Monday, 26 May 2014

Weekdays in Uganda

‘Did you have a nice time in Uganda?’

What do you say?  Where to start?  It was amazing. 

Sarah and I have just finished a three week placement in Madi West Nile diocese.  We were attached to Emmanuel Cathedral in Mvara, just outside Arua.  It’s a short drive from the Congo border, and not that much further the other way to South Sudan. 

It’s green.  Really green.  The BA flight there took us over places you hear about on the news: Benghazi, the Darfur Mountains, Juba.  When we flew over the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, it looked like cloud, or maybe the Arctic, underneath us.  The polar landscape turned lunar as the ground turned white to grey, before the dust turned to golden Saharan sand.  And it went on and on.  For hours.  The time it took to cross Europe was roughly what it took to cross this cosmos of sand dunes.  Massive.  And empty.  Often you fly over remote places, but there’s always a light somewhere.  A few houses in the Atlas Mountains or some sign of human civilization in the middle of Turkey.  But in the Sahara and across much of Sudan, there was nothing. Just sand.

It seemed immediate, when we entered Ugandan airspace, that the ground below us was suddenly verdant.  Welcome to the Pearl of Africa.

After a rest day in Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria, we flew Eagle Air to Arua.  After just an hour, the ten-seater descended over lush forest and the River Nile, and landed at the airstrip (there’s no airport building).  Arua town is a chaotic, bustling place, a mainly Muslim centre full of traders and traffic from neighbouring countries.  
Mvara Road mainly frequented by boda-bodas (moto-taxis)

Out the other side is Mvara, a semi-rural ‘holy acre’ of Anglican activity surrounded by traditional straw-thatched huts and rich agricultural land.  If you spit an apple pip into the ground here, you’ll have an orchard in no time.

But khat grows easily here too, a shrub whose leaves induce euphoria, loved by Saudi youth who import it as well as local young people who chew it to escape everyday boredom.

We were taken to the Diocesan Centre to meet the provost of the cathedral, our clergy mentors Alice and Collins, and other staff.  It was our first experience of Ugandan hospitality.  The secretary made tea, and bowed almost to the floor as she announced she was going to pray before we served ourselves.  Then she came to me with a jug of water and a bowl for me to wash my hands.  I’ve done this before in an Ethiopian restaurant, thought I.  But my quick rub and rinse wasn’t good enough, I was told.  So I was given a second chance to wash my hands thoroughly.  Hmmm so it’s not a ceremonial thing.

After the chai (the tea was made with hot milk and lots of sugar) we were supposed to go to our house, unpack, rest and maybe have some preparation time.  But we were about to learn how the next week would pan out.  Can you come to a Fathers’ Union service at 4?  Can you give a short message?  A sermon of about 15 minutes?

There’s only one answer to that when you’re on a placement and trying to make a good impression. 

The day starts early in Africa: sunrise seen from our kitchen
Many work days started at 7 am.  African life starts early.  The alarm went at six, just in time for a spectacular sunrise and a breakfast of bananas and mangoes.  The latter were in season, abundant and just falling off trees everywhere you looked. 

The next week was a gruelling schedule, as we tried to fit in as many school visits as possible before the holidays.  So we visited primary schools.  A delight.  And vocational training schools, for tailors, mechanics and others.  Wonderful.  A teacher training college.  Everywhere we went, we were treated like royalty.  Like Wills and Kate, we were driven to each scheduled place, paraded in to roaring applause, and sat at the front where we were bigged up before being invited to speak.

We never failed to marvel at the behaviour of the children.  There’s no way in Ireland hundreds of kids would behave so well.  Their school assemblies involved some crazy dancing, enthusiastic praise and worship.  The kids moved as one, like the whole school were one organism.  
An active listening story: show me your terrified face!

The highlight?  When I visited the sick and administered Holy Communion by extension.  In one morning, we took the sacrament to a sample of ten homes around the cathedral where there were sick and bed-ridden parishioners.  Some were old and immobile; some were barely aware of anyone in the room and had to receive the sacrament spoon-fed with help from a relative.  Some were in mud huts.  All welcomed me in like an honoured guest and offered hospitality in the form of chai or millet porridge.  

Just a small portion for me please, I've already
eaten several times!
I've never experienced hospitality like it.  We soon realized we didn't need to plan lunch.  Everywhere we went we got boiled eggs, groundnuts and milky drinks.  And the 'roast dinner' of Northern Uganda ... we had that a few times a day!  For special occasions like receiving a guest (as well as weddings, farewells, anniversaries), it's a gut-busting, high-carb feast.  You start with a big slice of enyasa, a sort of porridge made with millet.  Then there are potatoes, rice, beans, spinach, cabbage, meat and chicken.  Every part of the animal and bird, nothing wasted.

Ever seen The Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special?  The one where she has to eat four Christmas lunches?  One day, we had that rather heavy meal five times (Sarah had it a sixth)!  I learned that clergy are offered a lot of food and need tactics to decline some politely.

There isn't much to do after dark in Africa.  We were asleep by 8.30 most evenings, safely tucked under the mosquito net, with only the sound of the bats dropping fruit from the trees above our tin roof.  Resting up for the next day.  

Well, that's what happened on weekdays.  Next time, the marathon Sunday services!  

Zzzzzzz.  Not us.  The mosquitoes.

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