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 .
Life has become very busy here! Often in the States we think of busyness as a good thing; and it can be to a point, but I also think Satan loves to use excessive busyness to distract us from real intimacy with Jesus. I am sorry to say that this tactic has worked so often in my life (even for years at a time), and it still catches me off guard. As I looked back on the the past week or two I realized I have fallen for this again. I’ve been busy from morning to late evening almost every day, and although I still set aside time for devotions, it was shorter and more rushed, and I was often distracted thinking about all I needed to do that day. And, during this time my annoying flesh grabbed at the opportunity. Small things that had mildly bothered me before now seemed to be all I could see, and unfortunately I saw them through my eyes rather than God’s. As my heart began to focus on them, and my words began to reflect my heart, I was reminded again of who I am apart from Christ. It seems that every time I begin to wander from that place of fellowship with God I experience again the truth that abiding in Him is essential if we desire true righteousness or works that have eternal impact to flow from our lives.
So, over and over God has had to quietly remind me not to glory in ministry or allow myself to be consumed or distracted by it. What truly blesses Him is for us to understand and know Him, and it is this relationship that He wants us to celebrate and prioritize in our lives, not our service.
One thing that has really encouraged me in my relationship with God here has been downloaded sermons. Daily life can take a lot of time since laundry has to be done by hand and cooking is almost completely from scratch, but I often love those times because I can listen to sermons, and God plants seeds in my heart. Several weeks ago as I was making dinner and listening to a teaching by Pastor Damian Kyle on 1 Corinthians 13, God reminded me that it is possible to serve Him with EVERYTHING- I can “give all my goods to feed the poor”, “have all faith”, do great things, but if my motive is not love it means nothing and there will be no reward. So, God can call us and use us even in very great ways, but if we are not serving Him and others out of a motive of true love “it profits us nothing.”
I’m so thankful God spoke that lesson to me, and I have especially needed it this week. If someone tries to take advantage of me, or I see a lack of integrity, my human love cries out, “Ok, that’s enough!”, and my human affection stops and is replaced with a hard heart. God has to remind me again that He is extending an invitation to me in each of these situations to walk in communion with Him. And, He is teaching me how important serving with a motive of love is-even when we see flaws. He reminds me that He sees my sin and flaws and their sins and flaws, but He does not write us off because of it. He sees, but still loves, and He loves but still purifies.
So, please pray I learn these lessons! For me, they do not seem to be learned all at once. Instead, it is one situation at a time with many failures along the way, but I want to grow and to learn to truly walk with Him in the small, inward frustrations as well as in the bigger, outward things.
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!
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. =)
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.