My first full day in Mbale was full of a mix of many different emotions. For someone who doesn’t typically get very emotional, it was difficult, yet eye (and heart) opening.
Saturday was a market day, so I hopped in the vehicle with Carlos and Carolina Tovar, medical missionaries serving with the organization I am working with (Kissito Healthcare International). On the way to town, we were re-directed off of the normal route due to a paving project. At first glance I would say this is a sign of development for the town. Considering this is Africa, maybe there’s some other underlying story or motivation that the average person doesn’t know about. I’m learning that’s the way things seem to work here. Average situations are not always as they initially appear.
After stopping at the bank and then finding a parking space in front of the BAM supermarket: basically a storefront on a long street of other shops crammed in side by side on a busy thoroughfare. There, we shopped for groceries for the weekend. Currently there are over 20 staff and volunteers living at the Kissito guest quarters. The shopping carts are like our hand-held plastic shopping baskets at Kroger, only they sit low to the ground on wheels and have a long handle sort of like a little wagon. Carolina filled a basket full of meat (yum!), and collected some other things like bread, bags of cooking oil, and baby formula (for their 5 month old adopted Ugandan baby, Isabella). They also had a supermarket worker bring up a 5 pound container of laundry soap, yes there is actually a washer and dryer at the guest house! Our accommodations are quite nice, with unexpected conveniences. I am not living in a hut in the jungle with no electricity! Although I think I would like to try that sometime.
After paying (and receiving a hand-written receipt), we hopped back in the vehicle and headed down the street to the open market area. There among swarms of flies, we picked out fresh pineapples and melons and asked the vendor to hold them for us while we ventured deeper into the market to find some fresh vegetables. Among the stalls of fresh vegetables sat large sacks of tiny dried fish (with cute little eyeballs). There must have been millions of little fish! They looked so dry and light that if you threw a handful up in the air they would float down slowly like the little “helicopters” we see in Virginia in the Fall. Hanging above the stalls were stalks of dried bamboo. Carlos asked me if I knew what they were, because we had a sauce at dinner the night before made from these stalks. To me, they looked just like a snake skin. Carlos and I had a laugh when he told me what they really were. My mom will be so happy to know I didn’t eat dried snake sauce on my first day in Mbale. After paying for the vegetables and fruits, we assisted the vendor in loading the melons and pineapples into the back of our vehicle.
Our next stop was another supermarket where we purchased a few containers of drinking water and loaded them into the back on top of the other groceries. With a full load, we headed back toward “home”. Early on in our short drive back, the back tire of the vehicle began making a noise as if it had gone flat. Carlos stopped and got out to survey the situation. As he examined the tire, a police officer approached him along with a man, his wife, and two children. The woman was holding a small baby and the man was clutching his young boy close to his chest. The boy was covered by a blanket. Because of the Kissito logo on the vehicle, the officer knew that we would be able to help this family. As I sat in the vehicle, I saw Carlos carefully lift the corner of the blanket from the boy’s face. He then motioned for Carolina to come look at the child. Carolina came back soon after and explained that the boy had passed away earlier that day at the hospital in town. The family needed financial assistance to get back to their village to bury to boy. He had been treated the day before in the village health facility for Malaria, but did not respond to the medication. He was referred to the hospital in Mbale where he was given another treatment that his body didn’t respond to. Carolina explained that the family would take the boy home in a taxi, wrap his body in some blankets and bury him as customary in the villages.
Words can’t really explain what it was like to observe something so heartbreaking. An extreme heaviness is the best way I can describe it. Carlos and Carolina were visibly upset by this situation, even though they have seen these types of cases many times in their two and a half years in Uganda. I guess no matter how long you serve God and serve people, you don’t lose the heart of love and compassion that motivated you in the beginning. At least I hope this is true.
As it turns out, the tire wasn’t flat. I was just covered with a cake of dirt and oil that had built up under the wheel well. If we had not heard the noise from the tire, we would not have stopped the vehicle and might never have seen the police officer and the family. Evidence to me that God was at work, as always.
As a stark contrast to the events of earlier in the day, the afternoon was spent at the Mount Elgon Hotel, a popular hang out for the local Muzungus (white foreigners). The grounds resemble a tropical resort with a tiki hut, pool, and nice lounge chairs and a small outdoor cafe. The view from the pool over to Mount Elgon is beautiful. It was strange to realize that such amenities exist inside of a short walk to the village where the locals live in mud huts. As I sat with a couple of my new co- workers, we made friends with a group of young Ugandans and Belgians. There are many NGO’s (non profit aid organizations) in the area, some of which work together in certain situations. There is quite a mix of people from around the world in this small town. I am sure I will continue to meet many fascinating people, all with a heart to make a difference in the world.
So this is just a small view of the beginning of this journey. Truthfully, it is difficult getting adjusted to a new environment and spending time with a lot of people you barely know. In the past week I have experienced the overwhelming and intense love of close friends and family as I prepared to leave, the solitude of “rest” on my 30 hour trip, and now the unfamiliarity of a totally new life. Through it all, God has continued to remind me that He is with me always; will never leave me; and although most of this new life doesn’t make much sense yet: IT WILL. Confidence doesn’t come from people or from circumstances, but from keeping focus on the One who gives us strength: JESUS. His presence has been so evident in my first few days here and I am at peace.