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.