Embrace Uganda

A Promise for Exiles

DSCN0156 At the corner of my desk, just beyond the edge of my computer display, sits a digital photo frame.  Every day when I come into the office, I turn it on.  Almost 300 pictures scroll through its slide show as I work, practically all of them of the orphaned children of Kaihura, Uganda.  Mostly I do my work, focused on the screen, the lives of these children playing out on the margins of my day.  Occasionally, however, I catch a child's face and eyes out of the corner of my eye, and I stop and look at him, for a moment remembering what it was like to be in the midst of so many of them during trips there the last couple of years.

There are two "tough" guys, arms around each other; an older sister holding her infant sister; the black faces and dark probing eyes of four school friends staring back at me; a crowd of faces, some smiling, some steely, some inquisitive, some impassive; a grassy plain of elephants not more than 100 miles away from the village that most of the children will never see.  I can hear their laughter and chatter in Rotoro, their broken English, and their questions, feel the touch of their hands on my white skin.  Soon, however, I turn back to what I am working on, the words on a page, the faces relegated once again to the margins.

One of my favorite verses of Scripture is that contained in Jeremiah 29:11, where the prophet quotes God in a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles of Babylon, as saying "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a reason and hope."  It's a verse of assurance, one I have often quoted to myself or an anxious friend to provide comfort that, despite the confusion of life at times, God is sovereign and has a plan, to "prosper," "not harm," to "give. . . reason and hope."  When I think about these orphans, however, the verse begins to lose its easy quotability.  What, after all, would it mean to say to an orphan that God will prosper him or her, give them reason (to live, to work, to become educated), and give them hope?  The average life span in Uganda is 43, so many of these children will die at what is for us an early age, either from cholera, malaria, AIDS, or some other opportunistic disease. Many will not complete secondary school, lacking funds to pay the school fees, and only a handful, if any, will make it to university.  And yet, even with such prospects, many have faith in the God of Jeremiah, the one who will prosper.  What can that mean?

Verses of Scripture, like newspaper quotes, soundbytes, and memories, need context to be understood aright.  Jeremiah said these words to a people in captivity, exiles who longed for the familiarity and freedom of their homeland.  However, the promises he gave them were not of immediate deliverance.  It would be another generation that would be delivered from captivity, as he told them it would be 70 years before they would see their homeland: "This is what the Lord says: 'When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise and bring you back to this place'" (Jer. 29:10).  He gave them a very practical message, telling them to live where they were, to commit themselves to life in the present: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . Marry. . . . [and] find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (Jer. 29:5-6). Far from segregating themselves from the time and place in which they lived, simply getting by until their deliverance, He told them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jer. 29:7).  And he told them not to listen to the pipe dreams of false prophets, people who made promises that could not be kept and gave false hope.

So what does Jeremiah 29:11 mean for the orphans of Uganda?  It means the same thing it does for all of us exiles in a foreign land, who long for a homeland where things are set right, for people who  sometimes cry out like Habakkuk, asking "how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?" (Hab. 1:2).  For those who believe it, the promise is not that you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard enough, or even that God will give you money, health, or recognition if you seek Him. Rather, it is the voice of a Father telling his children that they are not on the margins of his work but at the center of his mind and heart.  He's saying: "Live here.  Settle down.  Commit to the future of life here.  Work for the good of your community.  Wait for me, children.  I will deliver you, if not in life, then in death.  Much is at stake, more than you realize, but I will never forget you.  I will come for you."

One of the songs the orphans sing, in Rotoro and English, is "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He's so good to me."  I think it's the song of God's exiles, singing their way back home.  If they can sing it, so can we.

The Poison Fruit of Aid: A Review of Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

DeadaidAfter the elections of 2006 in Uganda, it came to light that millions of dollars in aid given by the Global Fund to fight malaria, tuberculosis, and aids had been stolen, some to buy votes, some to line the pockets of aid bureaucrats.  The Fund requested an investigation and gave the government of Uganda money for the investigations and prosecutions.  Then came the revelation that even that money was stolen.  The scenario would be laughable were it not so serious.  As Charles Obbo opines in an article in Uganda's Daily Monitor, the entire aid bureaucracy is itself corrupt, with many aid workers complicit in kickbacks for projects they manage or outright pocketing funds.  Little aid money actually makes it to the people it is intended to help.

None of this would be news to Zambian-born economist Zambisa Moyo.  In the recently published Dead Aid, she makes a convincing case that the more than $1 trillion transferred from wealthy countries to Africa over the past several decades has not improved the lives of Africans but actually led to increased poverty, corruption, and dependency.  At the same time, nations that have ultimately rejected a dependency on aid --- like South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana --- are better off, seeing a reduction of poverty, less corruption, and better and more transparent governance.  Moyo argues not for a change to the aid regime but for its death.

The statistics are compelling.  With 700 million Africans living on less than $1 US per day, poverty has increased to the point where sub-Saharan Africa has over 50% of the world's people living in abject poverty.  Life expectancy has stagnated.  One in seven children die before the age of five.  Adult literacy has plummeted below pre-1980 levels.  Fifty per cent of the continent is under non-democratic rule.  The continent seems locked into a cycle of dysfunction.  While one might point to localized examples of change, on a macro level the aid model is an abysmal failure.  And while President Obama has paid lip service to the idea that, in his words, "the purpose of aid must be to create the conditions where its no longer needed," a sentiment often expressed by world leaders, the recent pledge of yet more aid by the G8 --- $20 billion dollars to help third-world farmers --- does not radically alter the fundamental assumptions of the aid model.

Moyo takes aim not at emergency aid or charity (though she notes that even they can be criticized as having unintended, harmful consequences) but at the large, systematic cash transfers from rich countries to African governments, whether concessional (below market rate) loans or grants.  Along the way, she provides an enlightening history of aid and its various foci over the years.  In the end, however, she concludes that while aid remains at the heart of the development agenda, there are compelling reasons to show that it "perpetuates the cycle of poverty and derails sustainable economic growth." With compelling anecdotal and statistical information, she demonstrates how aid is one of the greatest facilitators of corruption, reduces economic growth, leads to more poverty, and then leads to more need for aid.  Corruption analysts estimate that at least $10 billion --- nearly half of Africa's 2003 aid receipts --- departs the continent every years, stolen by corrupt leaders and funneled to private accounts.  She also shows how aid reduces savings and development, leads to inflation, chokes off the export sector, and creates dependency.  In short, with aid money flowing, African leaders need not look elsewhere for development strategies.

Having made her case for the negative impact of aid on development, Moyo devotes fully half of her short book to a prescription for a world without aid.  Her proposal envisions a gradual (but uncompromising) reduction in systematic aid over a five- to ten-year period.  First, she proposes that African governments access the international bond market, noting that the money is available and investor interest in emerging economies high, but simply awaits action by governments to secure appropriate credit ratings and woo the investors.  Uganda, for instance, is in a position to issue bonds (it has a credit rating), and yet thus far has failed to do so.  Why?  Likely because aid money is freely available and more easily misused without serious consequence.  A default on a bond issue can zap your credit rating and, at least for a time, have a chilling effect on investor willingness to lend.

A second opportunity is for African governments to open themselves to foreign direct investment, as in roads, railroads, power plants and other lasting investments, something the Chinese have done well.  But as long as aid is at the center of development strategy, few governments have the political will or incentive to take the steps necessary to improve the regulatory and infrastructure environment such that conditions will be friendly to such investors.

Third, Moyo suggests that trade should be a critical component of development, facilitated by better transportation infrastructure and western countries that will open their markets to African goods.  Exports increase tariffs and tax income, leading to a better stream of revenue for government.

Entrepreneurs will flourish, says Moyo, increasing trade, only when they have access to credit.  She advocates microfinance as the means by which people without assets (the unbankable) can obtain the small loans (not handouts) to finance their raw materials and tools of trade.  She notes that the default rate on these small loans (generally less than $100 US), is less than five percent.  Unlike aid, which either comes with no strings attached or with conditions that recipients know are often overlooked, nonpayment of these loans is rare because borrowers know that if they don't pay back the loans they have today, their lender will blacklist them, and they won't be able to borrow more tomorrow.  In addition, there is a community interest in ensuring repayment: loans are made to members in a group, and when default threatens, members of the group often repay the loan (with the idea that they will recover from the borrower later) in order to keep loans flowing to other members of the group.  This Grameen Bank model (pioneered by Nobel Peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus) has been very successful and yet awaits more widespread implementation.

Two other stimuli to develop are remittances (money sent home by Africans living abroad) and savings (money saved by Africans and deposited in banks or invested).  She says that remittances tend to be relatively stable sources of income that play an important role in paying for imports and repaying debt.  In addition, they are even used by some banks to securitize loans, thus expanding access to credit.  However, middleman tap these funds, often taking up to 20%, making it important for African governments to find ways to facilitate cheaper ways to send money home.  As to savings, Moyo argues that there is a lot of untapped capital in the hands of Africans, often hidden and not banked where it could finance development and bring greater financial stability.

Thus, Moyo argues for an end to aid as we know it and a multi-pronged, market-based development model, something South Africa and Botswana have already embraced.  Given that most African countries have already hit "rock bottom" (her words), she questions:

Isn't it. . . likely that in a world freed of aid, economic life for the majority of Africans might actually improve, that corruption would fall, entrepreneurs would rise, and Africa's growth engine would start chugging?  This is the most probable outcome --- that where the real chance exists to make a better life for themselves, their children and Africa's future generations, Africans would grab it and go.

Rather than giving something for nothing --- an approach that has bred corruption and a coterie of profiteering elites, isn't it time for something more radical, something based on proven market forces?

I recommend Dead Aid as an informative, illuminating guide to the existing development model and a stimulus to thinking about what will really help the poverty stricken millions of Africa.  At 154 pages, it's a quick read, not laborious but sufficiently illustrated by anecdotes that the non-economist can follow it. 

It's not enough to want to do good.  We have to know what in the long-term will lead to a sustainable good.  We have to be wise and discerning do-gooders.  Hopefully Moyo will follow this book with a second where she offers a critique of the work of charities in Africa and a prescription for a charity that will build sustainable communities that rarely if ever need charity but, rather, are able to help others.  Regardless, her book will hopefully provide fuel for lasting change in Africa.

Home Again, Again (Part Four): Disappointment and Hope

DSCN1230 Hannington, our driver, embodies so much that is good about the Ugandan people.  He is resourceful, hard working, unfailingly polite (“yes, please), and of good humor --- all characteristics that generally apply to the people we encountered on our trip.  And yet as humbled as I was once again by the generosity and hospitality of the people we met in Uganda, this was a sobering trip for me as I became aware of their failings, individually and socially.

In the village of Koreng, what began as a fairly orderly distribution of school supplies and shoes ended in a lot of pushing, shoving, and grabbing as needy kids and parents realized that there would not be enough for everyone.  In Kampala my wife and I witnessed the pride of two African men --- both concerned with position and status and self.  And while most people are kind, sometimes I do not know whether the kindness extended is fully genuine or whether we muzungus (foreigners) are viewed as a means to an end --- gifts, sponsorship, or monetary support.  On a larger scale, the system of government and of justice in Uganda is thoroughly corrupt, from side of the road bribe solicitations for traffic fines to payoffs to legislators and judges to double invoicing and other unethical practices by private contractors.  As one man told me, the roads in Kampala remain pothole-ridden not because there is no money to fix them but because two-thirds of the money “stays on the table,” that is, lines the pockets of government bureaucrats and contractors.  Christian law students I spoke with at Kampala International University struggle to understand how they are to survive with faith intact in such a corrupt system.  And if you turn the clock back a bit, these are the same people who produced killers like Idi Amin and Milton Obote.  You only have to go next door to Rwanda to discover what evil neighbors are capable of. 

The Ugandans are, after all, human.  Surprise!  It was a healthy disappointment to learn that in many ways they are just like me, just like us all, a mix of good and bad motives, subject to the same temptations and failings.  I say a disappointment because we tend to idealize a place and people when we first encounter it, because in its newness we are overwhelmed by its contrast to the familiar world we know with all its failings.  I say healthy because when you can see a place and people more realistically you are better able to know how to assist them and encourage them in the good without, hopefully, serious and ill unintended consequences.

Yet my disappointment is no deeper than my hope.  Our house mother at Agape Children’s Village, Mama Christine, served us with, it seems, no concern as to what she might secure from the relationship.They were many children who seemed simply to enjoy our friendship while expecting nothing in return --- no gift, no money, no sponsorship --- though they have great needs.  It’s encouraging to go to a law school where I can speak about my faith openly and be warmly received by students, faculty, and administration in a way that would not happen in most law schools here.  It is encouraging to worship in a church where no one is watching a clock, where a three-hour service is not only normal but relished.  While traffic in Kampala is as bad as that of Los Angeles, drivers are much better mannered and accidents fewer.  Headmasters take on the jobs of running schools where there are little to no facilities, no books, and intermittent pay with a dedication that they often describe (as one did to me) as “a calling from Almighty God.”  And while structural problems like corruption and government ineptitude do not lend themselves to easy solutions, I am thankful that electricity has come to Kaihura, somehow, that there are some good roads on which to drive, and that  in a city as large as Kampala anything at all works.   Last but not least, there are people here who love God, serve others, and seek the good of their communities.  Faith Kunihura saw the “image of God” in the orphans of Kaihura and, with little resources of her own to begin with, has done a great deal to help them.  Pastor Michael Okwakol and the people of Agape Baptist Church are serving the orphans of Agape Children’s Village and even reaching out to the remote community of Koreng.  Thus, my disappointment with the Ugandans is no deeper than my disappointment with myself, my neighbors, and my own country.  We are all thoroughly tainted by sin and yet, knowing Christ, are being renewed every day in His image.  There is hope for Uganda just as there is hope for the United States.

We tried to teach Hannington a good Southern expression like “ya’ll come on,” maybe as a help to getting people back in the van so we could travel on.  After a few minutes, he mastered the expression, albeit a very British-sounding version of it, but he would not use it.  He said it wouldn’t be polite.  He gives me hope.

[I’m glad to be safely home from Uganda and back to blogging.  It was a rewarding if sobering trip.  I hope to post some pictures of the trip soon, and will be back to blogging more regularly.]

Home Again (Part Three)

DSCN0272_4They just live who they are everyday.  They don’t have to be anyone else.” (Emma)

Before I leave on a long trip, I usually take some longing last looks at my home, yard, and neighborhood, and this time it is no different.  Who knows if the fireflies that are so abundant right now will be here when I return?  Or if the house wren eggs in our hanging fern will be there or will have hatched?  It’s not that things here are so much different in two weeks, it’s that when you go to a place like Uganda and then return, you are just a little bit different, and so things at least seem different.

I have the usual mixture of feelings on leaving --- excitement, some uncertainty, and some sadness.  I’m already longing for home and I haven’t even left.  But one thing I know will be true: we will be welcomed enthusiastically by friends, some we know and some we don’t yet know, people who really do seem to have one face, one character, people just living who they are everyday.  To some, I’ll just be “Papa Steve” or “Uncle Steve,” making me feel like some distant relative coming back for a visit.  It’s a good feeling.

I won’t be blogging here for the next 15 days.  Nevertheless, you can come along with us by reading our team blog here.  You might just see an entry from me.  Pray for us.

Home Again, Again (Part Two)

Com_Day_-_Celebration-102 “You can stand still for a moment, and somewhere in the distance you can hear laughter.” (Todd)

Yesterday, the first two teams left for Uganda, and we just received word that they arrived safely.  At this time I can well understand their complete exhaustion. After a five-hour van trip to Dulles, a four-hour wait for the flight, two eight-hour flights, and a one-hour drive to a “hotel,” all you want to see is some kind of a shower and a bed.  And yet the road from Entebbe to Kampala is full of life, even at 10:00 in the evening.

Here we are used to the night sky being lit up by bright outdoor lighting, but along this road, even though there is electricity, lights are dim.  People mill about the dusky roadside stores in a twilight.  They walk the dirt roadside in darkness.  There are small grocery stores, a pool hall, a discotheque, and other unnamed kiosks, end-on-end clapboard shacks colored mostly by the signs of cell phone providers.  People call to one another and sing.  Everywhere you hear singing and laughter, even in the midst of what looks like poverty or near poverty for most who live here.  The dust mixed with charcoal form burning fires and sewage and garbage makes the unique smell of urban Africa.

I’m a little envious of them just now, being whisked along in the vans, laden down by people, narrowly missing cars and motor scooters along the blacktop north of Entebbe, talking excitedly about what lies ahead.  For most of them, it is not a new experience, as many went to Uganda last year, but still every trip is a new experience, full of new impressions, personalities, and challenges.

I’m getting ready.  I have my packing list out.  I’m trying to summon up the memory of how I managed it all last year to help me plan this excursion.  More than that, I’m trying to summon the energy to walk, work, and water fields of experience we only touched down on last year, to meet new children, to give up my time alone, to forget about being dirty and at times uncomfortable, to turn down the heat on the American obsession with self, on my own me-centeredness.  Only God can do that.

They’ll be in Kaihura tomorrow.  They’ll walk the hill to Faith Kunihura’s home.  Maybe someone will have a man beside him as I did last year who is repeating to himself “This is God’s work, this is God’s work.”  It’s hard work, but it’s good work, and no matter what work goes on outside, God is doing a work inside us all.

Home Again, Again (Part One)

DSCN0098My face has been wearing excitement ever since you came.”  (Paul, a Ugandan man, on our coming)

I couldn’t get time to talk with you because my heart is full of joy and tears.”  (14-year old Daniel, on our leaving)

Those two comments bookended our trip to the village of Kaihura, Uganda last Summer.  One came in the midst of the singing and laughter that greeted us on our arrival; the other, jotted in a note given to me by Daniel’s friend on our leaving.  It’s both difficult to believe it has been a year since we were there and to believe that in less than a month we will return. 

Kaihura is not much more than a dusty stop on the road between Kampala and Ft. Portal, in the western part of Uganda not far from the border with the Congo.  The business district consists of a few tin-roofed shacks, painted with advertisements for cell phone companies.  Dirt roads and paths lead off road to homes, most of which are single room adobe buildings with thatch roofs or, for the fortunate few, tin roofs.  Windows are square holes; latrines, makeshift; electricity non-existent.  And yet, several thousand children, many of whom are orphaned, live in and around Kaihura, attending one of the three schools there, some walking several miles to school each day where they sit in classes sometimes with up to 100 students.

Here is here and there is there, and yet I have not forgotten them.  I’ve been reading my journal of last summer.  I realize I wrote so little because I was so exhausted every night when I lay down to sleep.  My scribblings  while in the van were barely legible, given the potholes and bumps along the way.  And yet, something of the experience comes through, some words like icons bid me look through them to the richly peopled landscape that lies beyond.  “I awoke to the sounds of a busy city, a man singing, women talking, traffic streaming by, the sound of sweeping” (Kampala),  “They carried our luggage up the hill from the bus stop, the man next to me repeating ‘This is God’s work, this is God’s work” (Kaihura).  At one point I say, maybe with too much drama, that “each day comes here with a hundred deaths, a moment by moment sacrifice of our own wants, needs, and desires for someone else. . . . I discover I am a novice at forsaking self-love.”  I remember not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, craving water and wanting to make sure I have enough, wanting just a little time alone to think, time to lie down and rest in the middle of a long day.  Words are almost better than the photos and video we shot, as words hold multi-layered possibilities, make me recall more than one place, time, or event, are actually fuller than images that say one thing about one place about one time.

IMG_0282 “But I am praying hard that God should keep us together in the Holy Spirit,” says Daniel in his letter to me.  Going back is a way of saying that we have not forgotten you.  More than anything, the Ugandan orphans want to know that someone knows their name, that someone thinks of them, that they matter to someone somewhere.  In a sea of faces, sometimes as many as a hundred staring back at me, it seems hopeless.  There were only 45 of us, and as many as a thousand of them.  But at least I know Daniel, and Sam, and Christina, and James, and Stephen. At least I know their names.

People v. God

Why god "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted." (Hab. 1:2-4)

It may well be that we are to be content in our circumstances, that life itself is grace, but apparently that does not mean that we cannot complain and cry out honestly to God. The Psalmist repeatedly asks why and how long, and not always with affirmations of love or sovereignty. But it is in Habakkuk, a short Old Testament book, that I find something astonishing: an indictment of God. The prophet is saying something like justice delayed is justice denied, not mincing words but speaking forthrightly to God. And God answers.

I recently read a letter written by a Zimbabwe pastor that updated praying friends on the situation in his country. A once reasonably prosperous country is in the midst of complete disintegration. Their currency is worthless. As many as 90% of the people are unemployed. Teachers are leaving the schools as no one is providing their salary. The infrastructure is decaying. Medical clinics and hospitals are closing. Civilization hangs by a thread that is slowly unraveling. Why? Why doesn't God uproot greedy, corrupt, and self-aggrandizing leaders who have led the country into such a state?

Having been to Uganda, I can appreciate the semblance of civility and infrastructure that exists there compared to a place like Zimbabwe. And yet even there you find greed, corruption, tribalism, and violence. People are murdered over land disputes. Roads are blockaded and money demanded from travelers in exchange for safe passage. If you are able to help some people, others become envious. For every adult there may be 100 children --- orphans living in the bush or together in makeshift huts. Warfare and disease have taken so many of the parents that the children have been left alone. Why?

God's answer to Habakkuk goes like this: "For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and not delay" (Hab. 2:3). In the end, Habakkuk's indictment is withdrawn, muted by the revelation that God is sovereign over all things, that the "Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights" (Hab. 3:19), implying that God will sustain and even grow you (take you higher) as a result of the hardship you endure. As the Zimbabwean pastor says: "God is refining the faith of His people so that they would trust Him, no matter what, when He seemed uncaring, when He seemed silent, when He seemed inactive." Even as he sees fellow believers leaving his country, leaving an already weakened church, he is able to see how God is pointing "around the world at other places of spiritual need," sending those Africans who leave to extend His Kingdom in other needy places.

Last weekend Patrick, one of the Ugandan orphans I met last summer, came here for a heart operation. (Read about it here.) His Aunt Elizabeth, a pastor herself, came with him. I reminded Elizabeth that while they have little in material goods to give us, they have much to give us in their testimony of faith and in their prayers. In the midst of abundance, we have less opportunity to trust God. The Ugandans have to trust Him every day --- for food, water, and clothing, all of which we take for granted. Aid may come, or not; Westerners like us come, and leave. But God is constant. They know the answer to why and how long. It's simply trust, and obey, and wait. God is on the move, but all in His time.

The Tragedy of Zimbabwe: A Review of “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun,” by Peter Godwin

croc In Peter Godwin’s memoir of Africa, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, one image serves as a potent metaphor for the political, economic, and social meltdown of Zimbabwe. Godwin’s aged parents, who lived in a house on the edge of Harare, had carefully cultivated a hedge around their home that shielded them from the hawkers, homeless, and thieves who plied the road in front of their home. One evening, after retiring to bed, he is awoken by the smell of smoke. The bougainvillea hedge surrounding their home is burning. As the fire engine takes more than an hour to arrive, the hedge is destroyed and, along with it, their cultivated privacy and sense of security from the near anarchy outside. As Godwin says: “[A]s the day lightens, we see that we are completely exposed, looking directly into the hawker’s camp and the busy throng of curious passersby beyond. . . . My parents have spent the last fifteen years tending this barrier against the huddled masses outside, reinforcing it until they have judged it impregnable, and it has been incinerated in an hour.” The barrier is gone, and with it the illusion of security. They are exposed.

Better than anyone I have yet read, Peter Godwin is able to vividly and personably record the sights and sounds of an unraveling civilization, of the impending collapse of a society. An African-born white Zimbabwean, Godwin grew up in a white-ruled Rhodesia under siege from guerilla forces. After white Rhodesians conceded to majority black rule under still governing Robert Mugabe, it initially seemed as if a multi-party, multi-racial democracy might work. Soon, however, Mugabe began “awarding” productive white-run farms to “wovits” (war veterans) and party loyalists. Productivity came to a standstill and, by some accounts, because of famine and oppression, over half the population left the country. Infrastructure fell into disrepair. Opposition political groups were targeted. And while Godwin’s account ends with his father’s death in 2004, we know that nothing has improved since that time.

Godwin is able to document this decline well, but more than serving as a political history, the memoir is also a family history. He comes to grip with a secret his father has withheld from him that deeply affects his own identity. He portrays how his parents coped with their decline in status in a society that no longer wanted “colonialists” around. Ultimately, he records his emotional journey to exile from his own country, a sense that his country has been stolen from him and he can longer live there and yet never feel at home anywhere else.

With all this misery, there’s not a lot of hope available, particularly for someone who does not embrace Christian faith. Yet, even here, there are both white and black people who demonstrate hope and heroism. In a grocery store line one day, his father finds that he is short of cash. As he begins to give the clerk items to put back on the shelves, a black woman he does not know that is farther back in the line pays the remainder due, something he had done for other black Africans in better times. Faced with an epileptic homeless man outside the gate to his parents’ home one day, Godwin himself sets aside the real danger of AIDS and reaches in the man’s mouth and pulls out his tongue, whereupon his fit settles. There are more such examples, and yet all this is like a narrow crack of light in darkness. The overwhelming emotion that can overtake you in reading such an account is deep sadness over the inhumanity of man, of his great capacity for evil, and of the awesome challenge of bringing hope to a place so charred by despair.

While there may not be a prescription here for how to effect change in a country and continent racked by disease, warfare, and corrupt and inept governments, it is a reminder that individual acts of love and charity matter. No amount of financial aid will cure Africa’s troubles. They are desperately in need of not just revival but of a deep and wide reformation that will extend to family, social, economic, and political life. This book is a compellingly human, richly detailed, deeply personal, and richly informative account of a world gone wrong. Yet for hope and salvation, one must look elsewhere.

What People Said

logo21 Hey, how was your vacation?

Incredible. Difficult.

What’d you do?

We went to Uganda on a missions trip.

That’s nice.

That word “nice,” the epitome of innocuousity (I know, that’s probably not a word, but you know what I mean), should be excised from the English language. Here it likely means “that sounds awful,” or “I’m not interested in hearing about it,” or even “end of conversation because I don’t want you telling me that I should go.” I want to say our trip to Uganda was a lot of things but it wasn’t just nice, but that wouldn’t have been. . . well. . . nice.

How was your trip to Uganda?


What did you do?

Srape, paint, put in a library, feed 800 people, and play with kids. Lots of kids. We’re hoping we can start an agricultural co-op or something so that they can become more self-sufficient.

They’ll just end up taking each other’s stuff.

No, these people work really hard and really seem honest.

I’m sure they do, but if one gets ahead, that’ll change. They’re always fighting over there.

I was prepared for that kind of conversation. Paige said she was angry for three months after she first came back. And yet it’s still frustrating. I’m well aware that our Ugandan friends are sinners just like us, but I reject the hopeless kind of thinking this person exemplifies, the sense that there’s really no sense helping these people because nothing will change.

Whenever I leave for some significant period of time, and particularly when I come back from often life-changing experiences like our trip to Uganda (I’ve had two or three), I’m reminded again of several things: some people don’t know I ever left, I am not indispensable (that is, nothing fell apart while I was gone), and many people, while polite, are not really interested in hearing about your life-changing experience. Besides, Africa is far, far away and the intense feelings you have cannot easily be communicated. Actually, you may sound a little nutty. I know, because I’ve heard people like me before.

And yet others do care. In my place of work, many of my co-workers read everything on the blog and want me to show pictures and talk about my experience at lunch one day. They may even make Kaihura, Uganda a Christmas project. Then there is the African-American woman who I talked with who, only a minute into the conversation, had tears in her eyes and told me she had always wanted to go to Africa. We can only testify and tell our stories and let God do the rest. He has to open hearts.

The most surprising reaction? That’s easy. Wednesday I’m negotiating a settlement with an attorney, normally a give-and-take process, and surprisingly he accepts my price right away, saying “I’m not going to argue with anyone who’s been in Uganda for two weeks doing what you did.” Now that’s miraculous and undeserved. (And right then I knew I should have started with a higher price!)

I don’t have to convince anyone. I don’t need to change the world. We’re all of us storytellers, that’s all, and we can’t help ourselves. It doesn’t matter so much what they said. It matters what we say. Just tell the truth and someone might just surprise you.

Coming Home to Joy (Notes from Kaihura)

logo21 [I wrote these recollections of our recent mission trip to Uganda while on the long plane trip coming home. They are by no means all I have to say about the wonderful people of Kaihura, but they begin to tell about what it is like there, and what it is like to leave. Please continue to read the Embrace Uganda blog to hear more.]

When I walked down the loading bridge to the plane in Entebbe, a blast of cold air hit me. Air conditioning. Settling into my seat, I realized that I had suddenly crossed over, from a mostly pre-modern world to a very modern world. It made me sad.

I am still trying to hold in my mind specific images of Kaihura, particularly the faces of our friends. Saturday morning they met us at Faith’s home, the orphan children from Home Again and the children from the Dorcas Vocational School, as well as pastors and adults who had welcomed and assisted us, and we walked the quarter mile down dirt roads to the tiny business district of Kaihura, the children insisting on carrying our luggage.

Our bus came. We boarded. As we looked out the window of the bus, our Ugandan friends were weeping. My friend Sam, a gifted 18 year-old young man, was standing in the back, wiping tears from behind his sunglasses. Joanne, with whom I played many games at Home Again, was her usual placid self, but tears were in her eyes. Daniel did not cry but stood right in front looking at me. He wrote me a letter, and drew a picture of flowers for me, but at 15 was too concerned at becoming emotional to deliver it himself. Stephen, who has broken his arm, was looking on. I pointed to each of them and waved, wanting them to know that I was saying good bye to them as individuals, that I would miss them, that there were no little people in Kaihura. When you look out and see 400 kids looking intently at you, it’s sometimes overwhelming to realize that each one is made in God’s image, that each one is a soul in need of redemption, that each one has dreams and troubles of their own.

Behind me I hear the uncharacteristic sobbing of my 13-year old daughter Anna. In front of me, my 16-year old son Stephen was crying. And so was I. Not only because I would miss them but because unlike us they could not leave behind the relentless hardship of life, a life they lived, however, with faith, hope, and love. But then as sad as it was to say goodbye to them, just as sad were those faces of the countless other adults and many children of the community who stood outside their homes and shops and alongside dirt streets and the main road and sadly watched us leave, most of whom I had not been able to get to know, leaving them to substandard, often unaffordable health care, poor education (despite the dedication of some teachers), and with neither running water nor electricity. We were leaving.

During the course of the two weeks, Stephen and I interviewed all 25 teenagers that went on the trip, in addition to some others. These kids raised their own support and often more in order to come. Some were curious. Some felt called by God. None were prepared for the overwhelming love they experienced and the work God did in them and through them in a relatively short time --- exposing self-centeredness, teaching them how to worship freely, and meeting their need for phileo love, the deep love of authentic friendship that the children and adults here gave to them. They also grew in their love for one another --- helping, loving, and sharing with each other. Practically all of them wanted to stay. Several of them cried at the mention of leaving or when they began to talk of how being there had affected them.

We adults have said many goodbyes. We forget what it is to be a teenager, where goodbyes seem for a time to be the end of life as we know it and we cannot imagine a world without whatever it is we leave behind. We have also had mountaintop experiences only to return to the mundane plain of life. We know that life will go on, that we will return to the familiar patterns of life on the other side. We say we have perspective. And yet we too easily guard our emotions, steeling ourselves against disappointment. Maybe deep down we are tainted by a cultural cynicism. And yet what these young people give us is a sense of the intensity of experience because they are less guarded, more engaged emotionally, and more in touch with the present moment. Can you remember that time in your life? It’s worth trying to remember, worth letting go of talk of perspective and letting the intensity of the moment, whether of sadness or happiness, wash over you. Then you will go on, but you will not be the same.

I don’t want to be the same. Perspective tells me that I live in a different world than my Ugandan friends, and yet my heart tells me we are the same. I find myself already adapting my conversation and attitudes to the world I live in, and yet I feel a bit estranged. I am home, and yet ill at ease, aware that something is amiss. Something is. To use scriptural words, being an “alien and stranger” on the earth takes on new meaning. I’m feeling alienated. It feels strange. And yet it feels better. I have a better sense that this world is not my home, that my citizenship is not here.

I don’t want to be the same. I don’t want to forget. I plan on surrounding myself with pictures of my Ugandan friends, visible reminders of faith, hope, and love, and talking about what I heard, saw, and learned. If I can remember the faces of my friends standing on that roadside in Kaihura, I can change. God can do a work in me too. We may have had tears, but God promises that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy,” shall “come home with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:5-6). I’m not happy about leaving. I’m not completely happy about being home. But there is joy knowing that God is at work in Kaihura. . . and in me.

For Prayer (Embrace Uganda)

Well, we are almost ready to leave, and today my attention turns outward from home to travel.  We're all a bit excited about what is upcoming in our trip to Uganda.  Please continue to check the blog for updates on our team.  But there's another thing you can do as well.  You can pray for us.  Here are some good prayers:

  • logo21 That will have safe travel.  We go by van to Washington Dulles, and then 7 hours by plane to Amsterdam, and then after a 4-hour layover, another 7 hours to Uganda.  No bed in between!
  • That we will all have good health while we are there.  We have all the necessary immunizations, will be on anti-malaria medication, and have the usual over the counter medicines with us, but pray for our health. 
  • That we would think not of ourselves and our inconveniences but of those we are there to serve.  Pray we might serve them joyfully.
  • That God would change us all while we are there, making us more aware and grateful for his provision for us and more aware of the needs of others.
  • That, as we are able, we would have opportunity to share the hope of the Gospel with others.

Today's post on the blog, by Dirk Hamp, is both encouraging and sobering, about the promise and peril in Uganda.  I think some of the folks already there are overcome at times with the needs.  We do what we can, and we rely on God to ultimately carry all of the suffering.

Thank you for your prayers.  Enjoy the blog.  And come back here after June 30th to hear more about my perspective on the trip.

On Leaving (Embrace Uganda)

logo21 I am going far away.  On Monday my family and I join 30 other parents, students, and teachers for a two-week mission trip to the village of Kaihura, Uganda.  You can imagine what getting ready for this trip has been like, and what a week of anticipation, packing, and last-minute details this has been.

But mostly, like the eve of every long trip I have ever taken, today has not been about that far away place, largely unknown to me, unexplored, full of uncertainty, but about this place, about home, about the familiar and certain places and sounds that are as second nature to me as breathing.  Today I've been walking through this place and saying goodbye.

I don't think we were meant to be wanderers.  I cannot imagine a person or a people who do not want a home and homeland, who move through life as transients.  We're meant to put down roots, to find our promised land, a place and life that in its best moments anticipates a true Home and Homeland to come.  When I'm leaving, I'm reminded of this.

Today, I said goodbye to the still water of the lake, to the geese with their young, to pine trees and gray squirrels that inhabit my yard.  I said goodbye to the robin, the goldfinch, and the two deer that have been munching grass in the unclaimed woods behind my home.  I leave behind the music of this place, like Claire Holley's "Visit Me," a song that carries the sound of home, with its country sound and pedal steel, just a little wistful, just a little longing.  I will miss every comfortable chair, every quiet corner, every footfall of my children in our home, and the purr from contented cats.  I'm homesick for it all!

You might accuse be of being sentimental, but I don't think of it that way.  I love home.  I think the more I love home the more I know of my eternal Home.  My duty now is to love His world, to love a particular place, a particular home.  And when I go away, far away, it's in part to have my own love for home nurtured.

We're going far away.  We need to go.  We'll make new friends, have our eyes opened, be given new visions.  But I can't wait to come home.

[You can follow our trip on our blog.  Everyone is posting.  You might even see a post from me.]

Things of the World, Grow Dim (Embrace Uganda)




Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of the world look strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

You may recall the melody of this old and shopworn praise song.  I do.  While I cannot easily sing it anymore without a slight cringe, if you divorce it from the tune for a moment, the words are right on: In the light of Jesus, the one who gives meaning to everything of the world, the things of the world do look dim by comparison, and yet by His light we better see what is true, good, and beautiful.

If your family is like mine, you are used to a significant measure of peace and prosperity as compared to the rest of the world. For many months, my wife and I have felt that we needed to be awakened --- not only for our sake but for the sake of our children.  We assume much, take for granted much.  I think and write often about the built environment and marvel at how cities work --- clean water flows via underground pipes and sewage is carried away, electricity is dependable and relatively inexpensive, streets paved an almost entirely without potholes, the grocery store has every food item I could possibly need and more, 95% of us are employed, even the worst schools give the basics and most do much better, and so on.  And yet, even marveling at all this, I cannot hold it in my mind for more than a few minutes.  Life goes on and I assume much.  I'm not confronted everyday with poverty or public infrastructure that is non-existent or substandard.

Late last year we heard of an opportunity to join other students, parents and teachers from Trinity Academy of Raleigh, our children's school, and a local organization called Embrace Uganda, on a two-week missions trip to the village of Kaihura, Uganda.  Kaihura is about three hours drive over rough road from Kampala and Entebbe Airport, a small village in the mountains with little electricity, no running water, and no healthcare.  Our entire family committed to going.  We decided we wanted to share the same experience.  We'll be helping with some additional construction at a vocational school there, working with the orphanage, doing soccer and other games, and carrying books to start the village's first library.  You can find out more about it here

As I prayed about going on this trip, I was confronted by a number of issues:

  • Fear.  What if I or a member of my family had a major health concern while there? I confess this was the largest obstacle for me.  We did the prudent thing, making sure we have medical evacuation insurance, but we are a long way from a quality hospital.  The "what ifs" are haunting.  And yet the bottom line, the thing I return to, is that we are all in good health, have a doctor along on the trip, and have this opportunity to trust God.  "[F]or God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control" (2 Ti 1:7).  And I know better than to make decisions based on fear (even though I feel it at times).  Will I trust God?
  • Calling.  As we considered whether to go, we all prayed for guidance.  And yet what are we looking for?  God has rarely hit me over a head with something, and I still cannot say I have a passion for going, but I do have a passion to be changed, to be molded by God into a shape more resembling who He made me to be.  I think that's where we all come down, putting ourselves in an uncomfortable place so God can use us.  But shouldn't I feel more passion for this mission?
  • Selfishness.  Every Summer our family takes a long two-week vacation.  I love these times.  I love being together, even if the biggest arguments I have had with my children come on vacation.  We have years of shared memories from these trips.  This Summer we will not do that, or, at least we will not do it alone.  I have to share my kids with many other people.  I'll miss this.  I also miss home, familiar places and things, my books, my music, my church, my friends, and good restaurants.  And yet it's only two weeks, right?  All of this tells me how self-centered I have become, how used to having things my way.

You know, I don't want to leave home.  I don't want to do without a shower and toilet using a latrine, carrying water from a well and bathing from a bucket, interacting daily with tons of people, a stranger in a strange land.  I'm just being honest.  But I do want to change.  I'm praying that song --- that as I look to Jesus the things I love too much in this world will grow dimmer, that I'll see through them to what matters.  Pray for our preparation.  Pray for our safety.  But most of all, pray that God would transform us and conform us to the image of His Son.