Thursday, June 19, 2008

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…


Anonymous said...

Happy Happy Birtday Christine!!! I just pray great blessings on your life & happiness. Oh, did I mention coming home safely & healthy? That too, of course, is my birthday wish to you. I miss you immensely & love you dearly.

deee said...

I feel like I'm reading a thriller novel! Besides the great work you are doing there, I am really appreciating your writing, Christine. :)

We're praying for your safety and thinking of you. Oh, and happy birthday?!

Jenny said...

Wow! Rafting sounded scary, that feeling is horrible, I'm glad you are okay. I hope your bday was a good day, how great to celebrate it overseas. I am praying daily for everyone.