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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Words in Paradigms

So I was recently in Uganda, and often when I’m there, I have surreal thoughts. Or maybe I have surreal observations. Maybe it’s that where I’m at seems so surreal.

The capital city of Kampala is a typical, third world city – choking in smog and traffic, and overrun with people. But it’s kind of fun; maybe a little adventurous. I sort of enjoy going there sometimes. It has a mall, and some nice stores with western-style goods. There’s even a movie theater. One might even envision living there. It seems livable enough.

The town of Entebbe – where the national airport is (and where our kids live) is a bit quaint. It gets a lot of tourists passing through. Most are on their way to a safari. Some are missionaries arriving or departing. The United Nations has a huge installation there that they service all of East Africa (including war-torn Sudan) from. There are lots of hotels. A couple of them are even sort of swanky. One might envision living in Entebbe as well. It seems livable enough. And it’s just a short drive into the big city if you want big city amenities.

I travel east toward the Kenya border, to the town of Tororo. We do a conference there for pastors, in a very remote conference center. Tororo is “the thunder capital of the world.” It is said to get more thunder than anyplace on earth. And it has a lot of rocks. Big rocks. Some are larger than houses. But Tororo begins to seem somewhat livable. It has a cement factory. And a college. I stay in an old, but quite large hotel there. It has a new health club and an in-ground pool.

But these urban encounters represent only part of the story in Uganda. And that is where it begins to get surreal. Frankly, there are so many things I find remarkable that I cannot talk about all of them. I can’t seem to take pictures of all of them. In many cases, it feels as if it would be disrespectful to take the pictures.

Maybe it’s the drive across the historic Nile River, which actually starts in Uganda and flows north through Egypt. Perhaps it’s the section of the highway where there are baboons along the roadside. There are miles and miles of tea plantations and sugar plantations. There are cassava farms and pineapple farms. And there are many poor villages. Dirt poor. We’re talking little to no pavement, little to no electricity. And outside of those villages, there are mud huts with grass roofs. They’re everywhere. It seems that the middle class there steps up to a cement floor and perhaps a tin roof.

When I leave the Rock Classic Hotel on the outskirts of Tororo in the mornings, we begin a long drive over narrow dirt roads. They’re not the kind of dirt roads that we have in the U.S., where there is a sturdy bed of gravel and the county grades the road periodically to prevent deep ruts and potholes. No, these are actually just dirt. If they’ve ever been graded, there is little evidence of that now.

There are some bridges on these roads, over flowing creeks, swamps and rice paddies. But the bridges are in such poor condition that you must first get out and check to see where it is safe to drive over them! So these dirt roads, they run for miles and miles. Typically they’re only one lane wide. Most of the traffic on them is foot traffic and bicycles. And there are cows and goats, tied by one leg, to stakes driven into the ditches of these roads.

There are women walking with babies on their backs, and cans of water on their heads. There are water wells where people come to pump clean drinking water into yellow plastic jugs. They carry them home to the grass huts on their heads. There are men in the rice fields.

As you drive on for miles and miles of the bumpy dirt roads, you begin to wonder if this is what Africa is really all about. Frankly, it doesn’t seem so livable out here. Good grief, there’s no place to buy a cold drink anywhere! There’s no market, not even a gas station anywhere to be found. People are cutting grass with scythes (long metal blades on the end of a stick).

And there are children everywhere. They smile and wave, and shout, “Muzungu! Muzungu!” (I learned some time ago that muzungu are white people. They don’t get much of them in these parts. When they do, it’s a big deal. They like to smile and wave, and run alongside your car. And they’re especially happy if the muzungu will smile and wave back – or even speak to them. Even the women with the babies strapped to their back will smile and sometimes wave at the muzungu passing through. Once I even saw an old man smile at me too.

Africans seem to be fertile people. In the poorest, remotest parts of Uganda, they have large families. And they are children full of smiles. I find myself wondering what they have to smile about. Are they really happy? Don’t they know how poor they are?

I think of my teen-ager back home. I wonder how he would react if he had no bedroom, no shoes and no school to go to. (He gets angry if the Internet goes down.) I can’t help but compare my American children and my American friends to these friends I’m making here in Uganda. How can they all be God’s people and yet live in such different paradigms? And how do I move between these disparate paradigms and not be affected by it? Or am I supposed to be affected by it?

On the last day of our conference there, I found myself wishing for my pastor. I wanted him to be there with me. I wanted to hear him tell me how I could move between these paradigms without going crazy. I wished for my wife. I wanted her to observe the vast contrasts that I’m observing. How could I ever explain it to her in a way that she can really understand? (I haven’t been able to before.) Then again, does she need to understand? Or is my wishing that she were here just a selfish thing on my part?

Often when I come home from Uganda, I have few words. The things I’ve seen, thought and felt all seem indescribable. It’s as if there are no words for those things. What is it that I would describe if I could find the words? It's hard to say. But there are deep thoughts and deep emotions, accompanied by occasional tears.

So I’m back from Uganda now. Will I ever find the words with which to process my thinking?

1 comment:

  1. People often asked why it took six months to write Bekah's adoption just put it into words. It took six months just for me to process what I saw. Thank you for sharing in words that I couldn't find...thank you.