What do you think of when you hear the word home? Maybe you think of your childhood bedroom, your relaxing bathroom, or your kitchen table where many family meals are shared. This past week we did a few home visits where some of the sponsored kids live. The picture painted in the minds of most people in the US when we hear the word home is quite contrasting to what we saw. The first few homes were one-room structures made mostly of mud and sticks. The mothers greeted us warmly as soon as we arrived and generously began showing us around their homes. While US kitchens are often nestled somewhere indoors, the kitchen is usually the first "room" you notice in rural Uganda, as it's often outside the home. Generally, the kitchen is comprised of a firepit, sticks, rocks, charcoal, and a few pots and plates, either a few feet from the structure or sometimes even in the home. The bathroom is also outdoors, although the "toilet" is really just the ground and the "shower" is generally a bucket of water, hidden behind a partially enclosed area. Indoors, there was usually either one or two rooms. A storage room and a "living room," where the family sleeps at night. Beds are made of rolled-up bamboo mats that on the floor when it was time to sleep. Many times multiple children share one mat.
This example of material poverty, however, was juxtaposed with the pride, happiness, and welcoming spirit of the mother who greeted us. “Home” means something very different here. Home means having a community of families coming together to help raise children who can contribute to the wellbeing of said community in the future. It is comprised of many neighbors coming together, gathering what little they have, and contributing to one another. I fear that my home community is so much more focused on material wellbeing that our sense of togetherness is sacrificed. The people in Uganda take great care of each other and when one family unit is in need, others come to their aid with no questions asked.
This aspect was highlighted in the last home we visited. Before we arrived, Mariah, our primary sponsorship coordinator, turned to me and said, “you need to prepare yourself for this one”. That statement was alarming as the homes we had just toured weren’t exactly easy to see from my Western perspective. We pulled up along the main road to a tiny structure made up of coal bags and leaves. The bedroom was the size of a small closet where sacks are laid down and the two share the spot and hope for safety through the night.
They did not have any sort of bathroom structure, so the grandmother and girl have to shower at night with a bucket and try to dodge any light source in order to protect what little privacy they have left. This was the home of a sponsored 6-year-old student and her grandmother. The girl’s father was killed in a car accident and the mother remarried and abandoned the child. A story that is all too common here. The grandmother was very frail, sickly, and therefore couldn’t work. The only way they receive food/shelter is from a good Samaritan across the street. This lady owns a small store and allows the grandmother to sell charcoal for her and in return, she gives them some food to eat. We went to give our thanks to this store owner and we had a great discussion about how we must take care of each other here on Earth and she only hoped that someone would do the same for her if the roles were reversed.
God did not create us alone. Whether our houses are made of mud, coal sacks, or concrete and plaster, the community of people God has entrusted to us is what makes that space home. As difficult as that was to see, it was another eye-opener as to what is truly important in this life: loving one another. Whether that be through sponsoring a child from afar or taking care of your neighbor just across the street. These are the means by which God leads us away from our material homes on Earth, to our spiritual home with him in Heaven.
This week our US leadership team is holding important meetings with our Ugandan staff and our partner, the Lutheran Church of Uganda (LCU) about progress, changes, and plans for future improvement. Sara, the program leader of Hearts & Hope, and I are lucky enough to have some extended time in Uganda before and after this leadership conference. As we wrap up our first-week in-country and prepare for a long week of meetings, I want to reflect on some special moments during our first week in Uganda.
Every day in Uganda is different, an unexpected adventure, and this trip so far has proved that fact. We started our trip by attending a beautiful Introduction Ceremony for Yatif, our financial coordinator. In Uganda, an introduction ceremony is essentially a wedding celebration where the two families meet and formally agree to the marriage of the bride and groom. A lot of pomp and ceremony surrounds this day, and it is a joyful and exciting time for the couple to look forward to their future together. Sara and I were thrilled to attend and we were adorned in the traditional Ugandan formal wear for women called a gomesi (a bright silky dress with very pointed sleeves that is tied around the waist by a large belt). We truly fit in with all the other beautiful women in attendance, although we received many more stares and laughter as it is very out of the ordinary to see a “Mzungu” (white person) in a gomesi.
We were informed by the sister of Yatif that we were given a special role in the ceremony. We were shown a wheeled cart full of assorted “gifts” and we were to present these gifts to the bride at a given time. Sounds simple enough, right? The twist was that we also had to present each item and metaphorically explain to the bride why each one was purchased for her… through a microphone, in front of about 500 people. For example, “This apple represents how your marriage will be very fruitful”. We were given about 3 seconds to prepare. I think it goes without saying that it was a tough task for 2 (very jet-lagged) Mzungus, but we completed it with only a few cringe-worthy moments. Overall, it was a fun start to our trip and an honor to be invited.
We then headed to Busia for a few days to work with the village of Nalwire, our newest village partnered with Redeemer Lutheran Church in Redwood City, CA. The sponsorship program there is launching and will be in effect for the 2020 school year. Sara and I worked with the soon-to-be-sponsored children and did some crafts which will be brought home for the new sponsors. It was the first time these kids experienced a program like this and they were so excited to complete something for their new sponsor. We also brought in the guardians of the students and photographed them together to also be presented to their sponsors. Seeing as we were in a small, mud structure and there were over 95 students and parents to photograph – it was a long day! Luckily, our staff worked with the awesome teachers to help wrangle the kids in an organized fashion. Nalwire is a unique village, not only in its location and the local culture but also as it has had very little support compared to our other sponsored villages. You can see it in the conditions of the surrounding structures and the poor health of the children. It will be a joy to watch the school and village develop through the partnership with the people of Redeemer.
This is my 8th trip to Uganda and I have noticed the things I see becoming normal in my mind. I remember the first time I visited Uganda I was crying every day, multiple times per day from the shock of the immense material poverty and suffering I witnessed. I now see these same things but I fear I have become somewhat “numb” to the obvious lack of necessities of these people. I have to remind myself that, no, this is not “normal”. It is not normal for children to be without shoes, without food, without medicine, without clothing, and without education. This is what you see everywhere in rural Uganda and yet, I refuse to accept it as “normal”. It is the reason Hearts & Hope will continue to support these villages and it is the reason we pray God continues to work in people’s hearts to sponsor these children. It is also the reason I will continue to tell the story of these people and their struggles which many of us all too often take for granted.
We thank everyone for their prayers and continued support of Hearts & Hope. We will strive during this leadership trip to ensure that our practices, policies, and strategies are continuously in line with our mission to develop relationships, create hope, and transform the lives of people here in Uganda and at home.
Hearts & Hope is a nonprofit organization focused on unlocking the potential of people in Uganda through relationships with people in the US.