Monday, 12 February 2007

Impressions of Uganda

Churchill called Uganda ‘the Pearl of Africa’ for its beauty and soft fertility. I think ‘emerald’ might be a good description as the whole country is amazingly green. Everywhere I travelled were banana trees. This is a type of green banana that has to be cooked and provides 70% of Uganda’s staple diet (‘mutoke’). Greener than Surrey with soil redder than Devon. A rich countryside, though probably most of the people don’t appreciate it as they have to work so hard to survive. Only western tourists have time to gaze admiringly.

The friendliness and sense of welcome. It’s hard to avoid clichés, but every Ugandan I met, with the possible exception of the immigration officers, smiled and shook my hand. The African handshake – grasping the palm then the thumb then the palm again. Children everywhere call out “How are you?”, and when you ask them in return they reply, “Fine!” Even the smallest child in ragged clothes can call out this greeting. Children hanging onto my hands: I had four or five on each hand at one point in the Acholi Quarter of Kasese where there are many street children – families displaced by the fighting in the north, and previously by rebels from Congo. The welcome extended to ‘honourable guests’ is almost embarrassing, but perhaps we don’t give our own visitors and guests here enough respect sometimes.

Mobile phones! Since 2000 when I visited Kenya mobile phones have spread rapidly, leapfrogging our landline technology to establish almost universal mobile network coverage. Now every street has kiosks selling top-up time. It made keeping in touch with home much easier, especially with the sad news of Rob Howell’s death.

Joyful worship. Again almost a cliché, but you can only feel joy and gladness when you hear Africans singing their praises to God. Harmonising is spontaneous and natural, clapping and swaying can’t be avoided.

As a clergyman I was asked and expected to ‘give a word’ wherever I went. The Sunday I arrived in Kasese I spoke twice at Basecamp Church, and then in a government prison. I led a prayer asking for the Holy Spirit to come at the end of an Alpha session in another remand prison. It was moving to see many of these poor men being touched by God. With little comfort, hope or dignity it is only God that could touch them in their hearts. I preached about the prodigal son and the everlasting love and mercy of God who welcomes the prodigal whatever he might have done. In church I spoke briefly about Jesus calling us not servants but friends. Much African Christianity can be rather moralistic and work-based, and I felt that people also needed to hear that God calls them his friends, his children; that Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters.

Children everywhere, often ragged unwashed street children yet still managing to smile. I think that the visit of white people (‘muzungus’) just reminded them they are not forgotten. On the plane from Amsterdam to London I suddenly experienced a wave of emotion that made me weep for these dear children as I considered the material wealth I was coming back to and the material poverty that they live in. I was reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter: “Feed my lambs…take care of my sheep.” Also his words teaching us that the way we show we love Him is by loving others.

But there is hope and people’s lives are being helped through schemes such as Five Talents and other micro-finance projects. FT Uganda helps the ‘active poor’ with small loans (about £30). It may not sound much to us but it could help a baker buy better quality flour, so sell his bread at a better price and employ other men. It could help a lady hire labourers to plant out a field of onion seedlings now in order to sell them later at a profit of about £1200 and thus pay for her children to go to school. It could help a lady who owns a cow to buy medical treatments for it and make a living selling milk. Occasionally she hires a bull to breed with the cow and sells the resulting calf.

The importance of ex-patriot company for western missionaries – a party and karaoke evening for a group of Emmanuel International workers in Kampala.

The cold grey skies of England with their cold grey drizzle are such a contrast to Uganda, but it is the same God who is Father of us all; the same Lord Jesus who calls us his brothers and sisters; the same Holy Spirit who touches our hearts with God’s love and empowers us to serve him. Though we are 3000 miles away we are joined through the love of God, and when you have been to Africa once you feel joined for ever. I can begin to understand why David Livingstone had his heart buried in Africa when he died. It’s said that when you have been there you can take a person out of Africa, but you can’t take Africa out of the person.

I shall be meeting with Alan and Cheryl Parrett and others in early March to discuss the possibilities for a team going with EI from St John’s. I shall be first on the waiting list. Who will come and join me?

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