Friday, January 27, 2012

Sacrifice and the World Beyond

A while ago (actually, I think it was the week before Christmas), I was working in the office, and a few nice ladies walked up to the doorway with a man from the USA, asking if they could come in and talk, just for a few minutes.  As it turned out, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  After having me read John 3:16, the ladies talked to me for a bit, and I think I was able to convince them that I knew a little bit about Jesus.  I also talked to the man (his name was Joel, if I remember correctly), but that short conversation consisted of more small talk and less theology.  He told me where he’s from and that he’s been in Uganda for several years, I said that I was from Pennsylvania and that a Kingdom Hall (where Jehovah’s Witnesses worship) is not too far from my family’s house.  As the small group was getting ready to move on, Joel said to me, “Thanks for the sacrifice,” referring to my Peace Corps service in Uganda.  Not really sure how to respond, I said something pretty generic, along the lines of “Oh, no problem” or something like that.  But it got me thinking…

Looking out of my bedroom window at a bird (not a perfectly timed picture)
Many years ago, when I was back in high school, I had a pretty good idea of the path my life would take.  It was pretty standard stuff.  After graduating, I would go to college (and I think I probably had my heart set on Bucknell at this point), be a good engineering student, become a valuable member of the school’s swim team, and play in the orchestra, if I had the time.  After college, I would probably move back to south-central Pennsylvania (not that Bucknell is that far away) and find an engineering job somewhere close to where I grew up.  I saw no reason to go somewhere else.  I had great friends and family there, and I didn’t have the big dreams of world travel that George Bailey did (“I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world…”).  I would be content in the forests and rolling hills of home, and I’d eventually get married and have kids.  Finally, I’d retire, and would probably play golf or something.  Yeah, well, after getting to Bucknell (that part did happen), it didn’t take long for this whole story to change direction quite a bit.

A lizard (one of several) who hangs out in my bedroom...helps take care of bugs
Swim practices started up almost immediately upon my arrival at Bucknell.  Things went okay for a week or two, but, during either the third or fourth week, I developed a pretty bad cold.  I even fainted one morning when I was in the bathroom (miraculously, my head didn’t slam into a toilet or anything).  I’m not sure how much of this was actually caused by swimming (a lot of it was probably just being in a new environment away from home and other, similar factors), but the whole situation made me seriously reassess my priorities.  I had been hearing about some interesting service trips offered by the school, and I remember thinking that it might be nice to do something like that.  But, I knew that, if I kept up with the swimming, I probably wouldn’t have time for anything like that.  After lots of thinking and some talking with my parents (after all, swimming had been a pretty big part of my life for over ten years), I decided that it was time to stop.  I didn’t know it at the time, but, from what I can see looking back now, this decision had a very good impact on my time at Bucknell.

Having been freed from hours of going back and forth in a cold swimming pool every day, I could devote much more time to other things.  I studied a lot, and I spent plenty of time in the music building, playing the cello and writing songs.  I had written one song before going to college and really thought that would be the only one, but, with a little extra time, the inspiration came a bit more frequently.  In the second semester of that first year, I started to get very involved in helping with worship services at the chapel on campus, and, over the years, I’m pretty sure that I became known to some as “the guy who is always doing stuff at the chapel.”  I did not get around to participating in any of those service trips that first year, but that, too, would change fairly soon.

He's on the prowl
The summer after freshman year, at the urging of a very close friend from home, I decided, all of one day before the church’s youth group was leaving (it was amazing that I was even able to join that late), to go to something called “Creation,” a music festival with a whole bunch of contemporary Christian bands.  Now, I have to admit here that I’m not the biggest fan of most contemporary Christian music (feel free to ask me to explain if you’d really like to know why).  Nevertheless, through the combination of a couple of the speakers and the beautiful natural setting (which dwarfed all of the stages, the tents, and the tens of thousands of people), I began to realize just how big the world is, and just how small I am in comparison.  I began to understand that, while many great things exist in the place where I grew up, so much more exists out there in the world beyond the tiny little piece of it that I knew and loved.

I was definitely being pulled toward those service trips that Bucknell had to offer.  During my sophomore year, I applied for the opportunity to participate in the Bucknell Brigade in Nicaragua.  The application process for this trip is actually relatively competitive, and I honestly didn’t expect to be selected that year (I had no Spanish, no experience with service in other countries, etc.).  But, perhaps by virtue of the fact that, for some reason, the number of male applicants is significantly less than the number of female applicants, I got in.  As I prepared for the trip, I thought that I had some idea of what I would see, even though the only international experience I had at that point consisted of two trips to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.  I mean, I had seen the commercials on TV about poverty in other countries, so I had an idea of what was coming, right?  No, not really…

My counterpart Peruth with her two-month-old baby boy
If you have ever heard me speak about my experiences on that Brigade, or on the two other Brigades I was a part of during my junior and senior years, then you know that what I saw, what I heard, and what I felt changed my profoundly.  My eyes were opened to the world beyond the comfortable, secure world that I had known all of my life.  I saw pain, I saw suffering, I saw true poverty, and I felt despair.  How could I go back to the life I had, knowing that this suffering exists elsewhere?  While I live in a nice house, go to a good school, and have so many resources to keep me healthy, others live in slums, in tents made from black plastic tarps, and in garbage dumps.  How could I not try to work to change things, to make the world a better, more just, more equal place.  I began to feel an imperative, a moral responsibility, to do work that might improve these painful situations a little bit.  As I was getting ready to leave Bucknell, I knew that the next place I wanted to go was into development work.

So, here we start to see the idea of a “sacrifice” coming into play.  I had certain ideas about what my life could be…Then, I saw what life is like for some people on this planet, and things changed.  My path completely changed direction, and I felt a need to do something different with my life.  As one might say in the Christian church, I felt a need to “take up my cross and follow.”  But, what I want you to know is that, now, I do not see my current path in this light.  My time in Uganda is not a sacrifice.  Let me continue this little mini-autobiography, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain why.

Peruth and Chris (who she calls "the captain")
A few months after graduating from Bucknell, I went to Tampa, Florida to enter the Peace Corps Master’s International Program at the University of South Florida.  If you don’t know, this program starts with a year of graduate-level classes, followed by a two-year Peace Corps assignment.  While serving in the Peace Corps, someone in this program is also expected to be doing research toward a thesis, which is completed after returning to the USA.  Anyway, during my second semester, I eventually discovered that my Peace Corps assignment would be in Uganda.  I didn’t really have any preferences regarding where I would be sent, but, for some reason, Uganda felt like the right place.  For one thing, English is the national language (this is kind of nice…).  Besides that, though, going to an African country seemed right.  I had visited countries in Central and South America (Nicaragua and Suriname), so maybe it was time to head to Africa.

Now, when we think of “Africa,” what comes to mind?  Well, if you’re like me, and you’ve seen the commercials, internet ads, books, and films about kids dying of hunger and disease, brutal conflicts creating enormous body counts and even more enormous groups of refugees and internally-displaced people, corrupt governments, HIV/AIDS epidemics, poor living conditions, and just overall material poverty, then some of those thoughts and images might come to mind when you think about Africa.  It’s the continent that seems to be left behind as developing countries on other continents make progress and reduce poverty.  Books have been written and studies have been conducted that try to explain why most African countries, unlike other countries, have not been able to ride the waves of globalization and free trade toward a brighter future (not to say, by the way, that globalization and free trade are completely wonderful things for everyone…I’ve seen how they can open the door to exploitation, injustice, and inequality in countries around the world, but I’m getting off of the topic at hand).  In any case, we might look at Africa and see “the dark continent,” a place full of war, disease, hunger, and suffering, a place in dire need of our help.

Maybe he's not quite ready to be standing yet...
At least so far, this has not been my experience.  Certainly, there are issues.  Undoubtedly, there are health problems.  There is malnutrition.  There are scars from recent conflicts.  But these things are not the sum total of “Africa.”  There is so much more.  There is so much that is good.  (And it might be good for us to remember that African countries are very different from one another.  The situation in Uganda is quite different from the situation in Tanzania, in Ghana, in Ethiopia, in South Africa.)  I’m not saying that charities and organizations are making up these problems.  They most definitely are not.  But, let’s be honest.  Many of the images we are shown and the stories we are told are designed to tug at our heartstrings, to compel us to write a check to “do our part.”  Don’t get me wrong…many of these organizations do great work, and they need financial support.  Heck, the organization I am working with operates off of donations.  But I want you to know that there is more than what we see from our limited vantage point.  We are bombarded with statistics, placing these people into categories like “undernourished,” “AIDS orphan,” or “refugee,” and, while these words certainly represent difficult, painful parts of their lives, the words do not define the entirety of their lives. Africa is not a part of this world simply to give us in “developed” countries an opportunity to exercise our spirits of compassion, to give us a place where we can focus our charity.  It is a real place, full of real people, and there is more in this place, more to these people, than suffering.

Some of the kids (and Chris) who helped us clean up our office
Living in a place for an extended period of time is very different from visiting a place for a week or two.  Before coming to Uganda, I had participated in several service trips, each one lasting between seven and ten days.  You can learn a lot about a place in that amount of time, but you certainly don’t get the full picture.  Going to Nicaragua for a week, I thought I was living and working in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people…all the while insulated from those people and their country by the group of twenty-some Americans, our guides and translators, and a guarded, fenced-in compound.  Actually living in Uganda, more or less on my own, is quite different.  Certainly, a few things still set me apart from the average Ugandan…for example, I cook with a propane stove, instead of charcoal or wood, I have a laptop, and I take weekly malaria prophylaxis.  But, I definitely feel more in tune with the actual day-to-day lives of people than I did in other places (though, of course, I still don’t have the complete picture).  And, perhaps surprisingly, it is not a surreal, crazy experience in what seems like another world.  That might be, at least in part, what I expected, but that is not what I am experiencing.  It’s hard to put into words, but the best way to describe my experience might be, simply, that it is life.  Maybe I expected to be living in a place that felt like some other realm of existence, a “world beyond” the world I know, as I now seem to enjoy calling my past impressions of life in other places, based on the short glimpses into those places that I have had.  Perhaps I could say that I have now discovered yet another “world beyond” that world, one that is not so different from the one that I know…

I wake up every morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, say good-bye to the kids in the compound, and walk to work.  As I walk, I watch varieties of colorful birds fly overhead.  I pass by dozens of shops run by people who are just trying to make a living, trying to provide for themselves and their families.  I see children playing in front of the shops (some know my name and shout, “Hi Johnny!” as I walk past).  I walk across the main street, at which point a few taxi drivers might try to persuade me to take a trip to Masaka or Kampala that I don’t need to take.  I pass by the town’s big football field, which always contains a few grazing cows (when games are not taking place), and I reach my organization’s office, saying good morning to the women who live next door if I see them.  I might go home for lunch, or I might have lunch in town with Max.  We are regulars at JP Restaurant (which serves the standard Ugandan combos of starch and sauce), and the waitresses are always happy to see us.  They even speak in Luganda to me, because they know that I know a little bit.  At the end of the day, I usually take a slightly different route home.  I pass by a shop that sells spare parts for motorcycles, just off of the main road, and the woman who owns it is often sitting in front with her baby cradled in her arms.  She likes to wave to me as I pass by.  As I continue along, there are two small shops on the left that usually only have a few vegetables and fruits available, but I like to stop and look at their limited selections to see if they have anything I need.  Their kids are usually excited to see me come.  As I get close to home, I’ll usually see at least a few kids playing, we’ll wave at each other, and I’ll ask, “How are you?” to which they invariably reply “I am fine!”  If I see the young ladies who run the guesthouse next door, I’ll say hello to them, and then I’ll be back home.  If the little kids are around and in a playful mood, I might sit outside for a bit and play with them (hoping that things stay relatively civilized…).  Finally, I’ll come inside and relax…or pull out the computer and keep working on stuff.

Sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it?  Sure, I left out a few things, like squatting in pit latrines, taking bucket baths, and doing dishes by hand outside in the grass, but, to be honest, this all feels normal to me now.  On the rare occasion that I am in an establishment with a porcelain toilet that flushes, I find myself doing a bit of a double take.

Uganda is not a different world; similar frustrations, similar small victories.  It’s a bit different, yes, but it certainly doesn’t feel like I’m on some kind of surreal adventure.  I mean, I can even get a really good cheeseburger (topped with bacon and ham) in Masaka.  I’m willing to occasionally break my vegetarian streaks for that not so little treat.

So, where’s the sacrifice?  What am I really giving up to be here?  A normal job back in the USA?  Getting married?  Starting a family?  At this point, I don’t want these things.  (By the way, this is a hard thing to explain to Ugandans.  There’s a group of mechanics I talk to sometimes, and they always ask when I’m going to find a wife.  Then they start pointing out women walking on the street.  “What about her?”)  Admittedly, I do miss seeing family and friends back home, but I get to read the occasional letter or email that tells me they’re doing just fine.  I do miss talking to my swimmers and watching them improve, but I’m sure they’re doing well without me.  I do miss our family cat, Slick, but I’m sure he’s getting plenty of attention from Mom and Dad.  And I do miss my cello…yeah, I miss my cello.  It’s amazing how closely connected I can feel to that piece of wood.

But, most importantly, right now, this is simply where I want to be and what I want to be doing.  What I felt I needed to do has become the thing that I want to do, not necessarily because it might be the right thing to do, but because I enjoy doing it.  Let’s not think about altruism, moral responsibility, or sacrificial living for a moment…I am not enduring extreme hardship.  I am relatively comfortable.  Uganda is not a place where only pain and suffering abound.  Certainly, there are problems, but there is also joy.  There are loving families, there are strangers who stop and talk to each other, there are beautiful plants and animals, and there are so many children laughing and playing.  We see African countries on the news and hear about disease and war, and we might conclude that the continent is full of death.  I see life, I feel warmth, and I encounter beauty.

I hope that these words at least partially convey my feelings about this place.  I am not here shining a light in the darkness.  Light surrounds me.  I am not here to lift these people up from their misery, to give hope to the hopeless.  They have hope.  They don’t need me to give them hope.  They need me, and I need them, simply because we all need each other.  I am here to work with them, as equals, not in a hierarchy created by dependency, to try to improve everyone’s life, to try to make a small portion of all our hopes, yours, mine, and theirs, a reality.  I am not a saint (not that anyone ever said I was).  You don’t need to say thank you for my “sacrifice.”  I am here because I want to be here.  Light is all around me, and I just hope that this little light of mine can contribute something to the whole.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Farm and Forgiveness

Several weeks ago, as I was traveling back to Kalisizo from Kampala on a coaster bus, the man sitting next to me decided to start up a conversation.  Although slightly annoyed at being interrupted from reading a book on the pros and cons of development assistance, I soon began to enjoy talking to this young man, named Henry, and finding out a little bit about what he does.  As it turned out, he manages a farm not too far from Kalisizo, and he invited me to come and see it.  So, I gave him my phone number and didn’t think too much about it after getting off of the bus in Masaka.

Less than a week later, Henry was calling me, asking when I might be able to come and visit.  For a while, I couldn’t find the time to get away from work for a little bit, but Henry was quite persistent and kept reminding me that I should come out sometime.  Finally, last weekend, I felt that I could take the time to go and check out the farm.  So I went, and I ended up spending the whole weekend there.  The farm itself was fairly large and interesting.  They grow all sorts of crops, including oranges, pumpkins, maize, groundnuts, and bananas, and they even have a coffee plant nursery.  They also raise cattle, goats, and chickens.  As with every other experience I’ve had being a guest in a Ugandan’s home, we ate lots of food, and I assume that most or all of what we ate came straight from the farm.  I was not able to bring the camera along, because Max was using it over the weekend to take pictures at the site of Brick by Brick’s current construction project, which will eventually become a three-room building at Lwamaya Primary School.  So, most of the pictures this time are were taken there.

Max with a new signpost in front of the office
Being on the farm also provided a great opportunity for thinking and reflection.  Obviously, we toured the whole place, and I spent a lot of time with Henry, but there was also plenty of time to sit in my room and read, think, or listen to music.  (Lots of Ugandan homes seem to have big stereos, and there was one in my room.  The CD player didn’t work, but the tape player did, and, in the pile of tapes next to it, I was able to find a recording of a Beethoven violin concerto, amazingly enough.  I could spend a couple of paragraphs writing about the musical qualities of this particular piece, but that might be less interesting for you than it would be for me, so I’ll just say that it was a very beautiful and interesting work.)

Most of my thoughts, though, were focused on the books that I was reading.  Over the course of a few days, I shot through two books of about 200 pages each (this speed is almost unprecedented for me).  The two books, Left to Tell and Led by Faith, were both written by Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  As a child, she grew up in what seems to be a very happy family, with loving parents and three brothers.  Her family lived in a village along the western border of the country, near what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Tutsis and Hutus lived next door to one another, with little or no evidence of the buried tensions that existed between the two ethnic groups.

Brick by Brick masons (in orange) digging the foundation trench
In fact, very little difference, if any, exists between Tutsis and Hutus.  After years and years of intermarriage between the two groups, the only thing that really determined the group that you belonged to was what it said on your father’s identity card.  Your mother could have been a Hutu, but if your father was Tutsi, then so were you.  Some physical stereotypes did exist.  For example, Tutsis were supposed to be taller, but, with all of the mixing, these stereotypes didn’t really have a truth to them.  Tutsis and Hutus were basically the same, but that didn’t dispel the hatred brewing beneath the surface.

In 1994, Immaculee was attending university in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital city), and her father had asked her to come home for Easter.  She and two of her brothers, Damascene and Vianney, were able to make it back to the village, but her other brother, Aimable, was studying abroad in Senegal.  Just before this, the Rwandan president, who was Hutu, had signed a treaty with a group of Tutsi exiles who had been living in Uganda.  Within one day of the family’s gathering, the president’s plane was shot down, and Hutu extremists began a planned campaign to completely wipe out the Tutsi population in the country.  Rwandan radio stations aired nothing but hate-filled propaganda, trying to dehumanize the Tutsi population by calling them “cockroaches” and encouraging every Hutu to join in the extermination.  Machetes, guns, and grenades were freely distributed to Hutus all over the country, and moderate Hutus who did not take part in the killing, or who helped Tutsis to survive, would take the weapons for fear of being killed themselves.  Any Tutsi or Tutsi sympathizer was a target, and the members of Immaculee’s family were Tutsis.

The masons have made lots of bricks...
As a mob advanced toward her family’s house, where a number of Tutsis in the village had gathered, Immaculee was sent to a nearby Hutu pastor’s house by her father, and the pastor agreed to hide her, along with seven other women, in a tiny bathroom.  The women ended up spending 91 days practically sitting on top of one another in that bathroom, barely able to speak or move for fear of being heard by people outside.  The pastor provided them with a small amount of food, but it was barely enough to sustain them.  On several instances, Hutu extremists entered the house and searched many of the rooms, terrifying the women every single time, but, miraculously, the little bathroom next to the pastor’s bedroom was never found.

Finally, as the group of Tutsi exiles slowly fought their way into the country and took control of the capital, a small number of French troops also entered Rwanda to help protect Tutsis (by the way, this was the only response from the international community during the genocide, and these troops were recalled before it was over).  After three months, the women left their hiding place and made a run for a nearby French camp, which they reached safely.  However, when the French were pulling out after the Tutsi army had taken control of much of the country, they were not allowed to transport the Tutsis they were protecting the whole way to a Tutsi encampment.  Instead, the women and others with them were dropped off in the middle of Hutu extremists fleeing the country, still hoping to kill a few remaining Tutsis as they left.  Miraculously, though, the group of Tutsi survivors were able to reach the camp safely on their own.

Immaculee soon learned that, while she was in hiding, all of the other members of her family, with the exception of Aimable, who was still far away from Rwanda, had been killed (if you don’t want to know details, you might want to skip down several paragraphs).  She first learned about her father.  After she had gone into hiding, a number of Tutsis took refuge in a stadium, but there wasn’t enough food for everyone.  From a friend, Immaculee learned that her father had “gone to the government office to ask the prefect to send food to the stadium because there were thousands of refuges there who hadn’t eaten for days.  That was a big mistake…The prefect called your father a fool and had his soldiers drag him outside.  They shot him on the steps of the government office and left his body in the street.”

A few days before that incident, her mother thought she heard one of her sons being killed and ran out to try and stop it.  It turned out that it was not her son, and the killers told her that, if she would bring them money, they would not kill her too.  She ran to a Hutu friend’s house to ask for some money, but her friend said, “Get away from my house – we don’t help cockroaches here!”  She then told the killers to take Immaculee’s mother “into the street to kill her because she didn’t want them messing up her yard.”

Her youngest brother, Vianney, “was killed at the Kibuye stadium with his friend Augustine [who was a Hutu].  There were thousands of people there – and they were all annihilated.  First the killers shot them with machine guns, and then they threw grenades at them.  I don’t think anybody survived.”

Starting to lay the bricks that will be part of the foundation
Finally, she learned about Damascene, who had been able to hide with a friend for some time.  When the friend’s family found out, he decided to try to get across the border to Zaire.  He almost made it but was betrayed by another friend’s brother, who turned him over to a group of extremists looking for victims.  The killers taunted him and beat him with the handles of their machetes, but Damascene remained composed and told them that he was praying for them.  A pastor with the group said, “Does this boy think that he’s a preacher?  I am the pastor around here, and I bless this killing.  I bless you for ridding this country of another cockroach.”  The killing was terrifyingly brutal (one more warning to skip down a bit).  One of them “swung his blade down into my brother’s head, and he fell to his knees.  Another killer stepped forward and, with a double swing of his machete, chopped off both of his arms.  The first killer took another turn with his machete, this time slicing Damascene’s skull open and peering inside.”

It is sometimes hard to believe the depths to which our actions can sink.  People betray their friends, have more concern with their lawns than with another’s life, bless killing, and take some sort of twisted pleasure from completely mutilating a victim’s body.  And yet, the people who commit these atrocities are not complete monsters, devoid of any emotion or remorse.  Shortly after Damascene’s murder, one of the killers (who actually went to school with the victim), “broke down and cried for days…He talked incessantly about all the things he and Damascene had done together, such as playing soccer, singing in the choir, and being altar boys.  He was haunted by the kindness my brother had shown him and all the other boys they’d known…’I will never kill again…I will never get Damascene’s face out of my head.  His words will burn in my heart forever.  It was a sin to kill such a boy – it was a sin.’”

More foundation bricks...that bigger section will be a column
What is the human response to such inhumanity?  In fact, the killers exterminated Tutsis with even greater “efficiency” than the Nazis murdered Jews during the Holocaust.  The genocide lasted for about 100 days, and approximately one million people were killed.  Immaculee’s response is to tell the story, and to forgive, with the hope that the forgiveness will bring healing.  After the genocide was over, she went back to her village and confronted one of the men who had killed some members of her family.  He was being held in a prison.  “His name was Felicien, and he was a successfully Hutu businessman whose children I’d played with in primary school.  He’d been a tall, handsome man who always wore expensive suits and had impeccable manners.  I shivered, remembering that it had been his voice I’d heard calling out my name when the killers searched for me at the pastor’s.  Felicien had hunted me…

“His dirty clothing hung from his emaciated frame in tatters.  His skin was sallow, bruised, and broken; and his eyes were filmed and crusted…I wept at the sight of his suffering.  Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul.  He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret.  I was overwhelmed with pity for the man…Felicien was sobbing.  I could feel his shame.  He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met.  I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.  ‘I forgive you.’”

Several years ago, I read a book called The Sunflower, written by Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor.  He told a story about a dying Nazi soldier who asked him for forgiveness (when the author was still in a concentration camp).  Understandably, Wiesenthal did not know what to do.  The second half of the book consists of letters written by a number of religious and philosophical leaders giving their opinion, and the responses were quite varied.

Christians preach forgiveness of sins.  God forgives us, and we should do likewise for others.  But, as I read Immaculee’s story and think about what happened to her family, I wonder what I would do in that situation.  Just from reading about these atrocities, I am filled with sadness, fear, and anger that we can do such things to one another.  If I were actually in her place, I honestly don’t know if I would be able to say those three words, “I forgive you,” to the one who had brutally murdered members of my family and who had hunted for me as if it were some sort of game.

And yet, it seems that the only way to achieve a true, lasting peace is forgiveness.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, “The forgiveness of sins still remains the sole ground of all peace, even where the order of external peace remains preserved in truth and justice” (On the Theological Basis of the Work of the World Alliance).  His point, I think, is that, even if killers are brought to justice and order restored, our hearts and minds will not be at peace with each other if we do not forgive and if the killers do not feel remorse and repent.  True peace and reconciliation must come out of this combination of repentance and forgiveness.  If the perpetrators do not repent, they will continue to feel hatred for their victims and will want to kill again.  If we do not forgive, we harbor our own hatred for the killers and might even wish for the opportunity to kill them or make them suffer.  The peace is not complete…It is only external, and someone is likely to eventually break the fragile peace.

But who am I to say this?  As I said, I do not even know if I could forgive if placed in that situation.  Who am I to tell anyone else that he or she should forgive?  I feel like this is the problem that we sometimes experience.  We can say anything we want, from the security of our own comfortable situations.  But until we are actually confronted with horror and react a certain way, our words are somewhat empty.  Even after the action, words only say so much.  The action itself is our testimony.  Bonhoeffer puts it very well, I think.  “The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself.  If this deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word.  This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda.  This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community…The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world” (The Nature of the Church).

I think we should try to forgive (while not forgetting, of course, lest we repeat our mistakes), but, since I have never found myself within one of these terrible situations (thankfully), I would quote Levar Burton from Reading Rainbow and ask that you “don’t take my word for it.”  Read Immaculee’s story, or pick up a copy of The Sunflower.  Or, find another story of forgiveness in the midst of inhumanity.  Or, I guess you could think about Jesus, who said that we should forgive “seventy-seven times” (sometimes translated as “seventy times seven,” or always, since the number seven signifies wholeness in the Bible), and who did it.  After torture and near death, the words uttered from the cross were not those of anger, hatred, vengeance, or retribution.  They were words of love, reconciliation, and peace.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Christmas Story

Okay, let’s face it…Christmas in Uganda is a bit different than Christmas in the USA.  One or two decorations in a couple of shops around town, a few “Ugandanized” Christmas carols on the radio, and temperatures that are basically the same as the rest of the year…obviously, I did not experience a white Christmas this year.  And yet, although I barely realized that Christmas was coming, even during the week leading up to the big day, there is something special about it that just won’t let it pass without notice.  On the morning of Christmas Eve, I woke up with “Silent Night” in my head, even though that song had not been on any of the radio stations in the taxis I’ve recently used.  The two evenings before that, I had felt a pretty big urge to read through the stories of Jesus’ birth found in Matthew and Luke.  No, even without the sensory overload that characterizes the holiday season back in the USA, Christmas would still happen and would still have great meaning.

If you read my last post, you know that I had decided to stick around in Kalisizo for the Christmas weekend and to celebrate with my Ugandan counterpart, Max, and his family.  I had told Max that I would try to get up early and meet him at the big Catholic Church for morning prayers on Christmas Eve.  The prayers started at 6:45 am.  Yeah, you guessed it…I didn’t make it.  After rolling out of bed some time around 9:00 am, I gave Max a call, and he told me that one of his younger sons, Patrick, would ride his bike to my house.  Then, the two of us could ride back to Max’s village, Kajaguzo.  Early in the afternoon, it started raining pretty hard, and it didn’t stop until around 3:30 pm or so.  Shortly after the rains, Patrick showed up, and we rode our bikes through the mud back to his house.  I actually think the ride was a bit less scary this time, because the muddy roads slowed us down quite a bit.  Of course, there was a point at which we had to leave the road because it was so muddy, but we made it without completely wiping out or anything.  (Although, I had luckily brought an extra set of clothes, because my pants were about half-mud by the time we reached Max’s home.)

We arrived to find a pretty good number of people there.  Teddy, Max’s wife, greeted me, and then I proceeded to find seven of their kids (probably ranging in age from late twenties down to eight) and two little grandkids.  The youngest granddaughter, Leticia, who was probably 3 or 4, was kind of scared of me.  There were also three young men from the village who were at the house just visiting for a bit.  The only person missing was…Max.  Apparently, he was still in town running errands.
Emma, Max's youngest son and our primary photographer for this post
So, I sat down outside with the young men and had a very nice conversation with one of them.  Paul lives in Kampala now and had traveled back to his home village for the holiday (that seems to be the general trend…and taxi drivers recognize this.  Fares from Kampala to more rural areas go way up before Christmas, and then the return journey is hiked way up after Christmas).  Teddy served us “lunch” around 4:30 pm, which was very good.  It was more or less a pork stir-fry, with carrots, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and some other stuff.  After eating, I went with Paul to see the house where he grew up.  I met him mother, he pointed out the graves of his father and a few of his sisters, and he showed me the tree under which he was born.  It was kind of a powerful ten minutes or so.  He had never known his father, and this loss was obviously difficult for him at times in his life, but he was so thankful just to be alive.  As he said, some people born in nice hospitals don’t live as long as he has, and he was born underneath a tree near some animals.  It reminded me just how miraculous the birth of Jesus was, from a health standpoint.  I’m assuming that stable wasn’t sterilized and that a doctor wasn’t around.  Yet, he survived to do great things.

After visiting Paul’s house, I went back to Max’s house, where Max was still not around.  I had assumed that I would be traveling back and forth to his house on Saturday and Sunday, but it was getting dark, and I didn’t really want to ride back on those muddy roads when I couldn’t see them.  I now realize that Max and his family had expected me to spend the night, since that is just what families do, and they wanted me to feel like part of the family.  So, it worked out just fine.

Patrick, who is dressed very nicely after coming home from church
Eventually, Max arrived, and the two of us talked as the kids all huddled around his computer to play some games and his wife and older daughters cooked dinner.  During our conversation, which was lit by a single fluorescent light powered by a single solar panel, I discovered that there was a Christmas Eve church service, but that it was like three hours long.  (Luckily, we would be attending the Christmas Day service the next morning, which was only around 2 hours.)  I told Max about the candlelight services that traditionally happen in the USA, and we talked a bit about work-related stuff.  I realized that Max is pretty happy with the work I’ve been doing, and appreciates the fact that I’ve been working hard (indeed, I have been busy).  He even already started campaigning for me to extend my Peace Corps service for a third year (that’s an option after you finish two years).  Max has worked with two volunteers before me (both of them named Jon, and both being engineering students in the Master’s International program), but both of them had been engaged.  Max’s rationale was simply that, because I don’t have a fiancĂ©e, obviously I have the freedom to stay in Uganda for longer than two years.  Of course, it’s still just a bit early to be making any decisions about that.

As we talked (and during the rest of the weekend) I was introduced to a variety of local alcoholic beverages.  I tried banana wine, banana beer, and waragi (I think it’s like gin) made from, yep, you guessed it, bananas.  All were significantly sweeter than the stuff I’m used to, but they were pretty good.  I think my favorite of the three was the banana wine, which was apparently made by Max’s sister nearby (I told him that I’d like to see how she makes it at some point).

I'm looking into the house from the back doorway
Eventually, a pre-dinner appetizer was served, probably around 9:30 pm.  Apparently, the pig was all used up, so we started in on various parts of a cow.  The appetizer was the liver…this was my first opportunity to eat liver, and, I have to say, it was pretty good.  The dinner consisted of a wide variety of starches and cow intestine soup.  Really chewy and hard to eat, but not bad.  After dinner, they showed me a little guest room where I could sleep, and Patrick made sure I knew where the latrines were outside.  (By the way, no toilet paper…we used leftover pieces of notebook paper.)

Teddy, Max's wife
On Christmas Day, I woke up and went outside, where Teddy and the older daughters were preparing morning tea.  Morning tea was actually a pretty big meal…matooke, beef, tomatoes, peppers, onions…along with four pieces of bread and a cup of the sweetest tea I had ever tasted (seriously, I saw how much sugar was in the mug before they added water…there was like a layer at least a quarter of an inch thick).  After tea, with a full stomach and an intense sugar high, we went to church.  We were a little late, and the inside had already filled up, so we stood outside with hundreds of other late-comers.  We couldn’t really hear what was going on (not that I could have understood all of the language anyway), but I’m sure it was a very nice Catholic mass.  After the service, we came back home, and the ladies started in on lunch (obviously, a lot of things revolve around food).  If you’ve been wondering about any presents under the tree on Christmas morning…well, first of all, there wasn’t a tree.  Secondly, during the weekend, Max asked me, “Who is Father Christmas?”  So, yeah, presents weren’t really a part of the celebration.

Leticia, a granddaughter, on the phone (or so she thinks...)
I decided that it might be a good time to break out the camera, but, since I’ve never really liked taking pictures, I decided to show Max’s youngest son, Emma (short for Emmanuel, a very seasonally appropriate name), how it works, and then set him loose.  He and the other kids took a whole bunch of pictures, and all of the ones in this post are courtesy of them.  After the picture-taking session was over, Max showed me around his property.  They grow a lot of their own food there.  He showed me banana trees (of course), sweet potatoes, maize, coffee, ground nuts, pumpkins, and sorghum.  They also raise some pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats, and I know they had a cow not too long ago, which was slaughtered.  Then we went to visit one of his friends in the village.  Whenever you make a short visit to someone’s house, it’s customary to provide some sort of drink or food.  This guy brought out a liter of Mountain Dew, and I can’t tell how excited I was to be receiving yet another drink with outrageous amounts of sugar.  Ugandans don’t really seem to make really sweet food, but they certainly enjoy their sweet drinks.

Christie, one of the daughters, on the phone (for real)
After walking back (with a slight sugar-induced headache), we took lunch (that’s how it’s phrased here…you “take” lunch, or tea, or supper).  This was the huge Christmas day meal…and I mean huge.  I was still relatively satisfied from the morning tea, but we had plates filled with rice, matooke, potatoes, posho, spaghetti noodles, greens, cabbage, and these big, slightly bitter berries that taste similar to eggplant (they’re called “entula” in Luganda…I don’t know if there’s an English word).  On top of that, there were big bowls of a kind of beef stew.

Ivan (grandson), Robinah (daughter), and Patrick (son)
After lunch, the kids got excited.  Max has a small generator that he fires up on special occasions (like, for example, Christmas) to power a TV.  There aren’t any power lines in this village, but, as I’ve said, some people have a solar panel, and some have a little generator.  Anyway, it took them a little while to get out all of the equipment (the generator, the TV, the DVD player, the speakers, etc.), and then to get the generator working, and then to reconnect everything correctly, but we eventually sat down and watched a variety of Ugandan-made, soap opera-ish movies.  Supper consisted of leftovers from lunch, which were quite substantial (I mean, they probably had like a whole cow back there in their cooking shed).  As you should know by now, dinners are pretty late here, so it was time for bed.

Grace, another daughter, is cooking cabbage on a charcoal stove
Monday is still considered a holiday in Uganda (Boxing Day…I’m still not sure what exactly this day is for), so I also spent Monday with the family.  I took a pretty good portion of this day to sit outside with the girls while they were preparing food, trying to learn a little bit about their cooking methods and stuff like that.  In addition to watching them cook, they also showed me that mud and certain types of leaves can be used as soap substitutes if you don’t want to buy soap, and I watched them collect the oil from the meat to save for future cooking sessions.  I was also able to correct some misconceptions about the USA.  For example, they were under the impression that all of the country is developed (meaning, like, one huge city).  While there are a lot of cities and towns, I explained that rural areas were also still in existence, telling them that my family lives in a rural area and has a vegetable garden, and that my grandpa raises cattle on a farm.  These things were pretty surprising to them…

Ivan prepares to fight the camera
There were some more fun conversations with Max, too.  Positive Planet’s director had mentioned Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in our meeting the previous Friday, and Max didn’t know the story.  So, I gave him an ultra-abridged version (it’s been a while since I’ve seen one of the movie versions), which he seemed to enjoy.  He has also been trying to be able to say the name of my home state for a while (Pennsylvania can be kind of hard to wrap your mouth around), but I think he’s got it now.  I told him where the name comes from (combine “Sylvania” meaning “woods”, and William Penn’s last name, and you get Penn’s woods, or Pennsylvania), and I think that helped.  He also has a bunch of trees on his property, so he wants to start calling his place “Maxsylvania”.

By this time, I was kind of feeling like a member of the family, and they told me that they would adopt me into their clan and give me a “clan name” (Ugandans have a bunch of names…a Christian/Muslim name, a family name, a clan name, and there might be more, I’m not sure).  Anyway, I’m now a member of the nnyonyi clan (it means “bird”), and my clan name is “Ziwa”.  That word doesn’t really have a meaning, but I did find out that it’s also Emma’s clan name.  So, that was nice.

Emma also prepares to fight the camera
Meals on Monday were sort of whatever was left.  Lunch consisted of lots of matooke (there’s never a shortage of that), the rest of the beef stew, and some groundnut sauce.  Dinner was simply a big place of rice and beans, which was actually really nice, because my teeth were crying out in pain after eating all of that really tough, chewy meat.  Oh, and we also had morning tea, but I was able to prepare my own…with significantly less sugar than the previous day.

After spending a final night in the village (by the way, the stars in the village are awesome…no electricity has benefits), we took one more morning tea, and then Max and I finally had to get back to work.  I’ll tell you what…spending about three days out in the village, without my computer, and even without any books, was really nice.  I just spent all of my time hanging out with the family…and that’s Christmas.  Being with family, being with people you care about.  Don’t get me wrong, I missed being with my family back home a lot, but I did feel very content and at home with Max’s family.

And, of course, you know that’s what it’s all about.  It’s not about the decorations, the trees, the presents, the snow, or anything else.  For me, Uganda stripped Christmas down to its core: a simple family being together, and a baby boy entering the world to be with all people, each of whom he loves very much.

Tuesday night, I finished off my Christmas Bible reading with the first 14 verses of John’s Gospel, and, after thinking about the similarities and differences of the various accounts and about my experiences over the weekend, I spent some time working on another poem…

All that’s Left is Right

In Matthew, we start out to find a kingly genealogy,
The words of scriptures past outlined, fulfillment of the prophecy,
Joseph’s angelic dream recalled, his choice to stay with Mary,
Eastern Magi, a star they saw, and royal gifts they carried.

In Luke, a detailed long account reveals a physician’s mind,
A mother releases any doubt, her holy task defined,
In Bethlehem, King David’s town, no room for two or three,
And shepherds hear the angels’ sound, far from royalty.

In Mark, the shortest of the four, the birth remains unmentioned,
Baptism, rather, opens the door, to capture the earth’s attention,
While John’s majestic opening of light and truth and love,
Reveals for this small baby boy an eternity above.

The joyful tale we know so well that comes with each December
Takes more than one to fully tell, so perhaps we should remember,
Peace on earth, good will to all, one perspective may not bring,
Instead, we might tear down the wall, to hear as others sing.

The tales, like us, when stripped to the core, show something that’s the same,
Whether one is rich or poor, regardless of one’s name.
Beyond the trees, the turtledoves, the tinsel, and the lights,
Left with new life’s hope and love, all that’s left is right.