One fine day in Uganda we set out to visit jjajjas. They live deep in the village, so far removed from what feels like town. The scene is familiar for me and one I lean in towards with happy anticipation. The city sounds disappear once we head into the hills where tea is grown as far as I can see. Small houses dot the landscape. In one of those homes there seems just enough room to retire for the night and keep clothes hung on the walls or stacked in a neat pile. All of life is spent outside gathering, cooking, washing, cleaning, walking and working. When it’s time for a meal a hand woven palm mat is spread on the ground, shoes are removed, legs are tucked under the body and rest is found under a jackfruit tree or a banana tree. It seems there is always a neighbor to share a meal with at any time. There’s community togetherness in Uganda that I feel has left America with a suitcase.
If there’s a ripe jackfruit in the tree the aroma of juicy fruit gum reaches the nose and alerts the appetite. The pimply green skin doesn’t fool me to skip a taste. The adhesive goo can’t keep me from finding the tender yellow fruit hidden inside. The fresh cut jackfruit is divine, but a one day old fruit will contaminate the entire contents of the fridge. There’s an overripe smell that permeates the flavor of anything it reaches and it’s horrible.
There’s so much dust in the dry season the trees become flat brown. But with the gift of an afternoon rain the dust is tamped down, the foliage shines bright green, and water runs in ruts down the road, deep ruts that shipwrecks tired vans.
In the rain naked children are gathered under the corner of the rooftops feeling a shower available only on occasion by nature. They squeal and dance under the splashing treat. The smiles covering their faces radiate from the very soul of their bodies and that is exactly why I am so drawn to this place. Those joyful expressions are a chain and hook to my heart towing me willingly and mercilessly to a culture and land that has become home away from home. I can’t resist the spontaneous play and the deep joy experienced from the simple pleasures of chasing a chicken, using a long stick to knock down fruit from high in the tree, or leaping onto jungle vines for a refreshing swing through the trees. Running barefoot along a path deep into the bush is effortless for them, whereas all I can think is of all the slithering creatures that can see me while hiding from my view.
When I step out of the van everyone stares at the mzungu with fire hair on her head, pale skin and African clothes. Why is the Ugandan child calling her “mama”? Why does that baby girl speak the mzungu language with a strange accent? Staring is a right and not considered rude, but I shrink feeling like a live television show. As much as I understand the culture, I will never fit in, but I don’t mind. I might be different to them, but I know we are all the same, loved by God, nourished by his Word, and saved for his pleasure by his son Jesus.
And then they see what they have never seen before, a mzungu child. Children rush towards him stroking his arm, fingering his hair, looking into his face and wondering how could it be formed. Some comment the child must be crafted together like a work of art, not born of the flesh and grown the same as them. He is so foreign and it is such a rare sight people call their neighbors to gather and they all gasp. My son Jack doesn’t shy away, he lights up and enjoys the attention. It isn’t’ long before he and the odd American Ugandan girl are following children down a path into the jungle. The adults continue to talk about the weather while I perceive there is adventure in the way of the children and I can’t miss it. I follow the children with my heavy black camera picking my way over the path praying and hoping not to meet a mamba on the way. “Oh God, keep our path clear and safe!” (Are you grasping my fear of snakes by now? In Uganda there are many kinds of snakes, and the worse ones walk around in human bodies, kind on the outside, full of venomous intent on the inside. I know them well.)
Kira has discovered the vines and like a little monkey she knows to cling to it with her whole body in the way she uses my legs when she’s scared. She is swinging on a vine in the jungle and this is completely normal for her. My two worlds are colliding. I am American, my daughter is Ugandan, I am in the jungle and she is swinging in a way that makes me wish I had dressed her not in the green ralph lauren dress but a loin cloth. I secretly want to try it, close my eyes and feel like Jane from Tarzan’s world. I can’t do that or the entire village will talk about it for years. My child the one with Ugandan blood and an American voice has that look in her face. It’s the shiny look that hooks and drags me across the world. She’s beaming with the pure joy of fun that can only be experienced in nature, created by God himself. It’s the simple discovery that fun can hang down from a tree, drip off a roof, or be found in animals. The moment of rapture ends when I tell her it is time to go back to the van. Her limbs cement to the vine and she gets mean like a baboon striking and growling. Nothing can remove her from her vine. Her tantrum embarrasses me because Ugandan children never even think about refusing the request of an adult, any adult, for any reason, anywhere. I stand tall and refuse to argue with her. We have to count on her need for community so we all walk away and leave her alone not answering her calls. We are not halfway down the path before she is running behind us to catch up with her tribe. I’m so thankful she likes being with us more than swinging on her vine. I couldn’t bear the thought of her choosing to be alone in the jungle rather than safe with us.
People grasp my hand and thank me for sharing God’s word about the Truth, Amazima from the bible. They ask us to wait as they disappear into their small homes through cloth-covered doorways. They return with baskets of fresh avocado, maize, jackfruit and pumpkin. “Webale nyo” I say using their language to express gratitude. They laugh and I am not sure if I butchered their words or surprised them to delight. As we drive away Kira’s little hand reaches out the window of the van waving as she says with her American baby voice, “bye friends.” I am so content I want to cry. God has once again shown me that he is God of every person on this earth and our cultures are secondary to the uniting love found in his Word. Our life circumstances may be shocking in contrast but where it matters, where it is important, we are the same. I am overcome with desire to worship and praise Almighty God. Again I surrender my life to be useful to him and so thankful he sent me to this foregin place. I challenge anyone to prove to me that money can buy a greater sense of happiness and joy than what I had just experienced. Some of the richest on earth and some of the poorest joined together under the shade of a tree to talk about God’s truth and we find we are the same. That’s true beauty. Only acts of kindness and communion with God release the dopamine that drug addicts chase. And I had some feasting there on the purest joy, if I could give it a taste it would be fresh jackfruit.
My other sense of overwhelming joy: My Ugandan baby has connected with her culture before she even understands her story. Somewhere in her this experience will be available to comfort her when she feels confused. Somehow she will know she fits in both places before she could fully speak. Uganda and America are a part of her. I don’t know how she’s going to do it, but I know God has a big plan for this feisty little girl. And I am not leaving her side for this journey of discovery. We will do it together. When I gaze deep into her large dark eyes, eyes hungry for deep connection, I just know it’s going to be the adventure of our lives. She and I together can sprinkle acts of kindness over the globe in the mighty name of Jesus who works through us. An unexpected new bible! Precious.