It was suppertime after a long, hard day in the hills of Uganda. Most of our group had been working at the Kakatunda Health Centre in Bukinda—a rural village—doctoring about 100 patients and running the makeshift pharmacy. Others had spent time in the nearby city of Kabale buying groceries, running errands and introducing themselves to local health ministry officials.
Over a dinner of beans and rice (together, the “complete protein”), cabbage, bananas and pineapple, team member Ginny Derrough of Venice (the late Rev. Derrough's wife) asked the others, “Where did you see Jesus today?”
She didn’t mean an actual sighting. She wanted to know where we had seen acts of kindness or special moments when we realized, “This is why I rejected my comfort zone in Venice and flew to Uganda.”
In America, there is so much wealth and there are so many daily accomplishments. Memorable moments usually require anonymous six-figure financial donations or selfless acts of bravery, such as we saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
But in developing countries, such acts need not be grandiose to stand out. Ugandans face many obstacles—poverty, children orphaned by civil war, HIV/AIDS and other diseases—that few of us face in America.
In Uganda, a simple act of goodwill by one person for another reflects God’s grace.
Members of our group had many such moments during our two weeks there, first in Kampala, the capital city, and later in Bukinda.
Ginny recalled the scene one morning when a local midwife helped a villager through the difficult birth of her son. The baby was non-responsive for about 10 minutes. Team member Dr. Will Cogburn of Venice assisted with the birth, and the baby survived.
Tom, then associate pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Venice, recalled seeing three boys pushing their elderly grandmother on a bicycle several hundred yards up a steep hill from the main road to the health center.
|Bananas are loaded onto bicycles in a slum in Kampala, Uganda.|
Bicycles are the principal mode of transportation in the poor, agricultural community of Bukinda. Those few who have cars often use them as taxis. It was not uncommon to see eight—most of them strangers—packed into a Toyota Corona sedan for the 15-mile drive from Bukinda to Kabale.
For shorter distances, those who cannot ride bicycles must walk everywhere they want to go. My answer to Ginny’s question recalled riding in an SUV with our hostess, Bernadette “Berna” Kahembwe. She saw an octogenarian woman who had walked to the clinic and offered her a ride home. I don’t think Berna knew the woman. I’m certain it wouldn’t have mattered.
Then there was Emmanuel, a tall teenage boy who regularly brought us water in large jugs for cooking, drinking and sponge baths on his bicycle. When you travel to Africa, tradition holds that you leave with only the clothes on your back. Everything else is donated to the people there. One evening I saw Emmanuel and asked him to stay so I could give him a pair of boots I had purchased at Target before the trip. I hadn’t worn them yet, and they fit him well. Several days later I saw him wearing the boots, which he said he intended to wear especially while playing soccer.
Ginny recalled a visit to our Bukinda apartments that week by a village woman. She brought us a passel of fruit, asking nothing in return. Unlike the enterprising fruit peddlers in the city, she just wanted to thank us for traveling to Bukinda and operating the clinic, where Dr. Cogburn saw some 500 patients during the week.
“I just thought that was so sweet of her,” Ginny recalled.
“Sweet” is a word I would use to describe the four children with whom I passed time one afternoon. All were Berna’s relatives—three girls and a boy, each under age 10. These kids, who are among Berna’s more than a dozen nieces and nephews, all orphaned by AIDS or war, were tossing a red rubber ball when we arrived at her house. Sensing an extended wait, I started tossing the ball with them.
For more than a week I had been waiting for that moment when I would have an experience that caused me to say, “This is why I rejected my comfort zone in Venice and flew to Uganda.” But it had been difficult. This was my first time in another country, other than the Bahamas. During my first week in Uganda, as I explored Makerere University and downtown Kampala, I was usually the only American for many square miles.
English is an official language of Uganda, but that only manifests itself in advertising. People mostly speak native languages there. It was difficult to strike up conversations, much less connect with people on a personal level in urban Kampala.
But rural Bukinda is different. Passersby would smile and wave. Many said, “Hello, how are you?” or some other English greeting they had learned in school.
Berna’s kids did not understand much English. I did not understand Ruchiga, their local language. But somehow, we connected with one another, as afternoon wafted into evening.
We tossed the ball for more than an hour, trying not to let it hit the ground. We were not always successful, but I taught the kids to say English words after each successful catch.
Seeing them catch the ball and hearing them say “Cowabunga!” or “Shazam!”, with smiles in their voices, and toss it back, my “moment” began to materialize. They no more understood the meaning of “Cowabunga” than I knew why I asked them to say it. But on that late afternoon, I knew something special had occurred.
Later that night, I took Pastor Tom aside and explained how I had been so busy during the trip I hadn’t had time to really get to know the people, but that my “moment” had finally occurred.
“Now you know you belong,” he said.
—Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.