Shirley Watts, Westworth United Church, July 27, 2014
I Corinthians 13
As many of you may know, I have recently returned from spending 3 ½ weeks in Africa – 2 ½ in Uganda and the remainder in Tanzania. I have been asked by Loraine to share some reflections with you on my experiences. Today will have a particular focus and there will be other opportunities to share more stories and pictures at a later date.
I have always felt a pull to visit southern Africa – both to see the magnificent animals in their natural habitat, but also to witness first hand, a way of life so very different than ours. When the opportunity arose to join my friend with Buy a Net and take part in the work they do in Uganda in distributing mosquito netting to reduce the incidence of malaria (the #1 killer of children), I jumped at the chance.
Two years ago, Buy a Net branched out and worked to obtain a grant from the Canadian Government and partnered with the Bwindi Community Hospital in south western Uganda to provide primarily maternal/ child health to villages outside the immediate vicinity of the hospital, many of whom had had little or no health care before. Many of these people are Batwa or Pygmy aboriginals who had been forced from their homes 22 years ago when the area became the Impenetrable Forest National Park. This is where the mountain gorillas live and are protected. The HEAL project, as it is known, is doing wonderful work in public health, through engaging local people, referred to as Volunteer Health Team members or (VHTs), to help the nurses with screening and assisting in teaching aspects of healthier living. 101 villages are visited regularly by nurses who travel to them by motorcycle. Our roll in that first week was mostly observing how the VHTs are prepared and assisting with immunizations.
In our second week, we moved to Ggaba, which is like a satellite city of Kampala. Here we spent several days distributing the netting in some of the worst slums of Kampala. The city is built on hills and with hills all around. Uganda gets a fair amount of rain (it is a green and lush county), which drains away at the bottom of all these hills. Of course, that is the least desirable place to live due to the swampiness, and that is where the poorest of the poor live, along with the mosquitoes that cause malaria.
In a nutshell I have laid for you the scene. I knew before I went that I would see poverty but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. Take your worst image in your mind and multiply it by 10. I think that was the biggest challenge for me – dealing with that. The tiny little rooms, where often 8-10 people reside and call home, have dirt floors often, sometimes no window, no running water and no electricity. All members of the family work very hard. The women wash their laundry in plastic basins and lay clothes and bedding over bushes, on the grass or on a line if they are lucky. Females (even the smallest female children) carry younger small children on their backs. The children are often the ones walking (often long distances) with jerry cans or other plastic containers to a water source and returning with water while wearing no shoes.
The dirt, that goes along with no resources to have it any other way, is particularly
hard for us, in this country to imagine living in. The dirty, dusty roads, the dirt floors in the homes and churches, lack of clean water or means to wash either themselves or belongings is a hardship we can’t fathom. At least in the Bwindi area, as poor as it was, it was like living in the country compared to the congested slum areas of Kampala. In Bwindi, there is space around each dwelling and often room for a little garden for some vegetables. In Kampala, the homes (really shacks with corrugated tin roofs) are one upon the other and only space amongst them for people and animals – no cars. Cows, goats and chickens wander around, leaving their droppings along with the feces of small children. The E-coli factor would be very high and one reason that diarrhea is the 2nd highest killer of small children. You may wonder why feces of small children. They can’t afford diapers often. Instead, when away from home, they use many strips of cloth to form diapers but at home just let the toddler go naked.
These were the realities that faced us soon after our arrival. It left me with such guilt. When you contrast that with all that we have here, all that we waste you realize how fortunate we are to live in Canada. We had a small taste of these hardships in that we had no running water for the first 24 hours in Bwindi and then no hot water for the duration. The squeals were heard from our rooms in the student nurses residence when we first got into the cold showers – but soon we realized we were lucky just to have any shower. In fact our very basic surroundings were the lap of luxury compared to what most people were living in. I will forever more appreciate my life here in Canada. In fact, I will never again complain about roads and potholes in Winnipeg.
Having said all this about the hardships and having painted a pretty brutal picture of life for so many in Uganda, I want to say a bit about the people. I don’t think I have ever met such a welcoming and warm people. Everywhere we went we heard “ you are welecome” and “thank you for coming” with such warmth and sincerity as they shook our hands. They don’t know any other life – perhaps that’s a good thing. While I was feeling guilty, they were happy (for the most part). A young man,,who was the assistant to the Medical Director in Bwindi and who we spent time with gave the sermon at Sunday church (it seems that is the norm!) and his topic was on happiness. The gist of it was that we all determine our own happiness. We keep thinking that when I get that new dress, I’ll be happy. Then when I’ve got the dress, I’ll be happy when I get some new shoes etc etc. The more you have – the more you want. Even in the very worst of situations, we can decide to be happy (or not be happy). Our group talked about that sermon often and how that message was so meaningful.
And on the topic of religion, so many of these people hold their Christian beliefs close to their hearts. In Bwindi, every morning at 8am, and after breakfast, most everyone in the Community Hospital complex (staff and many patients) gather outside for morning prayers, scripture readings and an inspirational message to start the day. It was a beautiful moment, sitting in the sunshine and looking out on the lush green hills around us. Many took turns giving the message and I have to say, as lay people, they were far more familiar with the Bible than we are.
Over the course of the time in Uganda, we visited several schools and saw some better ones and some very poor ones. The children wear uniforms at almost all the schools and the parents must pay for a uniform, shoes and likely some supplies. If they cannot pay, the children don’t go to school and certainly we saw some children herding cattle etc. on days when others were in school. Education is the key to rising out of the poverty and they know that too. We were always asked if we could sponsor. It was so hard to say no as once you start, you should see it through or it is not fair to the child. They appreciate the smallest of gifts as they have so little. I could go on and on with stories on this topic but we can save those for another time.
This experience certainly has changed me in many ways. As I said before, I appreciate my life so much more than before. I am filled with gratitude to our Maker for all that I have. I learned a lesson in happiness – it isn’t all the “stuff” that necessarily makes us happy. This hope, coming from people with so little was an inspiration spiritually for me. And about love – it took so very little caring to have love given back tenfold.
Our scripture reading from I Corinthians 13 reads, “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
I would like to close with a heart warming story of love. I quickly became attached to one of the VHTs we worked with in Ggaba. Diane was a single Mum raising 2 children and living somewhere close to where we were working ie a poor area. We had shared some of the used children’s clothing as well as adult clothing we brought with us with these VHTs for which they were so grateful. On our last day, I asked if we could ask Diane and another gal to join us for lunch, which they did. Then at church on our last day there, Diane came to me and said she had a gift for me and the others. It was this lovely beaded necklace that her mother had made. After church she introduced me to her mother. In thanking her, she said,” No, I want to thank you for loving my daughter”.