xmlns:og>='http://ogp.me/ns#'> Pedals & Pencils: June 2012

June 29, 2012

Lanyero Mama

“Mum, ask me a question.”  Martin doodles on his notebook.  We are seated side by side, so close that our hips touch.

“Let me think of one.”

“You always ask me challenging questions that make me think.”  He smiles at me, pausing in his drawing.

“I’m sorry, son, I can’t think of one today.  My brain is too sad to think of a question.”

“My brain is sad, too, Mum.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“Me, too, but African men don’t cry.  When we’re sad we just feel out of place.”

“That makes sense to me.  I feel out of place, but I’ll probably cry a little tomorrow.”

“Don’t cry, Mum.”

“I might.  But I did think of a question.”

“What is it?”

“My question is ‘What have you been thinking about today?’.”

“What have you been thinking about today?”  Martin bats the question back to me with a familiar twinkle in his eye.

“I asked you first.  So you have to answer first.”  I nudge him with my elbow.

“Give me another question.”

“Okay, how about this.  My boda driver asked me if any of the students had given me an Acholi name yet.  I told him no.  He said I should be named Aber Alicia because ‘aber’ means good and he says I’m good to everyone.  Do you think that’s a good name for me?”

“No, it’s no good.  Your name is Lanyero.  Lanyero Alicia is what you should be called.”

“What does it mean?”

“Lanyero means peaceful, joyous, happy.  It also means comforter.”  He meets my eyes and mine well up with tears.  He looks down at his sketches.

“I love it.  Did you know that Alicia means ‘truthful one’?”

“No, I didn’t know it.”

“So Lanyero Alicia means ‘one who takes joy in telling the truth’.”

“Mum, I’m really going to miss you.”

“Me, too.  I feel like my heart is in my throat.”

Martin shoots me a puzzled look.

“That means I’m really sad.  I’m having a hard time swallowing my sadness back down.”

“You’ve taught me something new, Mum.  My heart is on my throat, too.”

I feel a smile slip through my lips as I picture his heart on his throat.

“You can cry if you want to, Mum.  African women cry very loudly.”

“I’m not African, Martin.”

“Yes, you are.  I just named you so.  Lanyero Alicia.  But I won’t call you that.”

“You won't? Why not?”

“I’ll call you Lanyero Mama.”

“That’s my favorite name.”  I put my arm around him and squeeze this boy who named me, this son who has claimed me as his unlikely mother.

Martin & I

June 24, 2012

A Different Drum

“The reward of our work is not what we get, but what we become.” Paulo Coelho

I’m becoming someone different, different and yet the same. I’m the same person who loves my husband with abandon. I’m the same person who squirrels away pockets of time just to write. I’m the same person who loves teaching kids.

But I’m also becoming this other person. I have a different idea of who God is. I have a different definition of what a mother is. My heart beats to a different drum. I’m becoming someone else and I think she’s the woman I was always meant to be.

This woman packs her bravery into a suitcase and ventures out to help kids write their stories. This woman has a looser definition of clean. This woman walks the world with curls blazing out of her head in a mad frenzy. This woman swims in the coal black eyes of orphans.

I worry that when I return home, I won’t belong. I'll always belong in the arms of my beloved. And in the arms of my mother. But everything feels different.  Even my own skin is shades darker, like my Ugandan children have laid their hands on my arms and claimed me as their own.

I think of money differently, like how can I make more in order to do more good? I think of time differently. One of my Ugandan boys chides me for “walking too fast to think”. I think of food differently, watching my children dig and sow in the rich earth.

I feel like my heart is split in two. No, not even that, more like I now have two hearts beating in syncopation. One is the steady pulse of the life I’ve always loved-the life I love still-and the other is the patter of midnight hands tapping out life on drumskins. The rewards of this work are many and surely one of the richest rewards is who I’m becoming.

Still I wonder who I will become when my feet return home.

June 22, 2012

Geoffrey's Ear

“He’s the one who cut my ear.”  Geoffrey looks at the ground and twists a piece of grass between his fingers.  It surprises me how in this moment, nineteen year-old Geoffrey reminds me of a little boy.

“Do you want to tell me more about that?”  Up until that point my questions about his story for our book were benign.  How old are you?  How long did you live with your grandmother?

I’d known Geoffrey for going on 2 weeks, and I’d come to love this orphaned boy.  He is sweet in unexpected moments, mischievous in others and I love both sides of him.

I’d noticed his ear on my first day at the academy, when he saw me with a camera and asked if I’d show him how to use it.  I didn’t ask him about his ear, figuring he’d tell me if and when he was ready.

Geoffrey Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee
What I didn’t know is that when he was ready, he’d tell me a story for which I’d never be ready.

Geoffrey’s parents died when he was a young child.  His father died at the hands of a LRA soldier and his mother died shortly thereafter of an illness.  After their deaths Geoffrey lived with his grandmother, but unfortunately her hut was located in an area that was soon infested with LRA soldiers set on kidnapping children to turn into child soldiers.  To protect fourteen year-old Geoffrey, his grandmother sent him to live with his uncle.

Geoffrey’s father was a rough man; prone to acts of abuse inflicted on his children and even his younger brother, the uncle Geoffrey came to live with.

“Why would he cut your ear?  I don’t understand.”  I stammer.

“He was taking revenge on my late father.”  Geoffrey meets my eyes and I blink back tears.

“I still don’t understand.  Why would he cut your ear?  How is that revenge on your father?”  I probe further.

“I went to church in Gulu to pray and my uncle, who didn’t believe in God told me not to pray.  When he found out I’d gone to church to pray, he told me ‘You never listen!’ and then he flashed a knife and cut off part of my ear.”

I will the hot vomit rising in my throat back down into my stomach where it gurgles and boils.

“Did you go to the hospital?”  I gulp for air, trying to give him the space to continue if he so chooses.

“I walked to the clinic.”

“Did you continue living with your uncle after that?”

“No.”  He shook his head.

“Where did you live?”

“On the streets.”

“For how long?”

“Two years.  Then my cousin’s sister found me and I lived with her for a little while and then more on the streets.  Now I live here.”  He looks around at the academy.  “I have my own place in town.”

“How do you pay for your own place?”

“During holidays I work here at the academy doing construction and I save that money so I can have a place to live.”

He keeps talking and I look at his ear until white-hot fury blinds me and I have to blink it away.

It is enough to be orphaned.

It is enough to leave your home to avoid becoming a child guerilla.

It is too much to suffer violence inflicted by the very family meant to protect you.

It’s too much.

On the inside I am choking on my anger, willing myself to remain calm while he unpacks the rest of his story.

Geoffrey continues, telling me about school and about the American family-his family- who helps pay for his school fees.  He tells me about his future plans to open up an orphanage to care for lost children and my heart swells with pride for this boy.  My fingers can barely keep up with him as I take down his words.

The day I showed Geoffrey how to use my camera, he took off with it for a couple of hours, snapping photos all around the school.  That night back in town, I looked at the images he’d captured.  I was taken aback by some of his shots.  He has a natural way of seeing people and capturing light.  I suspect this comes from watching people from the outside.

I suspect that as he grows into a man, Geoffrey will always have an eye for seeing people.  I also have a feeling that throughout his life he will hear the voice of God speaking clearly, whispering into his severed ear that he is loved, he belongs and that he is in fact a valued part of a big family.

“We need to work on your title a little bit, Geoffrey, to make it match your story.”  We toss ideas back and forth for a few minutes and then Geoffrey smiles.

“I know what to call it.”  Geoffrey grins from ear to ear.

“Tell me.”  My fingers hover over my keyboard.

“I want to call it ‘Finding Family’.”

June 21, 2012

My Ugandan Son

Before leaving home for Uganda, I promised Terry I wouldn't return with an orphaned baby.  Frankly, the motherhood gene skipped me completely so it was an easy promise to make.

Until I met Opiyo Martin.  I call him Martin for short, but nine times out of ten, I call him son.

He is a gorgeous boy, loving and warm.  Oh, and he's 19 years old-way past the drooling baby stage.  Thank God.

Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee
One day I was hen-pecking Martin about something, like taking time to eat or straightening his tie, and in his best teenage boy voice he replied, "Okay, Mum."  "You're a good son, Martin." I smiled.  And that was it, I was a goner.

As so many unexpectedly sweet things do, it felt natural and right, like I'd been calling him son all his life, like this child was born out of my heart, if not my womb.

He greets me every morning with a "Hi, Mum." and a hug.  He finds me during lunch time to make sure I have food, often times offering me his food if I have yet to get mine.  This act may not sound like a big deal, but if Martin gave me his food, it would mean he wouldn't eat lunch that day.  And yet he offers, knowing full well that his offer comes with sacrifice.  At the end of the day if Martin knows I'm leaving, I get another hug and an escort to the gate.

Martin devours literature.  He sings all of the time and I can't help but giggle when he sings the wrong words, kind of like someone else I know.  Ahem.  He writes songs, raps, poetry and anything else he can think to scrawl on a piece of paper.  He wants to be a writer when he grows up.

He is so obviously my son.

Martin has his own family here in Uganda.  Two of his younger cousins attend the academy with him.  His uncle teaches literature.  He has an older sister who is already married and a nine-year old brother still in primary school.  As with so many students here, he is impoverished of his parents, but rich in non-traditional family members and I'm blessed to be folded into his family.

Today I had the pleasure of working one on one with Martin on the story he's penning for our book.  Earlier in the week, Martin mentioned that he wanted my help in writing, so when it came time for us to work, I didn't hold back.  I asked question after question about details he'd left unanswered.  He answered each one, painting in gritty details that cut to the heart of who he is.

In the face of evil that threatened to end his life, Martin, my beautiful son, chose to forgive.  Typing that word 'forgive', it's the only time I've ever felt the word doesn't adequately describe the depth of forgiveness.  Martin didn't just forgive, but he forgave with utter absolution that I can only begin to fathom.

I'm not writing his story here for two reasons.  First of all, Martin's story speaks for itself and when it's finished, I'll let it stand on its own two feet in the book and maybe even here.  Secondly, his story pierces such a raw place in my spirit that I physically cannot type it through my tears.  I'm profoundly proud of him, proud to know him, proud to be called Mum, proud to call him son.

In this surprising and wonderful mother-son relationship, I'm teaching my son to write with heart while he teaches me to live with heart.

June 17, 2012

There is Always Hope

Hopeful William
William stands in the hot Africa sun, squinting up at me.

“There is always hope.” he says flashing a smile.

“Yes, there is always hope.” I agree.  “William, may I take your picture?  I want to remember your story.”

“Yes.  And then I will write my story for you so you won’t forget.”  He smiles again and I feel my face mirror his.

This is William’s story.

When William was thirteen, he and his two older sisters were abducted from school by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  They were enslaved for 4 months, forced to carry weapons and heavy loads of food and other supplies.  They marched all day and slept in the open at night, sometimes marching straight through the nights, never uttering a word of complaint.  Complaining meant death.  Marching meant life and maybe even a little food.

But William was smart, is smart.  He knew he could escape if they were ambushed by the government army.  During ambushes, everyone ran in all directions, firing in all directions, not paying attention to the children.  And so William and his sisters waited for an ambush.  When one came, William ran as fast as his legs could carry him.

William stares at the ground and stops telling his story.  William made it back home.  His sisters did not.  He tells me he is still waiting for word from them.  William is 19 now.  He meets my gaze and I press my lips together, folding them into my mouth, unwilling to say the words that he can't.

Upon returning home, William found that his parents had divorced.  What marriage could survive the abduction of three children?  William's father couldn't stand by any longer and joined the government army in opposition to the LRA.

Shortly after their father joined the military, their mother passed away, leaving William and his older brother to care for each other.  When they would see their father, they’d beg him to stay home to raise them, to quit fighting and take care of them.  But their father could not, could not let the LRA continue to rape Uganda of her children.

William’s father was shot in the arm with a bullet filled with acid and didn't recover from his injury.  He passed away leaving William and his brother orphaned in every sense of the word.

William pauses and I offer my condolences, weak words that can't begin to match the loss of his father, mother and sisters.  William puts his hand on mine.

"All God's servants pass through hard conditions.  Glory, glory be to God who lifts us up."

I swallow the lump in my throat, trying to digest this proclamation of glory in the wake of devastation.  I wonder if I would be so quick to praise God after such hardship.  I know the answer and swallow the ugly truth back down.

William graduated from high school in November, 2011.  He works at that school now as an assistant in their science lab.  He will attend community college or university next year where he'll earn a degree in business.  His brother, now a local pastor, is happily married with seven children.

William smiles talking about his nieces and nephews.  In their faces he sees the future of Uganda.

And it’s a good future.  Because of men like William who know that in the harrowing shadow of loss, there is always hope.

June 16, 2012

Piercing the Sky

Lakot warms up.
The school I'm teaching at in Uganda is home to, a young woman named Lakot Nancy, the Ugandan young women’s javelin champion.  She’s seventeen years old and can throw the javelin 45 meters.

Yesterday I happened upon Lakot on her way to practice and I asked if I could tag along.  She welcomed me on one condition; I had to throw, too.  Which is AWESOME in my book.  I agreed in a heartbeat and Lakot and I set off for the field with a javelin, a pair of discs, three shot put balls, and two empty water bottles filled with sand.

“What are these for?”  I asked, turning the sand in the bottle.

“For practicing the javelin.  They’re heavy and good for throwing.”

“Okay.”  I merrily trailed behind, excited for my lesson.

Lakot threw first.  She took a breath, centering herself and clearing her mind of outside things.  Then she cocked her arm back, ran forward and pitched the javelin.  Her sinewy arms and strong legs worked in tandem, like they were born for this, born to run and throw, born to launch the javelin in a perfect arc, piercing the blue sky.  The javelin landed in the middle of the field spiking itself into the ground, an exclamation point to her statement that she is an athlete to be contended with.

She retrieved the javelin and threw again.  This time it landed prostrate on the ground.  She ran and picked it up.

“This javelin is no good.”  She shook her head.

“No good?  Why not?”  I laughed, thinking that’s something I’d say after a throw that didn’t land.

“Look at the middle.  It’s broken.  They pieced it back together.”  She held the javelin out to me.  Sure enough the javelin was broken in half and had been pushed back together.

Javelins are WAY heavier than they look!
“Now you.”  She handed the javelin to me and I held it in my hand, measuring the balance and weight of it, while Lakot coached me.

“Hold it in your right hand.  Bring your arm back straight and when you’re ready, open up.  Open up your hand and release it.”

I practiced moving my arm and hand and then I exhaled like Lakot had done, trying to clear away outside things, trying to clear out the past.

Throwing a javelin is hard in a dress!  Ready...set...
I hiked up my dress and I threw.
My throw landed significantly short of Lakot’s and it flopped on the ground.

“Good job!  You did it!” Lakot cheered like I’d just set the world record.

I threw a few more times, each javelin landing limp on the field, each attempt celebrated by Lakot, the ever-patient coach.  She also showed me how to throw shotput and discus, and though I was equally terrible at both, Lakot had nothing but encouraging words and suggestions for how to improve my next throw.

The current women’s world record for the javelin is 72.28 meters.  Lakot has to throw 49 meters to qualify for the Junior Olympics.  She has her eyes set on the Olympics, on wearing the gold around her neck and standing on the podium for Uganda.

It's a lofty goal for a girl who practices with a broken javelin and water bottles filled with sand, but Lakot is strong in ways that leave me stunned.  In a single breath, she closes out her past and in the moment she throws, she is a woman moving through this world with agility, strength of mind and depth of heart.
Lakot Nancy throws and shows the beauty of clarity and strength.
Legend has it that Hercules was the first to throw the javelin, using his superior strength pierce the hearts of his enemies with the javelin.

Hercules has nothing on Lakot. 

She is a woman who aims for the sky and hits her target.  When the 2016 Olympics come around, I’m confident that Lakot will make her mark on history and indeed pierce the hearts of men and women all over the world.

June 15, 2012

Richard's Door

This week one of my tasks at the school was to help take pictures, called ‘snaps’ here, for their yearbook so that it’s ready before graduation in November.

Shooting headshots was fun.  I positioned them in front of their newly opened school, in front of the bricks and one of the bright blue classroom doors.  Their shy smiles and melty brown eyes met my lens and I fell in love with these kids.  Some of them were dressed in their school t-shirts and decided to come back for a second photo in their school uniform.  I love that they wanted to look their best for the yearbook, that they take pride in their appearance.

During a break, the students gathered around my computer to see their photos.  They laughed, they poked fun at each other and asked over and over again when I would print them out for a photo album.  I’m working on that last one, but there’s not really a camera shop in town, at least not that I’ve found.  Yet.  :)

As the students wandered off one student, a tall boy with a toothy grin stayed behind, sitting next to me.

“That door is my door.  I painted that door.”

“Which door?”

“The one in the photos.”

“I chose it because it was the nicest one.”

He grinned and stared at his shoes, as I flicked through the photos each one set against the backdrop of his door.

I love the pride and ownership the students have in their school home.  I love that they helped build it.  I love that the students are clearing a place for a rice paddy and a garden.  They own this school, perhaps not in the way we own things, but they own it in their hearts and I’m so grateful they’re sharing it with me for this brief window in time.

A few days later I was sitting in on a class.  The topic was "Having a Vision and  Mission for Your Life".  When the instructor asked for volunteers to share their vision and mission, Richard spoke up.

"I have a vision to be a peacemaker for Africa.  My mission is to open up an orphanage that's also a school."

I can just see Richard a few years down the road painting the doors on his own orphanage/school.  As for having a vision to be a peacemaker for Africa?  In my mind, he already is.

June 14, 2012

A Mile in Their Shoes

After church on Sunday, Colin and I stayed at the school for the afternoon and hung out with the kids.  Sunday is their only full day off from school and it was great to spend a little time getting to know them.

These kids are so funny.  Laughter is like breathing here, bubbling out of the easy smiles of the students.  It’s the white noise of the campus.

It never ceases to amaze me what kids will share if you just spend time with them sans agenda.  Colin and I were sitting in the shade of one of the outdoor classrooms shooting the breeze with the kids, talking about things like rap music and soccer.

Then the conversation took a turn and the kids started talking about their experiences as night travelers during the terror-filled years when Kony rampaged through the north.

Each night they’d travel the dark road from their houses and huts and into Gulu.  You can’t imagine the pitch darkness of this road.  No glow of electricity.  No flashlights.  Only stars pin pricking the sky and the white face of the moon to watch over them.  The boys walked for miles with their cousins and siblings, an ant trail of children hurrying along the edges of the roads in search of shelter and the hope of safety in town.  One particular boy was ten years old at the time.  I think about my nieces and nephews who are around that age and I imagine them walking that dark road together and my heart fills with agony that spills out of my eyes.

The boys talked about family members who were taken; uncles whisked away, fathers snatched out of the potato garden in the early morning hours.  They talked about family members who are still missing and about others who were mercifully released.

They also told stories of children forced into servitude for the LRA, walking for days with heavy loads balanced on their heads.  A single utterance hinting at hunger or fatigue meant a sure and swift death.

The boys told horrific stories that I can’t even bring myself to type because the malevolent inhumanity of it burns in my stomach and causes hot vomit to sizzle in my throat.

It's fitting to me that the new campus is built in what was once one of the most violent and unstable areas in Northern Uganda.  The heart of the school is their dedication to love and justice and I can't think of a more fitting place to make such a declaration.

On our way home Sunday, Colin and I walked part of the road used by the night traveling children.  Two of the boys escorted us and I couldn’t help but sneak peeks at their faces, imagining younger versions of them making this walk in the dead of night.  We walked about a mile before flagging down bodas that took us the remaining miles back into Gulu.

Sunday night my heart was heavy, weighing me down in my sleep as the boys’ stories came to life in my nightmares.

Every good teacher learns from his or her students.  Here in Uganda, I’m eager to learn how these children walked the darkest road and arrived at this destination, to a time and place where laughing is like breathing.

June 12, 2012

A Room With A View

I left CSI: Bathroom on the second day in Gulu, moving up two floors into the only other vacant room in the hotel.

This room isn’t perfect either, but I no longer fear that my shower is going to come alive at night or that the toilet is going to inflict a disease on me.

the possibility of water
My sink doesn’t work, but at least the faucet is attached to the wall so that I hold out hope that it will work one of these days.  It makes a great bathroom storage area for flowery headbands and other bathroomly things.

There’s no electricity in my bathroom which is actually okay, because even the thought of makeup vanishes in the sweat that begins each morning and only ceases when I lay down on top of the cool sheet at night.  The other benefit of no electricity in the bathroom is that I can’t be bothered to even attempt to tame my curls, which have taken on a life, and perhaps a solar system, of their own.  From what I can see out of my peripheral vision, the force grows stronger with my hair every day.  Only time will tell if it remains fairly well-behaved or if it turns to the dark side.  I think it’s going to be the dark side because anytime one clearly sees their hair from the periphery, that hair is clearly up to no good.

But cold water-and on rare occasions even hot water- flows freely from the shower head and the toilet no longer causes me nightmares.

And check out my dresser/closet/pantry/medicine cabinet/table complete with chair.

my dresser/closet/pantry/medicine cabinet/table
Perhaps my favorite thing about my new room is the view.  I look out on Gulu now, out onto buildings under construction.  The rhythm of hammers is the heartbeat of a town rebuilding herself, one nail at a time.

From my window I see houses and huts side by side, the new and the old married here.

Gulu is up to become a city this year.  She would be the second official city in Uganda.  Gulu residents are excited at the prospect of more industry and municipalities that reach the outskirts of town.  They hope Gulu will become like Kampala, a polluted, crowded, noisy racket of a city.  I want what’s best for Gulu and I’m just not sure bigger is always better.  So for now, I’ll relish the clink of hammers and enjoy my view of small, kindhearted Gulu.

Finding Beauty. Ahem.

Suite 16 at the J. Residence Inn, Entebbe, Uganda

This was my hotel room in Entebbe where I spent my first night in Africa.  It was a lovely room with a bed I sank into before falling asleep to the sounds of Africa outside my window and the hum of the fan cutting through the humid air.  It’s fitting that I was in Suite 16.  It just sounds right, doesn’t it?  After two days of traveling, I took great delight in this oasis.  In the morning I had a hot shower and enjoyed a breakfast cooked just for me.  It was a shame I’d only be spending the one night there and another night upon my return to the airport at the end of the month.
In Gulu, I expected my room to be the same caliber.  Here’s a shot of my toilet in Gulu.

I’m sorry I didn’t mean to frighten you.  Quick, try to think of pretty flowers or cute bunnies or something.  Try not to think about how my toilet looks like a crime scene.

I spent the first night in Gulu thinking a lot about Ryan and his lotus tattoo since taking up residence in this room the past few days.  Part of the adventure is finding beauty in unexpected places, right?  Right???

So the beauty of this toilet is that it flushes and because I’m a girl I don’t actually face the horror of the back of the toilet when I squat to do my business.

You looked at the toilet picture again, didn’t you?  Sorry.

my shower
Let me replace it with a different image.  Here’s my “shower”.  I say shower because the shower nozzle doesn’t work meaning I get to stand in the bucket and splash water on my dirty bits while dunking my head under the faucet.  The beauty in this is that the hot water tap is a ruse and there is only cold water here, so really I wouldn’t have wanted to actually stand under a freezing cold shower anyway, right?  Since the sink doesn't work, the shower is technically my sink, too, meaning I can save time by taking care of all of my showering, sink and toilet needs at the same time.  And who doesn't like to save a little time now and then?

What you can’t tell from the picture is that several times a night the shower faucet spontaneously fires massive amounts of water into the tub below with such force that the first night it woke me from a dead sleep.  The beauty in that situation is that I’d recently used my CSI toilet so I didn’t pee my sheets.

my bed
This is the sleeping part of  my room.  Note the pristine mosquito net.  It was part of an end of the year gift from one of my students.  The net that previously covered my bed was riddled with holes which is actually counter productive when it comes to mosquito nets because it only serves to trap them inside the net instead of keeping them out.  So the beauty in this is that I now get to tell my former student just how much I appreciated her thoughtful gift.

But wait, the beauty of this room doesn’t end there.  Check out my view.  Breathtaking in a sort of gasping for air kind of way, no?  Note the lack of screen on the window, meaning that when I can’t possibly take the humid air a second longer and have to open the window, I get to study a variety of insects from inside the safety of my mosquito net.  I do love a good entomology lesson.  I don’t even want to think about what the bars are for.  No, I don't know what that stain on the window is and, yes, people walk by my window and say hello.  Hang on a sec, I’m going to go look at my toilet to make myself feel better about my window.

my window
Okay, where was I?  Ah yes, my window.  What you can’t tell from the picture is that there’s a club right down the road that plays loud American music until the wee hours of the morning.  So when I wake up and feel homesick, I get an earful of Kelly Clarkson or Usher.  The beautiful thing about that is that I brought lots and lots of earplugs.

From my quick peek into Colin’s room, it appears that my room is the anomaly, the neglected step child of the hotel.  So that’s good.  Except for the ‘my room’ part.

I still think Lotus Ryan is right about the importance of finding beauty in unexpected places.  For the next few weeks, I’m just going to have to look hard to find it in this particular room.

An addendum to the finding beauty in unexpected places thing is that I’m also going to do a better job of appreciating beauty, even when it’s expected.  When I again cross through the doorway of beautiful Suite 16 back in Entebbe, my appreciation for the bed, the heated shower, the screened windows and the toilet will have increased tenfold.

Suite 16, I miss you.
An addendum to the addendum, the next day I was able to move to a different room and found all sorts of beauty.  Behold my toilet. I almost kissed it.  Until I saw a cockroach crawl out of it.  The beauty in that is that the cockroach didn't crawl out of it whilst I was using my brand new throne.

my new toilet

June 11, 2012

The Lotus

On my flight from Brussels to Entebbe, Uganda I had Santa sitting behind me and across the aisle from me was a college-aged kid with ‘Hello, Sailor’ tattooed on his leg.  The kid with the tat is Ryan.

Ryan has a mother who worries and is going to use up of all 50 of the monthly international texts he purchased in the span of a few days.

In the Fall Ryan’s entering med school to study pediatrics, oncology or global health issues.  He’s not sure if he’s got the chops to be a global heath doctor and so he’s doing a little bit of a test run this summer working in Southern Uganda to help establish better malaria protocols and treatment options.

As it turns out that his cheeky ‘Hello, Sailor’ tattoo is a tribute to his family’s long lineage in the Navy and that tattoo is for his sister who is currently deployed.

Ryan has another tattoo on the underside of his wrist.  It’s a small lotus, the symbol of finding beauty in unexpected places.

I wish I could text Ryan’s mom and tell her not to worry.  She can worry about his time in Uganda all she wants because that’s definitely a legitimate worry, but I wish I could tell her not to worry about Ryan in general because she has a son who wants to make the world a better place.  She has a son who looks for beauty in unexpected places like malaria-infested Uganda.

I think Ryan’s right, beauty often lies in unexpected places.  For me that unexpected place was across the plane aisle in the eyes of a kid eager to see the world and to find a way to make it better.


June 10, 2012

Conversations with Christine

My streak for meeting amazing people en route to Uganda continued on my flight from Washington DC to Brussels where I had the pleasure of meeting Christine, a Congolese kidney doctor who has made the United States her home for over 20 years.  Christine is amazing in a lot of ways.  For example, she speaks multiple languages.  She’s also an equestrian with a soft spot for her horse, AJ.  Her job allows her to travel the US filling in for various kidney doctors when they go on vacation.

Oh, and here’s a big one, for the past decade or so she’s been working on establishing a kidney transplant and dialysis center in Kenshasa, her hometown in the Congo.  She spends her days pouring her time, money, heart and everything else she has into providing care for those in need.  This means doing things like hauling equipment instead of clothing in her luggage.  It means translating protocol and training nurses.  For Christine, it also meant giving up her crowning jewel, giving up her private practice in the States in order to devote more time to her bigger calling.

I can’t fathom the faith it took to make a leap like that.  And yet, when Christine and I found ourselves sandwiched together in the middlest seats in the middle row, Christine talked about how she struggles with letting go of control and turning things over to God.

Boy, there’s nothing like having someone hold a mirror to your face on a transatlantic flight where there’s nothing but time, recycled air and plenty of leg room.  Wait, that last one was just wishful thinking.

I could so relate to Christine and her fear of letting God take the wheel.  It’s a fear I face down all the time.  My own hubris wins out far more than I care to admit.  I told Christine about how God has been sending me some unlikely messengers as of late to convey that he’s in the broad strokes and in the finest details as well.  I told her about D’s words and about Santa’s gift and about how since I decided to listen to God for once and go to Africa to write with kids, God is proving his steadfastness in my life in wild ways.

There was a time in my life when prayer was just natural conversations with God, when praying was like filling my best friend in on the details of my life.  Somewhere in the last few years, my prayer life has waned into a list of gratitude or a list of wants.  Hear me out, both of those have their place.  The Bible says a thankful heart prepares the way for God and that we’re to ask for the desires of our hearts, but somehow the part where I just talked to God got lost.

Planning and taking this trip to Uganda has forced me to be real with God, to lay down the platitudes.  This isn’t easy for me because often times it means admitting weakness where I want to portray strength.  From small things like admitting I was nervous about taking photos for the book I’ll be writing with the kids to bigger things like being lonely, I’ve been laying it all out on the table.

And then trying hard to listen.

I’m not one who hears an audible voice of God, although I firmly believe that if I did, He would sound like James Earl Jones.

Instead God speaks to me most often through the actions of other people.  When I admitted I was uncertain about doing the writing and photography part of the book, Colin a teacher from Oklahoma City, who also happens to be a photographer, signed up to volunteer at the school, too.  When I told him about the book I want to write with the students, he jumped in with both feet to help with the photography side.

When I left my house at 3am and began the two and a half hour drive to the airport that began this wild journey, loneliness and homesickness settled like stones in my stomach.  For the first half hour of the drive, I didn’t see a single car or even a semi truck heading either direction on the interstate.  All was quiet and dark and even a happy playlist couldn’t help me from thinking about turning back around at every exit and speeding back to my warm bed to curl into the crook of Terry’s arms.  At 3:45am my phone rang.  It was That Laura, awake and itching courtesy of a nasty case of poison oak.  We chatted about regular old life stuff and the next thing I knew I was pulling into long-term parking at the airport.

When I boarded the plane from DC to Brussels and settled in next to Christine, I realized that I’m not alone in struggling with letting go.  I’m not alone in feeling nervous or lonely at times.  Time and again on this trip, God is making sure I know I’m not alone.  So now I’m starting to think that the voice of God isn’t that of James Earl Jones.  Maybe I hear God best when he talks to me through the chipper voice of a faithful friend calling.  I’m even beginning to think that the voice of God may even have a Congolese accent.

I guess the point is to keep listening because God speaks in surprising ways.  For me the point may be to keep listening because God speaks.  Period.

June 9, 2012

Traveling with Santa

I was once offered a job on an airplane, a salary offer scribbled on the back of an airline napkin and everything.

I also once held airline sickness bags to the mouth of a college student who had the misfortune of getting his wisdom teeth removed the day before flying back to school on the East Coast.

When I began my flight from Sacramento to Washington, DC, en route to Uganda, I wondered where Scott, the feed farmer seated in my row, would fall on my best to worst plane companions scale.

Scott was on his way to a church leadership conference in Canada and had a stack of paperwork at least 4 inches thick that he was to read over before the conference.  Poor guy.

We began chatting across the mercifully vacant seat between us and Scott regaled me with tales a unique employee named Rambo.  However he solidified his spot in the number 2 ranking of favorite plane companions when he told me a tale of the last church leadership conference that ended with one of his conference colleagues riding in an open trunk, blowing cigar smoke at the cars behind them.

Good stuff, but alas Scott had his silver medal ranking taken away by a force of nature so magical that it can only be explained in two words:

Santa Claus.

I swore Santa Claus walked right past me and into the lavatory.  He wore a red shirt, a snowy white beard, and glasses perched on his nose revealing his-I'm not even kidding you-twinkling blue eyes.  The only things missing were his sack of toys and perhaps a reindeer or two.

I stopped him on his way back to his seat and asked if I could take his picture.  He smiled and obliged, almost giving a ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ kind of chuckle.

“My littlest nephews are not going to believe that I was on a plane with Santa!  One of them was just wondering last Christmas where Santa goes on vacation.”  I could barely contain my glee as I snapped his photo.  And then Santa did a very cool thing.  He gave me his business card with his secret identity so I could show it to my nephews.  As it turns out, in his off-season, Santa is known as Marty the missionary and he was headed to Africa that day.

Marty, er, Santa, boys and girls, I mean Santa, entertained Scott and I with tales of Santahood including the gut wrenching story of a little boy who climbed atop his lap and asked for his mother’s cancer to be taken away.

Santa also told us a hilarious story about another boy who was being a holy terror in the seat of his haggard mother’s shopping cart.  Santa leaned down into this boy’s face, squared him with a serious look over the rims of his glasses and said, “You know who I am, right?”  The little boy nodded, mouth agape.  “Then you be good to your mother and listen to her.”  The boy nodded again and sat quietly in the cart.  The mother sighed with relief and on a subsequent aisle asked Marty's wife, Mrs. Claus, to thank Mr. Claus for his help.

Santa gave me a gift on that flight to DC.  You heard me right, I got a gift from Santa and it wasn’t even close to Christmas.  I know, I know, try to contain your jealousy.  After all, you don’t want to be on the naughty list.

The gift Santa gave me was a Rubik’s cube sort of toy that unfolds and refolds to tell the story of the life of Christ.  Now this cube isn’t really my style for sharing my faith, but it was a sweet act of kindness on Santa’s part.

When the flight landed, Scott and I parted ways.  I wished him a fun-filled conference and, fingers crossed, a story or two that might land him in a trunk.  He wished me the best on my work with the students in Uganda.

Then came time to bid Santa ado.  We said our goodbyes and Santa in all earnesty, with his mouth drawn up like a bow, told us he loved us.  I smiled because his authentic love for people couldn’t have been more evident.

You can imagine my delight when I discovered that Marty was on my flight from DC to Brussels and then seated right behind me on my flight from Brussels into Africa.  All day long Santa told me tales of the lovely Mrs. Claus, including how much he’d missed her these last two years since her passing.  I saw photos of Santa’s seven children and his grandchildren.  Santa even confessed to wearing only red shirts.

As I said, the Jesus Rubik’s cube isn’t my style of sharing my faith.  Surely, I’d miss a fold or a turn and leave poor Jesus stranded in the tomb or something.  But I’m keeping the cube because each time during my trip when a pang of homesickness would seize my stomach or a shadow of doubt about this harebrained idea to write alongside kids in Uganda would sweep across my mind, Santa was there with a word of encouragement or a kind gesture.

I know some people travel with images of saints to watch over them.  I don’t believe in the deity of saints, but I can’t help but laugh at God’s sense of humor for sending Saint Nicholas to watch over me as I traveled across the world, alone but never lonely.

Needless to say, Santa parked his sleigh firmly in the #1 spot on my list of all time favorite plane companions.  Marty Santa spends his days comforting children in need, redirecting them when the opportunity allows and even reassuring big kids like me that God shows up in magical ways and times, not just on December 25th.

Santa aka "Marty Hooper" bringing comfort to children of all ages, myself included.

June 8, 2012

D's Gift

In the tent of my mosquito net, I lay thinking of just where to begin, dear reader, to tell you about the amazing adventure I’m having in Uganda.  As so many wonderful things do in my life, this story begins with my grandmother.  I’d been missing her like crazy as I prepared for my trip, brokenhearted that I couldn’t tell her all of the little details.  Like so many of my adventures with my grandma, this is a story that I wouldn’t have believed had I not been there.

Did you know I’m named after my grandmother?  Yep, Alicia Jean.  When I was a kid in serious trouble, my mom could really stretch my name out when she felt that my first name alone wasn’t doing the trick.  Alicia Jeeeeeeean!!!  Few people outside of my family know about my birth middle name because when I got married many years ago, I replaced Jean with my maiden name.  What does this very boring namesake lineage have to do with anything?  I’m getting there.  Promise.

My grandmother, Betty Jean, loved to travel and she loved a good adventure.  In fact she loved adventure so much that she kept $100 pinned in her bra at all times “just in case”-not just in case something bad happened, just in case something good could happen with the help of a little spare change.  Be it treating the table for lunch or splurging on ice cream sundaes, her bra money came in handy on more than one occasion.  Is this really a story about your grandmother’s undergarments?  Fine, I’m done talking about my grandmother’s bra and I’ll get on with the story about what happened the day before I left for Uganda.

The day before I left, unbeknownst to me, the local newspaper re-ran the story about my trip that was printed a few weeks ago in the Anderson Valley Post.  This was a pleasant surprise and it filled my inbox with well wishes from friends and strangers alike.  One particular email caught me by surprise, an email from D.*

D is a local who has been a missionary off and on in Uganda since 1991 and after reading the article about me, she wanted to meet and answer any questions I might have as well as give me some Ugandan Shillings she had left from her last trip.  And by some, she meant a LOT, as in an amount that was exceptionally generous, especially from a complete stranger.  D told me about her time in Uganda and I told her about my trip that was mere hours away from beginning.  Then she took out the envelope fat with money and in her other hand she held a singular knee-high pantyhose.

“Do you know where you’re going to keep your money?” she asked.  I told her the variety of locations I planned on keeping it.

“Well, I always kept my money in a pantyhose and then pinned it inside my bra and it worked for me.”

Of course she kept her money in her bra.  I laughed when she told me that, but kept the reason to myself, knowing that my grandma would have been nodding her head in staunch agreement.

I asked her if she was sure she wanted to give me all of this money.  She did and all she asked in return is that I deliver a kind message to her pastor friend in Gulu.  If I felt compelled, I could also give him some of the money.

Before she left, D prayed for me.  In my book, the more prayer, the better, especially when it comes to big adventures that leave my stomach snapping with excitement and nerves.  After praying for me, D told me God was giving her a word for me and that word was ‘special’.  I appreciated the sentiment and the care D bestowed on me, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Yes we’re all special in God’s eyes.  What’s the big deal?”

And then, because skepticism never, ever trumps love, D paused and said, “I have a second word for you.  ‘Jean’.  Your name is Jean, isn’t it?”

“It was.”  I stammered, too surprised to tell her anything else.  I started looking around my house for anything visible that said Alicia Jean.  There wasn’t anything, since it’s part of my name I haven’t used in over 15 years.

“God wants you to know you’re special and that he knows you, right down to your very name.”

I swear I almost broke my neck careening it around the room to see where she pulled ‘Jean’ from.  No Jean anywhere.  Coming up with nothing, D and I hugged and she went about the rest of her day, leaving me in a cloud of disbelief and wonder.

The money D gave me was an incredibly generous gift, but the real gift she gave me was the knowledge that my grandma was with me in spirit.  And also in the Shillings I tucked into a pantyhose and pinned in my bra.

*I’m calling her D because I didn’t ask before I left if she wanted to remain anonymous or not.  Plus it’s late here and I couldn’t come up with a more creative name, like say one with more than one letter.

June 5, 2012

Thankful Thursday #73

image courtesy of priyasingh82.blogspot.com
This week I'm thankful for...
  • summer rain
  • double rainbows
  • the quiet of my house in the morning
  • the scent of my husband
  • airports with free wifi
  • generous strangers who donated toward my trip and are now friends
  • watching the sun rise as I arrived at the airport

June 1, 2012

Mere Days Until Uganda!!!

My trip to Uganda is nearly here and I can barely type this without jumping out of my skin with excitement.  I just can't believe that I get to write with kids at an academy in Gulu.  Life is so good.

This weekend I'll go to San Diego to cheer Terry on as he runs a half marathon. That crazy guy is running a half marathon each month during 2012.  And you thought I was nuts, right?  After San Diego, I'll be home for a few brief hours and then I'll leave for Uganda!!!  Sorry, all of those exclamation points are totally requisite right now!!!  Sorry, I'll stop.


No, really, I'm done now.

Wonderful things have happened since I last wrote you.  First of all, the Anderson Valley Post wrote a feature on me.  That post was picked up by my colleagues at the California Writing Project and the next thing I knew my little adventure was being shared with a variety of audiences on Facebook.

It leaves me gobsmacked to see so many people excited about this seed of an idea I had to go and help kids write their stories.  I truly feel called to this work and have been blessed by such an abundant outpouring of support.

Speaking of support, so far I've raised $1,020 of $4,000 for my trip!  I know I said I was done with exclamation points, but that felt worthy of one.  The money raised goes toward trip accommodations and expenses, but the best thing your money goes toward is publishing a book of the student stories.  I'd love nothing more than to raise enough money to give each student author a copy of their book.  Just the thought of it makes my heart pound.  If you'd like to make a donation on my behalf, please click here.  Some of you have also asked if you can post about my big adventure on Twitter or Facebook and my answer is a resounding YES, please share as you see fit.  :)

Thank you, Sara S. & Jeff W., Becca M., Jenni C., Katie S., Ed S., Julie H., Krystle J., Chris & Pat F., Jenna B., Jenny B., Linda B., Steve & Amy P., Marc S., Jill S., Joy G., Kim K., Nancy L., Dean & Yvonne B., Colleen W., Ed & Mary S., and Julie M.  I am humbled by your generosity and love.

As often as possible, I'm planning on writing about my trip and posting pictures here.  In fact, I've already written about my trip here and here.  Sharing during the trip will all depend on internet access and working electricity.  :)  I hope you'll follow along with me and continue to keep me in your prayers.