Sunday, December 27, 2009

24 Years Coming

by Holly (I know, it seems so long, you thought the title of this blog referred to our blogging absence--but no, it's about this christmas)

Christmas in Mzee Oling's home, with six daughters, one son, an aunty, two cousins, and some of the most adorable grandkids imaginable. This is where I spend most days learning Acholi and doing "participant observation" for my research. Today is different. It's christmas. The 4 huts that make up this home are teeming with smiling friends, chickens oblivous to their destiny, and kids laughing chasing Ogiko (our dog) who we brought with us. The neighbors father works in the local radio station so he's brought home a huge sound system that is competing with Mzee's small hand held radio to play alternating traditional Acholi and western christmas songs. I found the ladies all in the kitchen, sweating seriously over charcoal stoves and laughing. They got up at 5 am to start cooking and they are still laughing. We laugh for happiness, not an identifiable joke or funny incident. "We laugh to show the whiteness of our teeth," goes one of my favorite Acholi proverbs. Lamaro, my favorite little girl is still getting used to Ben. His white skin and blue eyes are rather terrifying. She's running from the kitchen hut to the bedroom hut to avoid being seen by him (or eaten by him?) She also behaved like this with me for the first few weeks. Now, I've been told she told her father (who comes to visit occasionally) that she has two mommy's, one black and one white. I'm thrilled the affection is mutual--even if she did have to overcome the obstacle of my strange skin.
Ben and Mzee are sitting under the tree discussing Mzee's christmas memories. He recounted christmas parties from when he was in his 20s and worked with Uganda Wildlife Authority and with a big luxury hotel company. His favorite christmas was the first christmas that they spent with the whole family here. They moved here in 1995, the war had begun but it had not yet directly touched the family. They came for access to better schools for his girls--and all the kids were home that christmas of '95. That was the year before he lost his leg in a tank mine explosion while he was collecting wood for charcoal. It was a year before a massacre in their home village, Attiak where they lost many relatives. Even his eldest daughter, escaped narrowly. She had been visiting an aunty in Attiak when the rebels began the massacre. She fell into a pit latrine where she hid until the bloodshed stopped and the rebels left all for dead. "This war spoiled everything," he says, "this is the first year since 1995 when we've felt safe and free to celebrate. It has been 24 years we've waited for this celebration." I can't help but pause prayerfully to remember the Congolese who feel anything but safe. The LRA has reportedly written several letters threatening a repeat of last years "Christmas Massacres." Several rebels who have escaped admitted they had joked about "celebrating christmas" like last year. Fortunately, no reported violence means they decided to celebrate some other way--but no doubt, our friends across the border will have to wait longer to experience the safety and freedom from violence that Uganda is now enjoying.

They really are enjoying it. The girls are dressing up, and combing out their hair. I came with nail polish a few days ago and painted over 20 pairs of hands or toes I'm sure.
The food is an amazing spread and they generously share with us as well as the random uninvited guests that are always welcome: a drunk neighbor who is a widow, a young woman who is only halfway in control of her mind that is happily singing and eating their food, and anyone else who seems to have an empty belly. We brought simple gifts: candy for the kids, a couple of t-shirts for the young men and some jewelry for the ladies, a book written by an Acholi preist on being a traditional Acholi and a Christian for Mzee. As they open each gift, Josephine ululates over the laughter of the rest of us who are clapping and happily watching what the next person is given. I felt some of the gifts weren't nice enough, for this incredible family that has helped me so much. I was worried about the reception--but I could not have imagined anything better! They all claimed that each gift was perfect for the receiver, and none envied other gifts. Personally, I am very grateful for the odii (ground sesame and peanut paste) that they lovingly gave us.

What is it that enables such easy laughter? such wholehearted gratitude? It might be a lack of expectation. If so, I(cynically/sadly?)thought to myself while sitting there, this is the first and the last christmas we will experience like this. Next year there will be an expectation. I have chatted with a few friends and family members from home and contrasted the blessed simplicity of christmas in Uganda with the materialistic madness and pressure to buy right, dress right, cook right, etc. of christmas at home. Every year must at least maintain, if not add on to the precedent of previous years. And yet, here, for the first time in decades people are enjoying the relative calm and prosperity so that they are finally able to celebrate materially--with small things like christmas dresses or even little artifical christmas trees--and it is a beautiful thing to see! Is that terrible? The materialism we turn our noses up to at home we welcome here as a sign of the absence of war.

Isn't there a way to maintain expectant wonder for this great celebration and accept every moment of it in whole hearted gratitude without holding it up for comparison to our unconscious (or conscious) standard of "shoulds"?

My friends in Wii Aworanga did it this year. Maybe it's the lack of expectation. Maybe it's the eruption of joy that has been waiting 24 years for peace to allow it's full expression. Whatever it is, I pray it is sustained--and that perhaps, it is contagious.

(Happy 100th blog to us! This is our 100th post. We intend to try to write more regularly in the coming year--yes, it's a proper new year's resolution. Regarding the new blog look and background--the quote on the top of the page must be accredited to Annie Dillard. And I have a confession. The woman in the banner photo is not from northern Uganda. She's actually Sudanese, and I took this photo while doing a consultancy in Yei (the blog I wrote about that time was "What Grows in This Soil". Her face is just so amazing--and I loved it here. I know, I really should replace it with one of the amazing Ugandan faces that I interact with and that grace my iPhoto library, and someday I will--but for now, I share her beautiful face with you and disclose her nationality.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dance routine

Holly has been working with these cute girls on a dance routine

Christmas Ugandan Style

by Ben
Sorry it has been so long since we have posted, but we would like to do better in the coming year. Finally feeling settled, I have the mental space to reflect on this journey and share budding ideas, joys and sorrows with anyone who is interested. To start off lightly, this post is dedicated to our Christmas day.
Here are a few heart-warming text messages that we got from friends on Christmas. A prize goes to the first person to fully understand them
-When u trace down da maiden origin of mankind, it leaves u with huge imagination only 2 be revitalized by da glorious news of Savior’s birth.
-We wud like you to be safe always, so please do not tamper with meter boxes, main switches or any part of the internal wiring in your house. Stay safe. Merry Christmas. (From the national power supplier)
-When my arms can’t reach da ones I love, I hug them with my prayer and surrender them 4 God’s care and loving arms! Wish you a Merry Christmas and hapi 2010
-If you could feel my heart’s wish u wud b as delightful as I am, u wud jump up n dance 4 me as I sing 4 u Christmas hymns! B blessed as 4 celebrate this day.
-I’m sure you did a great spiritual shopping. Please receive the peace, joy, and love as bonus on your spiritual shopping.
-I hav deposited in your account 365 days of luv, wisdom, care, and unity in the bank 2010. Pliz spend them wisely. Happy celebrations
-This season’s a great time “2 pray” “2 love” “2 care” “2 smile” “2 celebrate” and above all “2 thank God”
-Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas. May your Christmas stocking be filled with loads of peace, love and joy. Drink, eat and make merry.
-God knew that our problem wasn’t hunger or thirst but salvation. So He did not send us food or water, but a Savior who was born 4 us.
-Hearts receive love, minds receive wsdm, hands receive gifts en only special pple receive warm wishes. Merry Christmas en let God god in 2010
-May da birth of Christ be a blessing 2 U n UR loved ones! Merry Christmas and a juicy nu ya.

I, for one, do intend on having a very juicy new year.

Here are a few pictures of our Christmas: Home, then village:

Our home in Kirombe, Gulu

I made Holly hunt for her presents. One of them took her up our water tower.

Eggs Benedict mmmmm. And it only took about three hours to make the English Muffins (or for our English readers...muffins)

Christmas dinner and Quote of the day. "That is one impressive cock"

Steven, Mzee, me, Galdin, and Innocent

The girls

Ulilating for presents. "Agili" in Luo

Holly, Koncy and Beatrice

We have had a wonderful holiday season and miss you all dearly. Wishing you the juiciest New Years ever.

Friday, June 12, 2009

We Have Lost Godfrey

(an excerpt from my journal the day Godfrey died.)

We have lost Godfrey. I don’t know what to say or write but somehow I hope that if the words come out they will replace the tears. We had heard that Godfrey was in the hospital and then the news came that he passed away on Friday morning at 2am. That was midnight for us--I was awake then, lying in bed and praying for his recovery, sure that he would be okay, that Dan and Rachel would not grow up without their father, that we would not lose our friend, that we would see his amazing smile and clap hands again with him in September. We were looking forward to coming back to Uganda to share sorrows and trials and laughs with him and hear the sound of his unique gravelly voice. Godfrey was a good friend to us. For three years we helped to carry each others burdens, made decisions together, cast vision together, mediated conflicts together. We realized more of our potential because we did everything together. I loved working with him. We were a good team. In all that time he rarely lost his cool in anger and even when he did the only indication was the way he would widen his eyes and flare his nostrils. He didn’t act hastily but thought things through and acted in ways he believed would be in the best interest of others. He was a trustworthy man who kept my confidence and shared his life with us. We loved how proud he was of Rachel and Dan, especially how Rachel danced so well and how Dan is a stubborn ‘pocket’ version of him. It is so painful to accept that he is not with us anymore.

I was in the bus when I go the call. I couldn’t hold back the tears. A woman near me handed me a tissue. This odd community of strangers on their commute to work sat with me while I cried. A woman behind me made a phone call—making plans for Sunday lunch with her mom and it struck me that these were everyday things. People go from home to work and back again. They make weekend plans. And they die.

None of us knows how long we will be here. We could lose anyone, anytime. But I didn’t expect to lose Godfrey so soon. I took for granted that we would have many more everyday moments together: birthday parties, Sunday afternoons with slip and slide, drowning work and life stresses in laughter. Uganda is not the same country without him. The world is poorer for the loss of him.

A few years ago we celebrated his 35th birthday together and one of our elders (Emmanuel) said that he was now welcomed into being a Mzee (elderly man). He only had 2 years of Mzee-hood. He had dreams of starting an NGO to help young people in Apac and of running for parliament. He would have been a great MP. He could have done so much more for his community and his country. He would have been a great friend to have all our lives. He would have been a great old Mzee. He was a good man, a good friend, and I miss him.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Remembering Godfrey

Dear friends,
Last week we learned of the death of our good friend and colleague, Okello Godfrey. His sudden death was shocking and it has been hard to be so far away. We had a small memorial service for him at our church in London, and wanted to share a few of our thoughts and pictures in remembering Godfrey.

By Ben:
Godfrey was a thoughtful man. Each word he spoke had meaning and direction. Whether he was mediating a dispute between the youth group and a staff member, talking with beneficiaries in an IDP camp or presenting strategic plans to the board of trustees-every word was carefully placed.

Godfrey was a collected man. I never saw Godfrey lose his cool. He faced crisis the same way he faced ordinary life events: calm and collected. I remember driving with him to get his car fixed when he made a joke about having good “shock absorbers” for dealing with the stress that came across his desk, better than the shock absorbers on his car. At times, I wanted him to express his anger or frustration, but he knew that life was too short to be bothered by the small stuff. Godfrey preferred the sounds of boisterous laughing, meaningful dialogue and the hiss and clinking of bottles of Club.

Godfrey was the guy we trusted to keep an eye on our place when we were out of town and the person we could openly ask questions of a sensitive subject, knowing that we would get his most thoughtful response.

Godfrey was a forgiving man. Even when things at work were tense, he would happily invite us for drinks at the end of the day. He was able to compartmentalize his work from his fun and relaxation. I was really looking forward to hanging out with Godfrey without the influence of the organisation in our relationship. Godfrey would brag about Holly and I, telling his buddies that he had the best mzungus, and his friends would often tell him, “Hey, I saw your mzungus in town today…” He stuck his neck out for us, and invited us to integrate into the life and culture of young professionals (through weddings, funerals, birthday parties). We were proud to be his mzungus.

I think Godfrey knew how much I loved him. I think we were both surprised at how close we could become, given the cultural obstacles. He was open to knowing me, and I was open to knowing him. His life has enriched mine in so many ways. He has taught me lessons that I will carry for my lifetime.

Godfrey was one of the good ones. We will miss him dearly.