The Good, the Bad, the Ugly–Repeat

Journey to Patrick, continued:  It is easy to get overwhelmed in Africa. So many needs—part of that is perceived need on my part as an American, the need for people to be busy with American kinds of things, to have something to do that has an American kind of purpose. I often have to ask the Holy Spirit to help me to see Biblically and not culturally. That passage in Philippians 2 applies to my African brothers and sisters as well. But, anyway, I don’t want to get off on the tangent of culture-there are books written on that—and being in the middle of it doesn’t allow for the distance to really think it through anyway. All of that to say, though, that there are moments, surrounded by what seems to me to be chaos and everyone looks at me, the ONLY white person in, possibly, miles, when I wonder, “What on earth am I doing?”

I’m thankful for the still, quiet voice that then reminds me. “You’re adopting Patrick. It is what I want you to do. Rest.”

This is just snapshots/thoughts in very little order. I am trying to type this fast before I go to the internet café and pay for time to send something to you—so I will be rushing it, even though I would like a couple of hours to write to so many.

This morning, Wednesday, I got up, held Patrick and Precious for a while. I can still see small effects of Patrick’s early malnutrition. He is barely larger than Precious, at 20 months of age, is. Then Florence and I took a taxi-bus (don’t think American taxi—envision a 15-passenger van with seventeen people crammed in that stops randomly along the road to discharge some and take on more) and then bodas (a motorcycle—and the girls I came to Uganda with last year will be surprised because I refused to get on one then. It’s an unavoidable necessity this time). We went first to the Embassy because I wanted to get a phone number for contacting them when we have the complete list of all the things we have to have to get a visa for Patrick. (Oh, Lord, keep me from discouragement at all the hurdles we still have to jump). They wouldn’t let Florence in because she didn’t have her ID card on her. It felt like a little piece of the U.S.—minus the Ugandans everywhere—but air conditioning! And American CNN on the television in the waiting area. Weird experience—the “guards” let me in to see someone ahead of the Ugandans waiting.  No real answers there—other than a phone number.

Then we were off to the Speke Hotel so I could get wireless internet and download the pictures Jody had sent me, pictures of Patrick when he was 15 months old and first brought to Mercy Home (downright awful—unrecognizable as the Patrick of now, with one lopsided eyelid, and the skinny, flopsy look of a preterm newborn) and pictures from less than a year later—of a grinning, chubby two-year-old. We’re hoping they will help us with the court, or at least the probation officer.  It was nice to sit at the Speke Hotel, downtown, with no one calling me “muzungu,” and people acting like it was entirely normal for me to be sitting there. I downloaded the pictures and then answered my email, did a little bit of work, and sat enjoying the relative peace and quiet. I was fasting that day along with Wilfred and Angel, but Florence had a nice lunch out, an experience that I’m sure only happens when muzungus are in to work with the orphanage.

While Florence answered an email, I was able to read a book and my Bible. I’m amazed at the wonders God’s reminding me of in odd moments, even while so much of my energy is focused on not making mistakes, trying to figure out what I do in a culture I don’t understand. As I read of Christ’s amazing sacrifice and love for me—the ultimate sacrifice of death and separation from His Father, I wondered, too, at the sacrifice of His coming to earth at all. Was I/am I feeling just the smallest bit of what he did? The complete unfamiliarity of all surroundings, the sense of being alien, the general sense of animosity, the animosity that comes just of being different.  I don’t want to completely parallel the two situations, of course, because He truly was different, sinless in a sinful world, and truly the object of Satan’s hatred. B ut I felt like I experienced a little, tiny taste—and most of all I got the reminder that Christ knows exactly where I am. He has not forgotten me.

Wednesday night, though, oh. My sister Lynda, who has lived in Africa for years, has told me it is often difficult being an American woman with African women. Lynda has lived in rural Mozambique, so I am sure that it is much harder there because the African women I live with are understanding and generous and caring, and are even around muzungus somewhat often–yet the differences SO remain. Different parenting styles, not wrong or right, just DIFFERENT. Wednesday night I played with both Patrick and Precious the way I would play with my own children, but they were louder than African children should be. Then, later, when Wilfred needed money for something or another, I did not have enough money. I’d given him nearly the full amount I had exchanged for shillings the day before. Wilfred was fine, but there was a sense from the women that I had failed. I asked if we would need to take a gift to Liz’s house the following morning. The answer was yes, but again, I did not have enough money with which to buy it. The air in the house was tense, unsettled, and late that night, when I could not sleep—yet again– I asked Florence, who was up taking out her braids, to be honest with me. She brought up both topics, asking me if I had been giving Wilfred enough money to “appreciate” people and if I had given Wilfred enough “appreciation,” meaning money. Then she said I could not let the kids climb on me, play with me, that I should not hold Patrick or Precious so much, that it disrupted the household. The honesty was good, but it stung, and it was another of those moments when I wondered how on earth I was supposed to know, inherently, the ins and outs of African culture: that EVERYONE in Africa, for instance, needs appreciation, whether they are “honest” or not (and I don’t mean Wilfred, since he is, in essence, working for us and therefore more than earning his money—and tons of gratitude to boot—and besides Florence has no idea of what we have already given him—they evidently don’t speak of such things, which I appreciate), and how the children are to be raised, where the line is between good fun and too much fun. Not much sleep that night, and many moments of wondering, “What on earth am I doing?”

The next morning was not any better. Florence, Patrick, and I were travelling to meet Liz, the information officer, and then Florence was travelling downtown to get a paper from the lawyer that the probation officer needed to sign. When we met up with Liz, she, Patrick and I would get on a taxi-bus going out to the district office, while Florence boarded a bus toward downtown. As we left the house, I wasn’t sure whether I should hold Patrick’s hand, carry him, have “nothing” to do with him, what? Florence held his hand, and finally, almost to the top of the hill, she carried him because he was too slow—of course. I was miserable, wanting to hold him myself, but unsure. I should have spoken up, but I was hoping for some kind of sign from her. My error, and the tension remained. When we met up with Liz, things didn’t get better.

“Do you have the papers for the probation officer?” she asked.


“Why didn’t you give them to her yesterday? You were supposed to deliver them to her yesterday. When will she have a chance to read them?”

I was bold enough to ask, “Did I know about this?”

“Yes, I told you two days ago.”

I’m assuming that was one of the things she and Wilfred discussed in a visit to Liz’s house, in my presence—in Lugandan. They often assume, when they speak in Lugandan, that I have somehow taken in the information, that it has soaked in and I am fully aware of the entirety of the situation. In some ways it makes it easier for me to be a guest in the house—they can carry on all kinds of normal household conversations, the ones you don’t normally have in front of strangers, and I am oblivious to everything except tone and gesture—and even those are different enough in Africa to be misleading to an outsider.

We did not meet Liz at her house as I had thought we were going to, but along the side of the road, so no gift actually was required this day, but I had racked my brain—and my “stuff;” I was still missing my big bag at that point, but my smaller bag with all the gifts had been delivered—and decided to give Liz the one-year Bible I had brought. No one at the house seemed interested in it, so I didn’t see any harm in passing it on.

Once Liz, Patrick, and I were settled on the taxi-bus, I brought it out and presented it to her, apologizing for my too-often-worn, sweat-filled clothes at the same time. The air noticeably improved, and the rest of the journey—a second taxi-bus and then bodas–was far more pleasant.

The bodas dropped us off directly in front of a low building, one room wide, and about five rooms long, with all the rooms opening directly to the outside. The probation officer’s “room” was second from the far end. We entered, and I took a seat on the sofa (wondering if that was the proper thing to do) while Liz sat next to the probation officer, a friend—or at least acquaintance—of hers. They chatted, and I kept Patrick occupied, wondering the entire time what the protocol was for that—how much noise and movement was a three-year-old allowed to make in this kind of situation, and how should his mother respond when he made a little too much noise? I decided to err on the too-strict—I’m learning—and I think that went fairly well and was helped by the many Africans popping in and out of the office who played with him. I could relax in those moments.

Most of the conversation was in Lugandan, though a comment in English would be thrown in occasionally. “Where is that man?” I assumed that to mean Patrick’s father, and I’m also assuming the English delivery was to inform me that she, the probation officer, didn’t have all day for this meeting.

She looked over my paperwork, asking me just a couple of questions. Then, finally, Abusolom (Patu’s dad) arrived, and she asked him many questions—in Lugandan. Florence arrived as well, with the paper from the lawyer—and sat next to me. Despite our difficulties the night before and that morning, she felt like a life buoy (which is the name of a soap here, oddly enough—a derivative from the old LifeBoy, I wonder?)

At some point the probation officer began shaking her head. “Not enough,” she said. “I need these—“ she gestured to the before-and-after pictures of Patrick that I had brought her—“to be on paper, with captions under them. And I need….” She went on with a list.

Then she talked some more with Liz and Abusolom—and in the middle of that Dave called me—and I slipped outside to tell him I couldn’t talk then—and could he please pray for me? I needed it so badly at that moment. We hung up quickly, leaving him confused—and knowing that made me feel worse.

The only other snippet of English in the rest of the meeting: “You say the court date is next week? Next week? Impossible. It will have to be postponed.” I sat in silence, willing my face to show little expression.

A little more conversation, and we were ushered out.

I paid for transportation for Florence, Abusolom, myself, and Patrick back to the house. Being in sole charge of Patrick that morning, and feeling as if I’d done a decently-African job of it, had given me confidence. I held Patrick on my lap on the boda and then carried him down the hill from the main road to Wilfred and Vena’s house. Time for change, I felt. And that alone felt good.

After dropping a by-then asleep Patrick off at the house, Abusolom, Florence and I headed downtown by taxi-bus to meet up with Wilfred. We went first to a stationary shop (which has computers) to create Word documents with the pictures and captions under them. The probation officer had also requested a picture of our family, and thank God Angel had found a copy at the house in an older book of photos which I had sent Patrick the summer before. We were able to scan this and print it out as well. Then we went over to Isaac’s office—still only his secretaries in—to this day (Sunday) I still have not met our lawyer—for which he has called and profusely apologized, so I’m not feeling bad about that. We’ll be getting together Monday almost as if it were a week earlier, since the court date is now THIS Wednesday.

I took Abusolom, Wilfred, and Florence out to eat—nothing fancy, but more than they are used to, I’m sure. I asked for a salad, but they were out, so I had a hard-boiled egg, and Wilfred fussed at me to eat more. “If you’re not fasting,” he said. “You should eat. You need the food.” In the heat, though, and with my mind feeling constantly a bit stressed, I have very little appetite, and an egg seemed to be more than enough. An egg—and a Fanta orange, which I sipped with great pleasure.

After lunch we picked up my second bag from the KLM office—hallelujah, praise God (don’t forget to stretch the “o,” clip the “d”), and again, I mean that seriously. The lack of clean clothes—or borrowing African clothes—was not only making ME uncomfortable physically but was beginning to present a negative image as well—sloppy American!

Then I gave Abusolom transport money to return to the surgery near his home and get his medical report –another request from the probation officer. I also gave him some money to buy his mother a gift, as he was staying at her house that night. Abusolom had also asked me about paying for some school supplies for one of Patrick’s older brothers, which, again, seemed fine to me, but I told him we couldn’t talk about anything like that until after the court date—and even then it would need to be carried out through Wilfred.

The day was looking better, particularly since Wilfred confirmed what I had already suspected, that the probation officer had said the bit about the court date being postponed to scare me a bit—and to make me more willing to pay her a “professional fee.” She didn’t call it “appreciation.” Wilfred saw no problems with the court date staying on this Wednesday.

Our last stop after dropping Abusolom off near a taxi-bus area was to the surgery, where Patrick has to have his official medical examination. The cost of the vaccinations is extreme, but I found out later from the American embassy that they are required to be taken here in Uganda. I’m going to check back with them on Monday.

Home that afternoon and evening was fine, especially when everyone went out, leaving me alone with quiet 12-year-old Peggy (who’d just arrived from relatives the day before) and Patrick and Precious. No one watching me, the ability to relax a bit with the little ones. But, of course, I had to make another serious muzungu mistake.

By nine the two little ones were rubbing eyes and getting fussy. So, being American, I scrounged what food I could—two peanut butter granola bars I had brought from the States—fed them, washed them, made them go to the potty, and put them to bed. They were asleep in minutes.

But dinner is the largest meal of the day for Africans—and they eat it late, their children eating it just before they go to bed. When everyone got home they expressed surprise at the two being asleep already. “What did you feed them?” they asked. That was when I got the first sense that I had committed a serious cultural faux pas.

Two hours later, as everyone was getting ready for bed, the two little ones woke up (now here’s one that doesn’t make sense to me—if you go into a room where a child is sleeping, turn on the lights and begin talking, wouldn’t you expect them to wake up? If they have enough food in their bellies, the answer is “no,” I guess.) Florence got Patu some leftover food from dinner, but then I sent her to bed and stayed up with him while he ate in the living room (there is no dining room, the adults eat with bowls on laps, and the little ones eat with their hands from a bowl placed on the floor). When he was finished, I washed him again, put him on the potty again, and sent him back in to Vena. One down.

Precious was still tossing and whimpering in the bed above Florence and me. Finally Florence got her up and fed her some bread and tea, making small, not really unkind, comments about children needing to eat before they go to bed, particularly little ones the age of Precious. I was listening more to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to ask the questions, speak the uncertainties, so I got up and sat on the kitchen floor with them, apologizing for what I had done.

“It’s all right. They were sleepy,” she said. 

Still the heaviness in the chest, like when you are a child who has done a wrong and has no idea how to make it up. I had thought I was learning how to make my way with the children acceptable to the Africans—and here I pulled this one.

Fed, Precious was put back in the bed, but still no sleep. We brought her down between the two of us. Still no. Finally, with Florence falling asleep—except for her daughter’s crawling on her—and myself wide awake with tension, I got up with Precious and we read books on the kitchen floor. Then we lay down on a couch in the living room (where Angel is sleeping now that Peggy’s here) until she fell asleep. I dozed, too, but when I felt she was in deep baby sleep, I put her in bed with Florence and then went back to the couch myself. Like mother, like daughter, the two move a lot in their sleep.

By the next morning, my efforts to undo my error had completely paid off. The error was forgotten, love was restored, my attempts to apologize were brushed off. “You did nothing wrong.” We may never completely understand each other, but these women are very gracious and when they forgive, they almost seem to forget as well.

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