Forty hours is the average time it takes to travel from the States to Soroti. Not this time. After 4 weeks Soroti is still hours away, and it feels as if I was caught in a domino arrangement where the first domino was tipped and the rest fell towards me too fast to stay ahead of them.
I had been in the States working for 4 months at my sister’s optometry clinic to earn enough for my living expenses while in Uganda, as I do every year. In late December I started looking at return tickets and felt strongly impressed to book the first week of March. I typically return in April, so this was earlier than normal. Prices were some of the best I’ve seen, but I still felt slightly guilty booking so early because I didn’t want to create a hardship at work since they were shorthanded. So, after briefly debating with myself I clicked “Book Now” for the second week of March instead of the first. The consequences of that decision have been crazy!
My flight was scheduled for March 16th.
March 11th Uganda implemented a mandatory self-quarantine for all travelers coming from countries with high numbers of COVID cases, and the US was one of them. So with a little disappointment that I would lose 2 weeks of ministry time I made arrangements to stay at a guest house in Entebbe near the airport for the quarantine period. From there the dominoes started to fall. European travel to the US was banned, US schools began to close, gatherings were restricted and my airline kept emailing with offers to change the flight for free.
March 16th I wondered if I would be able to finish the trip if I started, but decided to board my flight which had a layover in Amsterdam before landing in Uganda. As I stood in line to get on the plane European passengers advised me to make sure I would be allowed to disembark in Amsterdam as announcements were being made that European borders were closing soon. The travel agent said as of that moment I could still go, so I continued; as we landed I was told that borders would be closing for non-European travelers in a few hours. With relief I got on my next flight and inwardly cheered when the plane touched down in Uganda.
Inside the small, muggy airport we learned the quarantine policy had changed 2 hours before we landed, and self-quarantine was no longer allowed. We would have to go to an institutional quarantine at a hotel designated for that purpose. When we got there I was exhausted and immediately went to the front desk to check in, but a fellow passenger who had arrived in the bus before mine came up and warned me not to sign anything because they were charging $1400 US dollars. FOURTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS??? I usually pay 20-35k shillings ($6-$10) a night when I stay at a hotel or guest house in Uganda. We sat around waiting for some sort of explanation and finally slept in the lobby. Another flight arrived around 1-2 AM and we all were moved to another section of the hotel to make room for them.
Over the next few days many in our group lobbied for cheaper accommodations. I put my name down to be transferred to a less expensive place, but later was told it was not an option. Ugh! I’m ridiculously frugal, so wasting $1400 was very exasperating. Thankfully the hotel staff allowed me to negotiate to get the cost down significantly.
The night before our quarantine was to end Uganda went into a lock-down and all transport was banned unless an exception was granted by the government. My heart sank. I had planned to travel to Jinja with a friend I met in quarantine, then from there continue another 4 hours to Soroti, but that would be impossible now. Just before going to bed, however, there was a knock on the door. My friend Deb was outside and said to pack my things. Her contacts in Jinja thought they could get permission for us to travel in a government car. Release papers were supposed to come at 10am the next morning. Ten O’clock came and went, the driver was waiting, but no one was allowed to leave. A little after 5:00pm we were told we needed to be tested for COVID before leaving, then do an additional 14 days of self quarantine if we were all negative. Three days later everyone’s tests were negative and we were issued release papers, and by that point I felt like I had been in solitary confinement for the past two weeks and was VERY ready to leave.
Now I’m in Jinja. The Calvary Chapel mission group that Deb came to work with has been extremely gracious and hospitable and have taken me in during this time. My church in Nashville sent money to help with the quarantine costs, the second quarantine is almost over, and I’m hopeful I can make it to Soroti next week. So, God has been merciful even though all of this could have been avoided if I had booked the first week of March.
Early in my walk with the Lord He taught the importance of obedience no matter the cost, but as I’ve reflected on the past few weeks I’ve realized I’ve become careless about obeying especially when something seems insignificant. I believe God was lovingly trying to guard me from this mess, but I allowed myself to reason things out instead of just obeying. So, I am praying the Lord would bring me back to a life of joyful obedience and fellowship especially in the small things. (And maybe it is the small things that no one else sees which bless the Lord’s heart the most.) No other life satisfies. Also, the mess that results from choosing my own way can get ridiculous at times.
‘Aijar Kere’ is Ateso, and carries the idea of eternal life. A lesson the Lord has spoken many times this past year is, “Focus on the eternal.” Not just in the big things, but in the smaller, daily struggles too. I have not even come close to learning this in every situation, but in the times the Lord has given me that perspective the perfection of His ways compared to my own really shines through.
Recently there was a series of frustrating things that left me disillusioned and angry. The first time it happened the Lord was incredibly kind, and I could sense His peace and see Him caring for me through it. The second and third times, though, I wasn’t prepared to deal with the same thing so soon, and this time it was worse. Inwardly my anger flared up, and I rebelled; and it has been here that the Lord has come in and reminded me again, “Amber, focus on the eternal in this thing.”
While in the States earlier this year I attended a Perspectives Missions class. One of the lectures told a true story of a missionary who went to Korea and was used by God to lead the lecturer’s mom to Christ and was also used in a powerful way to reach hundreds of other women. She never became famous or drew attention to herself, and when she died she owned only a few coins and half a blanket. (The other half she gave to someone in need.)
Since hearing that I’ve found myself praying, “Lord, let me die with only half a blanket and a few coins too.” I want to live with such abandonment that everything I have and go through is submitted to the Lord for Him to accomplish something eternal with.
Acceptance of suffering (and my suffering is extremely small) for the Lord’s sake is just as much an offering of love as giving material things, and it also gives a different experience of the Lord’s care and faithfulness. Giving materially allows us to experience the truth that God is faithful to provide, but accepting suffering or daily trials and looking to the Lord for His ability to honor Himself in it shows His character and strength in an even more meaningful way sometimes. May the Lord teach us to love Him in such a practical way that suffering and sacrifice become beautiful things because of the fellowship with Him we find there-and because we know He would not allow them unless He desired to accomplish something worthwhile and eternal.
I was at Betty’s house today. Betty is tremendously inspiring, but right now my heart is heavy. It has been a struggle to learn what life is like for those living in severe poverty, and even more difficult sometimes to accept the reality of it. As I am trying to process things, though, I wanted to invite you to learn with me.
Two of the ladies from our women’s group have agreed to share their stories to help us get a better idea of what life is like for them. We would love to have you join us as they tell them!
We often visit while sitting outside on floor mats here, so we’ll scoot over and make room for you; and maybe even have some tea with milk and mandazi. =) Typically when you come to visit in Soroti you will hear a chorus of voices greeting you by saying “Karibu! Welcome!”. So, welcome to Uganda, and to start with welcome to Betty’s home.
It is a bit of a walk to Betty’s house-past town, down a dirt road, then finally turning into the slum. Her home is one of many very run down, tenement-type houses packed together with crumbling mud walls. Charcoal stoves are outside for cooking, and children are playing all around. When they see you they might start shouting, “Muzungu, hi!” and run up to greet you.
Most of the time cooking, dishes, laundry and visiting are all done outside rather than inside, so as you meet Betty she will greet you with a beautiful smile and bring chairs (mostly borrowed from the neighbor) outside for you to sit on. She will probably bring the best one for you- a green plastic chair. You might look at the squalor around you and then look at Betty’s beautiful, character-filled, smiling face and wonder if she really lives HERE, but she does. As you talk with her, you will never hear her complain or mention any of her needs.
That experience was very much like mine the first day I met Betty. On that day, as the children ran up to greet me (partially bribed with gumballs =), I noticed one child was different from the rest. He was an adorable boy with enormous eyes. As he tried to greet us and reach out his hand for the gumball, I realized he put his hand in my general direction, but not right under mine for the gumball like the other children did. He looked in the direction of my face, but not right at me, and I saw his huge eyes were slightly clouded. Suzy’s sister said something to her in Ateso, then Suzy quietly turned to me and said that the little boy was losing his vision, and he had to stop school last year because he was no longer able to see well enough to study.
As we stood to leave and I watched the little boy go off to play, my heart was sad and a little overwhelmed. Later, I learned that adorable boy was Betty’s son. He was born with a serious eye condition, and the doctor had wanted him to have surgery over a year ago, but because Betty was unable to come up with the $60 needed for the surgery the little boy had gone blind in one eye and was quickly losing his vision in the other. Oh, that reality is hard to grasp! A mom had to watch day by day as her son lost his sight because she had no way of possibly coming up with $60, and a little boy has to live mostly in the dark because of that reality.
I wondered how such a beautiful, intelligent, character-filled person like Betty came to live in these circumstances, and why she was unable to rise out of them. She has graciously opened up about her story, and as horrible as it is, her story is a fairly common one here.
Betty grew up in Soroti and was fortunate enough to graduate high school, but she did not have money to continue to University. In Uganda there is a lot of pressure for women to marry if they are not in school, so Betty married soon after graduating. She had three children and was eventually able to go back to school and obtain a certificate which would allow her to work in a records department, but, as is so common here, she was unable to find a job once she graduated. (About 80% of University graduates are unable to find work, and it is even harder if you only have a certificate.)
Betty’s husband became very abusive and then married another woman, so Betty decided to leave. She moved back to Soroti, but with three children and no job she was unable to afford anything other than a tiny, run-down apartment in the slums. She tried to sell chapatti (which is a common bread here), but this brought in very little income; and, tragically, these were not her only trials. Her son Jesse was going blind and she was unable to afford treatment.
This was the condition their family was in when I met them, and I wish I could say everything turned out OK. Jesse has had two surgeries now, but I think they were too late. His vision is even worse than when I met him a couple months ago, and it grieves my heart so much to see him like this. I wish someone could have been here a few years ago, but I know God loves Jesse and has a good plan for him.
Through all of this, Betty continues to have the most beautiful faith and a strength under trials that I am in awe of. She is part of our women’s group, and dreams of having her own business selling used clothes someday.
I’m telling her story because I know many of you back home are involved in ministry to these women, and I wanted us to catch a glimpse of the realities of what life is like for some of them. May the Lord allow us to walk alongside them-at least in a small way-as they struggle under the weight of these things!
* Betty and the other ladies in our women’s group have been making jewelry with beads of rolled paper. If you live in Nashville and would like to buy one, my church (Calvary Chapel Nashville) will have a booth with the jewelry at the International Festival on October 7th. All the profits go back into helping these women and their children or other impoverished women and children in the area.
You can also visit our website for more information about the women’s group at www.amunministries.org .
Last week I went into town and stopped briefly at Barclays ATM to withdraw money as I often do here. I knew I had extra expenses coming up, so it was a fairly large amount-at least in Ugandan terms. After making a few purchases and going back home I discovered a third of the money was gone. Oh, my heart sank! Not really because of the loss of money, but more out of frustration because of my own carelessness as well as because I am super frugal and really hate to waste money. I tried to mentally retrace my steps and figure out what happened. Did I lose it? Did the ATM not dispense all the money? (Someone was impatiently tapping on the door enclosing the ATM when I tried to count, so I hadn’t finished after I withdrew this time.) Then, I began to wonder if it had been stolen.
Sometimes a white person is a target for thieves here because we are viewed as being wealthy, and somehow at that moment my mind settled on this as the most likely option. As soon as I came to this conclusion I began to feel jaded and discouraged, and very soon afterward I could feel my heart start to harden.
Thankfully at this point the Lord began to quietly nudge me, so I came before Him with my frustration and asked Him to exchange it for His perspective. Almost instantly the verses in Matthew 5 that say, “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” and “Pray for those who spitefully use you” came to mind. And, as is so often the case those verses came to life as they hit my own personal experience.
Then, He reminded me that all I have is His, not mine, and that eternity and knowing Him are what matters. Although it seemed to me His resources were wasted, He comforted me that He knows more than I do, and He is able to use this for His purposes even more than if it had not been lost or stolen. What He spoke next was my favorite part, though, and made this minor trial seem to fade away. He reminded me that I can learn to know Him in a deeper, more mature way by walking with Him through the hard, unjust things. It is often as we surrender these circumstances to Him and trust Him with the consequences that He pours out His comfort on us, and it is this comforting, intimate fellowship with Him that makes the trials worth it. During these times we can EXPERIENCE rather than just read verses like Romans 8:28 where it says, “And we know that all things work together for good [the good of conforming us into the image of Christ (vs 29)] to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
And so, I’m thankful for a loving Father who exchanged a small material loss for spiritual riches. He brings so much hope and life regardless of outward circumstances, and when I look back after a trial and see how faithful He is to mature and grow me it makes me so incredibly thankful to be His child.
Many of you have far harder, more ongoing trials than my tiny one this week. So often I have failed at this same lesson in the past-especially when the trial is not a one-time occurrence, but a daily, almost constant one. May He continue to give us grace to surrender each challenging circumstance to Him, and may we know Him in a deeper way as we walk with Him though the hard things!
Most days I feel like a baby learning to walk in this new culture. It is such a fascinating and different world, and learning to live here is a lot of fun, but I’m stumbling and falling along the way too. This past week and a half has been filled with so many amazing things, but also some humbling lessons.
When people in the States asked how they could pray for me before I left, I would usually say, “Pray God gives me a prayer and ministry partner, and also someone who will help with practical stuff.” I was expecting it to take time to build relationships, but He almost immediately answered part of that prayer.
Suzy is the daughter of the family I’ve been staying with. She and her brother have been extraordinarily helpful with all the practical details of being here. They have spent hours and hours showing me around Soroti and helping me find an apartment and with anything else I need. I’m so incredibly thankful for the huge amount of time they’ve spent getting me situated, but beyond that they have also been helping me understand the needs here.
Last Wednesday evening when it cooled down enough for a walk Suzy and I decided to go to one of the slums. As we approached it I saw a young girl on top of a small home. The roof was made of old plastic sheets held down by tires, and she was trying to dump the water off the tarp-probably so it would stop leaking inside. As we went into the slum the children kept shouting, “Muzungu hi!” which means “Hi white person!”. They would break into giggles when I waved and said “Hi” back. Sometimes they would follow us giggling, and I began to wish I had some candy so I could make friends. After a short time, we turned off the main street and approached a small home where Suzy’s sister lives.
She brought some chairs outside and we sat and talked for a few minutes. As we were getting ready to leave Suzy asked if there were any children in the slum who might need a place to stay. (Earlier in the week I had asked Suzy if she knew of any women or children who needed somewhere to live temporarily since the apartment I will be renting has two bedrooms.) Suzy and her sister were speaking in Ateso, but Suzy turned to me and translated. “There is a single mom with two children ages 4 and 5, and she is having trouble caring for them. Maybe the children could stay with you.”
Before I left the States, some of you had given money -part of which was specifically designated for needy children-so I have been praying God would connect me with the ones who need the most help. As we were talking with Suzy’s sister I inwardly asked God if this was part of the answer to my prayer. “What if we paid the children’s school fees and gave them some food?” I asked. “Maybe she could care for them if we help out a little.”
That conversation continued later in the evening with Suzy’s parents as we discussed the needs of children in this area. They have worked with Compassion International and have a heart for impoverished children. I learned that the small villages are desperate right now due to a drought that killed crops last year and caused food prices to rise. (There is no irrigation here, so crops are completely dependent on rain.) The main source of income in the villages is farming, so the famine has especially impacted them. Thankfully, the rain has been good this year, but they have not harvested all of the new crops yet, so food prices remain high and families continue to struggle for food.
Compassion sponsors many children in this area, but they are not able to sponsor all, and Suzy is not aware of any children who are sponsored in one of the nearby impoverished villages called Apapai. We sat down to think and calculated it would cost around $75 a year to pay for school fees for primary school children as well as their school uniforms, shoes, books and to have a Saturday Bible program where we feed the children breakfast and lunch.
On Friday (one week after arriving in Soroti) we drove to the village. The village leader and Baptist pastor there had gathered the neediest families at the church. As we arrived, some of the villagers greeted us and gave a shout similar to the tribal shouts the Native Americans gave on the old western movies. I think this is a traditional way of showing excitement and maybe welcoming people or saying thank you. The church was tiny and appeared to be made of mud. We ducked under part of the thatched roof to get through the door and inside it was dimly lit, decorated with pink flowers and packed with children and parents who were looking at us as we were ushered to several chairs up front. That day, we ended up choosing 21 children (one from each of the neediest families) to help with school fees, uniforms and books. Although we could not pay the school fees for all the children, we decided to open up the Saturday Bible program to all the children who were there. We plan to start this Saturday and are expecting 80-100 children to show up.
Yesterday we went back to the village and paid the children’s school fees and brought them their books and one pencil or pen each. The school fees were only about $3 per child, but they were so thankful. One elderly gentleman said, “We have been praying for help for so long, but everyone passes by our village. We thought maybe God had stopped listening.” Later, they fed us chicken and rice. That might not seem like a big deal to most people, but in that village where families sometimes only eat one meal a day (if that) I knew the little pot of chicken in front of me represented a sacrifice for them. Another lady gave us a bag of cassava, and another gentleman brought us soda before we left. The fact that they were giving us their best so enthusiastically and out of their own need was very humbling, but beautiful to see.
So, my week has been a bit eventful. I certainly had no idea all this would happen when I arrived less than two weeks ago, and it almost felt like it happened on its own before I could catch my breath. Last Wednesday after we registered the children and I had a chance to think about it, I realized I had jumped into this very quickly without spending enough time in prayer first. With that realization came so much disappointment with myself. I really want my time in Uganda to be surrendered to God and used for His purposes, not mine, and I dread creating a ministry on my own apart from His leading. And so, I have been coming to God in my weakness and asking, “Where do I go from here?” Quietly, as I asked Him, I remembered the verse that says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted in the world.” James 1:27, and I was comforted to know that although I am not doing all this right, and I rushed into it so fast, He still cares deeply for the widows and orphans. He is still able to redeem even our mistakes and to use a broken vessel for His glory, and He is still able to do an eternal work. And so, please pray for the village of Apapai, and for me as well that I will be able to rest all this in His hands and learn to know Him deeper through it.
Also, please keep sending updates and prayer request from back home, because I love to hear from you!
I love adventure and new, and those two things are definitely part of life in Uganda! As fun as new is, though, it can also be stressful sometimes. A few weeks before leaving the States I was feeling pretty stressed because I still wasn’t sure where I was going to stay in Kampala, or how I was going to get to Soroti or what life would look like when I got there. God reminded me through a godly friend to give all that to Him and just trust Him, and He has continued to show His ability to handle the details and uncertainty each step of the way. The trip to Soroti was one of those times. =)
Before I left Kampala someone from church graciously offered to drive me to Soroti if I would pay for gas. Gas is expensive here, though, so the trip would have cost around $100. That kind of money goes a long way in Uganda, so I asked about other options. Taking a bus with all my luggage (which included a mattress, gas cooker and tiny fridge-because those things are much cheaper to buy in Kampala and aren’t included when you rent here) cost about 50,000 shillings which is roughly $14 US dollars.
Although most people suggested I take the car since luggage is sometimes stolen on the bus, I didn’t have a peace about doing that, and really felt a definite sense of peace about taking the bus. So, I left the luggage in God’s hands and boarded the bus early Wednesday morning with a plan to take it to a small village called Bukedea about an hour from Soroti. Esther’s mom, sister and grandmother were in the village, so I originally thought I would stop by for an hour or two to say hi, and then they would drive me the rest of the way to Soroti.
Esther’s mom was waiting for me at the bus stop in Bukedea, and thankfully none of my luggage had been stolen. She took me to a guest house owned by the family and gave me tea and a Ugandan meal, then asked if I could stay the night so I could meet Esther’s grandmother. I really want to learn everything I can about the people and the way of life here, plus I love adventure, so I said, “Yes”.
On the drive up, I had been intrigued to see many round brick buildings that appeared to be covered in mud with thatched roofs. Often there were several all clustered together in a circle sometimes with a rectangular house nearby. As we headed to their village home, I saw more and more of the thatched huts up close and began asking about them. Those were the villager’s homes. Each group of huts typically represents a family clan as the families all tend to live near each other. I could see some of them outside cooking over an open fire. Out in the fields people were farming by hand or occasionally walking by leading cattle harnessed with handmade yokes for plowing. It felt like I had stepped back in time.
When we arrived, I was excited to see I got to sleep in one of the round homes. This one had electric lights and a tin roof, so it was much more modern than most of the ones I had seen. Outside they were drying cassava, and there was a pile of cassava sticks under a tree for planting after the rain came. In the evening we walked down the red dirt road and I got to meet Esther’s grandmother and a few other villagers. The next day Esther’s mom asked if I could stay one more night, so I did. They were so gracious and wonderful to me, and then they drove me to Soroti on Friday. I am very interested in the villages and would love to eventually work in one if God leads in that direction, so just that small, adventurous little trip somehow blessed and encouraged me in a big way.
Since arriving in Soroti I have been staying with a very godly family whom Esther connected me with. The dad was the head of the Baptist association for this area before he retired, and partially through his work over 200 churches have been planted. He has connections with Compassion International as well as an orphanage and Baptist hospital-all of which he said I could visit and volunteer at. His daughter Suzy and her brother have been amazing as well and have spent a lot of time showing me around Soroti and helping me find a place to live.
Today I got to attend Calvary Chapel, and tomorrow morning I will visit the clinic. Although I still am not sure what life will look like here, God keeps showing me He is faithful. He knows my inadequacies and awkwardness and everything else that seems to disqualify me, but I believe He led me here. I’ve been re-reading A.W. Tozer’s book The Pursuit of God, and love the picture he paints of faith. He describes it as the gaze of the soul on God. That is how I want to be. To commune with God and inwardly lift up trusting eyes to Him each time I feel overwhelmed by inadequacy or doubt or fear. Sometimes, I feel most inadequate in my walk with God or in my lack of concern for the souls around me, but He is teaching me to come to Him even with that inadequacy and to look to Him to draw me deeper.