Favorite (subtle) things about Uganda

As Krista and I prepare to fly home tonight, here are a few of my favorite subtle things about our time in Uganda:

  • the 2 handed wave
  • dancing kids
  • the sky being closer to the ground
  • thunderstorms
  • thunderstorms at night
  • long walks in the country
  • the evening sun
  • the full moon
  • night walks
  • driving locals on my boda boda (motorcycle)
  • squeezing 10 people into 5 person cars over rough dirt roads
  • birds
  • rolex (chapatti and egg wrap)
  • living next to nature
  • expressive body language – large intonations and dramatic arm movements
  • subtle body language – a small raise of the eyebrows to say ‘yes’, a small purse of the lips to say ‘that way’
  • mango season
  • bargaining
  • the rolling countryside
  • red dirt
  • greeting strangers on the street

– Paul

My Week of Walking

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The road.

I recently decided to spend a week without motorized transportation. This meant that if I wanted to go anywhere I had to do so on the power of my own two legs.

I had big expectations for the week. I was hoping that my little technological fast would help me remove some of the conveniences and distractions from my life in order to better think, listen, and pray. My (naïve) hope was that this would give me a new revelation or insight into my future as Krista and I think about moving back to Canada in a little over 3 months. My intention was to pray the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”) as I walked, wanting to learn – if only a little – what it meant to pray without ceasing.

Unfortunately, I failed to learn how to pray without ceasing and few, if any, of my expectations were met. I spent over 15 hours (About 85 km, which works out to something like 12 km/day. To give context, the nearest city is about a 17km walk) walking along dusty African countryside roads, and none of those hours gave me any new or even particularly fruitful insight. It was by no means a waste of time – my week of walking is something that I am considering making into a yearly discipline – but it certainly did not fulfill my somewhat lofty expectations.

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The view.

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To begin with, the week was not as solitary as I had hoped. To be one of the only white people (muzungus) in the area is one thing, but to walk through these tiny towns and villages, past huts and houses with kids spilling out of them, is quite another. Walking is too slow to allow you to escape the onslaught of attention that excited kids and confused adults will give you when they simply want to know why this rich white person was walking through their village when he normally speeds by on his motorcycle or car.

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The storm that I had just walked through.

The locals frequently asked me if something was wrong and why I was punishing myself by walking everywhere. The easiest way for me to answer these questions was to say that I was walking for fitness – though this was probably still sufficiently confusing for the locals; they don’t walk for fitness, they are fit because they walk. Ugandans, like most Africans I presume, are a walking people. This is not out of choice, but out of necessity. Few people in the country have access to transport beyond their own two legs. Kids often walk up to 5km one way to school, and this after they have fetched water and completed their morning chores before sunrise. I was even told that one man in our village walked 17km to town to pick up wood for a bed frame which he then carried back to the village on his head. All of this was done in bare feet of course, so I was not quick to refer to my week of walking as a week punishment – I did, after all, have shoes and water to drink.

I considered of my week of walking to be more of a purge than a punishment. The purging may not look so different than ascetic self-punishment of some form, but to call my week a punishment would not give the act of walking enough credit. Walking is not merely an inconvenience that we do when all other options are lost; it is a way of seeing the world, a way of being in the world, a way of slowing down to move at the same pace that the majority of people in the world move.

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One of my entourages. No big deal.

The ironic thing about walking is that time doesn’t speed up, it slows down. Despite the fact that walking took up much more of my time, causing me to be less efficient and productive in my daily work, I never felt like the day ever got away from me. I would do what I could when I could, but I wouldn’t be overrun by the demands I and others put on myself. I could have done that of course, but it would have meant forgoing meals or walking through the night – two things I couldn’t let myself do if I wanted to get home in one piece. Ironically though, these are two things that many people in the North America do every week of their lives, they just never slow down to realize the folly of it. I am no stranger to forgotten meals and late night work, but I am aware of how our time is too often controlled by efficiency and productivity.

So if my week of walking taught me one thing it taught me this: time is to be managed, not controlled. My week began with an unacknowledged desire to control or orchestrate a new insight about my future – much in the same way that we use technology to control my time in order to increase efficiency and productivity – but the insight never came. As I am learning, this is okay; these things are not to be controlled. My time, as with my future, is not my own.

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At the end of my week of walking, somewhat frustrated by the lack of success my week of walking had given me, I traveled roughly 5km to a neighboring village for a football (soccer) practice. I was told on multiple occasions that the practice was at 4pm so I left my village at 3pm in order to be there in good time. I arrived at the field shortly after 4pm only to find that the other football players were nowhere to be seen. This was not entirely unexpected, so I just sat and tried to read as I waited. The problem was that the local school kids were out for recess and solitude was nowhere to be found. I was quickly surrounded by more than 20 kids who tried to read what I was reading (they couldn’t) and who stared at me only feet away as if I was some sort of zoo creature (which, in a way, I was) and continually yelled muzungu at me to get me to look at them. The kids who do this are always adorable and their excitement over a white person always endearing (I try to tell myself that they are actually excited to see me, but any white person will produce the desired effect), but after 9 months of living in rural Uganda and a week of walking where solitude was desired by surprisingly hard to come by, the attention got tiresome very quickly.

So, I did what I was doing all week: I went for a walk. The football practice eventually started 2 hours after I was told it would (this is not an uncommon occurrence) and we played until the sun went down. When the practice was finished and I turned to make my way home, slightly annoyed that I had to do so in the dark, I did what I thought any African in my situation would do: run.

I put my running shoes on my tired and blister-ridden feet and started running along the dirt road that was lit up just enough by the full moon to see the potholes and puddles and rocks that littered the road. The full moons here are so bright that flashlights are hardly necessary.

About half-way home, tired and sore from the week and the practice I had just come from, I met two other guys on the road who were also running to the village. They did not have bikes or motorcycles too get them to town, so like me, they ran. Shortly after the 3 of us started running together, we were joined by a teammate of mine who was also coming from the football practice in the other village. Now there were 4 of us, a real running group, so naturally, we picked up the pace. I was tired, but was buoyed by the presence of other guys who wanted to do the most simple of things with me – get from one point to another on their own two legs. We exchanged leads with each of us taking a turn as if we were actually racing and jockeying for position. Whether this was out of a subtle competitiveness or a desire for camaraderie, I am not sure, but the result was all too clear – no one wanted to let the others out of their reach.

We ran along the winding dirt road until we reached the tiny yet bustling candle lit village. The two guys who first joined me were the first to break off. I said farewell, but kept running. Then the other football player peeled off the main road too. Again, I said farewell but did not stop running. Before I knew it I was through the village, past the light of the flickering candles that lit up the food stands in the village, and alone. I had the solitude that I sought all week, but this time it was different. Instead of feeling relieved or even happy to be alone, I felt a tinge of sadness. It was strange feeling because it was more of a joyful sadness than a sorrowful sadness, but it was sadness nonetheless. I think I knew that I would probably never run with those guys under the light of the full moon in the African countryside again.

Those running mates of mine did not give me the solitude or insight that I was hoping for, but they gave me one of my most cherished moments of the week – maybe even the year – and that moment was definitely worth a week of walking.

– Paul

Football in Uganda

When I am asked, ‘what are some of your favorites parts about living in rural Africa?’ I almost always answer football (soccer for you North Americans). I love football for many reasons, but one of the more recent reasons is because football is a reflection of those who play it. Football inherits the personalities and cultures of people. Ugandan football is different from Canadian football, which is different from Brazilian football, which is different from Korean football.

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Tekera Football Club.

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Home match.

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A typical practice.
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Typical post-goal celebrations.

I think the final match of the recent district tournament best captures not only football in Uganda, but life as well. Against long odds, our village, Tekera, made it to the finals for what I understand was the first time ever (sometimes it is hard to gather these details). The tournament was a 4-month long adventure that included a group stage and a knockout stage that involved home and away matches. The finals were to be played on Eid Day (locals here pronounce it eedee), the end of the Muslim holiday Ramadan and a national holiday in Uganda, but the crazy thing about Eid Day is that they never know when that day will land. Eid Day falls on the full moon, which means that they can never confirm when that will be until very close to the full moon. All of this meant that we did not find out when Eid Day was until 10pm the night before when people in the village heard it on the radio and circulated the news by word of mouth. I was recovering from a bad cold at the time (don’t ask me how I got a cold in Africa) and I was not thrilled that I had to play the next day on short notice, but it was not the first time (nor will it be the last time) I was informed about a football match with little notice. As they often tell me with these things, ‘this is Uganda.’

The morning of the match was cold and overcast, even raining at times, but it had cleared up by late afternoon. We were playing Kitengesa, the perennial winner of the tournament, on their home pitch. This didn’t bother me because their pitch was much nicer than ours – meaning it had slightly fewer mounds, holes, rocks, cattle dung, and paths strewn across the pitch. Our football team came to the pitch in usual fashion – loud and late. Players and fans were spilling out of lorries and trucks, all to eager to let anyone within earshot know that they had arrived. Our team incurred a fine for being late, but no one seemed to pay much attention to it – I think they knew they could talk their way out of it or something.

By the time the match got going, there were well over 2000 fans who lined the pitch on all sides, which helped because the field didn’t actually have any lines. A local politician came to the match with a large entourage and one person in the entourage had the politician’s face plastered on a jerry can they carried above their head as they followed her all day. The little kids would follow me around the field before the match, stretching as I stretched, until I had to shoo them away before our pre-match talk so our coach could give the team final instruction, none of which I understood, only to be followed by 3 or 4 other people, presumably fans or friends (some of whom I had never seen before), also offering instruction. Coaching is by committee at times, and often it seems like anyone can elect themselves to the committee. Through it all I nod with a serious face attempting to give the impression that I know what they are talking about.

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The finals.

We started the match going uphill and into the wind and we had a difficult time controlling the flow of the game. Our team is pretty undisciplined, which can make the football here as fun as banging your head against the wall if you playing a must-win match, but we make up for it with our athleticism and energy. Twenty minutes into the game as we were beginning to settle into the match, the ref suddenly stopped the match for an extended period of time, close to 10 minutes I would guess, in order to settle the fans down. This happened again in the second half and both times I could do nothing but walk around in circles and look off into space as the ref tried to deal with the mob of fans. These stoppages of play were especially annoying because I knew the ref had no hope of settling the fans down. During the stoppage in the second half I asked a few people what was going on, only to learn that the fans who stood behind the opposition’s goal (I should point out these were the fans from our village) were sending curses, as in Old Testament-like curses, onto the field and the opposing players. They take these things very seriously because it is still a significant part of village life, so understandably the ref had to do his best to squash the curses. My first thought upon hearing this was one of empathy for the ref, an emotion that I do not normally feel towards them, but my second thought? ‘Yep, this is definitely Uganda.’

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Me waiting for the ref to settle down the fans.

The match was close, with both teams having their moments but neither team able to break through. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and went to penalties. Penalties are never a great way to end a match, let alone a tournament, but we had no other choice because we were rapidly losing light as the match had started a few minutes late – no thanks to our team, of course. Our team was shooting first so I went forward to take it as the few thousand fans created a wall many people deep around the 18-yard box. The penalty spot was essentially a patch of sand, and it was too big not to place the ball outside of it. I made a comment to the referee that it might be better to do the penalty shots at the other net, but the ref was having none of it. He seemed a little indignant that I wasn’t happy with the penalty spot, so he responded by saying, ‘This is Uganda.” I thought, ‘yeah, yeah, I KNOW this is Uganda, but seriously, we are literally kicking the ball on the beach.’ But there was nothing I could do so I went ahead and thankfully scored. As I sat down a gentleman from the crowd ran up and handed me money thanking me for scoring; I have scored many penalty shots in my lifetime but this was the first time (and unfortunately probably also the last) someone gave me money for the feat. I was extremely impressed by the quality of shots both teams made from the sand pit, but the one poor shot came from our team, meaning that we lost the penalties, and thus the match, 5-4.

After the match many of the players and fans crowded around a small table for the award ceremony. I sat near the front between someone’s legs with another person sitting between my legs. I was seated fairly uncomfortably for over 30 minutes as people made speeches (Ugandans love speeches) under the encroaching darkness. It was a good 20 minutes before I realized that the goat that was the prize for the 3rd place team was literally breathing over my shoulder. The award ceremony, while long, was really beautiful. You would not have known who won and who lost based on many of the player’s faces. Yes, we were disappointed to lose, but the football match was more than a game, it was a community gathering at its best.

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Post-finals sunset.

I was the top goal scorer for the tournament so after about 45 minutes of speeches that I didn’t understand, I was awarded a pair of shoes. This was very humbling because I didn’t need shoes nearly as much as most players, but the only problem was that the shoes were baseball shoes, not football shoes. I was extremely grateful for the award, but my first thought after receiving them? ‘Yep, this is Uganda.’

– Paul

Fried Chicken

I want to write a quick post about body-image because I find the way people view themselves in Canada to be strikingly different than the way people view themselves in rural Uganda. (Of course I’m speaking in general terms).

In Canada, the portrayal of women in the media leads one to believe that there is an ideal body that all women should strive for. And everywhere you look – billboards, magazines, internet articles, movies, TV shows, and commercials – this message is pounded into your head.

In rural Uganda, the story about a woman’s ideal body is different. A beautiful woman in rural Uganda is a fat woman! Women here are praised for being full bodied.

But even though there is an ideal body that women strive for here (it’s just much different than the one in Canada), I’m not constantly surrounded by advertisements of women with this ideal body. There are no billboards in the village. Nor can you buy a magazine, watch cable television, or get a decent internet connection. (There is, however, one tiny movie theatre run on a generator)! Therefore, I’m not bombarded with images that are either blatantly or inadvertently telling me what I should look like.

I find this so refreshing because it means that people are perceived according to who they are, rather than what they look like. And you have so much extra energy when it’s not taken up by continuously comparing your body to those around you!

Now, I’ve been careful to say rural Uganda thus far because the conditions in Kampala (Uganda’s capital) are much more similar to Canada. The ideal body for a woman in the capital is a thin one, not a fat one; and there are a lot more advertisements to tell you this. However, not all is lost – my favourite billboard ad in Kampala shows a woman taking a large bite out of a fried chicken drumstick and the text above her head reads: “For the love of chicks with big thighs”!

Things that we have been surprised by in Uganda

  • Full moons – After living in Uganda for 4 months, I eagerly await every full moon. It lights up the night sky in a way we do not get in Canada. When the moon is in full force there is no need for a flashlight because it casts sharp shadows on the ground making even the smallest ruts easily visible. This made last Sunday’s “Supermoon” all the more impressive. People were calling it a Supermoon because it is the closest the moon will be to the earth all year. I did not know it was a Supermoon at the time, but I remarked to Krista that I didn’t think I had ever seen such a large or bright or orange moon before. The next full moon is scheduled for August 20th – the night when we will be camping in the jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with my brothers and dad when they visit. Can’t wait.
  • Lightning and thunderstorms – The rainy season might be my favorite time of year even though the rain makes life much more difficult. The reason is that the rainy season brings lightning and thunderstorms that you can watch on the horizon for hours. The storms here are very isolated so you are able to watch lightning illuminate a storm cloud like popping corn kernels and not be affected in the least. I think part of the reason why I enjoy the storms here so much is that my appreciation for storms has been heightened after living in Vancouver for a few years where lightning and thunder are even more infrequent than the sun.
  • Missing Ontario cottage country – I often remark that living in rural Uganda is very much like camping. Cooking, cleaning, showering, and washrooms are much closer to camping than city-living. But having said that, our living conditions are probably much closer to a rugged cottage than a collapsible tent. This might be part of the reason why we find ourselves longing for the Ontario cottage-country more than the BC wilderness from which we came. Don’t get me wrong, we miss many things about BC, but we didn’t expect to miss Ontario quite as much as we do.
  • Ugandans like country music – This I can provide little commentary for because I have little understanding for why many Ugandans listen to country music. Now, it isn’t as prevalent as the dance club music you hear from sun-rise to sun-down, but it isn’t uncommon to hear Ugandans listening to Dolly Parton or Brooks & Dunn.
  • Krista’s love of powdered milk – Krista has always had a difficult relationship with milk. Over the past few years she had taken to drinking almond milk (yes, there is such a thing) so when we moved to a village I thought that I would be the one longing for milk and dairy products. But for reasons that are still a mystery to me, it is quite the opposite. Krista longs for milk in her tea so much that sometimes she craves it more than she craves chocolate or warm baths. She longs it so much that she actually craves powdered milk. Maybe the moon has something to do with it, who knows.

– Paul

Four Months In…

If we thought May was busy, June has turned out to be even busier!  The month started out with the tragic death of one of our teachers.  Then we lost two other staff members for various reasons.  It has been challenging to deal with the aftermath of these things, hiring new staff, and navigating related issues.  At times I feel like I’m in way over my head, but I suppose that’s good because it makes me trust that God has us here for a reason and it forces me to rely on God’s strength to keep going.

We also had a volunteer from the UK come to the centre at the last minute.  It always feels busy when we have volunteers come because we live in the same house as them, cook with them, hang out with them, etc.  But we got along really well with this volunteer, so it was enjoyable to live with her for a couple of weeks.  We dropped her off at the airport on Friday and spent the rest of the weekend in Kampala at a friend’s place.  It was a nice break to get away for a bit.

While in Kampala I read a book that taught me a lot about the church and people of Uganda.  The book is called “A Distant Grief” by Kefa Sempangi and I highly recommend it!  It’s about Kefa’s experience as the pastor of a church in Kampala during the reign of Idi Amin.  The main lessons I took away were:

a)      God speaks to the church in Uganda directly – he doesn’t just speak to the church in Uganda through the West.

b)      Many people here aren’t looking for a God that will provide them with the best worldview.  Rather, they’re looking for a God whose power will enter their lives in a practical way.  Living in a village where the simplest needs (such as clean water, mosquito nets, etc.) aren’t always met and where people are looking to God to meet these basic needs has challenged me to pray for God’s power in my life in a more practical way.

Anyway, I’m not providing enough context to explain these things nearly as well as Kefa Sempangi but his book impacted me so much that I had to write about it.  Hopefully you have a chance to read it one day!

With love,

Krista Joy

The Curious Case of Our Lost African Dog

Note: I wrote this story a few weeks ago now, and it was originally posted at Converge.

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“SIERRA!”

I yelled that name dozens of times last Sunday afternoon; each time my voice trailing off with a measure of embarrassment.

You see, Sierra is our new puppy that we lost less than 24hrs after we got her. She was given to us by a friend who knew we were looking for a new dog to help control the neighboring chickens that were eating all the crops on the farm of our community centre in rural Uganda. She is a beautiful puppy – a mutt that resembles a German Pinscher with short dark hair and light brown colouring on her belly, legs, and face – but she is also a nervous puppy – having been abused when she was younger.

Therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, when a neighbor rode close by on their bike, Sierra panicked. Still terrified of new people, specifically new African people, she took off having little idea of where she was going or how to get back to where she was. After she failed to return to us immediately, we got that sinking feeling that she may not be coming back.

So, we started to search and holler for this puppy for the next 5 hours amongst huts and homes in the countryside. We tried to explain to our confused neighbors that we were searching for our pet dog but I think our intentions were lost in translation because people here don’t keep dogs as pets. We also tried to explain in broken Lugandan that she was wearing a collar, but since dogs here don’t wear collars most people thought we were looking for a necklace – which would have been just as futile since looking for this terrified dog in the long grass of the expansive Ugandan countryside was very much like looking for a needle in a haystack.

For many of the locals, it would have made more sense if we actually were looking for a necklace. Here, dogs don’t wear collars and people don’t go around yelling for a lost dog. There is too much else to worry about. Last week, for example, 5 children in the village lost their father to an illness that seemed entirely preventable if the right medical attention were available. He was only 41 years old. Such are the worries of life in a village. Such are the worries of life in Africa. This is why many of our neighbors must have thought we were crazy spending as much energy as we did walking, biking, and shouting in an effort to find our dog Sierra.

We searched for hours on end – we have the sunburns to prove it – with no luck. Eventually we regrouped for some food and water. My wife mused that if we lose a dog within 24hrs, how are we ever going to be responsible enough to have kids? And so, with that new found motivation, we launched one last search party – but this time we brought along the centre’s older dog, Cujo, for moral support if nothing else.

As we neared the place where we lost Sierra I thought I might as well give Cujo something of Sierra’s to smell so that she might clue in to what we were doing. Then a funny thing happened: Cujo darted into the long grass with purpose. I followed, not yet making the connection that it had anything to do with Sierra. I struggled to keep up as we made our way through waist deep grass and shoulder deep bushes, but then I heard a whimper come from the bushes not far ahead of me – Cujo had found Sierra. It was difficult to settle Sierra down in her excitement after she spent 5 hours in the heat of the day hiding in one spot, too terrified to move. We were elated to find Sierra, and our neighbors were relieved that we had stopped yelling for her.

Having moved to rural Uganda from Vancouver, I am able to see first hand the differences in how people from different cultures treat dogs. In the West, dogs are a source of companionship; they are man’s best friend. There are hotels and gyms and spas for dogs. People even buy outfits for their dogs.

In the West, dogs are members of a community, but in Africa, they are protectors of a community. People in rural Africa rarely have the resources to treat dogs as another member of the family, and as a result, dogs end up serving a practical rather than relational purpose. They become guard dogs if they haven’t already become a nuisance – which is exactly what most dogs here are.

Having had a few hours to think about the purpose of dogs when we were searching for Sierra, I think the truth about dogs is somewhere in between Africa and the West. We should not value dogs so much that we put their needs before people, which happens too often in the West, but we should not value dogs so little that abuse becomes normative, which happens too often in Africa.

My point here, however, is not to paint Africa in a negative light. There are many people in Africa who do not mistreat their dogs just as there are many people in the West who do not overindulge their dogs. My point is this: we must determine how to appropriately care for all things in creation – dogs, animals, people, and plants alike. If we reduce creation to raw material it will become a tool for use to use and abuse, and if we elevate creation into a deity it will become an object of worship. The truth about creation, like the truth about dogs, is somewhere in between.

– Paul

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