Friday, June 16, 2006

A view of from inside an IDP Camp

Malaria or Unidentifiable Bacterial Infection that feels strangely like Malaria—or what I imagine to feel like malaria—ie—worst flu I’ve ever had. Hmm, so which would you rather have? It’s kind of like that game “would you rather?” Like would you rather be burned alive or drown to death? Only not as fun in real life.

Don’t worry Mom, I feel better. I always feel like it’s easier to tell my mom things after the worst is over. I find this easier for both our sanities since if she starts crying about me being sick, I’ll start crying and turn into a worthless ball of self-pity. It’s been a rough coupla-days but I’m out of the woods now. I’m just wobbling around a little now like an old man with arthritis of the knees, but--No turning back. Honestly, being me, I’ve sort of felt like it was a miracle I haven’t been sick before now, so thanks for any of the prayers you sent out into the universe for me.

Other than being on my death-bed I’ve had a great time the past week. I went up to Gulu and bounced around doing a myriad of things—prayer intercession, hanging out with orphans, going to IDP camps. Probably the scariest but most fulfilling thing I did was I preached at a prison. Now, I know what you’re thinking…why in the world would you go into a prison? And preach? I felt all Johnny Cash without the guitar.
And no, I wasn’t preaching to men—I’m not that crazy!
It’s part of what this ministry, Favor of God, does and they asked me if I wanted to, and I said sure, why not, never preached before. Now, I’m not a preacher by nature. Not one of those people who can get up in front of a bunch of faces and not get nervous and carry out a complete sentence without a lot of thought. I know people like that. I am not one of them. Not only do I like very few preachers (my pastor being one of them) but I’m afraid of whether or not people will think I’m good. It’s a lot of pressure getting up behind a pulpit. Not that I had a pulpit. I was more like Anne Lamott reading at a bookstore. Still, the whole thing went off really well, surprisingly which just went to show it was totally God and not me, because I would have mucked the whole thing up. Sadly most of them were there for stupid things like fighting with their husband’s “other wife” or stealing food for their children. So I spoke on what it means to be a daughter of God, which sounds really elementary, but in fact was a revelation I only had a couple years ago—one that I think instills a lot of dignity and self-worth that some women have a hard time grasping. I sort of um, edited the prodigal son story (for good creative purposes) to fit more with their situations and by the end of the whole thing I was praying for all these women and they were crying and then they all started singing and dancing, and of course I was too. It was all way out of my control and completely amazing.

The cutest little kid who tried to grab my camera

The journey of awesomeness continued as I met up with Invisible Children. Now, this is like a small dream come true. Having put in all that work to see screenings come together and having so supported their cause, to actually be on the ground looking at what their doing, was needless to say—Rad, as the Californians would say. Yeah, they still use it. Not to mention hanging out with a bunch of people my age, who actually speak English was a nice change of pace. I find in traveling you come across the same wandering souls who are looking for their little piece of heaven. You find people who offer a kinship and a nice haven for all the mixed emotions of having left people back home. We meet and we part, it’s the nature of these things. But before we part, we ride the best of both extremes—we spend a day in Awer IDP camp and a night making our own drum circle. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced this hippie-like concert of moonlight and thunderous sound, but aside from harps, it could be the closest we get to God’s kind of music. If Wyoming is God’s country then drums are his heartbeat.

The IDP camp was hard. Tiny mud huts packed together with 45,000 people sharing holes in the ground for toilets makes for a disease-ridden situation. But I can see a glimmer of hope in the fact that Invisible Children is starting to work there. They want to bring their bracelet making project there as a way for some of the people to earn a livelihood. For those of you wondering—many of what IC does on the ground is the bracelet making, and using that money for sponsorship of children in school. They are truly doing great things. Sadly though, there is one, let me say that again, ONE, NGO working in Awer camp, besides IC. Out of all the glamorous Land-cruisers rolling around town, not a single one is there in the camp. The one we were working with is a partnership of IC called Hope after War—they’re pretty optimistic. They are made up of Ugandans who actually come from that same area and have decided to do what they can to help. It was incredible—they organized a whole welcome committee to meet us with dancing, singing, and even a drama on the war. It is the most real drama I’ve ever seen probably because the former LRA abductees play LRA soldiers, and the former child wives, play child wives. The whole experience was surreal. Welcoming is a big deal here. And it’s almost cute how they have a committee chairperson for each committee—now let me explain—you think camp and you think unorganized but these people have put together their own groups—there is the Widows group, Orphans group, and Disabled person’s group and each of them spoke to us. Their main message was:

“Don’t forget about us. Tell America about us and please bring them back with you.”

And that is what I, we, all of us, aim to do.

I tried to not feel like a tourist, asking permission to get their stories and take a few pictures. We tried to keep it to a minimal, but of course when you see things like that, you want evidence of it. There were about a million raggedly clothed children. So many kids. And so many kids with kids. I was able to interview a few child mothers about their stories, but I want to go back and do more. I told them the reason I do it is not to exploit them, but so that more people will want to come help. The sad part is that many of these women who came back from the bush did so before the cut-off point World Vision instituted, which means that girls who came back before 2000 I believe, cannot get help. They are just slipping through the cracks.

My friends got a former LRA soldier on video and this guy actually choked up and started crying and he was this big-cock-diesel type guy. Not only do men NEVER cry here, but women hardly do either, so to get this guy crying was crazy—he happened to be with the woman I interviewed. She was his child-wife in the bush I found out later, but apparently they had bonded or she doesn’t have anywhere else to go because they are still together and have three children. This one baby broke my heart--he kept climbing towards the cap for the camera lens and trying to put it in his mouth.

What they need are income generating activities like sewing, bread-making, etc, but they need sewing machines and someone to teach them. They need hoes for farming, and seeds for food. And they need medicines for preventable illnesses like Malaria. Having had it, or something similar, but surviving because I have the drugs, and realizing that a child can die from it, simply because they can’t pay the few dollars to get it—makes me feel nauseous.
I think we feel it’s a huge feat to get over to Africa, but the more people I meet here who have just up and done it, I realize it’s not that hard. Why are we so afraid? I was totally jealous of this girl whose friends came to visit her and she was like, why don’t you just ask your friends to come? I guess that was kind of an unspoken, but here’s my open invitation: Come to Africa. See what you can do. And do something, even if it seems very small. Every type of skill can be used here—from business to baking, so don’t count yourself out if you don’t know what you could offer. Half the time, I don’t know, but I’m still over here ;)

What I realized in my beating up of myself for feeling too touristy, is that simply seeing a white person or someone who cares enough to come to them is a big deal and that is why they put on these incredible shows for us. Because they want us to come back and bring more. Visiting them shows that we care. That doesn’t mean we make a spectacle of them or plan never to do anything for them, but what it does mean is that we let the seeing create a movement in us towards greater change.

The reason why many NGO’s are not in the camps I believe is because they think they will break down soon and then they’ll have started something that will not last. I on the other hand, think we can turn these camps into smaller villages and not allow the work we’ve started to dissolve. The other argument is if we help them while they’re in the camps then they’ll just want to stay there, but truly if there was safety, these people would return to their land, or a much better situation in a heartbeat. They don’t want to be there. Who likes to live without freedom?

Speaking of freedom—it’s what I live in these days. Freedom to go or not to go. The malaria-type/bacterial infection set me back a bit…I was supposed to hop on up to Lira to help out with Maresha’s program some more so I hope to get up there by Sunday. I want to introduce her to this couple from England who I think can donate to her projects and maybe we can start up a little tailoring business. Dream. Dream big.

An IDP Camp, from the outside

Many ideas are brewing in me, and it’s my goal to talk to a lot more people who have been doing this a lot longer than me, including the Ugandans who live here. I have so many questions, but deep inside I feel like the questions are not bad, like a faith with some doubts is not awful, because the questions force me out into an open field where I feel waiting for me are answers.

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching lately and strangely enough that has correlated nicely with the book I’m reading Eat Pray Love (girls—get it!) and the author’s journey within herself as well as through different continents. Something she said really struck me as a way I have often felt:

I was not rescued by a prince. I was the administrator of my own rescue. My thoughts turn to something the Zen Buddhists believe. They say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time. The acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential. But only a few can recognize there is another force operating—the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding from nothingness to maturity. The Zens say it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it was born. I think about the woman I have become lately and I see a happier, more balanced me who pulled the other younger, more confused and more struggling me forward during all those hard years. It was the older me, the already-existent oak, who was saying the whole time, “yes, grow, change, evolve!” Come and meet me here where I already exist in wholeness and in maturity. Where I was always waiting in peace and contentment, always waiting for her to arrive and join me.”

I am not saying I am there yet, but I am dreaming of it there, and yes, slowly becoming. Africa has that effect on me. Wish you were here too.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

We as Americans we come to foreign lands in search of something,

something like our own heartbeat, something slippery and indefinable, but with presence, tinged with a certain energy. For any wanderer, traveling is the high, but everyone

wants to belong somewhere--to feel a place, in a slow turning, become home. We want something of the land and in that way, we are selfish. We might come to give, but we come to stake out our destiny, like that beautifully cheesy Tom Cruise in Far and Away, we come to lay claim. Ours is a history of dominance. Always the explorer, the colonizer in our blood and it is hard to run away from. We come with our ideas and plans, our visions and ideals, and without meaning to, we impose them. We think we know the way and we think we know how to do it better and more efficiently then the next person. I am just as guilty of this and that is why I can write about it. Not all of it is bad. The world always needs new eyes to see ancient problems. And we bring a passion and a wide-eyed enthusiasm that even the seasoned cynic needs a glimpse of. But still, what is that part of us that feels that maybe the Africans are doing it wrong and we can do it better. Granted, desperation cripples people. It stagnates and it stilts. Depleted and dependent, yes sometimes they need a helping hand.
But how to get over ourselves?

I passed a birthday with six skinny kids playing spoons. And I felt sorry for myself a lot of the day which was pretty stupid considering I said I came here to help. At a certain point in the night I realized that while my ideal birthday might not be spending it with people all under the age of 13, I think it really made their day. We danced around to African drums until the neighbors complained. Not to mention they got cake. It’s all about the cake.

I am 2 months into my journey and the middle is always the hardest and as my friend Hope said once I am punching my way through. Because here the reason I started seems romantic and completely out of reach, and the ending feeling of accomplishment seems laughable. If I make it that far. I think this is what runners in a marathon must feel. The excitement of the race is over and end seems too many blistering miles to push heel to toe. Is it worth it? Why the hell did I want to run a marathon for in the first place when it’s really hard.

I’ll never underestimate again what missionaries give up for a calling. As idyllic as it can sound they give up a lot in missing those birthdays, those weddings, those trips to the beach with friends. And yet, like in this book I am reading about one woman’s journey through Italy, Indonesia, and India:

“This was my moment to look for the kind of healing and peace that can only come from solitude.” Eat, Pray, Love

I think I can do those three things. Especially the eating part.

Last night I felt that kind of loneliness that makes you feel like a grade-school kid stuck home-sick at camp. I tried to pray but mostly was just getting snot everywhere. And I felt like I heard God say, “I’m here too,” but it sounded mostly like my own voice somewhere in my heart, only more kind and more wise.

I don’t want to be an American tourist anymore. I’m starting to feel less like one. Starting to feel like I’m walking the street with the confidence of someone who knows her way around, not like a target for the nearest pick-pocket. Starting to feel like I’m learning the people and what they want, and less like I just care about doing my own thing.

I go to Gulu, up north, tomorrow. I go to learn, and to touch, to taste, and to pray, and to live with these people I came here for. Mostly I just want to hang out with some orphans and formerly abducted girls and just love ‘em. Who knows about the rest. My friend Tom laughs at me because every time he asks me what I’m going to do I just say “I don’t know. We’ll see.” He laughs and says, “Classic Sarita.” Thus, my life. And it’s ok.

If you pray-whether on your knees, with rosary beads, in your car with the music going, or more like an echo of a voice inside yourself rising up, then say a little one for me.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Pictures of me at an IDP camp in Northern Uganda. I'm totally Angelina Jolie. I think this baby peed on me, but it was totally worth it. She belonged to one of the women I sat and talked to (sort of. :)

Me with corn that the community members had grown from seeds given to them by Abundant Life. So cool to see empowerment in action. What is that saying? "Give a man a fish and he'll ask you for more or give him a fishing pole and he'll eat for life.." or something like that....

really huge sunflowers--what more could a girl ask for?

The North is better than I dreamed in many ways, and worse in ways I had not imagined. Everywhere there are fields of sunflowers that make you want to run through them like Maria in the Sound of Music. I didn’t expect the green. Green trees, green wispy grass, and green cornfields taller than I am. If their huts were green you wouldn’t be able to see them. Granted, there are IDP camps in the North that are nothing but dusty heaps of dry ground and dirty hovels. But Lira makes a heaven out of hell.

I felt like I had my idealistic National Geographic moment when on the third day I sat among the women and their nursing babies and felt a part of them. Ok, so we couldn’t communicate that well, but through a series of hand demonstrations I was able to find a girl who barely spoke English. They pretty much just laughed at me as I tried to speak Luo, but in a way I felt we connected. I guess that is what I came there for.

It was amazing to see the way the whole community would gather under the mango tree and we would dialogue through a translator about the projects Abundant Life is presenting to them—at this point—planting seeds, making bricks for the school, and soon, fish farming. There was a real relationship there that has taken months to foster. Maresha and Peter introduced us and told us to say whatever God had put on our heart. No pressure or anything ;) But the words just sort of came as hundreds of eyes stared at me, the mzungu, wondering what I was going to say. I had been playing photographer most of the afternoon, so I told them the reason I was taking so many pictures was because I wanted others to know the kind of success they were having because they had decided to work hard and trust these people. I hadn’t brought anything, and in many ways I felt completely inadequate to speak to them, but I realized that sometimes all we can do is encourage and offer hope and let God use our mouth to say what He wants. Just like the Israelites, God has given them their promised land and is bringing them back from captivity and I just spoke about the parallels between their current situation and the promise God made to His people. Of course I almost cried as I talked about how one of my dreams had been to come to Northern Uganda and that I felt God had given me that. They clapped so I guess they got it. One is never sure how much gets lost in translation. That phrase has taken on a whole new meaning over here.

One highlight for me was getting to ride in a UN land cruiser out to the camp to talk over the partnership with the World Food Program who is going to offer food for work. I’m not going to lie—it was pretty cool. A lot of things are coming together, but in the middle of that—working with a community is seriously hard. One day many of them are ready to donate their land to build their own houses and centers on, the next day we come, a select few of them start complaining that we should pay them to work on their own land to build their own houses. It was kind of ridiculous, but I was able to see the mentality that has dominated the North for years. A mentality of dependency that has been enforced by NGO’s and ministries who come only to give, but never to empower. Even when we offered to give them food for working, and continue to give seeds for their land, they really only wanted money. Because money to them, is power and they think the mzungus are here only to offer handouts. For Maresha and Peter it was disheartening, especially after the many conversations they have had with the community, but there will always be a few who want to disrupt something good. Tamara (the other missionary) and I were just praying and singing as everyone was discussing and in the end it worked out and things will move forward, but my eyes were opened to the need for more people who will empower the community. Like Peter said, “if I come and build you a house when someone tries to take it away from you, you will run, but if you put your sweat into that house and if it is really yours, you will fight for it.” These people for so long have not had anything that was really theirs that they do not have the ownership and pride that comes along with having worked for something. We are trying to give them back their dignity, but the “give me” mentality is still very strong. I know I got to see the best of the North—an area where families are returning and re-building and that there is so much more need in other places. That is why I feel so strongly about this model of recovery.

All in all, I learned a lot, but still feel as though I really want to get my hands dirty—you know, build a house or something. Every time I come back from doing something or seeing something, I feel this incredible anxiousness and sense of being paralyzed. Like—what am I supposed to do now? Now that I’ve seen, now that I know these things, what am I responsible for? So I’m waiting for an answer. And in the meantime feeling torn between life here and life back home. My sis wrote me an email and I just started crying. Out of all the things that are hard about being in Africa, missing out on life with people I love is the hardest. And yet, I feel the truth of this quote:

“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

There is something about the rawness of Africa that teaches patience and self-sacrifice. When you can’t get your food for two hours, when you have to sleep on the floor or worry about what kind of bite you got on your leg, when you see a woman with a one-month old abandoned by her husband or a community that doesn’t seem to understand you want to help them, there is something that dies. And hopefully that is the small or sometimes, large part of myself that is only concerned with me.

Sometimes the smallest inconveniences bring out the worst of our personalities and believe me, I complain too when I’m hungry—but it teaches me how far I have to go. If anything, people should come to Africa to learn patience!

If there was just a way I could bundle everyone up in my suitcase or transplant them over here, life would be good. I’ll work on that. Until then, I’ll make it. But don’t forget about me. As if you could ;)