Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Case of the Lost File

A few days ago, I was reminded how important some of the smallest tasks can be.

I was sitting at my desk, doing some data entry and report editing while the Legal and Investigations team met for their weekly casetracking meeting. My boss called me in to the meeting and asked if I could help find a certain case file that the Legal team had been unable to find for a while.

At that moment, I felt a bit grumbly.

“Sure,” I thought. “I can find a file. Anything else you want me to do? Shred receipts? Shuffle papers?” I had been doing what I felt like was more than my fair share of shuffling papers over the last days. Taking case files out, putting case files back, writing down dates, entering those dates into the new casetracking database that had consumed my work life for the last few months… I was weary of files and paperwork.

After hunting through the case filing system upstairs, I found the missing case filed improperly in the Closed Cases section, and brought it back down to the Legal team, much to their relief and amazement that the file could actually be found. Later on, the Legal Fellow whispered in my ear “We’ve all been looking for that file for months! No one has been able to do anything on that case since early February!”

I was challenged, and reminded of a very important truth that I often forget. When you’re doing the work of IJM, when you’re seeking justice on behalf of the widow and the orphan, a lost file is so much more than just a lost piece of paper. It means a stalled case, another month of waiting and inaction, another month of suffering for our client and her family who wait anxiously for justice while the perpetrator continues to occupy and abuse the home that rightfully belongs to them.  A lost file is a big deal… and I grumbled about having to find it.

So sure, I’m not a lawyer on the frontlines of IJM’s work, and I am reminded of that daily. But I am so glad for the lessons I’ve learned here – that even the simple task of hunting down a folder with a humble attitude of service and a commitment to excellence can have a huge impact in the work of justice. Now if I can only remember that life lesson the next time I have to spend hours doing data entry. 🙂

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A Life of Forced Simplicity

It’s always humbling when God decides to give you what you need when you don’t even ask for it.  Like a dead computer.

I’ve always been bad about spending too much time on the computer, but found that my dependence on the computer had increased even more since coming to Uganda.  It was my lifeline to people back home.   I would often stay perpetually logged in to Gmail and Skype just to be available in case there was someone in the world who wanted to talk to me.  Surfing the net provided a way to escape from daily life in Kampala.  When I browsed Facebook, I felt like I was back in my dorm room at Taylor wasting time like I always would.

And so before I knew it, 11 pm would roll around, and I’d drag my bleary-eyed self to bed, frustrated again that I had wasted an entire evening on the computer.

I thought about giving up some sort of computer usage for Lent, but rationalized my way out of every option (I need email for work.  I need Facebook for caring about people’s lives.  I need my blog to keep people aware of what I’m doing here.  I need the web to find out what’s happening in the world.)  But something inside still nagged at me, telling me that I wasn’t making the best use of my time, and I may live to regret all the time I spend in life staring at a screen.

So, I was not as surprised as I should have been when my darn dear computer decided to call it quits two weeks ago.  I almost felt like I had it coming.  God knew that I needed to be rid of my excessive computer usage.

As unhappy and irritated as I was about this new turn of events, after 10 days of life without a computer at home, I have to say that I am grateful in some ways.  It’s amazing to see how many extra hours in the day appear when my computer is off.

My apartment is cleaner than it has been in a while.

I go on longer walks and runs in the evenings, enjoying sunsets and views like this one:

I happily spend time reliving childhood days with some arts-and-crafts for home decorating  (Note:  The words are a line from a song.  “You” refers to God, not me, because that would be rather strange and awfully pretentious.)

I have more time to experiment in the kitchen, and invite friends over for dinner and cooking adventures  (like making samosas that end up looking more pierogies, empanadas, Cornish pasties, you name it – anything but samosas):

I actually spend time reading books instead of just reading a few pages before I fall asleep.  And I still get to bed by 10:30 and get 8 good hours of sleep.

I always talk about loving the simple life, but find that often, my actual lifestyle doesn’t live up to my romanticized dreams of simplicity.  I am very much a child of the 21st century, and know that my addiction to technology is probably more serious than I care to admit.

So thank heavens for a period of forced simplicity!  I think this will be good.

(Of course, you may want to ask me again in a few weeks when I am still computer-less.  I may have a less holy and optimistic attitude about it at that point). 🙂

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The Kingdom of Joy

The world seems to be falling apart as of late. Breaking news stories dash in and out of the media faster than I can keep up with. People older and wiser than I tell me that this is nothing new, that the world has been in upheaval, revolution, and distress since before their time, that the world as we know it exists in a chronic state of emergency.

Some of this upheaval should be celebrated – when dictators are toppled, when systems of injustice are broken, when a Ugandan widow standing up for her rights challenges the unequal status quo of an entire village.

Some of this upheaval challenges us – reminding us that no matter developed we are as a country, no matter how many earthquake-resistant buildings we construct, there is no rationality in the way heartache and pain is dispersed in this world. The only thing we know for sure is that no one is immune.

And so it is times like these that I take great heart in the words spoken by Henri Nouwen, someone who I think definitely fits in the “older and wiser than me” category. I read this passage in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, back in October, and it’s been continually pressing on my mind throughout the last few months, as I encounter particularly difficult and violent cases of oppression, as I walk away defeated from a system that has me beat, as I read stories again and again of disaster and destruction:

“When Jesus speaks about the world, he is very realistic. He speaks about wars and revolutions, earthquakes, plagues and famines, persecution and imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and assassinations. There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the Kingdom of Joy.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted a lot more than the darkness itself, and that a little bit of life can dispel a lot of darkness.”

That is exactly the sort of attitude I see evidenced every day in the lives, hearts, and attitudes of my Ugandan co-workers.  Every day, IJM staff are out in the field, confronting the most defiantly evil perpetrator who refuses to relent, despite the overwhelming evidence and legal force against him. They live within the reality of a struggling economy and a corrupted government. Many have sacrificed great careers in the business world to serve with IJM.

They interact with broken families and face overwhelming poverty every day, yet never once have I heard them express doubt, cynicism, or disbelief in the goodness of God and His lovingkindness in our lives. They pray unceasingly, patiently, expectantly for the Lord to reveal Himself in our casework and in the lives of our clients.

And so we laugh, we dance, we shout, we sing with incredible joy and excitement. To quote one author’s words, it is in part because we cannot afford the luxury of despair. But mostly, it’s because we know the One to whose family we belong. We know who we serve, He who inspired songs of thanksgiving like Psalms 146.

“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation… Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.

“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens up the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

“The Lord will reign forever; your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!”

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A Note on Disparity

If a single day could encapsulate my Ugandan experience, today would be a front runner. It was, to shamelessly repeat an over-used quote, the best of times and the worst of times. A day that included loving everything about living in Africa, and becoming overwhelmed by everything in Africa.

My day started off fairly normally, with a morning run, a breakfast of muesli, yogurt, and coffee, and a quick check of my email after finishing up the dishes I should have washed last night. Then I joined the other IJM interns down at the taxi park (Uganda’s version of the bus depot), and after paying a $1 for a spot on the bus, we headed out to Entebbe,  a quiet town about 40 km outside of Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria. It used to be the headquarters of the colonial government administration back in the mid 20th century. The European influence is evidence, with broad tree-lined streets, well-structured neighborhoods, even an actual neighborhood park!

We found our way to a beautiful little pizzeria on the shores of the Lake, fishermen casting their nets just a few hundred meters away, beautiful birds fluttering around the seashore. We drank fresh passion fruit juice, ate delicious pizza, played a few rounds of cards, breathed in the fresh lakeshore air.

“Do you ever feel bad about how easy our lives are in Africa?” I asked. “Sometimes when we do stuff like this I just feel funny, like this shouldn’t be part of my experience in Uganda. Sometimes the life I live here is more exciting and more luxurious than my life would be in the States.”

I got various replies, mostly things about how the exchange rate allows us to eat out at a much more reasonable cost than in the States, and how it just seems especially luxurious to us because of the disparity we see around us all the time. I filed these responses away to think about later.

After lunch, we wandered around town, got completely sunburnt and dehydrated (another key part of the true African experience). I met a sweet little girl named Peace who scouted me out to see if we could be friends and told me all the wonders of living in Entebbe and how beautiful it was.

She, of course, wanted her picture taken.

After a long, satisfying day, we headed back to Kampala. That’s when the reality caught up to me. Our bus broke down half-way back to town. My once-white shirt was a dusty, sweaty beige by the time we reached town. I had a great sunburn guaranteed to result in skin cancer at some point in my life. After getting dropped off in the middle of the most polluted, crowded street in Kampala, we vainly tried to negotiate a cheap ride in a taxi back to our side of town. Nixing the taxi idea, we headed off to the nearest bodaboda stage.

On the way, we passed an itsy-bitsy tiny girl begging for money. Her face was expressionless, her tiny hands cupped and lifted up for money. I knew enough about begging in the city to know that any money we gave her would go straight to the guy in charge of her begging ring. Dozens of children are strategically placed on thoroughfares on the streets  to tug at the heartstrings of passerbyers.

Many times I just pass these kids by, but I couldn’t shake the thought that there must be something I could do for her.  Seeing a street vendor selling fried chicken, I bought a piece and brought it back to the little girl and placed it on her lap. She just stared blankly at me. All eyes were on me as I vainly tried to motion to her that she should eat it. The men loitering around laughed at me. “Mzungu! She can’t eat that! She wants money!”

I very rationally and compassionately explained to them. “Yes, well, I want to give her something to eat. She needs something to eat! I don’t want to give her money because I know she won’t be able to keep it.”

”Ah! But she isn’t allowed to accept something to eat! If her bosses see her eating, they will beat her! Look, they are there, across the street.”

Everyone was staring at me with an amused expression as I felt the blood rush to my face in a mixture of anger and embarrassment. I thought about scooping the little girl up in my arms and taking her home, but I could get arrested for that. I thought about coming down every Saturday and just sitting with the street kids. I thought about finding the guys in charge of the beggar rings and giving them a bit of hell-and-brimstone talk, or maybe heaping burning coals on their head.

But the system had me beat, and there was nothing I could do.  Acutely aware of my white skin, at that moment all I felt like was a stupid mzungu who thought she could come save Africa single-handedly. The most frustrating thing was that, in that moment, people didn’t see the love of Jesus in action. They just saw a silly American who, like all good Americans, thinks that with a bit of well-spent money she can make the world a better place.

I left in a self-righteous huff, and took a bodaboda back home, bruising my hand after slamming it on the metal grate of the bike when we rammed into an especially violent pothole. Upon arriving home, I discovered my gas oven wasn’t working, and my electricity was off like it has been every night for the last week. I was out of drinking water, but couldn’t go out to buy any at the store because it was dark, and couldn’t boil any tap water because I had no heating capabilities. After resorting to cereal again for dinner, my electricity came back on for a brief five minutes, just long enough to send a power surge that fried my electric kettle. I was not having fun at this point.

Welcome to life in Africa. It’s beautiful, it’s exhilarating, it’s fulfilling. But it’s also definitely frustrating, often overwhelming, sometimes ugly. You see the best of God’s creation: the most beautiful souls of humanity, the most expansive view of His scenery. But you also see the depths to which creation has fallen, the depth of depravity and despair.

As a result, I think, your emotions become raw, and every aspect of life becomes more intense, with more capacity for immense joy and immense frustration . As your most noble efforts to help those in need are thwarted, the selfish human in you becomes exasperated at the silliest things like no electricity and the lack of cheese at the store. You simultaneously become more selfless and more self-focused, a confused mess of altruism and self-gratification.

And so at the end of the day, I find myself listening to this song:

We will run to You, we will run to You.

Father heal your world, make all things new.
Make all things new.

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Life in Gulu

I’m up-country this weekend, visiting some friends who live in Gulu¸ the biggest town in northern Uganda. Besides Kampala, it is THE place to be in Uganda if you are an expat NGO worker.

Gulu is infamously known as the headquarters of Joseph Kony’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Up until just a few years ago it was essentially a war zone, devastated by nightly raids on families, where thousands of children were abducted into Kony’s brutal reign of terror. 2 million people were placed in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, with more than 100,000 still left in the camps. Many people still carry the physical and emotional scars of unconscionable devastation.

Now that Kony has fled to Congo, peace has returned to Gulu, and with such stability came a flock of NGOs and social entrepreneurship ventures.  I have a lot of friends up in Gulu working for various NGOs like One Mango Tree, The Zion Project, 31 Bits, Purse of Hope,

Similar to my travels in Rwanda, I always find it strange to be in a place that made history books for its tragic history, yet for all practical purposes, life is back to normal here. I sometimes feel like I should wander around in shock and awe that I’m in a place that has seen such brutality, but people are amazingly resilient creatures, and there is very little now to distinguish the face of Gulu from any other Ugandan village (except for perhaps the copious amounts of NGOs!)

The truth is that Gulu is a pretty sleepy little town now, with not a whole lot to do. The main part of town is about 8 square blocks of small hotels, stores, and businesses. The main grocery store frequented by expats is the size of a gas station convenience store in Kampala. It’s tiny!

The weekend has been really refreshing just to hang out with good friends in their quiet compound. I’ve spent a lot of time reading, relaxing, listening to podcasts, enjoying the cooler-than-average weather, running along dirt roads. I even got 9+ hours of sleep last night, which is definitely more than I’ve been getting recently!

I definitely enjoy the hustle and bustle of Kampala, but it does wear on me and often makes for a rather haggard existence. So it’s nice to get away and allow myself time to think and just be.

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