (called “Muzungu”) to acquire land, but over the last few years, Child Voice has miraculously had acres & acres of land given to them to develop. One interesting loophole with the whole land procurement issue is that if you are not using the land, someone else can come develop it, and it becomes there’s.

So, it was our job yesterday (and today) to clear the new land they have obtained, so that they can prove they are using it, and raise cattle on it. Now, if you had a weed wacker, or if this was un-used land in California, it would be a different story—but this is The Bush, and it is thicker and tougher than you would imagine.

“Grass” grows about 6feet tall, and resembles reeds more than anything else (it’s the same material used to make the thick grass-thatched roofs on mud huts & the straw mats you bring to the beach), and is intermingled with bushes, anthills and small trees. It’s intensely hot out, and there are bugs galore.

Armed with our slashers (how hard core does that sound?!), work gloves, and a lot of drinking water, we spent the day beating back the bush. I say “beating” because I definitely did a lot more beating than slashing. People who actually know what they are doing slash the grass, collect it, and sell it to make said roofs and mats. We beat the grass into submission, stepped on it to pack it down, took a step forward, and started with the next layer of grass.

However, despite our lack of skill, we did a pretty darn good job. It was amazing, at the end of the day, to look back over the land that had just that morning been impenetrable bush, and see how much progress we made. It’s not that often that you can have such a tangible sense of accomplishment in your work =)

After our grueling day of work (I’m mostly joking—although we were pretty sweaty, dirty, sore & blistered!), we went out to a restaurant full of Muzungu (foreigners). Because there are so many NGO’s (non-profits) in Gulu, there are a lot more white people wandering around than you would imagine. A soccer game was on TV, and one short, hairy man was running around the restaurant screaming in Italian & shaking his fists every time something exciting happened. It was a strange little piece of Africa.

We were all excited to have something American(ish) to eat (the food here is pretty bland, and all tastes the same), so a bunch of us ordered pizza. Bad Idea.

I had been sick to my stomach that morning, but was well enough to join the group by noon-ish and “slash” until five. But as soon as that pizza went down the hatch, I knew that I wasn’t fully recovered. I woke up early this morning wishing I was dead, trying to feel my way to the bathroom (there’s no light in the bathroom), and spent the rest of the morning alternating between lying on the bed, moaning in the fetal position and running to the bathroom. Whenever I had the mental capacity, I thanked God that it was Saturday instead of Sunday, because Sunday, we move up to our mud huts and pit latrines (“squatty potties”). At least here, there are semi-flushing toilets in the same room, and a bed to lie on.

When the rest of the group woke up, we discovered that everyone who ate pizza (about 1/3 of the group) was also sick—although I definitely won the Most Pathetic prize. Everyone else decided they were feeling well enough to go “slash” when the time came (fools), leaving me locked in my room with a banana, a huge bottle of water, and a Stoney to soothe my stomach. The great news is that there is an electric fan in my room, and a big bed; the bad news is that they turn off the water from late morning until late afternoon—meaning I can’t flush the toilet or wash my hands. I’m not complaining, though—it’s better than pit latrines & a hammock. Plus, since we have electricity, I can blog, and allow you to feel sorry for me (although I won’t be able to actually post this until later!).

I am definitely on the mend, though, thanks to Pepto and some Stoney =)

Please keep praying for our health—especially for those who were feeling sick, and went out to the bush anyways (Yes, Mom & Dad, Jeff was one of them, but he said he was doing much better).

The Nile & The North

On Wednesday, we had the adventure of a lifetime. We woke up early in the morning, leaving the University and our wonderful college student hosts while it was still dark, and drove for 2 hours West (?) to Jinga, the source of the Nile River.

Jinga is a scene straight out of The Jungle Book—lush, green tropical forests, red clay earth, and the Nile, wide & deep & so powerful (we discovered just how powerful later that day!).

The rafting company was run mostly by Australians and New Zealanders, but our rafting guide was a local, who grew up on the river, and as a boy begged the rafters to take him with them whenever there was an empty seat. [He also had a few songs on the local radio, and was definitely the Play Boy of Jinga] ;)

At first, I was ready for adventure. Rafting on The Nile—what would be more exciting?? I went through the first few rapids with a huge smile on my face, and even when I was tossed out the first time our raft flipped over, I flopped back into the boat like a wet fish, a little shaken, but happy.

Then we realized that one of the students in our boat had been hurt. When the raft flipped, she hung on, and had her shoulder pulled out of the socket. She was so brave, but obviously in a ton of pain, and within seconds, our raft of seven turned into three shakey Americans, afraid but determined to continue—the rest left almost in tears. [She ended up okay, with a sprained shoulder, but without having to pop it back into place.]

Then came the next rapid: Silver Back. As we approached the rapid, our guide calmly explained to us what to do when our raft flipped. When? I kept asking myself, why is he saying when? What about if?

Well, when happened, and I ended up underwater, terrified because I couldn’t find the surface. Twice, I made it to the top, only to find the raft directly above me, and was pushed back under again. I remember thinking that it was not physically possible to hold my breath any longer, and feeling rather annoyed at the rafting company for killing me. I also remember pulling on my life vest, hoping it would start doing it’s job and bring me towards oxygen. Then I reflected on how green it us under the Nile. Funny, the things you think of when you are about to die. One student said she felt total peace come over her, and told God that if she never breathed again, it was okay. I thought cranky thoughts about rafting companies and life vests.

When I did finally reach the surface, I inhaled a huge wave—and another, and another—until one of the rescue kayakers finally reached me. It could have been 30 seconds, it could have been 10 minutes—I have no idea. Needless to say, once I got back in the raft, I could barely hold my paddle, I was shaking so hard. Each time we approached another rapid, I almost wet myself (I had to pee really bad because I had swallowed about 10 gallons of green river water, but I had no intention of getting back in the water again to relieve myself!).

Thankfully, we made it through the rest of the day without any more mishaps, and I actually had an incredible time floating through the long flat sections, chatting, eating pineapple, and watching the riverbank go by. It was beautiful.

You are probably wondering (as the rest of us were, when we were swirling helpless in the water) why there were no crocodiles or hippos to eat or maim us. Our guide told us (and I 65% believe him) that under Idi Amin, soldiers were patrolling the banks of the river, and were supplied only with guns & ammo. So they hunted hippos & crocs for food, wiping out the wildlife population on that section of the Nile. They haven’t returned yet. The guide did pull a little Jungle Cruise type joke on us (you know, the ride at Disneyland?). He told us to watch out for he crocodiles at the end of a section of rapids, and as soon as we cleared it, he began screaming & slapping his paddle on the water. Instead of scaring crocodiles, hundreds of giant bats flew out of a nearby tree, creating a scene straight out of Indiana Jones. It was awesome =)

We ended the day, cold and wet, back at the backpackers lodge overlooking the Nile, and as I drank a beer (okay, it was Smirnoff Ice, but everyone else had beer!) and listened to the river roaring below us, I had one of those beautiful moments in life that you just wish you could bottle up and save.

The next day, we woke up early, piled into vans, and drove all day to the Northern region of Uganda. Because the war in the North has lasted over 20 years, there is no infrastructure, and even the roads are chewed up, worn out, and almost impassable. It was a long, slow, dusty ride.

I could feel the climate change has we moved North—the humid, tropical air was replaced with a dry intense heat, and standing outside felt similar to channeling the sun through a magnifying glass. The red clay earth changed to dust, and the jungle changed to Bush—rough, tall grass, interspersed with small bushes & trees. The poverty looked different here, too. In Kampala, there were shanty towns made of sheet metal, and they were muddy and thick with city grime. Here, there were mud huts with grass-thatched roofs, dusty babies playing naked in the yard, and goats tied to stakes by the side of the road. It was more of an earthy, farm-land poverty than a bustling city poverty, and despite the lack of beauty, I prefer it up here.

We drove to Gulu, the big town/hub of the North (if you have seen Invisible Children, Gulu is the town that all the children commuted to at night to hide from the LRA), and checked into a Guest House for 3 nights. We will commute up to Lukodi, the Internally Displaced Peoples camp 16 kilometers north of here for the next 3 days, working with an InterVarsity group (who is staying at the Child Voice compound now) to clear some land for Child Voice International. After that, we will move into our mud huts in Lukodi (safely inside Child Voice’s guarded compound), and stay there for the next 4+ weeks, serving the community and the child-mothers (girls abducted by the LRA & forced into prostitution) that Child Voice is working to rehabilitate.

If you have read the news about Uganda lately (I’m not sure how much they are reporting in the US), it looks like the LRA is on the move again, abducting children in Sudan, as well as moving North through the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some said that Joseph Kony (the rebel leader) was moving South through Sudan towards the Ugandan border, and that the Sudanese army had attacked the LRA.

Obviously, this sounded scary to me, since we are not too terribly far from the border of Sudan. However, after talking to the director of Child Voice, he told us that the LRA travels slowly and loudly, burning & pillaging as they go (they have no other way of obtaining supplies, food, or new “recruits”). If they were to reach the Sudanese border (which they haven’t), it would take them at least 3 weeks to get to Lukodi, and we would know about it from the moment they entered Uganda. They are not exactly about stealth operations.

All that to say, I truly believe we are safe here from everything except pick pocketers and stomach bugs (silverware hasn’t quite caught on here yet, so I’m learning to eat rice & goat meat with dirty hands!).

However, the war is far from over, and even though I am not afraid for my own safety, it breaks my heart to think of these people—who are finally at the beginning stages of starting their broken lives again—facing war & destruction one more time. I know that if danger were to come near, we could leave in plenty of time, but they would have to stay and face the consequences.

It hurts to look at all the young faces and know that no one under 20yrs has even known anything but war. Most of them have had little-to-no schooling, either because their schools were literally bombed out, or because they don’t have the money to go to attend. Every single person here has had a close family member die as a result of the war—many of them witnessing it first-hand, and some even forced to do it themselves. It is a strange thing to walk through the streets and see only a small handful of elderly—almost everyone over 60 has died in the war, or as a result of it. It is a land of young adults and children who have had no stability, no education, and no help, except for an occasional hand-out from an NGO. A study showed that Northern Uganda has the highest rate of post-traumatic stress syndrome & depression of anywhere in the world… and there is one licensed psychologist in the entire region.

I don’t know what I can do during the short time I will be here. I know I can’t and won’t save Uganda. But I feel that I am supposed to be here, and it feels right. We brought 3 Ugandan college students with us, making a team of 18 now. One of them (Stella) used to walk every night to Gulu to hide from the LRA, and is now one semester away from graduating from college. Her parents are dead. But her perseverance & hope in the Lord is incredible. I have never seen anything like it. Who knows? Maybe one of these Ugandan students will one day be the ones to change the country. Maybe they will go back to their Universities and bring awareness and change.

I don’t know the answers, but feel very privileged to be here. Please continue to pray for us and for them…

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Week 1: Kampala

[Please excuse my typing: I am battling against time at an internet cafe, and a sticky keyboard!]

After what felt like weeks of sleepless travel and a blurry whirlwind tour of London, we arrived in Uganda sticky, greasy & sleep deprived. Despite all of that, I never heard a single student complain, not one piece of luggage was lost, and we breezed through customs without a glitch. Hooray!

The first two nights were spent in a guest house on the outskirts of Kampala, on a quiet hill, inside the compunds of Mengo Hospital. A local missionary started a dental clinic at the hospital, and had us over for breakfast in the mornings. We walked down the red dirt road to their house, and sat under a tree, drinking tea, eating bread & hard boiled eggs from their pet chickens (the children brought out the baby chicks for show & tell, balancing them on their heads!). We heard a wrestling in the bushes one morning during breakfast, and sa 3 mongooses (mongeese??) scurry through the bushes! Welcome to Africa =)

The first night, everyone was eager to take a shower, and we were espceially excited when we found out there was hot water... until some of the students were shocked by the electricity runnung through the electric water heater. Showers & electric water heaters... bad combo. Needless to say, we had cold (and very refreshing!) showers after that!

Some highlights were visiting Charity Christian School one afternoon, where we were welcomed by each classroom with songs & dances from the children. It as beautiful! I especially loved hearing the children sing praise songs to God while dancing in traditional African dances. So many of their songs were about their joy in hosting us and their gratitude that we would visit them. The sincerity in their faith, their hospitality, and their hunger for education as incredible. Many of the children there were AIDS orphans, and all of them received deeply discounted educations (children have to pay to go to school in Uganda). We were in charge of entertaining them for one disastrous hour, where 300 children and 15 unprepared Americans crowded into a mud field (it stormed most of the day) to play games. Yikes! To my surprise, they were incredibly well behaved and patient as we publically humiliated ourselves doing the hokey pokey and playing "Monkey, Monkey, Babboon" (Duck Duck Goose) on the slippery mud.

There was a beautiful moment when we were marching hand-in-hand with the children down the red road towards our "field", picking our way through the trash & the little rivers. I looked up at the banana trees, the lean-to's, the stormy sky, and the little girl that was cuddling my arm, and said to myself "I'm in Africa."

One of the nights, our group was huddled in a room, having a meeting, and were interrupted by the strangest sound. At first, we thought it was an animal, and then we thought there was some sort of terrible emergency (I think that thoughts of men with guns flashed through all our minds, even though we were safe in Kampala), but then we realized that we were at a hosptial, and that the culture here is much more expressive about grief. It was a group of women wailing and crying in the most heartbreaking almost inhuman tones. We all sat silent for a while, and finally, I asked the group what they were feeling.

One student said that there were times she had felt that kind of pain inside, but that she hadn't felt the freedom to express it. It turned into an incredibly deep conversation where tears were shed, hearts were opened, and I think we all entered into the pain those women felt together. I think we all became family that night.

Many of the non-Christian students have had great conversations about faith-- almost all of them, at one point, expressing an interest to move forward in their faith. Sadly, we discovered an interesting aspect of the Ugandan culture: it is very common to ask someone point-blank whether or not they are "saved" or "born again". One night, we all stayed with host families in their homes (groups of 2), and there were many uncomfortable conversations where our students felt harassed & pressured by their well-meaning hosts. After several awkard experiences, many of them did a complete 180, saying that they were "done" with Christianity. It brought me to tears, especially because we had given our word that there would be no forced religious experiences, and I felt like I had (unintentionally) done a bait-and-switch on them. Some good has come out of it, though, as many of them have come to me and asked why my faith looked so different. So, despite the negative respons, I still sense an openness-- please keep praying for them!

Today, we are at a University near Kampala, where our students are staying with Campus Crusade students in their homes/dorms. It's been incredible to see the difference between college students in the US and here (I wish I had more time to go into detail!). Tonight, we will have a conversation about the war in the North-- something that the rest of Uganda seems to rarely talk about. I hope that we can raise awareness & compassion among the students here.

Running out of time! Tomorrow, Jinga & white water rafting, and then travel North to Gulu and the IDP camps!
THanks for your prayers! Keep praying!!