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.