Not many little girls in the United States grow up hearing words like "Uganda" and "Nakabango" frequently in their homes. I feel so fortunate that this was the case for me. At Messiah, I have constantly and consistently been surrounded by loving people who are dedicated to going wherever God tells them to go. The first time I went to Uganda, I thought that I had a clear idea of what to expect. And to be completely honest, a lot of what I had heard about this country was true. Children surrounding you and wanting to be near you, even if you don't have anything to offer them besides a weak, "how are you?". (The answer is "I am fine" by the way).
Despite all these preconceived notions, of course there were so many surprises. One thing that struck me was the strong relationships that I saw between family members. Each individual person, no matter how old or how young, seemed to be doing whatever they could to support their family. It really stops a person in their tracks, to think about what a blessing God has granted us, when he gives us our families and friends. The bond between siblings, or between parents and their children, is simply international.
If I thought that I had high expectations for my first trip to Uganda, they doubled in size for my second trip. This time, I had spent an entire year with this African country in the back of my mind, to the point where I would be wondering where the "matooke" is at lunch. I will be forever grateful to Hearts and Hope and to Messiah for giving me the opportunity to come back. During my second trip, I had my own personal mission to accomplish. I was going to attempt to capture, through video, as much of this unpredictable and incomprehensible country as possible. I am currently in the process of taking hours and hours of footage and cutting it down to a few five minute videos. It feels a lot like writing a blog post, a futile attempt to grasp a weeks worth of thoughts and emotions and break them down into a couple of easy to read paragraphs.
It also reminds me of when I first came back from Uganda, and my friends, who had never heard of Hearts and Hope, would ask about my trip. I had no idea how to tell them about all the things I had seen and heard without going into a full on sermon about it! I know that it will be impossible for me to create videos that will literally make a person feel like they've been to Africa. Still, I firmly believe that there are few things more captivating than a Ugandan child's face. They make my job so easy.
For the past few years, I have struggled with this concept- God's plans are always better then my plans. I had the opportunity to meet my sponsored child on my most recent trip. Lovisa is a beautiful and intelligent young girl. Meeting her in person was so touching, but the moment when my heart broke was when I met her aunt. The woman was old enough to be her grandmother, and when I was introduced she explained to me that Lovisa didn't have any parents, and she was the one taking care of the child and her family. She then sincerely thanked me for paying the Lovisa's school fees. It struck me so hard, because of how easy it was for me to help this family. God has given me such an abundance of wealth that at such a young age I can change the life of this girl and her family. Wow. I want to empathize again the importance of everything that is done at Hearts and Hope, and everything that could not be done without God's interference. I can't pretend that I could help Lovisa by myself. It required the work of the Hearts and Hope staff, a group of people who commit their lives to connecting the countries of the United States and Uganda together. And it takes the passion of every person at every church who donates their time and their money towards attempting to improve the lives of people they've never met. This is a passion that can only come from God. God's plans are always better then my plans, and I wait with anticipation to see what he has in store next in Uganda.
In addition to our sponsorship program, Hearts & Hope has, for the past few years, awarded scholarships for secondary school and university to the "best and brightest" with the greatest need. Wyclyff Wambuga is one of those recipients.
The following are some comments from Wyclyff, sent to us, after he was asked how receiving a scholarship from Hearts & Hope had impacted his life:
With my school, I am now at the university. Hearts & Hope sponsored me from high school level and I am now getting my Bachelors degree of Procurement and Logistics Management at Kyambogo University in Kampala. (I have three years to go.)
I personally am from Kamuli, my homeland, and my mother died while I was at age of 2 years. (She died of HIV/AIDS) I was in the hands of my father but afterwards he couldn't manage to take care of me so I went to live with my grandfather. He managed to give me a primary education. Later he was broke and afterwards became very poor due to age and being job less. Right now my grandfather is very sick. Before, we used to do agriculture on a small scale - like livestock rearing, maize growing and pineapples.
The reason why I needed help from Hearts & Hope was that I felt I deserved to be at school and I always believed God could set me free. And yes, here was the organization! I couldn't even buy a book or a pen or clothes to wear or put on. I had lost faith. That's when you came by and gave me hope by providing me an education. It changed me forever and that's how I can now see a smile on my face.
I hope to prosper in my education and meet those who can help me impact my people positively.
Over the years, I have been amazed at the number of times the thought “some things are universal” runs through my head while I'm in Uganda. I think I originally believed that a culture so different from ours in the US would differ from us in EVERY way. I worried about all the differences; how would we ever relate to one another? During the last Hearts & Hope mission trip, I was struck, once again, by a huge similarity in how we all, particularly women, are wired.
During some of our village visits, I ask our staff to arrange for us to make a home visit. I want the team to see how the kids live: where they lay their heads at night, how they eat their one meal a day, what keeps them dry when it rains. This is always an eye-opening, sometimes even shocking, experience for team members.
As we left the village of Nakabango, where Messiah Lutheran partners, I was told we would be visiting the home of Mary Ozele. Mary is sponsored by Elmer and Sheryl Williams; she is a beautiful little thing who always seems to have a smile on her face.
As we bumped along the road to Mary’s home in our bus, I was struck again at how many homes were tucked in the area around where the church and school are situated. So many people on the periphery! No wonder the number of kids always grows during the day of our visit!
We stopped on a narrow road and started to get off the bus. There were 16 of us plus 5 staff members, along with an entourage of kids who had followed us on foot. We walked along a well-worn path that opened up into a beautiful compound of small structures and a palm tree. Mariah directed us to one of the homes where a woman stood outside. Her hair was covered in fabric and there was a piece of cloth wrapped around her body, covering her dress. Violet spoke with her in the local language and translated for the team.
As always during these visits, the woman was thrilled that we had come to her home. Her smile gave that away. Ugandans ALWAYS make guests feel welcome. Not just to sit outside, but welcome to come INTO their homes. Homes that are 4 mud-covered walls where five adults couldn’t stand comfortably at the same time.
Violet reiterated to us that we were “most welcome” by the woman, whose name was Jennet. She is Mary’s mother. Violet continued to translate Jennet’s words and explained that she was embarrassed that she had just come from the fields, harvesting maize. Violet explained that the next day was market day and the woman would take the maize to sell the next day in the local market. This would be her income for the week that she would use to feed Mary and her five siblings.
When women work in the fields, they wrap their bodies in cloth that protects their dress (maybe their ONLY dress) from getting dirt on it. Jennet was still wearing the cloth and you could see that she wished she had known we were coming. She would have been prepared; she would have looked more presentable.
I stood amazed that this woman, who had spent the day picking corn, was most concerned that she wasn’t presentable to her guests. This woman who had probably been working since 5:00am in a dusty field was distressed that she didn’t look her best. Oh my – do I know that feeling? Haven’t we all been there, ladies? Guests drop by unannounced, and we take a glance in the mirror as we go to answer the door, wishing we hadn’t thrown our hair up in that pony tail at the end of the day and that we changed into a shirt that didn’t have an ice cream stain on the front?
Jennet slowly unwound the fabric from her hair as she continued to speak to us through Violet. She apologized over and over again, as we tried to convey our appreciation for her hospitality.
This woman, so beautiful, smiled through it all, even when she covered her face in embarrassment. Oh my, she was gorgeous. My mind raced with gratitude for her hospitality and for God showing me, once again, how similar we are. I loved her in that moment. I wanted to make her feel better; I wanted her to know she was perfect.
Isn’t that what God wants? For us to know we are presentable to Him, just as we are?
I knew the team was feeling it too. They looked at me with eyes that said, “what can we do?” I asked Violet if I could buy some of her maize for the team; not at “normal” cost, but also not at something that would demean Jennet. I ended up giving her 40,000 for eight ears of corn – outrageous by village norms, but the equivalent of $12 in US dollars. It was equivalent to almost two weeks’ wages for most Ugandans.
Mariah and Violet sorted through the ears of corn, selecting the best eight. They made the transaction legitimate by insisting on the largest, firmest of the crop. In the end, Jennet tried to give us all of her harvest – maybe 30 ears of maize. We finally convinced her to keep the extra and still sell it at the market the next day.
As we walked back to the bus, my mind buzzed with Jennet’s response to our visit – welcoming, but she wished she looked her best. I was right there with her; she’s a woman and we care about how we look! No difference between us when it comes to vanity.
I pray for Jennet. I thank God for introducing us to her and for showing me our similarities. And I pray for a great harvest for her before this week’s market day.
Hearts & Hope for Uganda
It’s tough to pick one story about the Uganda trip. It would be easy to write a book. I can’t not mention the emotions that come over you when you meet your sponsored child and her blind mother, knowing how you’ve touched their lives, and in turn they have touched ours. The ear to ear grins tell the story. However, since my wife Michelle already wrote about our child Mary, I chose to write about soccer instead.
If you ask what we take for granted in this country, you would probably get a variety of answers, but most would likely mention a job, clean water, a roof over your head, abundant food, etc. What most people wouldn’t think about is the ability to play organized soccer (or football in Uganda as in other countries outside of the US.)
One of the most unexpected experiences was playing against the Nakabango soccer team that Messiah Lutheran Church sponsors. We were invited to play against the team with some help from Hearts & Hope staff and a few other locals. When you see many children playing with balled up plastic bags for balls (those are the lucky ones), it’s amazing what a soccer ball, some cleats, and uniforms will do. The Nakabango team played with intensity and enjoyed beating the Hearts & Hope team, but fun was had by all, including a good turnout of supporting fans to watch the big event.
I played goalie, or (keeper as it’s called), and therefore got to cross that one off my bucket list. Never would I have dreamed I would be doing that in Uganda. Fun was had by all, especially the Nakabango team as they put on a demonstration of their impressive skills.
We also took soccer balls (even used ones), beach balls and rubber balls to the schools and villages. I had no idea the small hand air pumps we brought would become such a valuable asset, as we blew up dozens of balls, over the several days in the villages. Immediately children would start smiling, kicking, running, and playing when we’d through them out. Yes, water and schools transform lives in a more dramatic way, but I’ll never look at a soccer ball the same way again. I’ll want to collapse it and give it the next team that goes over to put in their supply bag to bring some smiles somewhere half way across the world.
Hearts & Hope is a nonprofit organization focused on unlocking the potential of people in Uganda through relationships with people in the US.