In the middle of a Ugandan school day the younger children are fetched from school by Robert and come home for lunch. Usually Auntie Kiah comes to the house to help them with homework, teach them, do bible study, and crafts. She goes over their school books to help them with what they don’t seem to understand. She works at keeping them focused and busy so they don’t get idle and hurt each other. But while I was there we spent the afternoons going to visit their jjajjas in the village. I didn’t know we had embarked on a two hour journey one way. I would have been more prepared with drinks and snacks for the kids. But then they are Ugandan. They expect their food to be on a plate on a table hot and home cooked. It doesn’t come in a wrapper, sealed bag or appear anytime they are bored. They can handle the signs of hunger. They have learned to wait for that plate of food without complaining. I have not arrived at that place yet, I still suffer at the first signs of hunger.
I’ve driven around Uganda many times but this drive was deep into the hills that I usually see “over there” when I think, “Oh the beauty here is divine”. Driving through them is another matter entirely. These are one lane dirt roads, winding, steep and cluttered with livestock. The condition of the roads resemble the artery and vein structure inside my arm except the tracks are deep and hollow from the rainy season runoff. I believe even the sturdiest stomachs wouldn’t make it, I know mine went queasy.
The children sat bolt upright singing songs and chattering a happy noise. I brought the Lion King movie for them this trip. They had four books with the story and they couldn’t wait to see it come to life! The first time they watched it they opened their books and shrieked every time a picture they knew so well passed by on the screen. In the van, they were practicing singing the song, “Hakuna Matata”. I am no singer or I would have helped teach it to them. I’m hopeless with music.
They clutched the tote bag gifts we were to give their jjajja. I brought hotel samples of soaps donated to us. There was a bag of sugar, some tea and sweets. There were reading glasses, and the photos we took when we signed the children into our program. The children had also brought their cabbages and sweet potatoes they harvested from the garden. As I scanned their faces they looked eager and expectant but there was some degree of nervousness I could see in their eyes. They wanted to visit but they didn’t want to stay.
Lydia lives the farthest away of all the children. We went through tea plantations, curved around around one mountain and then climbed up and over another to go deep into the village. It smells fresh and the city noises disappear. As we made our way to the back corner of this village Robert explained that even though all the people live far away from one another, they know each and every person very well. When one person dies, the whole village stops working and goes to help the family with the burial. There is no digging or work for a few days while everyone mourns. A funeral goes all through the night with singing and dancing, drumming and wailing. A large bonfire is burned and people stay together around it all through the night. Pieces of cloth with a few coins tied into a corner are wrapped around the widow as a sympathy gift offering support and condolences. They have TRUE community.
When we arrived at Lydia’s jjajja’s home she was expecting us because Phiona had called. Lydia carried her gifts and knelt on her knees bowing her head before her grandmother. That’s the way to show respect in this culture. We were greeted warmly, hugged, and welcomed inside the curtain. I have been inside countless homes in Uganda. The guests are always offered the furniture to sit on, and the homeowner spreads out a handmade mat of dyed palm leaves and kneels on the floor before us. I have never seen a woman sit in the furniture with me as a guest. They don’t speak English so either Phiona or Robert has to translate for me. But the repetitive gushing of “webale nyo” (thank you very much) is something I understand. Shoes are meant to be left outside, but I am always forbidden by the hostess from removing my shoes. (rather thankful for that since the floors are usually packed dirt or crumbling cement)
She expressed how good and healthy Lydia looks. The kids have all plumped up and sprouted from the good nutrition we offer. Her eyes are bright and her smile is no longer shy but shared freely. As jjajja talked in vernacular with Phiona I watched Lydia. Her eyes searched the small dark room, remembering the time before she came to our home. Occasionally she would drop her eyes to her hands and I wondered what was she thinking, how is she feeling. Lydia sat very close to her jjajja, pressing into her side like a cuddle. I could see they shared love. Occasionally Lydia would look up with a hopeful expression, and her jjajja would glance down at her and a smile was shared. I could feel the love in the small space of the home. Jjajja took out the photographs and they spent some time talking about them, remembering. She was very thankful for these pictures.
Jjajja wanted me to know she doesn’t have anything to offer me but her prayers. She prays for the work of Kirabo Seeds every day and thanks God for the good care and home we give to her Lydia. More than anything we need prayers as we continue to seek support for our ministry so I told her how valuable those prayers are to us. Lydia is one of our children who is HIV positive and jjajja was careful to understand if we are keeping her regular appointments and distributing the medicines in a perfectly timely manner twice a day. Phiona assured her that everyone is careful to be sure the medicines are monitored correctly. With careful attention to the medicines a child can live a long healthy life and reduce the amount of HIV in their blood to astonishing low amounts. Lydia is as healthy and vibrant as any of the other children in our home.
When it was time to say good-bye they hugged before Lydia climbed into the car. She hid her face in her arms and began to cry. I couldn’t hear her cry but I knew because she would wipe her eyes with her arms. Jjajja looked sad as we drove away and I felt it too. They missed each other. I knew the children came from very poor circumstances, didn’t go to school, or have enough to eat. But I didn’t know how strong the love was between Lydia and her jjajja. I couldn’t have understood without seeing with my own eyes how much appreciation and support we are given by the jjajjas for the work we are trying to do for these children. It was a great relief for me to know Lydia was well loved. This has not turned out to be true for all of the children, but for those who knew they were loved, they will need less counseling. They won’t be as emotionally crippled as the other children who suffered terrible emotional abuse.
I began to understand from the first visit it was critically important for me to determine what the home life for each child in our family was like before they came to us. It will reveal so much about how we can help them, if they need some recovery, and how to be patient with the way they struggle to overcome. For the innocent ones who were greatly loved and cherished, like Lydia, I thank God for that gift.
While I was experiencing these visits home with the children for the first time I instinctively became a quiet observer. Yes I am the President of the organization. Yes I came all the way from America. Yes they probably never had a mzungu in their home before…but… I wasn’t about to be something I am not. I am so respectful of their culture I don’t want to take advantage of it and make them think a celebrity just appeared behind the curtain. I can’t take advantage of my position so I listened. I observed. I did not lead or take any initiative. I felt so humble in their presence. I asked a few questions about the children, but mostly I was in sponge mode soaking it all in. I also know that I am beginning a relationship with these people, it is not the first and last time I will sit in their homes. Next time I will come prepared and open God’s word for them and share the good teaching I receive. I will pray with them. I regret this time I was such a wide eyed child, mute and astonished that I forgot to pray with them. But, really I was so focused on understanding our children more by observing them in their home I didn’t want any focus on me at all. I wanted to be the fly on the wall for these initial visits. I don’t really like to receive any sort of praise or thanks. I believe that all belongs to God. It does. But next time we will share the Word and pray together, and I hope my husband is with me for what is for most people a once in a lifetime, mind altering experience. I even see how our ministry can open up to teach the people of the village about God’s word when we bring visitors. Now that’s exciting…I can see us sitting under the shade of a tree on woven palm mats with our bibles open and our hearts connecting on the truth Jesus gives.