What I didn’t see – Uganda part 6

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Jan 28, 2014

If you need the rest of the story, it can be found here.  Happy reading.  ~ Holly

From our interaction with Ellya at the clinic, I learned he had lost a wife and a child.  Now he had a child with cancer.  Without question, he had endured more heartache than I could fathom.

I have to admit that when I first heard about the condition his children were living in I was indignant.  When one of our translators returned from the village where Ellya lived she reported a one-room hut that was falling apart and had no door.  There was no food for them to eat and their clothing was filthy.  As she questioned neighbors there were reports of the children being left to fend for themselves while their father spent what little resources they had on alcohol.


And that’s when I got on my high horse.  I mounted it and proudly rode around looking down my nose at this man who I didn’t even know.  He should be more concerned with caring for his remaining children than with getting plastered.  I looked at him with disdain, feeling as though he were beneath me.  Beneath me not because of his meager life in a third-world country but because he wasn’t caring for his children.

When interacting with him I tried to wear my non-judgmental face but my scorn simmered underneath.  Thoughts of how he should be doing things, how I would handle the situation, and all the ways he was falling short as a parent kept me from seeing him as an equal.

I knew my thinking wasn’t fair but I couldn’t seem to stop it.  No matter how hard I tried I could only see what he was doing, not who he was.  He was a drunk.  He neglected those who relied solely on him.

He avoided.

                             He abandoned. 

                                                                    He failed.

As Steve and I spent time with him one afternoon at Mulago Hospital, all that changed.  I saw a father who wouldn’t go eat for fear he would miss Joseph coming out of surgery.  I saw strong hands struggle to keep his son from falling off the bed as he writhed in agony.  I heard quiet, tender words spoken to Joseph in an attempt to sooth him.  As I looked into his eyes I saw the beginnings of tears.  All these things were a wet blanket on my fire of indignation.

Then came the moment when it was all washed away.

“Thank you.  Thank you for what you have done for my son.  I received a diagnosis and took him home to die but you Muzungus brought him here,” he said with shame in his eyes.

In that moment I believe I was given a glimpse into Ellya’s heart.  I had mistaken hopelessness for indifference, sorrow for selfishness.

All the feelings of haughtiness and superiority drained from me and I saw Ellya in an entirely new way.  For the first time I saw him for who he was.  He was a single father with 4 children.  He was a widower.  He was grieving the loss of a child.  He had a son with cancer and no means to seek treatment.  He was a man.  He was a human – created in Gods image, just like me.

I had been cruel and unfair.

Do I want people who don’t really know me to swoop in and pass judgment on my life?  Do I want to be seen only for what I do?  Would I like for people to focus on my mistakes?  Never!  But that’s exactly what I had done.  I had judged.  It’s so tempting to criticize what we haven’t walked through.

Walk a mile in my shoes

That’s the lesson for me:  don’t look at people through the lens of their choices.  When I do that I see them as nothing more than the sum of their behaviors, and looking solely at behavior misses the heart.  If I truly want to see someone I must be willing to look past their choices.

Not many of us will find ourselves on the other side of the world passing judgment on a hurting man.  But each of us will be tempted to do the same thing in our circle of family, friends, and acquaintances.  Whether it’s an addiction, deliberate bad choices, or simply failure to make any choice at all, there are many people on whom we pass judgment.  Instead of callously drawing conclusions I am challenged to take the time and make an effort to understand the person rather than their behavior alone.

Being Present – Uganda part 5

by , on
Jan 21, 2014

I’m back!  Finally!  After being absent for far too long I am finishing up my series on Africa.  I look forward to continuing to share more of the story with you.  Happy reading! 

~ Holly

We were silent for most of the taxi ride.  For the first time I was oblivious of the cacophony that is Kampala.  Usually, the city’s organ-grinder pace demands attention but not today.

Kampala Traffic

“I’m sorry you had to be there,” said Steve.

As we traveled to Entebbe, the din giving way to serene green hills, I tried to process the last few hours.  Gut-wrenching cries.  Tears.  Blood.  A flurry of unintelligible Lugandan.  A little boy & his father.  Shame.   Overcrowded wards.  Dirty bandages. A  bare plastic mattress.

Any one of the things I had seen today could threaten to do me in.  All of them together pushed me miles past my limit.

Usually when our time in Uganda comes to a close we go to Banana Village for two days of decompression.  The original plan had been to spend the day unwinding by the pristine pool of the Victoria Hotel as we processed our work.  But after meeting Joseph that seemed frivolous, especially since his biopsy was that day.  So instead, Steve and I made arrangements to leave the group and go to Mulago Hospital to be with Joseph and his father.

I’m not sure what I expected.  After touring the hell-hole of a hospital in Mityana I assumed Mulago would be better, and in some ways it was.  I wasn’t greeted by scattered needles or soiled makeshift mattresses and there was an overall effort at basic cleanliness.  Taken at face value it looked like a vast improvement from the village hospital.  But as we ventured further into the cavernous labyrinth the stark reality hit me – no hospital in North America could stay open in this state.

Mulago Hospital

By the time Steve, Joshua (our translator), and I found the correct ward Joseph had already been taken into surgery.   We waited with Ellya by Joseph’s bed in a room that easily held 30+ patients.  Eventually they called for Ellya.  Stunned, I watched as he was taken to the door of the operating theater and they passed his still sedated son to him.  No nurse, no orderly… they simply handed the boy to his father wearing the same clothes he had been wearing for 3 days.  As Ellya placed Joseph back on his bed the wailing began.   Blood tinged saliva ran down his chin as he thrashed about.  I prayed his discomfort would pass quickly.

For too many minutes it took the energy of all 4 of us to hold him down.  I can never forget the helplessness I felt as I held him, having no idea what he was muttering.  Honestly, I wanted to run away.  In a panic I began yelling for the one nurse who held watch over all the patients crowded in that too small a space.  My requests for help went unnoticed.  As he continued to cry and writhe in pain I noticed that the hastily placed IV port was about to be dislodged.  That was the last straw.  The mother lion in me reared her head and I roared.  I roared at the nurse, insisting that they give him something for the pain.  I roared that he was bleeding because he had pulled out his IV port.  I roared at the injustice of it all.  But what I really wanted to do was cry.  I wanted to sit down on the dirty floor to heave and sob as if somehow my tears could wash away the absurdity of the situation.

Roaring Lion

I wanted to cry because five year old boys shouldn’t have sub-lingual biopsies.  I wanted to cry because cancer is ugly.  I wanted to cry because it all seemed so completely and utterly unfair.

The lethargic nurse eventually came with her syringe full of relief.  Embarrassment washed over me as it became clear that she was more concerned about the blood that had gotten on me and Steve in the struggle than she was with Joseph’s pain.  I am still ashamed to speak that out loud knowing it was 100% true.  I try hard not to judge.  I don’t live in her world, but it took everything in me not to slap her square across the face.

“I’m sorry you had to be there,” Steve’s words cut through the silence in the taxi.  There is a part of me that agreed – it wasn’t my first choice of ways to spend the day.  But then I started thinking.  Why not me?  Why should I be spared?  Yes, it’s hard and uncomfortable.  But that is exactly where I see Jesus.  He was always involved in the dirty, messy, humanity of life.  I am in no way equating myself with Jesus and the last thing I want to do is pat myself on the back for being there.

My point is this:  real love means being present.  If we as believers truly are living out the greatest commandment then we will find ourselves in uncomfortable, messy, heart-breaking situations.  If we are living out what we believe, it is unavoidable.  How can we expect to love others but escape the difficulties life brings?

My choice to walk through that day with Joseph and his father was an easy one.  But I can’t help but wonder if I would have done the same thing at home.  How many times do I go out of my way for others?  How many times do I place myself smack in the middle of the undesirable?  And the embarrassment that I felt with the nurse’s concern over me while ignoring a child in pain resurfaces.  It resurfaces because I know the answer is not very often.

I can’t explain why it takes a trip to the other side of the world to teach me this lesson.  I do things for people on the other side of the world that I don’t do here.  Ouch!

The value of being present is a lesson I pray I never forget.  Whether it is in the comfy confines of my life at home or on the other side of the world, being present in the suffering of others shows Christ’s love in ways that mere words never will.

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

by , on
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

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