Unlikely Ambassadors – Matchbox Cars (Uganda Part 4)

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Sep 3, 2013


I remember the first time I found myself in a country where English isn’t the native language. At eighteen, the furthest I had traveled away from home was to New York City. To say I was naïve would be an understatement; green, tenderfoot, and youthful. I knew traveling to India would be a different experience but I failed to grasp how daunting it would be.

The first time I noticed I was in a great minority was during a layover in Bahrain – the sounds, the stares, the unfamiliarity. The next 6 weeks in India were not much different. Our group had contacts there who spoke English but for the most part I was lost in a language that was foreign to me.

I learned only enough Hindi to tell the rickshaw driver when to go and when to stop. Gesturing never quite conveyed what I was trying to say. A feeling of restlessness as people on the street around me spoke unfamiliar sounds at breakneck speed became my new norm. I remember straining, hoping to catch a familiar word.

The next time I would experience this feeling is 20 years later. On my first trip to Uganda in 2011, there were a few more English-speaking people. But again, I was relying on gestures to try and communicate with the native people. The villagers who came to our medical clinics spoke no English, and even though we had interpreters there were times the language barrier still loomed between us like a dense fog.

Savannah making "Chicken Balloons"

Savannah making “Chicken Balloons”

A few of us resorted to using objects as a way of finding common ground with my daughter excelling at this technique. A rubber glove was transformed into a chicken balloon, complete with scribbled ‘Sharpie’ eyes. Bubbles became the catalyst for belly laughs. Things these children had never seen eased the fear of unknown Mzungus examining them. And the next year there were Matchbox cars.

I’ll never know if Joseph’s initial apprehension was related to our bleached skin or if he was weary of being examined. The usual tricks I had learned to rely on didn’t alter the detached look in his eyes. I felt inept as I tried to entertain Joseph and his brother, Godfrey, while their father was arranging details of the upcoming surgery in Kampala.

The first time I saw them smile.

The first time I saw them smile.

…Matchbox cars.

I don’t even remember where they came from, whose suitcase carried the unsuspecting ambassadors around the world. But I will never forget watching the veil drop and a smile creep up Joseph’s misshapen face. The squeals of unabashed, barefaced laughter are still burned in my memory.

We didn’t need words – English or Lugandan. Two brothers, some toy cars, and a table to roll them across… these were the ingredients to an afternoon of freedom; freedom from doctors, tumors, worry, and fear.

That afternoon I felt like they were the teacher and I the student. The subject: universal language. We didn’t need common vocabulary. We didn’t need an interpreter. We didn’t need to stare quietly at each other, wondering how to communicate. Smiles, cars, and belly laughs became the bridge that united us.

I’ve often wondered what Joseph was thinking. Was there a key to unlock the dialogue in his head? Now, I know it doesn’t matter. For a little while however, two boys were liberated, and I will never be able to put into words how fortunate I was to observe no matter how many languages I learn.

Click here to read previous posts in this series.Godfrey's Smile

Really Seeing – Uganda part 3

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Aug 27, 2013
The clinic

The clinic

When it comes to rules I am an enigma, a perplexing mix of strict adherence and defiant rebellion. This is admittedly weird behavior and I’ve spent more than a few minutes trying to figure out why. Why do I conform without question to certain rules while going out of my way to deviate from others? The best conclusion I’ve come up with is this: it lies in the purpose of the rule – injustice vs. order. If rules are either part of crowd control or other forms of maintaining order, the administrative part of me acquiesces and I follow. But if rules hint at injustice I will go out of my way to buck the system.

Life is not cut and dried. You can’t always categorize complex circumstances into two simple columns. I know this can cause me to be perceived as fickle by some people. The ongoing commentary in my brain is always debating how certain circumstances should be handled; conform or rebel?

Wait your turn!“, “Don’t take what isn’t yours.”, and “tell the truth“; these rules are non-negotiable in my world. However, blatantly stupid and socially harmful mantras such as those of the past where women and non-land owning males were prohibited from voting, as well as the horrid images of “Whites Only” signs displayed on restroom doors, equally send livid impulses to my brain, causing me to see red.

When I first saw Ellya and Joseph walking toward the clinic I was immediately in mental turmoil. It was time for the clinic to close for lunch and we already had a large crowd waiting to be seen. I made a snap decision to have an interpreter tell Ellya that it might be better if he came back later.

People waiting

People waiting

Then I saw Joseph’s face.



The right side was so swollen that his eye was beginning to protrude. Taking a moment to look further I realized his entire face was misshapen. And in that nanosecond all the rules went flying out the window. I knew he needed to be seen immediately no matter what ‘rules’ I had set in place.

And that’s the lesson here. I can become so entrenched in my own rules that I fail to see what’s right in from of me. Thankfully, this time, I did the right thing. I stopped to evaluate and saw what was truly important.

But how many times have I failed?

How many times have I missed an opportunity to help, to show compassion, share, or to be kind?

In my attempt to be efficient and productive, what opportunities have I lost?

How uncaring have I appeared?

One of my favorite sayings is “We are human beings, not human doings.” The implication is that we spend so much time doing that we forget to be. We can get so wrapped up in the tyranny of the urgent that we lose sight of our purpose. We can overlook the needs of people right in front of us.

But when I take the time to see effectively, the hurt and the pain that’s in my path, I am gifted with a rare opportunity to make a real difference. It becomes an opportunity, for better or worse, in which I am presented with the choice to either do what my heart tells me is the right thing or to follow my head in towing the compulsory line. Without regret, I decide that comforting those who are hurting is infinitely more important than keeping a clinic on schedule.

Joseph – when a miracle doesn’t look like what you expect (Uganda Part 2)

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Aug 20, 2013

Here is the next post in a series I am writing about a family I met in Uganda last year.  New posts will be posted each Tuesday morning.  Thank you for sharing in this story with me.  


055I know my God is a God of miracles – staffs to snakes, water to wine, imparted visions of heaven.  From Genesis to Revelation, God steps into humanity and alters circumstances.  I recognize that God is always intimately involved in the lives of his children, but there are brief moments when God plants his holy feet in the dirt of humanity and what follows can only be called a miracle – the moments when the veil between the divine and the mortal is briefly parted.

These sacred moments are the hallmark of Christians.  We are eager to see evidence that our faith is not in vain, that there is reason for our belief in an unseen God.  This eagerness sometimes causes us to read into situations, trying desperately to make them fit our idea of a miracle.  Maybe it’s the conservative denomination I grew up in, but I have always been hesitant to throw around the word miracle.  I don’t deny their existence.  I’m just judicious with how I use the term.

But even in my hesitancy, I couldn’t deny that the circumstances surrounding Joseph were miraculous.


Joseph the day we met

When the staff saw Joseph in the clinic in Mityana, we were immediately aware that his needs exceeded the scope of our crude resources.  His swollen face and bulging eye suggested a tumor, and conversations with his father, Ellya, substantiated our fear.  With no way to help, we sent them back to their village.  There was no peace with that decision.  But what else could we do?

Then we met Dr. Jay.  In our previous stay at The Enro Hotel we had never run into any other Mzungus, and suddenly there were six of them.  Dr. Jay and his family were spending 6 months in Uganda running medical clinics.  His contacts were vast and in a short conversation he agreed to see Joseph.  On Tuesday we had sent Joseph home to die.  By Wednesday afternoon he was in Kampala having a CT scan at Mulago Hospital.

It looked miraculous enough!  How else do you explain the orchestration of people in the right place at the right time?  Joseph had a biopsy, was treated and the prognosis looked promising.

And I think that’s how we Christians like things.  We would never come right out and say it, but if we are honest some of us battle what I call equation theology; A (present problem) + B (doing the right thing, praying, etc) = C (the desired outcome).  We found a sick child, prayed fervently for his healing, located the resources he needed and expected God to heal him.  It would be a miracle.  We could count on God to ante up, right?

But a few months later Joseph died.  Therein lies the problem with using the word miracle.  In our culture it implies a positive outcome.  Ellya had to bury another child.  Pross and Godfrey lost another sibling.  How is that positive?  The result wasn’t what we prayed for.  Does that negate the explicitly miraculous events that brought us all together?  If we measure God by the outcome we desire we reduce him something as simple as 1 + 1= 2

It’s tempting to try and define what God’s will is in any given situation and in doing so we risk missing the bigger picture.  If I tried to tie divine will into a neat package with a bow on top and call it a miracle, I’d be disappointed.  How could I not be?  Joseph died.  When I take the time to look at the larger picture, I still see the miraculous.  I see a beautiful little boy who is no longer suffering.  I see two neglected children who are being nurtured.  I see a father who was given the resources to do everything that could be done to save his son.  And I realize one more time that even though I believe in God there will always be things I don’t understand, but God is bigger than my questions.

Joseph after treatment - about a month before he passed

Joseph after treatment – about a month before he passed

Pross’ Bed – Uganda part 1

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Aug 9, 2013

For the past three years I have been privileged to serve on a short-term mission team in Uganda.  There is no way to put into words the impact these trips have had on me.  I haven’t written about my experiences there before;not for lack of words but because I fear sharing them will never accurately portray what’s in my heart.  And there’s a part of me that cherishes keeping these things to myself, as if they are too private to share.  But now I am putting my selfishness aside and sharing a story about a family I met last year.  I hope you can identify with the  lessons I’ve learned from what unfolded!


hut“Come and see my bed,” the nearly inaudible whisper lingered in stark contrast to the excitement on her face.  As I followed Pross, I was acutely aware of the austerity of the house.  But enclosed in one of the concrete rooms was a bed.   Her bed.  We stood close, with barely enough room for us between the two sets of bunk beds.  Pross’ bed was easy to spot; a riot of red floral fabric.  Her face-wide grin conveyed her pride.  I stood there shaken to my core by the flood of emotions.  A widowed father.  Joseph’s swollen face.  Godfrey and Pross’s terror.  Death.  Loss.  Abandonment.  They swirled through my consciousness at movie-montage speed.  I was transported back to the year before.

A year before, I thought things would turn out differently.  I thought that we had caught the cancer in time.  I thought we had provided a way for a father, who was still grieving the loss of his wife and a child, to bypass another loss.  What had looked like a miracle had ended abruptly.   The phone call came five months after we left Africa.   I felt betrayed.  For five months my cautious hope had secretly taken root, outgrowing my sense of apprehension.  My hope had grown while Joseph had died.

“Holly, little Joseph died.”  I struggled to hear.  The words couldn’t be right.  I failed to grasp meaning through the hazy molasses-thick fog in my brain.  “What? Joseph?”  My heart immediately heard what my brain tried to deny.  The questions wouldn’t stop coming.  Why did Joseph have to endure the treatment if the end result was the same?  Why did I have to know?  That sounds selfish, but why did circumstances cause me to meet him and get involved if my actions didn’t affect the outcome?  Then I thought about the agony Steve and I saw him in after the biopsy in Mulago Hospital.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t block the tormenting memories.  What was the purpose of it all?

IMG_7035As I stood looking at Pross I began to understand what had previously only served to hurt and anger me.  Could Pross and Godfrey be the answer?  No, Joseph wasn’t spared and a hurting father lost another child.  But the series of events that started with meeting Joseph in the clinic ended with changed circumstances.  Pross and Godfrey now have a home where before they had remnants of a thatch hut falling apart.  Crisp, clean school uniforms, food, shoes, and beds; these were all new to them.    Last year I saw a timid girl who struggled to make eye contact.  Now I saw a confident young woman with a stunning smile.  Had she been left in the village, men would have seen an unprotected young woman and taken advantage of that.  Instead, she is thriving in school while a family in town provides safety.  She is free to be 14.

God also could have saved Joseph but he didn’t.  “Could have but didn’t”.  What does that mean?  What are the implications?  The tension between could have and didn’t still works a knot in my brain.  After much reflection the only answer I can come up with is that I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know; and I don’t understand.  But a thought has surfaced over and over as I replay the scenes; lessons learned.  There are lessons I have learned along the journey that were needed.  Maybe I was the only intended pupil, but since the lessons seem universal, I will share the whole story.  And in doing so, expand the classroom for anyone else who wants to learn.

Kai (Kaimana)

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Jul 16, 2013

579Despite our best efforts Kai didn’t make it.  Any attempts to put my family’s feelings into words would fail.  It is my hope that she is running around with Texas somewhere in the great beyond.  I will get back to blogging soon.  Thank you for all the well wishes and prayers on her behalf.

Heart-brokenly yours,


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