The funny thing about my time in Uganda was that it was the trip that most impacted me (except for perhaps Bolivia, because I was there for nine months and had chance to really get to know people) – and yet it was the shortest of all the trips I did. I have so many very clear memories from my time in Uganda, which makes me feel like I was there for months – and yet in reality I was only there for one very packed week. While there I was shocked by things that I saw and experienced, shocked in a way that no other country was able to shock me. It was the most sobering, and the scariest week of my life so far. And it’s immensely difficult to express this to people. I know so many people who have been to Uganda and had a wonderful time, thoroughly enjoyed themselves or been pushed out of their comfort zone a little but nothing quite like what I experienced. There are wonderful things and shocking things in every culture, I believe, and for one week I was given opportunity to see a side of Uganda that the vast majority of western visitors never see. It was beyond anything I knew how to process in my mind. By way of explanation I will attempt to describe some of the things I experienced.
Firstly – this seems very trivial in comparison with other elements of the trip – the ‘boda bodas’. These are motorbike taxis which are available in most countries across Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia and elsewhere. During my time in Uganda I was staying in a village near the capital city but spent my afternoons and evenings out in more rural villages about an hour’s journey from where I was staying. To get there I travelled by boda boda (motorbike taxi), seated side-saddle because of supposed decency as I’m female and had to wear skirts, and there was little to hold onto. There were no handles under the seats like there are in the city and in other countries, and holding onto anything below the seat would burn the hands – so I had to hold onto the driver, which was frowned upon since the drivers are male. Normally the women in the villages simply balance. There was also nowhere to put one’s feet in order to keep one’s balance – resting one’s legs or feet on the parts of the motorbike would melt one’s shoes and burn one’s legs. I really don’t know how Ugandan women do it. And if balancing on the motorbike isn’t difficult enough with these restrictions, the drivers would drive like madmen – travelling incredibly fast on steep and very bumpy dirt roads, with lots of lifting off the ground as a result and even skidding fair distances down steep gravel or dust slopes. I would dread those rides, every time convinced that I would fall off and injure myself or even die. The adrenaline was immense. I was terrified, and really don’t know how I managed to stay on every time! I was both laughed at and frowned at for clinging so desperately to the driver, but there was little else I could do to try to stay on.
For this and other reasons it really bothered me that I had no access to any working phone or Internet and so if I were to injure myself or die, perhaps nobody would know for days or even weeks. I knew that throughout my time in the country my then boyfriend Ben was praying for me a lot from a distance, which brought some consolation – but it was difficult not being able to communicate with him or anyone else outside the country.
I was, however, able to process my experiences each day to a certain extent in conversation with my hosts, and ask their advice. I was staying in a small boarding school run by a friendly English couple in their early sixties. They had started this ‘international school’ (a school taught in the English language and of higher learning standards than ‘local schools’) with the aim of breaking down some of the rich-poor divide in the city, through offering boarding and education free for street children that they found who wanted to learn, and paid boarding and education for families who could afford it. It was surprisingly successful in its aims and they noticed little segregation or envy between the children! I was sharing a bunk room with various children of primary-school age, and woke up to them singing Christian songs in English every morning in the bedroom, just for fun. It was a very inspiring, if somewhat tiring, place to stay, and I loved being there. They even had a toilet and cold running water, which felt like such luxury. The couple who owned the place were good to talk to and eager to help me understand the culture.
My initial reason for going to Uganda was because I had received invitations from a small local Christian organisation that I had been watching and communicating with through Facebook for a few years prior to the trip. They do a lot of educational events in far-flung villages with the aim of community development; teaching hygiene and basic life skills. They also preach at Christian crusades and conferences. I had been inspired by their work over the years of watching them on Facebook – and they kept on asking me to come out and visit them to see firsthand what they do. Eventually, since I was now planning to be in East Africa anyway at this particular point in my Gap Year, I said that I would come over for a week to visit and watch them at work.
It transpired that the people who had invited me, who organsied my daytime and evening schedule (and who expected me to ride Boda-Bodas with as much confidence and balance as any local) had never before worked with any foreigners. They had seen them in passing when visiting Kampala but rarely had a conversation face to face. Many of the residents of the villages we visited had never seen a white person – and some were even convinced that I was a ghost.
Along the way (before I got to Uganda) there were various ‘miscommunications’. For example, people from the organisation booked me into a western hotel in the capital city, which I could not afford, and told me what I would have to pay. I told them that I could not afford it, and they did not believe me (‘but you’re white!’). After a fairly long process of conversing about this, and beginning to stress a little, I found contact details for this couple with the boarding school and asked if I could stay with them. I had to be quite firm with the organisation that had invited me, because they really wanted me to stay in a western hotel and were convinced that I could pay for it.
People from that organisation also told me that local Christian leaders in Ugandan villages do not have access to the Bible, and asked for my help. I was surprised that church leaders would not have the Bible, and I asked what I could do about it. They asked for money to buy Bibles (about £7 per Bible including transport costs to go and buy them from the city), and when I said that I didn’t really have any money they asked me to bring some Bibles from my country, claiming that everyone would be able to understand English. So I sent out messages to various Christian friends and Christian organisations in England (this was all while I was in Guatemala), asking people to donate any old unwanted Bibles so that I could bring them to give to Christian leaders in Ugandan villages. I managed to organise it so that that people would post their old Bibles to a friend of mine who would put them into two large unwanted suitcases and bring them to Heathrow for me to collect on my changeover day between the Czech Republic and Uganda trips. I booked two one-way checked bags from Heathrow to Kampala, and everything so far went fairly smoothly. I collected the suitcases and managed to get them to Kampala. However, when I got there and gave them to the people from the organisation to distribute the Bibles, I found that it was only people who lived in or near the capital city who spoke English, and that most of those people already had Bibles anyway (those who wanted them) – especially the church leaders. I also discovered that most of those who complained about not being able to afford Bibles actually all had smartphones and large televisions….
Another funny miscommunication between myself and the organisation was timekeeping. Each day I was told, ‘someone will come and pick you up at 10am’. And each day, someone came to meet me – not at 10am but at 4pm. After the first few days of this happening, I realised that timekeeping was somewhat different in remote Ugandan villages to what I was used to back home in the UK. As a result I began using my time more productively rather than simply waiting around for hours. I started teaching Maths and Geography to Year 4 students from about 9am until 3.30pm in the boarding school to earn my keep, which was really good fun. I felt like I learnt a lot from those children!
When I did go out to the villages with the organisation, except for my time travelling on the ‘boda bodas’ I felt quite well protected by those who worked for the organisation. They were constantly looking out for my wellbeing, walking either side of me and making sure that when we were staying in one place I would sit in the shade as much as possible rather than standing in the sun, joking that they heard rumours that I might ‘turn from white to red’.
However, instead of my trip being all about seeing their work and watching them do the things that I had read about on their Facebook page, as I had been led to believe, I was actually given fairly major tasks and responsibilities for the duration of my time there. Having discovered that the organisation had never before had any dealings with westerners except through Facebook, I soon realised that they thought the colour of my skin made me capable and qualified to do absolutely anything.
For example, I was expected to preach at open-air crusades for at least an hour every evening, without using any notes and at the top of my voice as they had no amplification and hundreds of people would gather to listen. I found that pretty scary, especially the first few times! Needless to say, I had a painful throat and little voice left by the end of the week from the daily shout-preaching. They also expected me to spend hours each day providing counselling for women who had lost their whole families to AIDS and other diseases, and to others dying of various conditions. And of course I was asked for money by people from the organisation several times a day ‘because your country is very rich’, and, ‘because you saved money from not staying in a hotel’, and, ‘ask your family and friends – they will be kind to us’.
It turned out that I had also been advertised as the keynote speaker at a pastors’ training conference for the last three days of my stay, and then at a large open-air crusade on the final evening. I know very little about the work of pastors, especially in Uganda, and felt completely unequipped to teach them (at age 18 with no firsthand experience of the work of pastors, nor of life in Uganda). Although I expressed this numerous times, they simply kept on telling me not to be modest and to trust in God to equip me. Argh! One positive thing about the pastors’ conference, though, was cabbage! Until this point, my every meal so far – including at my accommodation – had been ‘posho and beans’: African black beans in a thin sauce, with a flavourless white paste made from maize flour and water. At the pastors’ conference we each had a small amount of cabbage in the bean sauce in addition to the ‘posho and beans’, which was wonderful!
Something I found interesting was that in the capital city and the slums around the outskirts of the city many of the children would approach me and beg, while in the poorer villages further away I saw nobody begging but instead crowds of children would simply follow me wherever I walked out of curiosity, like in many parts of Africa. Also in the slums near the city the houses would be incredibly basic, with poorly-attached tin roofs and often just one very old and dirty mattress shared by a family of seven or eight who would all live and sleep in one small room with very few possessions – and yet, almost every house would have a TV! It was a huge culture shock to me to see that the TV would take such a high priority over all other possessions including decent mattresses, food, crockery and potentially life-saving mosquito nets. In the further away and poorer communities where we spent the afternoons and evenings, though, there were certainly no TVs. The poverty there was beyond anything I had ever imagined, and I spent almost the whole of my first afternoon/evening desperately fighting back tears and wondering what on earth I thought I was doing and how I could possibly preach there. The houses were made largely of what can only be described as sticks, and patched up with whatever pieces of cardboard or metal or fabric that could be found – often with large gaps or missing walls or no ceiling – and had no possessions inside except perhaps a dirty rag for a blanket and a bucket for washing the one outfit that each of the adults possessed and the one item of clothing possessed by each of the children. I have never before or since seen such poverty. The smell in these places was making me gag almost constantly. In a couple of these villages it was clear that every person living there had life-threatening diseases of some kind, and people did not live long. I genuinely felt at times as if I would not leave the country alive because of all the disease surrounding me on every side. I was scared, lost for words and and incredibly upset by what I saw all around me. How on earth was I supposed to preach to these people?! But I did. I had to. I would preach there, and then return each night to a brick house with running water and even occasional electricity. I felt like such a hypocrite.
On the Saturday night the organisation had planned the largest of all the open-air crusades of that week. They had been looking forward to it immensely. I had not. Incidentally, on that same evening, one of my favourite American musicians was doing a world tour and happened to be in the capital city, an hour or so from where I was staying, and my hosts were going to the concert! Due to unexpected illness they had a ticket going spare and a spare seat in their car, and they offered it to me for free. I had never before seen this musician live, but had dreamt about it… And he was in Uganda! At the same time as I was!!
After being offered the ticket I was very torn. I felt like I had definitely deserved some time off and had earned the right to go to the concert and have a good time, just for one evening, after what a struggle the rest of my week in Uganda had been. However, I knew that it would be a huge letdown to the people in this strange Ugandan organisation who were counting on me to be the keynote speaker for the biggest event of their week, even their month. By this point I had stopped resenting them for making me preach, for pushing me way out of my comfort zone, and for constantly asking me for money… I still despised having to preach, though, and was dreading the evening. I really didn’t want another evening of being on a big stage, in the intense heat, with everyone staring at me because of the colour of my skin, and having to come up with things to say to them on the spot for an hour or more. I really didn’t enjoy doing that each day and it certainly was not how I had imagined the trip to be. And I knew that this particular evening would have even more people in the crowd waiting expectantly for me to say something meaningful. I felt like I certainly had the right to let them down and go to the concert and enjoy myself. But I did feel bad, knowing how excited the organisation had been about that particular evening. I didn’t have the heart to let them down (and didn’t want to see their reaction if I were to tell them), so I went to their crusade as planned, slightly upset and a little resentful but feeling like maybe, possibly, I might have done the right thing…
That Saturday evening was by far the most memorable of all the crusades that I had been a part of throughout the trip. People arrived and started to sing and dance from 10am, I was told – though I didn’t get there until 12. I sat in the shade and watched the wild improvised singing and dancing all day, far too shattered and self-conscious to consider joining in, and aware that I was being stared at by many. I was told that no white person had ever visited this particular village, and that nobody from the village had ever left it – so I was the first ‘mzungu’ anyone there had ever seen. As a result people would tentatively approach me and prod me (apparently to check that I wasn’t a ghost), or stroke my skin or pull my hair. At first I found this funny, but it got pretty annoying quite quickly. Eventually the sun started to set and the evening began, and I started to get increasingly nervous about what I might say from the stage. I looked around to try to guess who my translator might be for the evening.
Throughout the week I had noticed the various Ugandan pastors and Christian leaders saying a number of things about God or about the Christian life, things that I disagreed with and considered to be quite damaging. So I decided to use that Saturday evening to address some of those. In part this was probably because I was resenting not being at the concert, reasoning that if they wanted me to preach then they would have to put up with what I wanted to say, since I was a little fed up of dancing to their tune all week. An example of something I had heard people saying over and over again was that when people become Christians, life ceases to have problems and God fixes everything straight away. That if a Christian has a disease and is not suddenly and miraculously healed, it must simply be a sign of their lack of faith or the insincerity of their decision to follow God. That God wants to bless His people with abundant finances and that becoming a Christian would make their businesses successful. Whenever I heard these things I was irritated or even angered, but after various arguments with them about it I felt like there was little I could do to stop them saying these things. So, that Saturday evening I spoke my mind, in front of several hundred eager listeners, and I read them various Bible passages to back up what I was saying.
I assume I annoyed most of the pastors and Christian leaders there (two of them told me afterwards that they didn’t like what I said, and one claimed to be speaking on behalf of all the other pastors too), but I felt like it was worth it. After my talk several people approached me in tears, thanking me again and again because they had been led to believe that their poverty and sickness was their own fault for not having enough faith in God, and they had felt an immense amount of guilt because of it. I was glad that I had the opportunity to speak out for them, even if it annoyed some of their leaders. I will never quite know if my on-stage translator translated accurately what I said, or if he put his own spin on it to change the message a little – but there’s nothing I can do about that.
Another thing that had annoyed me about these crusades was that at the end of the sermons (there would usually be one longer sermon of an hour or more, and five or six shorter talks of ten minutes or so – I was told that I had to do the main, longer one each evening) there would be what they called a ‘ministry time’, which involved all the pastors and Christian leaders getting up onto the stage and shouting curses at the devil, over the people standing below. I was shocked! It made me wonder, who were these people that I was working for?! When I asked about it, they said that they were expelling the demons from the people so that people would be healed and would be able to receive a blessing from God. It was pretty scary to watch, though, and it seemed as if nobody particularly enjoyed this time except for those on stage doing the shouting. I didn’t like it either. So on that Saturday night I decided to address this in my own way. I had noticed that throughout each of the crusades each evening any children who were present were sent away to play in the trees and not be a part of the proceedings – they were not to disturb the adults under any circumstances but were to go and play in the trees and keep themselves to themselves. This irritated me. So on that Saturday evening I told the pastors and leaders that I would lead the ‘ministry time’ that evening, in a slightly different way.
They agreed, and when the time came they all came pouring onto the stage expecting it to be the same as every other night, but I sent them down off the stage. They looked at me with blank, confused expressions. I stood on the stage and spoke briefly about prayer, about how everyone can come to God and talk to Him directly, and that He listens regardless of whether we shout or speak normally or even whisper. People seemed surprised at this and after a few moments of surprised silence there was some whooping, cheering and other noises of similar significance – the same reaction that I had had when I had said a similar thing in a different village on a previous evening. I then encouraged them to begin to pray for themselves and for each other – to tell God what their needs are and what they’re thankful for, and to say whatever they wanted to say to God. Then I called the children from the trees to come near to the stage, and told them the same thing – that they can talk to God openly and directly if they want to, and that God will listen and cares about what is on their minds. I then invited people from the crowd to come forwards if they want someone to pray for them, and I encouraged the children to go and pray for these people. I told them that they don’t need to shout for God to hear them, but that they can just talk to God and tell Him what is on their minds. This seemed to shock people quite a lot – the concept that we don’t need to shout; that we can talk to God directly and do not need to just keep telling demons to go away; that even children can talk to God and be listened to… The idea of almost subjecting oneself to a child for a few minutes, asking a child to pray for them, seemed to shock people too – and a few people shouted angrily before being shushed by those around them who had intrigued and expectant expressions on their faces. The children were very excited and chatted loudly amongst themselves with huge smiles and a huge amount of energy. I don’t think anyone quite knew what to expect.
For one very awkward minute nobody moved, but people just stood looking blankly at me. Then someone came forward to be prayed for by one of the children. I was beginning to think that nobody would – it is such a cultural taboo to consider subjecting oneself to a child, since children are seen by many as dirty and irresponsible and irritating. I began to wonder if I should have just let the pastors do their usual intimidating shouting thing, and kept out of it. But one lady pushed her way forward through the crowd for a child to pray for her, and afterwards many, many others followed. This particular woman had impressed me from the start of the trip. She was travelling to these crusades with the pastors and myself – she was the only other woman travelling with us. She did not work for the organisation; I think perhaps one of the pastors had asked her to come as some female company for me. I appreciated it! She had answered some of my questions about the culture, though she was not used to people questioning things. She had asked me many things about my culture, too. One afternoon before one of the crusades she had brought me to see her house. She lived in one of the slums in the outskirts of the capital city, in one of those tiny houses that had very little in them except for a TV. She also had an old wooden table, and a very tatty sponge mattress rolled up under the table. I could see that the mattress was infested with who knows how many kinds of insects, and was absolutely filthy, though she said she washed it as often as she could. It had worn very thin and had many holes in it.
She had introduced me to some girls who were living with her, and told me that she had never had a husband or children of her own, though she was in her mid twenties. She said that she could not bear to see young girls prostituting themselves in the roads in order to be able to afford to eat, and that whenever she saw girls doing this in her own area she would ask them if they wanted to come and live with her instead. She had, by this point, accumulated eight girls aged between seven and sixteen, all of whom had been living on the streets and working as prostitutes. She said that since they had lived with her she taught them that it was wrong to have sex with lots of men, and she taught them ‘good moral values’. She was teaching them to sing and dance, and to pray, and to forget life’s troubles. She could afford to eat one small meal (posho and beans) with them each day. She kept on asking the local school to give her old textbooks or worksheets or exercise books or pens so that the girls could learn – she could not afford to buy uniform or books for them to go to the school itself – but they would not give her anything. I really wished I had money to buy them a new mattress and some school supplies. They all slept in this ‘house’ of two tiny rooms. The stove was kept outside and was shared by the surrounding houses. Each night the girls would put the table on its side and roll the mattress out on the floor – the three older girls and the lady would squash up together on the mattress while the five younger girls would sleep on the dirt floor in the other (empty) room. I was later able to put her in touch with a friend in the UK who began sending money each month so that the girls could go to school and buy some of the things they needed – but at this stage I didn’t know that this would be possible and I felt powerless to help her. Anyway, this was the lady who first stepped forward on that Saturday night and let a child pray for her – an action which inspired many others to do the same.
This somewhat different form of ‘ministry time’ on that Saturday night seemed to go very well! Then afterwards there was some more singing and dancing for half an hour or so, followed by a viewing of the ‘Jesus film’ – someone had hung a tatty and torn grey sheet from some sticks to make a screen, and one of the pastors had borrowed a little projector with a DVD player and a very small and noisy generator from someone in the city, and everyone sat down on the ground to watch the film. People from the village (and the surrounding villages) marvelled, having never seen things like TV or generators etc, and wondering how the people that they could see on the screen were walking around there on the grey sheet. They shouted out questions and greetings and wondered why the people on the screen were unresponsive. People looked absolutely baffled. After a short while though, they settled and got into the storyline a bit more. At this point, one of the pastors – the one that had organised my ‘schedule’ – told me to go with him and get in the small car that had transported all eight pastors at once to the event that day (there had been three in the front and five in the back, sitting on each other’s knees). I said that I’d quite like to stay and watch the film with the people as I had never seen it before and enjoyed the atmosphere now that the preaching was over, though I couldn’t understand the language. He was quite insistent that I got in the car with him and there was an urgency in his voice, so I did. Thankfully this particular village was in a fairly flat area, so the car and boda-boda had been able to drive all the way to near the makeshift stage, whereas in many of the other villages we had had to walk about half an hour after the pastors parked the car and I got off the boda-boda. He speedily drove me back to my accommodation and told me that he would explain the situation the following day.
The next day I was due to leave the country in late-afternoon, and since it was a Sunday I was told that I would be visiting a church. I was collected at 9am in the car, and was taken to a church some distance away. I had felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to preach any more and could just visit and relax. However, after some songs (we arrived late and had missed about half an hour’s worth of singing and dancing, but caught about ten minutes of it) the pastor of that church formally welcomed me – ‘our sister from the west!’ – and then looked at me expectantly and sat down. The man who had driven me there (the same one who had organised my schedule) led me up to the stage and stood beside me to translate. He told me that now I must preach to the church for at least half an hour. Ugh. At least for the crusades I was aware that I had to speak and had had some time to think about what I might say, but here I was completely unprepared and caught off guard.
So I stressed and prayed for a few moments, and decided to speak on the topic of prayer. I spoke on the Lord’s Prayer and went through it line-by-line, talking about the different things that each line or section could mean or represent in our conversations with God. This talk went fairly well and I was relieved at the end when we left the church. Afterwards, when I thought we were driving back to my accommodation, we ended up driving to another church, this one a very simple stick-structure. Some long, fairly straight branches of trees had been tied together very simply to form the structure of the church, and there were no walls or ceiling or anything, just sticks marking out the corners and indicating where the walls and ceiling should be. We walked through a large bog to get to that church and I was surprised when I finally saw it! There I was asked to preach again, and spoke on something different. From there we went to another church, where some children performed a few choreographed dances for the congregation to watch, and afterwards I was expected to preach again. In total there were five churches that we visited that day, one after another, each a bit of a distance apart, and it took us a couple of hours to drive back to my accommodation afterwards. In each of the churches I was expected to preach a fairly long sermon, because I’m a white visitor – and I don’t even know if any of them had expected us or whether they simply saw that there was a white visitor and therefore expected me to preach. That was the impression I got…
During one of the car journeys between churches, I asked the driver what the situation had been the previous night and why it was that I had had to leave so suddenly. He explained that many people from the surrounding villages had been excited that a white person was coming to preach to them that evening. He said that the witchdoctors from some of those villages had gathered together and decided to kidnap the white preacher towards the end of the evening and eat the white skin in order to enhance their supernatural powers. Apparently they believed that this would prove to the villagers that they were in control, and that the Christians were not. During the evening, somehow somebody had become aware of this plan, and had notified one of the pastors. Then when the ‘Jesus film’ started playing, that pastor saw a few known witchdoctors around the edges of the crowd beginning to slowly close in from different directions, and told the man who had organised my schedule to take me back to the city as soon as possible. I was very shaken hearing about this, and was glad that I had not known about it during the evening!!
On that Sunday evening I was given a drive-through-tour of the capital city on the back of a boda-boda with the inspiring lady that I mentioned earlier. It was a big culture shock after spending all my time (when not in the boarding school) out in the rural villages where people had almost nothing. Although my accommodation had been on the outskirts of the capital city, I had not had to travel through the city before. I was shown the large buildings, expensive hotels and restaurants, conference centres and monuments.
We also drove past a large, well-decorated modern church which I was told was famous worldwide. I heard that the church had a children’s choir who travelled the world singing and raising money for their church. I then remembered how a children’s choir from a Ugandan church had performed in my hometown a year or two before, and realised that it was the same choir. I had not attended their concert but had heard from people that they had told many emotional stories about poverty and disease and other struggles, and that people had given them huge amounts of money in response. So when we passed the church itself, I asked my Ugandan friend what people in her area thought of the choir – were they very good musically? She said that since each of the children had had specialised vocal training, they were very good musically – but that all the other churches in the area resented them a little because of their wealth. They spent vast amounts of money on music training and on flying the children around the world for the tours – money that could be better spent on benefitting the poor in their area. She said that they always brought back extortionate amounts of money from concert ticket prices and from people’s generous donations, but gave none of it to help the poor: that the whole lot was spent on the church building and advancing their very modern and expensive sound system, and on building a fancy extension on the pastor’s house. I don’t know how much of this was true, but it is what she said everyone in her area believed. I was taken aback – many westerners had been led to believe that they were giving their money to help people in extreme poverty, and yet it seemed that their money only went to line the pockets of the rich and to develop an already-modern-and-expensive sound system in a large, flashy building. This was my first experience of this kind of ‘miscommunication’ regarding finance… It was a bit of a shock for me, and made me think a great deal.
All in all it was an amazing week in Uganda. I met some incredible people, made some huge mistakes, learnt important life lessons, saw some gorgeous scenery and some absolutely breathtaking sunsets, and saw more eagles than I could count. I was amazed to leave that country alive and healthy, and felt a little traumatised by the whole experience… If I had known what it would be like, there is no way I would have gone. And I would not repeat that week for anything. But I would go back. Uganda is an amazing country and I think there is a lot that we can learn from it.