Iteso Stories

A few evenings ago I was in the village of Apapai sitting next to a small, dying fire with no other source of light besides the moon. To my left was an elderly gentleman whose face was carved with character. His eyes twinkled, and he smiled often.  Behind him was the dim outline of a thatched hut, and beyond that was the African bush. Suzy and I were staying in the village for a few days so I could get to know the people and way of life better. The gentleman was Suzy’s grandfather, and he was telling Suzy and I story after story about the history of the Iteso tribe. (The Itesots are the tribe from Soroti and Apapai.)

According to tradition the Itesots migrated from Ethiopia many years ago.  When they reached northern Uganda some of the older ones were too tired to continue, so they stayed behind-eventually becoming the fierce Karamojong tribe. The younger members continued migrating until they came to what is now Soroti district. When they arrived, to their great surprise, they discovered the area was already inhabited. “How is this possible?” they asked in astonishment. “Aren’t we the only people to ever come to this far? ….Maybe these creatures aren’t actually human?” They decided to attack them to find out, and upon examination the tribal consensus was reached: They really were true human beings. (This consensus was reached based on the shape of their teeth.) They eventually drove all of them off, and the name Iteso comes from that battle. It carries the idea of death.

I asked Suzy’s grandfather what life was like when he was little. In Ateso, with Suzy translating, he told me that both men and women used to wear a loincloth as their only clothes. I heard about how the Iteso would form huge hunting parties by going through the area beating a drum. As they heard the drum call, the men would come out and join the hunt forming a line that went on for miles. When they came upon a herd of wild animals they would drive it to the water, then surround it. Suddenly, spears would fly and animals would panic and try to jump over the men.

Although there are very few wild animals in this area now, he told stories about how elephants would eat all the sweet potatoes as they were drying on the thatched roofs of their huts. To drive them off, the villagers heated up spears and threw them at the elephants. During those days, everyone had to be in their hut with the door bolted before dusk because of the lions and tigers.

Then, he told me the story of white missionaries who came in the 1940’s.  The villagers were scared of them initially. One day, some villagers were watching the missionaries and saw that they were eating a strange white powder. The missionaries made signs to the villagers to come and try it, but the villagers were afraid and ran off. Later, the missionaries poured the same white stuff (sugar) into the well while some of them watched.  Wow, did that stir them up! They ran back to their families and told them what the missionaries did. The villagers discussed it among themselves and eventually decided to try the water. It was sweet! As a result the village became more open to the missionaries.

After that the stories became tragic. During the 1980’s the Karamojong tribe swept down upon the entire area stealing everyone’s cattle and killing those who did not have cattle to give.  Later, the Lord’s Resistance Army came. This was a brutal army that kidnapped children and forced them to become child soldiers and commit horrible crimes against humanity. At that time, the villagers had to sleep in the bush to avoid capture, torture or death.

As I listened to story after story and thought about all the changes and tragedies this man had seen in his lifetime, I was in awe that God has allowed me to come and get to know these people. I was fascinated by their history and intrigued by their lives. I’m so thankful they are welcoming me in and allowing me to see their way of life, but beyond just giving history or cooking lessons or showing me how they catch ants to eat =), they have so much more to offer.  They encourage and inspire me almost every day with their welcoming kindness, humility, generosity and concern for others.

To briefly illustrate some of the beautiful qualities of these people, let me share with you a few quick stories from my stay in the village last week.

I stayed with Suzy’s grandparents. Her grandmother is a wonderful, smiling, kind lady who allowed us to sleep in her hut, and did not seem inconvenienced in the least. There is no running water or electricity out there, so her aunt and cousin had to walk a long way to the borehole for water, fill a jerrycan, then carry it back on their heads. The water is super heavy (about 5 gallons), but they didn’t seem to think twice about the extra work and instead just enjoyed inviting us into their world and showing us how they live. I asked them to only feed me their typical food in the amount and frequency they normally ate because I wanted to experience their life to the full extent. Somehow, though, these loving, generous people couldn’t quite bring themselves to treat a visitor like that. Instead, they killed a chicken and fed us wonderful meals.

The first evening we were there we took a walk down a trail and briefly stopped to say “Hi” to an older gentleman. As we were greeting him and chatting, he turned to Suzy and asked in Ateso, “What are you going to feed the visitor? She can’t eat our food. Let me go catch a chicken and send it home with you.” And he did.

The next day we visited one of the sponsored children. The dad has been in and out of prison, and there are 9 or 10 children living at home. Their hardworking mom also ran and caught me a chicken. Chicken is a luxury here, and these people have been experiencing famine.  Many children have extended bellies and pale, reddish hair from malnutrition, but they gave so enthusiastically and generously even in their own need. It reminded me of the verse in Proverbs 22:9 which talks about the person with a generous eye giving of his bread to the poor. They gave of their own food for a stranger, and as I experienced their incredible hospitality I felt so humbled, but also very thankful for their example. They are very poor by most standards, but to me, they seem so wealthy in ways that are non-material.

Another beautiful thing I see about these people-centered Ugandans is that the care for others reaches beyond strangers and extends to the needy around them. Suzy’s family alone has cared for over 50 needy children through the years, and it is common for families to take in children of relatives whose parents aren’t able to care for them any longer. I never sense they are inconvenienced by hosting a stranger or meeting the needs of others.  I look at the sometimes overwhelming need all around, and it is beautiful to me that they do not ignore the needy because there are far too many of them. Instead, so many Ugandans reach out to one, and then another and another. One by one as the need arises, and I think about it from God’s perspective and I believe He is blessed by their heart and the care they show towards others. I am blessed too. Blessed to be here and blessed to learn through their example.

Here are some picture updates from the Saturday Bible program below. Suzy is an amazing teacher and has been incredible with orchestrating everything. Sometimes I feel like all I’m doing is sitting back and watching this unfold. =)

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Apapai

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!