It’s supposed to be rainy season in Kampala, but it hasn’t rained in days, at least not in the sort of downpour you come to expect most days during rainy season. This morning however, I wake up at 2 am to the sounds of leaves rustling in the wind. Sudden fears about rain coming in our open windows stir me awake, only to remember, we close our windows now. We don’t close them to keep out the rain, though that would be smart, we close them to keep our newly purchased air purifier from having to clean the whole city. Allergies can be a problem when the fan blows polluted air in your face all night. Poor Kelsey often looks like Rudolph when I come home from work, empty tissue boxes strewn about the house. We don’t live in the African village; we live in Kampala, a city of 2 to 4 million people, depending on the time of day. Knowing it’s raining at 2 am and my windows are closed, brings relief because if it’s raining at 2 am, it will surely be done raining by 6:30 when my sunrise motorcycle ride to work begins. It never rains all day in Kampala, or even more than a few hours at a time, the MAF pilots tell me this has something to do with “lake effect” weather patterns due to our proximity to the shores of Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world and the source of the Nile River.
My watch buzzes at 6 am and I wake up eager for my day. Not the trademark feature of the smart watch movement, but my favorite nonetheless, the silent alarm clock. I’ve been told spies during the cold war used a similar device to wake them for covert operations. It makes me feel stealthy. Kelsey continues to breathe slowly, deeply asleep next to me as I get up and put on the clothes I laid out the night before. Rugged enough to spend time in the village of Uganda, but professional enough to seem like a real engineer: mountain-wear khakis, leather desert boots, dress socks, and a “smart” fishing shirt. “Smart” would be the equivalent of the American term “sharp” in regards to clothing. My EMI hat and notepad are packed away in my backpack. It isn’t until I step out of our room and into the front room that I notice again the rustling noises outside. The closed windows dampen our room to the outside noises of loud music, barking dogs, and the sounds of the weather. Sometimes the wind sounds like rain if the leaves are wet from an earlier rain. I push my face against a window and peer through the burglar bars to inspect the dark world outside, pitch black punctuated by the perimeter lights scattered across our compound walls. The lights aid the night-guard, Dan, when he makes his patrols about the compound. Tonight, they help me verify that it is in fact still raining, a moderate downpour, but yes rain gear will be required today.
Often I try to wait out a downpour, as they don’t often last long. I don’t like riding in the rain. The cool morning breeze flying past me as I ride to work on a dry day is a wonderful sensation: podcast in my ear, shores of the lake to my left, wind rushing past my skin through the mesh on my jacket, the rumble of the engine underneath me, impatient overtaking cars headed straight towards me. These are the usual wake-up calls of my commute. The 25 minutes of my morning where I transition from tired, groggy Dad, to perky coworker. Riding a motorcycle in the rain is not the joyful symphony of sensations that you find on a normal commute. Maybe it’s because I have to add another layer to my already arduous gearing up process. Maybe it’s because there is no wind coming through my rain gear, or that raindrops can hurt at 60 mph on exposed skin. Maybe it’s the blurry visor on my helmet, there’s no windshield wipers there. Mostly, I think, it’s the idea that I can’t know until I un-gear whether the weather has infiltrated to my “rugged smart” work outfit. 25 arduous minutes later, I find myself putting on my rain jacket, walking out to the bubble locker on the back of my motorcycle, to grab my rain gear, always there in case the rain sneaks up on me. This morning, I have a commitment, be at the office at 7, Hattie and Henry will be expecting me. As dressing and grabbing my bag took me all of 5 minutes, I now have 25 minutes to sit and stare at the rain, hoping it will stop. Back on the porch, I decide to go tell Kelsey I’m headed out and not to worry about me. She’s told me to tell her when I’m leaving, but I can’t do it, she’s raising 3 and growing 1, she could always use a bit more sleep, especially on a rainy morning that would help the kids sleep in. I would learn later that the whole house slept until 7:30 that morning. Good call, me. Geared up and already feeling the sweat beads in my rain gear and foggy breath in my helmet, I roll my bike down the slope of our driveway. Better not to kick-start the kids’ day early with my engine noise. Our house sits some 10 meters higher than our gate and another significate slope above the closest busy road. This lets me roll start the engine once I’m almost to the main road. This morning I stop at the gate because Dan and Franco are both there, Franco likely delayed by the rain coming in to work and Dan likely waiting out the rain before leaving. They laugh at me on my bike in the rain. Most Ugandans delay commuting by foot or bike when it’s raining. Taxis and cars still run, but the rain clears the roads quite a bit, especially from the countless pedestrians walking along the roadside. The roadside is where I end up when impatient cars come driving straight towards me. I count the rain as a blessing, as my early morning commute will be mostly traffic free. “Great morning to head to work early!” I say and then I roll on down the hill. They smile and wave. Franco has already told me I should get a car just for rainy days, I’m sure he’ll suggest it again soon. I still don’t consider the rainy mornings frequent enough to justify a car.
As I walk into the office at 7:15, I apologize to Hattie, the project architect, for my delay. She laughs at my soggy rain gear and tells me not to worry about it. 5 minutes later, I’m ungeared and ready to head out the door. I find my shirt to be wet along the bottom buttons, but it will dry quickly. Good thing I chose the fishing shirt. Henry, our driver, calls to tell me he is here. I guess I shouldn’t have worried about my delay. I tell him we are ready; he can drive over to the walking bridge and pick us up. I fill my water and tell Hattie we are all set to go. I watch as she locks her office back up and consider the wisdom of her choice. No one will be in for at least 30 minutes, I should lock up too. I head back to my office and scour the place for my keys; I finally give up and find them still in the door as I close it. This has given Henry ample time to drive up to the bridge, yet we find his green SuperCustom sitting in the parking lot. A SuperCustom is a common vehicle in Uganda. Think of it as a rugged VW van, durable enough for the rough roads, but with enough seating to cram many people in. I greet him and he invites me to sit in the front seat. I oblige, but worry about whether I’ll have to talk the whole way if I do sit there. I just downloaded a few books onto my kindle and this drive will be the few hours where I will not have any commitments other than to sit and wait. Perfect for guilt-free reading. I try to buckle up and find no click as I latch the belt. Henry tells me, “We are yet remaining to repair the belt.” “Ehh, it’s broken?” I reply, “I will move to the back and find a belt then.” Masaka road is reportedly one of the most dangerous roads in Uganda, a country of unsafe roads. I should at least wear a seatbelt. Hattie has grabbed the middle row, so I head to the way back, excited for ample personal space. I find all the seatbelts failing and decide I can just sprawl out and read.
Before pulling out my kindle and settling in, I lean forward and say, “You know the shortcut to avoid town, right?” “The what” Henry responds. “The cut through from Entebbe road out to Masaka road without getting on the bypass.” He says, “You want to take the bypass?” “No, don’t take the bypass” “Ahh yes, we can go to Lweza and take the road to Kasenge and then to Nakasozi.” “Sure” I say, having no idea where any of that is. I then WhatsApp Jonathan, director of the project we are headed to to let him know we are running about 20 min late. I notice Hattie cracks her window even with the rain outside. There is no A/C in here, so I proceed to open mine. I often find myself following Ugandans leads. They are much more experienced with day to day living here. We aren’t moving fast, we are still in the outskirts of Kampala. I begin to read, trying to find a way to keep my arms steady while the 12-seat tourist van bumps and weaves around and through potholes and traffic. “Ahh, we have found jam,” I say, hoping he’ll understand me if I use local jargon. I try many positions and then find the best way to read is just keep the book and my head bouncing and tilting at the same pace, so I rest my elbows on my knees and lean forward. Just yesterday, the boys were complaining about having enough books to read in the car. “Just look out the window,” I told them “That’s what I do when I’m driving. There’s so many interesting things out there, what do you see out your window that’s interesting?” I find now, in the rare non-driving car trip that I need more books to read as well. Books give insights, perspectives, and other worlds to imagine that can be lacking out of a car window. Outside of a car window, the real world blows past. In America, it’s open fields and store fronts and lots of cars. In Uganda, piles of people and dirt and so much stuff. Reminding me of the outsider that I am here. So much of life happens on the roadsides in Uganda, while in Texas, it’s just open spaces. All that and I realized looking sideways at a passing world isn’t as easy as looking at it straight on, in control of its shifts and swerves.
As we journey toward Lukaya, just this side of Masaka, I continue to comment on the differences between this Ugandan highway and a typical American one. “These police check points make no sense, they just make both directions of traffic have to wait on each other.” These check points block both sides of the road and make it funnel to one lane. Usually there is one car stopped on the side with a couple of traffic police. “Surely there is a better way to watch for violations!” Obviously Ugandans know these are lame, but they’ve become accustomed to them and accept them, leading me to remind them of a problem, that’s no longer a problem to them, just part of life.
Later on as I lean on the window, I feel a huge gust of wind through the cracked window and the van shakes suddenly side to side. “These buses are crazy. Have you ever ridden on one, Hattie?” “Yes, but I’ve learned not to sit in the front, its better not to know how crazy the driver is. Busses are actually safer than taking a taxi though, you never hear about a whole busload of people dying in an accident, but you hear that about taxis.” That’s reassuring. “I think they are afraid to lose their momentum so they just weave back and forth and assume people will get out of the way.” I say. I go on to explain how in America, the busses are the slow ones; she suggests it’s because our highways have an extra lane for them. She might be right. Also, in America, most small cars are comfortable going fast, as there are few potholes to worry about. Speed bumps are used to control speed in the towns on highways in Uganda. In America we use speed traps. The bumps get old real fast, but they are less expensive than speeding tickets.
Minutes later, I turn to see the one faded stripe running across the highway and the 2 outdated compass statues on either side of the highway. “Must be passing the equator” I say. Not sure why I made note of this. Kelsey gives me a hard time for pointing out the obvious when we are driving. “This is my village,” Henry says as we pass into the next trading center. Everyone in Uganda has a village, it doesn’t mean they grew up there, as they may have been at boarding school or in Kampala most of their life. However, they will still claim association to some village per family ties. Everyone will ask which part of Kampala he or she is from. There are by some estimate 4 million people in Kampala, no one is “from” Kampala though. They all have a village. While Henry likely did grow up there, many Ugandans have only spent sporadic time or holidays in “their village”.
Eventually, we pull into a petrol station. A Shell to be precise, though many Ugandans would call all gas stations, “Shell stations”. You could even have another brand of “shell station”, like the Total “Shell Station. This Shell is actually a bit of a rest stop for the journey to Masaka. It has a full restaurant, a manicured green space and fountain, and a huge separate toilet block. It is named Gator’s… There are no alligators in Uganda. Before I step out, Henry asks me for gas money. “Is 100k okay?” I ask. “It should be maybe 120k” Is this something I’m supposed to haggle, how does he know how much he needs to make the trip? I had estimated 80-100k based on gas mileage and distances, but it was only an estimate. I hand him the money and move on. I find the toilet block to be a massive building with at least 10 stalls and 10 urinals. Loud club music is bumping through the speakers as a janitor mops the floors. A strong waft of cleaning supplies fills my lungs. My watch buzzes again, this time it’s a phone call from Jonathan. He somehow timed that phone call perfectly, the one time in the past two hours that I can’t talk. I step outside and ring him back in the rain during my walk back to the car. We start speaking to each other in our half-Ugandan accents before slowly drifting into our more natural American accents as we remember who we are talking to. It’s not always easy to drift back and forth, especially if you are spending a lot of time without Americans around. It can feel demeaning to speak to people in a broken or pointed way, but many Ugandans find it helpful when we do so. Mostly, if they aren’t used to being around Westerners. Though it doesn’t always help, a Ugandan once told me I am very easy to speak to, but when I speak to another American, I forget about him. Jonathan and I discuss where to meet. I’m about to climb into the van when I remember I forgot to eat breakfast. I decide to step into the gas station store for a snack. I begin scouring the shelves for something to fill me up. As I turn the last row, I look up and see a booth in the corner with the Endiro Coffee logo on it. “There is an Endiro here?” I exclaim. It’s a silly question, I’m looking at it. “It’s true, we are here,” He says, smiling proudly. “What can you make me quick?” I say, worried about delaying the car. I always forget we are running on African time on a rainy day, we are fine on time. “Anything sir, it’s all quick.” “Black coffee with a bit of sugar, please” “Just a little sugar?” “Yes”. I search for a light snack and find a bag of cashews. “Your coffee is ready” I pay for the coffee and start to head out. “Did you add the sugar?” “Yes sir, only 2 scoops of sugar” The unpadded, hot, coffee cup wouldn’t rest in a cup holder or cool off with no lid; these were African roads after all. My tongue is still a bit raw at my impatience, but it was a delicious surprise.
We meet up with Jonathan at the weigh station along the main road in the trading center of Lukaya and head up the small road to the children’s village site. The main road is smooth and restful by comparison. On these back roads, you either hold on tight to the seats around you or just let yourself sway violently from side to side. The rainy morning hasn’t helped these murram roads. We pass through washed out tracks slowing down to almost a stop before we drop into the opaque orange puddles and back out the other side. Since reading is no longer an option, I watch out the windows. We pass a large timber pole framed open structure which I come to realize is a huge chicken coop. “I haven’t seen a chicken coop that big before. I mostly just see chickens running around on the roads, trained to come home at night.” “They are there,” Hattie, informs me, “But they are not usually so open”. Again, I always feel like Ugandans know about everything, their understanding of Uganda is miles deeper than mine. After many bumps and splashes, we reach a sign that reads “Eagles Wings Children’s Village”. That’s where the apostrophe goes, I think to myself, realizing now that I had butchered the apostrophe location in my last email. I had assumed the wings belonged to the eagles, not that the village had belonged to the children. This is just the sign to tell you to leave the small road to an even smaller, less improved road. We reach site and its only 9:30 am!
The worn dirt path, it may be considered a road to some, leads us into a courtyard of sorts for the primary school. It matches so many other primary schools around Uganda. A long slender building of many classrooms with a return on either end to make a bit of a courtyard in the middle. A long c-shape building made of painted, plastered, brick walls and iron sheet roofs. My aim today isn’t to make suggestions for improvements to the existing buildings, though I do notice some issues I might remedy with the slabs and purlins. I greet some of the staff and wait to figure out who will be meeting with us. Rachel, a Ugandan woman, cheerfully tells me we are waiting for Jonathan before we head down to the site of the proposed building. There are no paths, no drainage features, just raw land worn down by where the water willed its way down the patchy vegetated slope. As we walk down to where the new multipurpose hall will sit, Rachel leads us to a playground with a canopy above. Many parts of the slides and bars are broken, but it’s a very nice playground for Uganda. I suspect much of it was imported. A few children are playing and laughing. I often presume Ugandans are laughing at me when I’m around; I get that reaction a lot it seems. Often all it takes is a greeting in Luganda, sometimes even less. Once I hear the word “muzungu” then I’ll know I’m the target. It’s not often a laugh to make fun of me but a laugh to cover the awkwardness of how to interact with this different type of person. I would give a few recommendations to repair this canopy as well, but I stay on task, the goal here is the new building. We need to get a feel for where it will sit on site. Jonathan goes on to explain to us about how the kids try to find shelter in the small roof overhangs around the buildings if it’s raining during lunch. They have no central hall for functions and the kitchen ends up getting packed during lunch times. As we sit around discussing the need for the building, we review the site masterplan created by an EMI team in 2011. It’s amazing how many ministries I’ve been to pull out one of these old EMI site masterplans, chugging away slowly at the master vision for their site. It’s nice to have solid plans on where things should go, even if you don’t know how to get them there. I’d love to have one of these for my life and goals and family vision, but God likes to work a bit more mysteriously.
Hattie leads the discussions as the architect, and while I occasionally butt in, she’s the one that really understands the direction we should go. We’ll have to rotate the building a bit and consider some drainage and accessibility issues as we determine a final placement for the building. Mostly we decide to stick to the original plan with some tweaks. The 1,000 seat multipurpose hall will have open sides to the playground, soccer field, and access to the kitchen and schools. It’s also a great spot for views out to Lake Victoria, some 4 km away. Coming from the flat swamplands of Texas, I always appreciate what a view of a lake or hills in the distance can do for your spirit. As Jonathan points to the lake, which I hadn’t yet noticed, too distracted by the inspection of the site, Hattie and I note that we expected the lake to be in the other direction. We then discuss which way is north and complain that the site plan has north facing down and to the left, quite the taboo in the site plan or survey drawing world. It’s silly that the piece of paper’s lack of standardization disoriented our view of the world. I’m not the strictest rule follower, but this is a good reminder of the benefits of following standards.
We venture over to the kitchen to review how it’s functioning. If you have met with school leadership in Uganda, then you’ve inevitably heard that their kitchen has smoke issues. These schools almost exclusively cook posho and beans in huge saucepans over wood fires for hours every day inside an enclosed brick building with a few small windows. The wood-fired stoves have open doors to put the firewood in, but these doors often stay open for a few reasons. First, the firewood is not chopped small enough to fit all the way into the stove. Instead, they just slide the wood logs in slowly as necessary to keep the fire burning. Secondly this keeps the air flowing and the fire burning. There are often smoke stacks at the back that do very little to filter the smoke away. This one is no different, black char covers the walls. The high ceiling and metal sheets that should be reflecting daylight back at you don’t. It’s no longer daytime inside and you can barely breathe. Hattie asks a few questions of the cooks to see how they use the kitchen. I catch various forms of the Luganda word for cooking and not much else. As we circle the building, we see indeed more smoke coming from the windows than the chimney pipes. Kids gather around the overhangs of the kitchen, hoping to shelter a bit from the light rain falling down. Our site research complete, we tell the EWCV team that we can move on to the next task.
Once we feel good about the location and orientation of the building, Jonathan wants us to see a multipurpose hall on a site he stays at. This building is the model of what he thinks would be a perfect fit for Eagles Wings. It’s now 11:30, back in the van we follow their silver rav4 down the highway to Masaka and branch off down a bumpy, soggy, orange dirt road following signs for St. Timothy. We are just a few minutes outside Masaka town but as we turn into this girl’s secondary school campus it feels like we are a world away. Masaka is no Kampala, home to only a hundred thousand or so compared to Kampala’s few million, but it is loud, full of traffic and trading centers, construction and crowds, and not a peaceful place. St. Timothy’s is the opposite. We drive down two dirt stripes lined by grass and hedges. Beautiful exposed stone retaining walls and lush bushes and trees contain the slope up to the left. The birds are chirpings and the view of the nearby forest and stream to the right add to the fresh air as we take in the sights. We wind up the site past a thoughtful row of buildings, lined along the same level of ground with stone walkways and lined drainage channels punctuated by the familiar hedges and trees that make up this campus. This place invites you in and tells you that you are valuable and important. Important enough for the hard work of landscaping and paving and planning to be put in place just for your enjoyment. As we park at the administration block, we are greeted by smiling faces as Jonathan and Rachel exchange friendly words with the staff there. “This place is beautiful” I remark. We set off for the main hall for Hattie and I to inspect the details and uses of the space. As we walk in, we startle a woman wearing a heavy coat and winter cap and scarf. It’s a cool day by Ugandan standards due to the long rain that morning, maybe upper 60s. Ugandans chill quite easily. Living their lives in a near perfect climate has made the upper 60s feel cold and the low 80s feel hot to them. I’m almost always quite comfortable. We tour the space making note of the sagging wooden trusses, walled off stage, abandoned kitchen space, and empty storage room. Maybe we can tweak a few things and make it better. That’s mostly what we are doing here at EMI. We aren’t redefining what a building is or what a ministry campus can do, we are merely tweaking what works to make it work better. Steel trusses will help; a more open stage will help, repurposing the unused spaces may help. We take notes and walk all around to see what else we may adjust. They have a rainwater collection tank and we walk around to get an idea of how its functioning. We are still enamored by the beautiful stonework all around site. There is almost an artistry to exposed stonework, Jonathan points out the many Africa-shaped stones that fill the walls. I make another comment about the thoughtfulness of the layout of the site and he reminds me it was an EMI designed site from a 2009 project trip. Amazing, EMI didn’t build this site, finance it, or lead any sort of ministry there, but our handprint is still a part of their story.The extra investment by this ministry to be intentional about their campus led to a beautiful layout. Whats even more impressive is their commitment to upkeep and maintenance of the campus. This is where most infrastructure and campuses fail in Uganda. Things breakdown quickly and you have to put in the effort to refresh and restore and revive things when they fall apart. Seems like that could apply to our lives and relationships as well.
We walk back to the base of the slope and I find myself inspecting the drainage features. As an aside, I tell Jonathan that they need to get the landscaper to Eagles Wings for some landscape improvements. I can’t get over the difference you feel at this site and I’m so impressed by the lush plant-life all around, controlled and directed to bring peace, tranquility, and beauty to the site. As we file back to the cars Jonathan introduces me to the landscaper. “Well done.” I greet him as is customary in Uganda, “This place is beautiful, great work.” I literally clapped for him. May I never take for granted good landscaping. I remind myself to thank Franco when I get home for the beauty he brings to our yard. Our walls are 12 feet tall and while we have some slope, we can’t really see out. Being trapped in by huge walls is much more enjoyable when you have beautiful plants lining them, distracting you from the feeling of being contained. Franco works hard every day as he sweeps, prunes, and chops to maintain our yard so that we can enjoy the peace and comfort it brings us. It reminds me of our duty to fill the earth and subdue it. There is no beauty greater than an earth subdued to benefit both the wild life and people in a restored relationship to each other: how God intended this world to be. Even untamed forests are more enjoyable when there is at least a walking trail and no threats from wild animals. Jonathan assures me that their site will never look this way; they just don’t have the funding or the priority for it. I tell him not to aim too small, but in reality, he is right. There is a reason places like this make such an impression, they are rare. It’s in the rare places that we remember the beauty that we so often forget in our everyday lives.
We say our goodbyes and bump on back to Masaka town to the EWCV Office. Traveling through the city center there are more tiny shops at the base of 3 to 4 story buildings, a huge 4-floor shopping mall taking up an entire city block is under construction. Uganda will never stop building new stores. Incomes must be improving causing demand for more shopping opportunities. On the other hand, maybe there are no business plans or market research, someone just found some money and is a hopeful investor. Either way, there is certainly no lack of construction happening in Uganda. Pulling into the drive at their headquarters, Jonathan peers his head out the window and chats with another muzungu driving down the road, an uncommon though not rare sight, outside of Kampala. Most muzungus tend to know each other in these smaller cities it seems. I find out later that this man was a doctor and good friend who brought Jonathan to Uganda in the first place. We pull up to the gate and wait. Jonathan honks some tune with his horn repeatedly for a few minutes and eventually a woman comes and opens the gate. Henry was curious what was taking so long, but the appearance of the woman clarified the matter, they had no gate guard and someone inside had to come out and open the gate. My kids were very confused by the lack of gate guards when we were in the US. They are ubiquitous in Uganda, if there is a gate, there must be a gate guard. How else will it open? The boys dream of the day when they might become gate guards and get to fight off bad guys with their bows and mpangas (machetes). They often open the gates for me as I drive in and out of our compound. We pull into this compound and do a 5 point turn around on the skinny drive to be out of the way. This old little house is their office and was apparently the original location of the ministry, but was outgrown along the way.
It’s a great thing to outgrow your office space in most industries. Not in the orphanage industry which touts its work as a last resort for children. It doesn’t want to see its needs grow, but diminish. No matter how well EWCV cares for these kids, they won’t have a mom and dad, a family to meet up with for holidays or to fall back on during hard times. They will only have friends and whatever new family they make for themselves. For the rest of their life, unless adopted, this is their lot. In a country ravaged by wars, and more significantly HIV, child marriages, and unfaithful men, orphans are commonplace. Tribalism and poverty also decrease the population willing to adopt. A minimum of a yearlong wait and increased regulations have helped root out child trafficking, but also made it harder for international adoptions to ease the burden of caring for these children. Many parents also don’t give up their parental rights when they abandon their children to these orphanages. Maybe they remain hopeful that one day they can care for their child again or a relative will take them. Nevertheless, for the kid it means they remain in limbo, unable to be with their own parents and unable to become adopted. 90% of children at orphanages live in that no man’s land. A homeless voyage to adulthood, only to be dropped into the real world with no backup plan when they get there. May God heal the impact this will have on these children and this culture!
This house has a seating area and dining table in the front room. Having taken off my shoes at the door, I proceed in and ask for the toilet. It is down the hallway to the left. Its very much the toilet of a home, not an office. I find a toothbrush at the sink and a toilet by the shower. I guess someone lives here. As we sit in the front room I find a rocking chair and test it out, these aren’t common here but Kelsey wants one made for the new baby. I test it out and find it decently well balanced, but certainly nowhere near the level of comfort our glider had when our first two were born. Still, its better than the massive rocking chairs we kept on our front porch while our friends were away. Back in Texas, we had two front porch rocking chairs from Cracker Barrel that Kelsey gave me one year. I suddenly remember what a rocking chair is supposed to be like and this is not quite it. Maybe I can find those Cracker Barrel rocking chair plans online and get a nice carpenter here to make it. We sit down for lunch and have a more personal conversation. Jonathan intrigues me. He’s an American, about my age, married, with at least one kid. I know all this from the website as I researched this ministry. A chance to find a similar story to mine. But, as I learn about him and he about me, we have very little in common other than our white American status. He’s the son of a pastor from rural Minnesota. I am the son of a finance executive from the big city in Texas. Still, that status as Americans is enough to make it super easy to chat about random things: motorcycles, marriage, children, ministry and how we got here. I try to get to know Rachel a bit better as well. After asking about her background with the ministry, my questions dry up. Why can’t I chat with her in the same way as I just did with Jonathan? Even more so, how does a young white golf pro from rural Minnesota come to Uganda and suddenly become director of a ministry instead of Rachel, who has been with the ministry for 15 years doing everything from teaching to hiring staff and managing budgets and future planning? I have some ideas, but that’s another discussion for another time.
When I asked Rachel about her role, Jonathan butted in to say that she really runs the ministry. She downplays it herself, but it seems true. I find the best leaders of these ministries are the ones that just help their staff do their job. She goes on to tell me they have 78 teachers and staff and with Covid they had to let go of 10 of them, but hope to hire 4 back when schools open again. At that point, I’m sure he’s right. She’s running the show. He’s just enabling her to do it. Cross-cultural partnerships like that are so important to see at these western-funded ministries. If they don’t have local leadership, they will miss the context and culture of their work and will be missing the mark in everything they do. That’s why one of EMI’s core values is diversity. There is so much to be gained by taking two different eyeballs with slightly different vantage points, and scrambling their pictures together to gain some depth to an otherwise flat picture.
An accountant pops out with a receipt book and says, “You said in your email it would be 200k plus petrol. You mentioned it would be maybe 100k for petrol, but I think it should be more like 120k. Is that okay?” “That’s very okay.” I respond, a perfectly normal turn of phrase in Uganda. How did she know the gas money cost to get here? Did she talk with Henry? He hasn’t even gotten out of his vehicle. We even drove further than he expected. I’m baffled, but my dilemma is solved and I get the money to Henry. Again, it seems like everyone here just knows everything about everything while I’m constantly just guessing and checking. I could spend a lifetime here and still be so far behind. I’m sure many immigrants feel that way in America. It’s not until a few generations are born there that they really feel in tune with culture in America. Yet, America is a hard comparison because there are so many cultures melded together; no one really knows it all. Maybe I’m not as out of place here as I feel like I am at times.
As we arrive back at the office a few hours later, I thank Henry for the trip. “Not as bad as the drive to Jinja is it?” “You want to go to Jinja tomorrow?” “No, the drive to Masaka is not so bad as to Jinja.” “When do you want to go?” “No, its just that the drive to Masaka is quite pleasant, Jinja is so far and there is so much jam. We found no jam on the way to Masaka” “No, no, we can avoid jam for Jinja; I now go around the town on the bypass and miss the jam.” “Yes, but I prefer to take my bike to Jinja to avoid the jam. I don’t find jam on my bike” “I’m not getting you.” He finally says. “I know, it’s okay,” I tell him, “I’ll see you next time.” This is a common occurrence when I talk to Ugandans outside my office. At the end of the conversation, we wrap up and say goodbye, completely unsure of whether we caught the intended message and if we need to do anything about it. I think back to my earlier conversation with Henry and realize he probably didn’t know I had asked him to meet me at the bridge. Good thing I decided not to complain about that.
I let Kelsey know I’ve made it back to the office and will head home soon. Allan has called me about an issue on site at the new Amazima chapel expansion I designed. I had sent an email to convey my message. If they can’t build it per the plans, then they must adjust it with some additional steel clip angles. We spend a few minutes trying to find the word for the trough of the deck and agree on the direction of the angle and the weld pattern. This building needs a bit more attention than our average structure. Steel buildings aren’t as familiar to construction workers here, especially with concrete slabs on metal decks and stepped mezzanines. Ensuring it stays up when some hundreds of Ugandans are worshipping on it is vital. Missing small details could prove disastrous; I try not to let that keep me up at night. I have no choice but to rely on the codes written by engineers who have come before me, follow and trust their acquired knowledge, passed down from the beginning of civilization itself, when ancient engineers built the first buildings and civil engineers dug the first waterways and sewage systems. It’s much the same way in our faith, we can critique and build on what others have done before us, but in reality, we are just disciples of the people who came before us. And they, disciples of those before them. An unbroken chain all the way back to Jesus, and even before to the time of Moses. After Allan and I hang up, I realize my email never went through; maybe the internet was out in the office. I hop on my bike and head home, only 30 minutes later than expected.
If I wasn’t in Uganda and I’d wanted to get that whole experience that I had today, it would’ve taken a week or so away from my family, a few thousand dollars, and an even more masked understanding of the context we work in. God has blessed me with days like today. I’m thankful He lets me in on the restorative work He is doing through His Kingdom throughout the world. Most days aren’t that exciting or exhausting, but sprinkling those days throughout my time in Uganda has been a renewing experience as I labor through long days at a desk, drawing lines that help people build meaningful things. If it wasn’t for days like today, I’d forget to thank Franco for caring for our garden; I’d forget to thank God for the giant tree in our yard providing shade. I’d lose track of my mission and vision, as the big picture fades to the background of my vision. My focus would narrow to the lines and letters on my computer screen. God is good to remind me he wants to see the world restored to Him. We at EMI restore it to Him through design; others restore it to Him in their own way. But I hope one day to look back and see that our generation restored the world and its people to him better than the generation before them and so on down the line, until one day God’s finishes off the task and restores heaven and earth to one place where His people will live with Him together in peace and love forever!
2 thoughts on “A Day At EMI: A Journey to Masaka”
Thank you for this beautiful picture of a fulfilling day in your life.
What a gift you have, Tom! Everything was so descriptive I felt like I was there! My love to you and your precious family.