Thursday, December 17

First Post from the US

Man, I have a lot of days, events, and thoughts to document. I'll do with what I can remember. Here we go....

Friday - the End
The last full day I spent in Mukono was a wild experience. In the morning, I carried a mesh bag of clothes and some shoes across to the old main gate at campus. There I met Rose Kyazike, leader of a microfinance group that I support. I have mentioned this group in previous posts. They sell used clothing. I was selling mine to her for cheap.

First, Rose suggested we take a boda to her home. I said this was not allowed in my program. Her response was, "Oh, I didn't know you people [whites] could walk." By this she meant "walk a decent distance." I assured her I was experienced enough to do the job. We walked a kilometer or so to her home where I was welcomed inside. There she prepared me tea and samosas, which were so delicious. She had me sit and any time I got up, she insisted for me to remain seated. She showed me dozens of pictures from her family, her children and cousins and other relatives. She gave me some to keep in case I would find US sponsors for her own children or the orphans she supports.

As I was browsing the photos, taking tea, and collecting the small payment I requested for the clothes, she exclaimed out loud, "Wow! Who am I that you would come to visit me?!" Upon escorting me partway home, she thanked me gratefully and commented on my friendliness, etc. I didn't want her to think mzungus were her salvation, but I was grateful for her appreciation.

Suzan and I spent much of the remaining day together. Suzan cooked me delicious cassava fried with tomatoes. What a good cook, among other things!

The evening was difficult, as I had my last supper with my family. Sarah called it "The Last Supper with Mr. Alari and Mr. Wilmot." She pronounced my family name so well.

Saturday - the Departure

Rain struck early, and I was delayed in making breakfast for the family. However, Suzan showed up before 8 and helped me quickly make the eggs. I said my goodbyes, which was thankfully emotionally easier than expected, and moved onward to campus to board the leaving coaster. I remember looking into Suzan's tearing eyes when she said, "Phil, I don't want to see you getting on that bus." I told her to go the her hostel as if she were to see me later in the day. It was so hard for both of us. When you walk away from something, never knowing when, or even if, you can return to it, things are very difficult. Even for the most-positive Suzan, the event was tragic and heartbreaking.

We arrived that night for debrief in Entebbe, a few miles from the airport, where we stayed at a convent. The walls were echoey, which is weird to me, but maybe it helps those quiet nuns communicate with each other.

Sunday - the Beginning

The first night had been hard to be away from Suzan, but I was ready to seize the day of fasting and reflection set out before me. I led worship with Brian in the morning, playing songs and hymns which allowed us to reflect chronologically on the content of the semester. Brian read accompanying scriptures, including the Magnificat in which Mary explains that her Son has come to bring life to the poor and send the rich away empty. There were pieces from Psalm 104, Ecclesiastes, Paul's account of his afflictions in 2 Corinthians, and the emotionally tragic passage of the suffering servant in Isaiah. We ended with O Come O Come Emmanuel, praising the King who became more lowly than all in order to enter into solidarity with us.

After worship, Brian fled to God-knows-where, so I had no key to enter the room. I would leave the grounds for fasting with no footwear. I walked barefoot toward the Lake Victoria. When I saw the Lake, I sat at a curb and began to write. I had only just begun when a bus pulled up to me and let a Ugandan wearing a navy blue United Way shirt step off. He asked what I was writing and proclaimed what the billboard above me read, "Welcome to Uganda!" He advised me to move across the street, because I was on the property of a military base.

Not long thereafter, I saw Chelsey walking toward me from afar. Three army soldier fully equipped with guns walked at her side. As she reached me, the men explained they were a "full escort" and left her and I alone together. We decided to walk to the beach together, where I stepped foot into the great Victoria and we sat on driftwood to watch locals pull a long rope of Tillapia fish onto the sand. We noticed rocky islands way off into the distance and decided that we would try to reach them within the several hours we had remaining in the fast.

First of all, we were already breaking rule one of the fast: isolation. We were supposed to be alone, but Chelsey and I enjoyed each others' company as we walked onward through bushy narrow paths toward the direction of the rock islands. Occasionally, Ugandans would notice us in the bush or walk past us. After several kilometers of this bare-footed endeavor, we came to a cove that bordered the water. There we saw semi-wet clothes draped over tree limbs, hovering bugs, and happy yellow birds dancing in the trees. Then we saw some guys sleeping and several boats pulled ashore. One guy was pulling crabs from a net. Another welcomed us and said, "you go relax while we cook you food." Chelsey and I consulted each other and decided the best way to break a fast was to eat with stranger-fishermen providing hospitality.

We took time to explore the rocks jutting from the coast. We saw a ten-foot snake slithering through water. I read Psalm 104 aloud, some other psalms, and a passage from Romans about creation. Then we saw a monitor lizard, like a crocdilish komodo dragon, plunge into the water. It was amazing.

We returned to lunch to find freshly caught tillapia cooked for us. There was also posho. The man gave Chelsey and I a bowl to share. Another guy dipped a cup into the notoriously dirty and disease-infested lake to get water for us to wash hands. After this, Chelsey secretly dipped her hand into her purse, revealing hand sanitizer. She said to me, "Use this for my sake."

After we finished the meal, another fisherman set out to bring us some fish to take back. A mentally disturbed person came to speak with us. he kept going on in French, and then would say, "Do you know English" - onl;y to talk in English for one sentence before returning to French, repeating the pattern six or eight times. We had to soon get back to the convent, so we had to bid all of our new friends farewell before the fish had been caught for us. I told our cook he should eat my share.

The walk back was so long, over an hour of walking without shoes. As we approached the convent at last, two monkeys crossed right in front of us and then began to bicker with each other in the trees. God had been good to us and allowed me to get my mind off of leaving Suzan for awhile.

But it didn't last long. Though I was thankful for the day, the night was hard.

Monday and Tuesday

Monday went by with yet more debrief sessions about returning to the US. The talent show provided hilarious skits and epicly astounding poetry. Tuesday came around as we packed our things to leave. Suzan had told me she would leave Mukono (over a two-hour drive) to meet me at the airport to send me off. I was nervous and excited. It was so great to see her again before leaving the country. She gave me a beautiful note, and after some time I went inside to board the plane, which I slept on for most of the ride.

Wednesday - Flights, Complications, and Life Anew

We arrived in the Netherlands at 7 AM, and since we had a long lay-over, some of us set foot into the city. I was wearing shorts and flip flops, and it was 28 degrees Celsius, but I couldn't pass up going to Amsterdam for a few hours. We took hot chocolate from a place in the Red Light District and bought Swiss chocolate to bring for friends. Each shop and store was so welcoming, especially with the kind people and warm temperature. The infrastructure in Europe is fascinatingly good. There are roads for bikes, and more bikes than cars by far. One toilet had a separate button for flushing pee and poop. The city was relatively clean.

A few hours were spent waiting for the plane. On the ride I talked with Deanna and watched some movies. I arrived in Dulles (DC airport) around 4:30. Of course, the custom agent didn't like my braided hair, and combined with my "exposure to foreign livestock," "visit to Amsterdam," etc - he was a little, okay a lot, stand-offish. "Did anybody give you anything to bring into the country?" the officer interrogated. "In terms of what?" I asked. He simply repeated the question, more angry this time. I told him that I had only bought a few things from the Ugandan markets like instruments and art. He signed me up to go to "line C."

After passing through another checkpoint at which they brought out a dog to sniff my bags (and only the two others in front of me as if to make the search seem random), "Line C" found me among all minorities. In front of me was a Persian lady whom I spoke to. "Every time I come here they send me to this line," she said. "I'm just trying to visit my daughter for two days and then fly out of the country with her." The "Welcome to the United States" quote on the wall behind the security guards presented her no welcoming message. The police checked her bags, asking her about every piece of jewelry, searching thoroughly. The family behind me was from South Africa, and they were sent to a section of the room where all minorities except maybe a few mzungus were seated. There were several dozen people of all ages and ethnicities seated there. Names were called, but slowly, maybe every 20 minutes or so. At one point, the officer read several names at a time, of which about half were named either Abdul or Mohammad. It was a sad sight as I saw the white-skinned residents of "the land of the free" pass quickly to the terminal as these oppressed persons waited behind.

After about 45 minutes of waiting in line (I was only third in line), the officer finally called me to the desk. I placed my passport and customs card at his desk, a little nervous, but knowing that I had been in prayer about asking God to give me the words to love and not to compromise. Yes, I was pissed, but it was surely a righteous anger if there ever was one.

"Yes, my family did not own any, but there were cattle and goats in town, though I didn't touch them."
"You were doing missionary work?" (I couldn't help but laugh inside at this question as we had so often talked in class about how so many people assumed because we were in Africa we were doing missions. I wanted to ask him, "What is missions anyway?" but I figured it wouldn't have helped me catch up with my friends.)
"No, we were studying abroad this semester."
"Oh, what school do you go to here?"
"Messiah College in PA"
" 'M-E-S-S-I-A-H'?"
"That's correct."
"What did you do in Amsterdam."
"We got some hot chocolate and souveniers."
"About six or seven of us students."
"Did you smoke anything particular?"
"No, you can check me if you want."
"Oh, I know I can check you. it's just a matter of whether or not I will. We have to make sure all incoming persons abide by the same laws and policies."
"Did the dogs pass you earlier."
"Put your bags on the counter. Unpack them."

I began to unpack my three bags and even removed my sweater to place it on the counter as an act of kindness and submission.

"Take apart everything."

He too began to dig through each of my things, searching thoroughly for marijuana. He shook my drum. He skimmed through the pages of my books and shook bottles.

"How do you like your job?" I asked.
"It's okay. Every job has its ups and downs. When I'm having a bad day I get to harass people a little bit."

I appreciated his honesty.

He finally came across my New Testament and Old Testament texts I had saved from the semester. He browsed the pages and started reading some excerpts.

"Hmmm. You going to be a priest or a preacher."
"We'll see, maybe not in such a traditional sense."
"I've been trying to get closer to God. My friend has been giving me some verses about Samson. What do you think about him."
"Samson was a nazirite which means his life so supposed to be devoted to serving God, but he wasted it by fooling around with girls and playing pranks. I don't have much of an opinion about him though, sorry."

The officer laughed.

"Here, you can keep this."

I handed him a copy of The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. He took it from me to look at it.

"What's it about?"
"A group of people in hell go to heaven and some decided not to stay and return back to hell."

By this time other security guards had been overhearing.

"I'll write it down and check it out from the library. I like a good recommendation."

I took it back and began to zip my bags back up.

"You're from Hanover? Is that Mennonite country?"
"It's about an hour from it. My family isn't Mennonite but I claim to be."

He looked at me inquisitively and walked closer.

"You see, well I don't know if I should be telling you this, given your job position."
"Go on."
"Well, Anabaptists believe in the separation of Church and State."
"Even I believe in that. But it's still good to sing the star-spangled banner in schools. My kids learn about all religions in schools and that's great."
"Well a hardcore Anabaptist would say exposure to all religious systems are good. But they also consider patriotism to be a religious system."

From there I could see he was either beginning to lose interest or not wanting his coworkers to harass him for such a vulnerable conversation.

"Well, thanks" I told him.
"Welcome back [to the US], have a good day."
"Thank you"
"God bless"
"You too"

I exited into the terminal wondering what in hell's name just happened. I had been grouped with minorities and potentially accused of drug possession and ended up having a refreshing chat. Weird.

I met up with the USPers who had been worried about me. They told me Jeremy was waiting for me, so I took him to dinner at the airport with us.

On the ride back, Jeremy and I talked about so many things, mainly the band and the future. We stopped at the Giovanni's youth group in Frederick where I met up with old friends who had many questions. I was instantly served chicken with cheesy rice and a biscuit. There was also cold tea, for a change. And ice, which was new for me. It was a good transition back into the upper class world. Both continents can be hospitable. Likewise, when I arrived at Jeremy's house, his mom left a note which said "Welcome back" which is awesome cuz that's also what Ugandans say so often when a visitor comes. Hospitality can be found in both places, and that's awesome. Mom left me some clothes and a new phone which I have not yet set up and some other edible things. It's good to be here, but I am cold and have jet lag (it's so late and I'm wide awake).

So far, I'm still in the "honeymoon phase" - no cynicism or culture shock yet. My extensions in my hair are falling out so fast.


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