It took about 17 hours to fly from my home in America to Uganda, and about 3 more to realize that I was actually there. Three hours: the approximate amount of time it took for me to shatter every rule and piece of advice that had been offered to me about visiting Africa. . .
Do not travel with undocumented drivers, do not eat uncooked fruits, vegetables, or any food prepared under unsanitary conditions, do not walk in open toe shoes, do not make contact with anyone who appears ill. . . (to name a few).
Yes, believe it or not, people actually said these things. People who I am guessing have never been to Africa , but after all, I had never been there either and although I seriously doubted that these guidelines would be realistic to follow, I did not completely disregard the advice. . .at least on the plane ride there.
Our first afternoon in Uganda and a walk up the rutted red dirt path in Bukaya to the main road gave me a chance to really breathe the air and absorb my surroundings for the first time. I tried to take in the view from ceiling to floor – the open sky, the mountainous island, the sliver of Lake Victoria hovering between the trees and roof tops, the haphazard gardens tumbling to the edge of the path, a goat here, a goat there, a piece of an old flip flop, a chicken, another chicken, more trash, another chicken, a baby playing in the ditch – wait, a baby playing in the ditch? Melissa smiled and pointed up the road, “It’s OK her mother is probably up there somewhere.” Sure enough, two small brown houses down the path was a woman sitting in the doorway, quietly watching us.
We reached the main road and stopped – “Now what?”. “Well, now we just kinda wait for something to come along,” Joe shrugged . . . and just like that, rule number one cracked wide open. Two young Ugandan men on bodas (small motorcycles) pulled up and scooted forward on their seats. Two passengers plus the driver to a boda, a barter down to about 2000 shillings to take us into Jinja town, and suddenly the first ride of my life on a motorcycle was happening in a cotton skirt and sandals, clinging to a stranger in a strange country, weaving around potholes and cutting between trucks.
Exhale, I thought as I loosened my white knuckled fingers from the edges of my boda driver’s jacket . . . just let go. And I did. Within the next hour, I had devoured a vegetable egg wrap (rolex) made by a boy on the street who handed it to me in a scrap of paper from his flour sack and I had gashed my blood gushing bare toe on a rock on my way down to the Source of the Nile. I was quickly drifting from the familiar territory of “be careful” to enjoy the land of “just be.”
I have heard time and time again that Africa is “a different world,” the terrain, the people, the culture. . .but although that is an easy way to describe the physical differences of a country like Uganda, I never really felt that way at heart. When I was able to let go of what I had been told, and began to trust what I was experiencing in the moment, it was as if I was just wandering my own country, my own home, and had somehow come across a bizarre part of town that I had not visited yet - a part of town that was bright and chaotic, lovely and scarred, but more human and real than any place that I had ever been before. Each day seemed to be an enigma of “predictable unpredictability” and that lack of structure often forced our “to-do list” to become more reliant on the people around us rather than on elusive plans. Sometimes it seems easier to trust and depend on plans rather than on people, but the latter requires that one trusts and depends on God a little more.
In an environment that sometimes appeared to be out of control to me, I learned to allow God to take command of my perspective, I began to identify the line between carelessness and faith, and to realize that as much as I needed to let go and trust that my boda driver would take me safely to Jinja, he was having to trust that this nervous American would pay him fairly when we reached our destination.
One of my last days in Jinja I was walking through the market and a woman who had only seen me once before reached out and handed me her baby to hold for her while she helped bag fruit for a customer. While she worked, she never glanced in my direction to make sure that I was still there with her sleeping child in my arms and I wondered if she didn’t care if something happened to him, or if she simply had faith that her baby was in good hands….either way, I like to think that she trusted me in that moment with her most precious gift.
Fortunately it took more than a couple of hours for me to adjust from the Ugandan lifestyle when I returned home. I walked more slowly for awhile, I worried less, and I thought about other people more than my agenda for the day. . .but I am sad to admit that I feel these wonderful side effects wearing off.
When I miss Uganda, sure I miss the red dirt and the beautiful people whom I was blessed to meet, but more than anything, I long for that raw state of mind that forced me to be fully present in each moment, to depend on the “undependable,” and to concern myself with keeping only one rule in this life: an unwavering faith in the God who did not form “Ugandans” and “Americans,” but who simply breathed life into the dust and created willful, fickle humans to love Him. I will never claim that I understand a place like Uganda anymore than I understand a place like America, but my trip across the Atlantic has taught me so much more about this life… “For we are (all) fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Thank you Melissa and Joe, for an experience we will never forget.