Sunday, jan 1 I am not feeling great. I woke up with a sore throat worse than yesterday. Thankfully I slept well– I took Tylenol pm and wore ear plugs. There were many who didn’t sleep well because of the loud New Year party happening down the road. I have learned that people here in Uganda like large speakers and loud music. I woke up twice in the night– once around 12:30 and once around 6:00am. The music was still going!! Wow. So I am grateful for sleep. But I am still very low energy today so I have opted out of one of the training sessions this morning and one this afternoon so that I can lay down. I am praying for strength.
Last night I had a long conversation with Bonnie– who is here helping at camp this week. She was explaining to me about the difficulties and corruption that Uganda has faced for many years. It was very sad to hear the pain that many have endured at the hands of Ugandan leaders over the years. Corruption is very common, making it difficult for many to survive when they do not have money to bribe government workers, police, or even doctors. It made me realize just how fortunate I am to live in the US, and there are many freedoms that I take for granted. Even in all of this, Bonnie is one of the most cheerful and thankful people that you have met. She said that one of her favorite things to do is read the Bible. When I asked her what her favorite passage is, she said Romans 8:31 and on.
Tomorrow morning the campers will arrive and I am both excited and nervous. I have no idea what to expect! During college I worked at a summer camp for 2 summers, I have worked for a month at a young life camp, and I have played for countless retreats at camps. But camp here is a totally different ball game. It gives “rustic camping” a new meaning. There are no zip lines, beachfront, boating, archery, ropes course, gym, climbing wall, snack shack, gift store, pool, game room, bathrooms, showers, indoor chapel, or dining hall. Our meals are prepared and served out of a shack where 5 ladies have been hired to cook for us and clean our dishes. We eat our food out in a grassy field or under any shade that we can find. Our group meetings are held in an open-air shelter with no fans. We go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground AKA “squatty potty.” We bathe using buckets that we fill from a single water spicket. We sleep in bunk beads 3 high with mosquito nets. All in all, this is a different life. And if I’m honest, there are moments where I have thought “am I up for this? What have I gotten myself into?? I’m going to live like this for a week?” But then I am stopped in my tracks. Where the camp is held is actually a boarding school most of the year where children live. It is unbelievable to me that these conditions are perfectly normal for many children here in Uganda. This would never pass health and safety inspections in the U.S.
My hope for this week is that it would be the “best week of their life so far.” That is always the goal with young life camping and it is our goal this week. But it won’t be met by anything extravagant except the extravagant love of Christ. These children are all coming from homes where they have lost one or both parents to AIDS. They have experienced an immense amount of pain and loss. We hope to show them that they are loved by us and by their Father God. There will be games, songs, education, Bible study, worship and 3 meals a day– 2 more than many of these kids are used to eating. They will receive clothing, shoes, and basic hygiene items upon arrival. These are things that many of them are lacking.
This week I am called to be a servant– something that can be difficult for me. I am used to getting to be the leader or the music person and have a glamorous role. My only role this week is to love the kids and help support the Ugandans who work regularly in their lives. There is no personal gain for me– no way that my career is going to be furthered or recognition that I will receive. If I’m honest, that is hard for me. I like attention, credit, glory. And that’s not what this week is about. So I must lay myself down and trust that God’s strength will be displayed in my weakness. This is all about Him and these children. May I not try to rob Him of His glory.
Tuesday, Jan 3
Yesterday, the kids came!! I was pleased when I awoke and had more energy. Praise God! My throat was still sore, but I had way more energy. We ate breakfast and then prepared for the kids to arrive. We set up tables and filled them with the many supplies that we had brought over in bins as well as what COG had purchased in Uganda: shoes, socks, underwear, shirts, shorts, bandanas, bags, Bibles, and toiletries. The kids arrived in buses and lined up to get checked in. Then, one by one they game down our row of tables where we got to greet them and give them the items. I was their first stop: bandanas. I worked with a Ugandan staff member to locate their name on a list, find their team color, and then write it on a corresponding bandana. As the first kids streamed in, I found myself getting emotional. It felt like a huge honor getting to meet these kids who have been through so much that I will never understand. I loved watching their faces light up and seeing them shyly smile as we said hello and handed them the items. There was music playing during all of this, so in between van loads, we had impromptu dance parties. If there is one thing that I have learned about Ugandans, it is that they love to dance. And they are sooo good at it. They try to teach us there dance moves which always results in all of us laughing, After all of the kids got checked in and settled in the dorm, we held an orientation where the Ugandan staff explained to the kids what the week is all about. Something amazing here is that they all speak English. It is taught in the schools, so everyone who has attended school is familiar with the language. They speak in a thick Ugandan accent, so it is taking me awhile to fully understand even when they are speaking English, but I’m getting better at it. I’m thankful to not have a language barrier between us.
I have really enjoyed getting to know the staff and volunteers here. We have really bonded over the last couple days and I have been thankful for the training time with them before the children arrived. I am amazed hearing their stories and what many of them have overcome. They have beautiful hearts and I like those of us in the US, they have dreams and desires, and want to succeed in life. However, jobs are hard to come by in Jinja and opportunity is limited. Even though in the US I am considered a “starving artist” or “poor person in ministry,” to them I am very rich. I have my own room where I sleep, I drive my own car, I have been to college, I eat 3 meals a day, I own many clothes, I have a cell phone, I have luxuries like a washing machine, shower, flush toilet. In comparison, my life is very easy. I tried to explain to them that there is beauty in simplicity and that with many things comes complication and stress. But in the end, I think they are right: my life is luxurious and easy.
Being with the children yesterday was a joy. Many of them were shy as they got used to each other and the leaders. But they brought us all energy and lifted out spirits anyway. We spent time playing games, team building, making tie-dye shirts, and creating a team flag. And then it was time for futbol. People here love their futbol! After many teams played each other, it was time for dinner.
After dinner we had a time of worship where many leaders brought out drums, some children assembled a choir and we all sang and dance. Worship in Uganda looks very different than in the US. Here it is a full body experience where you are moving, singing, jumping, shouting, and smiling. I had a permagrin the entire time that worship was going on as I watched the children praise God. We sang many songs in English and then some in Lugandan. There are no songbooks, overheads, or fancy slides projected. Everything is learned by rote. One girl named Daphine was kind to translate some of the songs for me as everyone sang. It was beautiful.
After worship we got to hear testimonies from a couple of the camp assistants: Alan and Kathy. They were inspiring as they talked about there upbringing, struggle, and how God and Children of Grace had helped them get to where they are today.
Then came the loudest and most exciting part of the evening. Each team was asked to send their two best dancers to the stage for a dance competition. It was a trip getting to watch these kids. They are amazing dancers! Oh my goodness. They can shake their hips better than anyone I have ever seen. It was impressive. The kids had a blast cheering on their friends and teammates.
The weathers has heated up and the afternoons are very hot. Still it is chilly in the evenings and mornings, which I hear is rare for this time of year. None of us brought blankets, so we are bundling up at night.
Friday, jan 6
The week has been very full and I have little to no down time. I am an extrovert so camp is he really a great environment for me where I get to be around d people all the time. But even for me, I have found myself craving alone time. There is so much that I am experiencing and very little time to even begin to process it. I dont even know if my heart will let me process it all yet.
Here is a brief overview of some of the week. Tuesday we fell into a schedule that we would follow through Friday: breakfast, worship, small groups/bible study, life skills and health sessions (puberty, HIV/AIDS, decision making skills), Lunch, afternoon activities, futbol, dinner, worship, evening program/activities.
There was a focus on health issues, which is important for them to hear in their context where HIV is a big issue. They used role play as a main way to show potential consequences of bad decisions.
Wednesday we went swimming at a nearby “muzungu” resort. This is a place that generally white people can only afford to go to. COG pays them to let us bring the kids swimming. This is something that some of the kids have never experienced. The few hours that we were there were filled with utter joy for the kids and for us as we watched them.
Yesterday was my birthday and it was one to remember. I walked to breakfast with Alison and Shelby and when we walked into the shed where food is served, all of the kids were packed in there and they broke into happy birthday!! It was so special to hear all the Ugandan children sing that song. They sang it twice and then they presented me with a Rolex and sang it once more. Ha! Have been hearing about a Rolex for many months, described as one of my friends’ favorite things to eat in Uganda. It is chippotti (similar to a thick tortilla) wrapped around egg, tomato, and peppers. It was so delicious! I learned that one or the Ugandan camp assistants–Alan had spearheaded the mini surprise party. So sweet! I felt very special.
The rest of the day was filled with team time, some of which was spent learning a traditional dance for the team dance competition held that night. It was hilarious trying to dance the way they dance.
By the time the afternoon came, I was feeling spent and overwhelmed. Our US team had a little time to regroup, share highlights and encourage one another. I think that was a needed time for all of us.
One of the kids I have met is a girl named named Sarah. I was introduced to her by Jaci after she found out that Sarah is a songwriter. A few nights ago Alison and I got the chance to sit down with her. We asked her to share some of her songs with us, so in a very quiet voice behind a shy smile, she began to sing. After each song she shared the translation with us. The songs spoke to God being her strength, and celebrating that He is always there for her. As we spoke with her she kept saying how thankful she is to God and how faithful He had been to her. These were beautiful words coming from a sixteen year old, but they were especially powerful because Sarah has lost both parents, and she is HIV positive. Not only that, but just months ago she was very ill and in a coma. Still she was thankful to God and aware of all that God had given her. Alison and I were holding back tears and she shared all of this with us. Unbelievable. She also shared that he dream is to record these songs a d share them with the world. After our time with her, I immediately started scheming about how we might we able to make that happen. Since I have my iPhone here, that was the first thing I thought of. I use my iPhone all of the time to record song ideas and it actully makes a decent recording. While it wouldn’t be professional, I wanted to at least offer to her the opportunity to record with my phone. So yesterday, she and I sat down to begin the process. I was challenging to find a quiet spot but we settled on a little spot between a couple of unused dormitory buildings. After the first song, I played it back for her and it was awesome getting to watch her face light up as she heard her voice for the first time. We were able to record a few songs yesterday and we hope to record more today. I don’t even know how to process the fact that I am a rich American living my dream while there is an orphan on the other side of the world with the same dream, sick with HIV. I am suddenly humbled, grateful, sad, and questioning all at the same time.
Last night was the group dance competition and it was sooo much to dance and to watch all the other groups. Everyone was very creative and it was really fascinating to see the various traditional dances. After the competition was over they turned on music and the whole place erupted into a dance party. It was the perfect way to end my birthday. Many of the students were showing me different dances. Uganda loves to sing and dance. This might be heaven.
Saturday, Jan 7
We just arrived back at the Bridgeway hotel. I am very much looking forward to a real shower. Amazing how this place that just a week ago felt really sketchy now seems very nice in comparison to the conditions we have been living in this week.
Yesterday was our last full day of camp and perhaps the day where I felt many relationships with kids go deeper. There were certain students that I bonded with and that bond became greater. Two of those students are Ismail and Enoch. They are both in my “red” family, 14/15 years old, preparing to enter S2 (secondary 2), and go to school together.
In the afternoon I got out the guitar and played some songs for the students. It was a blast getting to sing with them. Sarah and I spent some more time recording and we finished 8 songs. They sound beautiful!
Tuesday, January 10
The last few days have been full as we have been visiting with more kids, debriefing, and saying goodbyes. Today our team leaves Jinja for Kampala. 4 others and myself will be staying in Uganda for a few more days. I’m happy that I don’t have to leave this beautiful country yet. But I am sooo sad to be leaving my new Ugandan friends–the incredible Children of Grace staff. I have been experiencing soooo much. I have so many stories to share and so much to process. I have fallen in love with children with here. More to come soon.