Our family of five didn’t really know what to expect. Sure we had some ideas. We thought we’d see rough roads, cool animals, hot temperatures. And, of course, my brother and his family.
We expected to work and help out with some projects. And we expected to learn a lot.
The 8-hour red-eye flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam was almost sleepless, but uneventful.
The Amsterdam layover gave us nearly twelve hours to see a bit of the city, including a tour of the house where Anne Frank hid with her family during the holocaust.
By that evening, we were exhausted, so we did sleep on the 8-hour red-eye flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi. One more hop carried us from Nairobi, Kenya to Entebbe, Uganda, where we were welcomed by a uniformed official with an unceremonious squirt of hand sanitizer.
After a quick trip through customs and visa purchases, we met Dan and Amie and began the 8-hour drive to Soroti. It felt weird driving on the left side of the road with the steering wheel on the right.
On Ugandan highways, pedestrian traffic is expected, and drainage ditches along the sides of the road can become quite a hazard for vehicles that stray slightly off course.
Roads under construction often stay that way for weeks or months. And rather than orange warning cones or barrells, Ugandan roads employ speed humps every few car lengths to keep traffic at a slow pace.
The day progressed, and road conditions – and living conditions – changed considerably as we neared the compound where Dan and Amie lived.
The rest of the evening was a blur as we fought to put ourselves in the Ugandan time zone.
We wanted the trip to have a lasting impact, so we asked for some helpful things to do while we were there. A slow first day helped us get our internal clocks adjusted as Dan and Amie unboxed some of the supplies we carried in our checked baggage. Then we began work on some of the projects that had been prepared.
A super-energy-efficient computer had been purchased for Calvary Radio, a local solar-powered radio station. Our task was to get the operating system and radio station software installed so it could serve as the new automation computer. This was the kind of project that Joshua and I could really enjoy tackling.
In preparation for a future construction project at the church and school property, Dan and I climbed into the attic above the auditorium to measure rafters. I let Dan do most of the walking around. He also ran new wire to connect a lighting circuit to battery, while Joshua, Nathan, and I replaced incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents.
We also worked on a privacy fence, removing old matting and replacing it with new. The old matting became a bounce house for the young cousins. Some of us older ones should have known better than to join in. But we learn the hard way.
Saturday’s church-wide visitation brought our family to the village of Ongunai for a service project More important than the project, it seemed, was the time of formal introduction before the work began. We had already exchanged names, and thought introductions were over, but the pastor soon began pulling out benches for more formal, detailed introductions. So much of village culture depends on relationships, and relationships take time.
Just living in Soroti is a time-consuming, people-oriented exercise. Grocery shopping means visiting one vendor for carrots, another for pineapple, and another for cucumbers or green beans. And with each purchase, almost as much time is spent in exchanging pleasantries as it is in buying the produce. And if there’s a product you haven’t needed in a couple of weeks, you go visit the shop anyway just to exchange greetings!
Anyway, back to Ongunai…
The public road in front of the church had become overgrown, and the tall grass created a fear of snakes for those walking near the building. Using mostly local tools – and a few that Dan brought – we tamed the vegetation and widened the usable path.
The local “slasher” was a rather inefficient lawnmower by American standards, but it does get the job done.
The ministry property is a much larger area, than the simple road by the church, and the hand slashers haven’t been able to keep up with the grass growth. For Dan to introduce machinery could be perceived as threatening to the jobs of the local men who keep it cut. But an outsider like Nathan could take a string trimmer to a portion of the property, and it would be a non-threatening, temporary solution.
One other work project was to assemble a sign for the Calvary Radio building. The vinyl printing had already been done, and a metal frame had been welded. We primed and painted the frame to keep it from rusting. Then, we glued the vinyl sign to the frame, and it was ready to be mounted.
In addition to the work projects, we also served through the ministry of the local church and school.
On Sunday morning, Lana taught a sunday school class about David and Saul. The whole family sang in church on Sunday morning, having learned a couple of verses in Ateso, the local language. On Wednesday morning, Steve taught the Primary and Secondary school chapel lessons on God’s sovereignty through the life of Mordecai. And Wednesday evening, Joshua played a guitar solo of “Be Thou My Vision”.
In between the projects, we just lived life with Dan and Amie and the cousins. My morning coffee was a local product, grown and roasted very recently and very nearby. We experienced typical Ugandan markets, and found some unexpected souvenirs. Peanuts, called “ground nuts” or g-nuts, were a common snack, while sugar cane was a treat.
Before long, our time in Soroti had come to an end, and it was time to pack up the whole family for the long drive back to the Entebbe airport.
On the way, we stopped at “The Keep” in Jinja, Uganda for lunch. It was started by Hackers For Charity, a network of volunteer hackers and technologists who help charities that cannot afford traditional technical resources. I had heard of the group, but had no idea we’d be stopping right by their headquarters.
Our final night, we stayed in a banda on the campus of the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre. The next morning presented a troop of free-roaming vervet monkeys climbing the fence to greet us. Touring the Wildlife Education Center the next day introduced us to many of Uganda’s native wild animals, including ostriches and zebras, kobs, and impalas, from which the capital city Kampala got its name.
From the giraffe area, we could look left and see the bandas where we had slept the night before. Finally, we found a small path that led to Lake Victoria. The kids wanted to make sure they could touch it before we left for the airport.
The infrastructure, amenities, conditions, and smells of Uganda were not at all like those in Atlanta. Fresh produce had to be soaked in bleach water for 20 minutes before it could be prepared. Meat from local markets carried more microscopic “extras” than our bodies would be able to handle.
Could I spend the rest of my life there?
I was beginning to understand how missionaries can face serious culture fatigue in a place like Soroti. I could probably handle just a few more nights of tucking in mosquito nets. I could probably handle just a few more days of using bottled water to brush my teeth.
But could I spend the rest of my life there?
What is it that allows a missionary to overcome these differences, to endure the discomforts of life in a place like Soroti or an even more remote village?
Fortunately, we had a taste of that answer.
Wednesday evening, while Joshua was playing his guitar, the missionary pastor could not be in the auditorium to hear him. A man and his wife had caught the pastor before the service started, needing immediate help. The wife had seen such a transformation in her husband after he had trusted Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, to be his Savior. She urgently wanted what he had.
That evening, she acknowledged Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection personally for her sins and accepted His free gift of Salvation. When lives like that young couple’s are changed… When local pastors explain that listening to Calvary Radio helped them realize that their teachings did not line up with Scripture… When they ask for and accept help in teaching their congregations to follow Christ in truth… When it is evident that God is at work in the lives around a ministry like this one…
I can start to see why a missionary wouldn’t want to be any place else.