I have lived most of my life in one country, the United States, on one continent, North America. Only a few times have I traveled outside of this limited domain. I can list in my fingers the countries I have visited: the USA, Canada, England (and Scotland and Cornwall), the Dominican Republic, and now…. Uganda.
If you count airport stops, add Ethiopia and Ireland to the list. Not an impressive itinerary for a life of six and a half decades. Add all of these together and you probably don’t come to a total of as much as ninety days.
But I live in the age of instantaneous communication, so via electronic connections I have been acquainted with a far wider range of people. So my experience, limited and parochial as it is, touches every continent.
Additionally, one of my uncles served as a missionary in India and Bangladesh. One of my dearest friends was from Pakistan. We hosted a German student for a year in our home.
(And don’t forget those Nigerian lawyers and Chinese widows who promised me millions of dollars– bit I digress)
Still, the decision to spend three weeks visiting an African country was a big deal for me. Now I ask myself, why did I wait so long?
It’s been a month now since I came back from that visit. Let me tell you some things learned.
I learned about hospitality.
The friends who welcomed me went out of their way to make sure I was well taken care of. Fourteen children sang me a welcome song when I visited their school. Pastors gave me perhaps more honor than I deserved, when I visited their churches. Never did I feel unwelcome, though I found I had a lot to learn.
I learned about being a minority.
In some places frequented by tourists, especially in the city of Kampala, it’s possible to find groups of muzungu – that’s white people – but most of the time I was the sticking-out-like-a-sore-thumb non-African wherever I went. Especially as I was an isolated muzungu among African friends. People stared. Especially children. But not rudely, nor unkindly; still I might have been viewed suspiciously, sometimes, or so I guessed. It’s hard to tell if you’re being peered at a a curiosity or eyed cautiously as an intruder. I think an unfamiliar presence can cause discomfort.
I learned about poverty.
In terms of standard of living, there are rich and poor everywhere, but it’s pretty clear that the poor are much more numerous. I saw many people working hard to get enough for the day. It doesn’t take much money to get the necessities of life, in that place, but not much money is the rule. Wealth might mean you have running water in the house, or an actual bed to sleep on instead of the floor. Here is how one person explained it to me:
“If a family has two chickens, they are not poor. If an emergency comes up, or a bill must be paid, they can sell one of the chickens. Then if they have no food in the house, they still have the other chicken. If the two chickens must be used in this way, after that they will be poor.”
So by our standards there is lots of poverty. But another thing I noticed: there are also many smiles.
I learned about happiness.
Having enough for the day really seems to work. I saw more smiles per square mile than I have seen anywhere. Working hard, for sure, but practicing happiness in the midst of it.
I learned about faith.
Religious messages are prevalent everywhere you look. They adorn taxis and buses, they are on the signage of businesses, they can be heard from street preachers here and there. I met a lot of people who take their faith seriously. Christianity is young in this part of Africa, and thriving. Islam is also to be seen (Muslims make up about 12% of the population), and some of the religious messages one sees reflect that. But here’s another thing some of my readers may find hard to fathom: I saw no sense of hostility between Christians and Muslims in Uganda. I made sure to discuss this impression with my Christian friends there, who to a person expressed dismay and bewilderment at the way fighting over religion happens in other places, including some neighboring countries. The tradition in Uganda is quite different from that, something you are unlikely to hear on the news.
My Christian host in Kampala took me to lunch nearly every day of my time there to his favorite restaurant, where the owners and servers are all Muslims.
I learned about diversity.
Not only religious diversity but ethnic and cultural diversity is a feature of the Uganda landscape. There are fifty-two (officially recognized) local languages, each one representing a distinct culture and each one having a king. To talk to someone from a different kingdom, people use English. I wasn’t in country long enough to get a full sense of the scope of this diversity, having visited only two of the fifty-two regions, but even in that limited field I could catch an undercurrent of, at least, a friendly rivalry.
I learned about technology
Uganda is adopting modern technology at a rapid pace. Cell phones are ubiquitous- often one person carries two of them. The cash economy is being supplemented by the use of “mobile money” – a system that allows transfers of funds from phone to cash at many locations.
I saw solar panels atop street lights. What a concept! Solar electricity is a fast growing phenomenon, thanks primarily to heavy investment from China. This is a great thing, at least until the rainy season.
I learned about friendship
And that, more than any other thing, will encourage me to go back there again – and maybe to more places. It’s a big world out there.
These are just a few of the things I learned. Here are a few more facts.
The population of Uganda is young: nearly half the people in the country are under the age of fifteen. Education is a huge challenge. There are many schools but they are for the most part run privately. I spent a good deal of time at one, visited a couple more, and have been told of others that are in search of support. Some parents cannot afford to pay the necessary fees, so student sponsorships are one way of helping. At the school I visited, Hannah Infant School, the children are there from 7 am until afternoon. It’s important that they get at least one good meal. I learned that to provide that meal for the 20 or so persons who were present during my visit cost me a whopping nine dollars a day. Not per person; that was the whole school.
I’ll be accepting donations to be passed along for the current term, which started today. If you’ve read this far, you might want to click the link on support to take part.
Come back often for more. I’ll let you know when I start making plans for another adventure.