Beauty from the awful, Day 3 in Uganda

Julius (who is getting married to beautiful, smart Hope very soon) working with the kids at the school in Kitange.

Julius (who is getting married to beautiful, smart Hope very soon) working with the kids at the school in Kitange.

Sometimes God works great beauty out of what seems to us most awful.

We saw that on Monday. (I was unable to get onto Internet to post this blog yesterday, so I’m a day behind.)

Rachel with three little friends

Rachel with three little friends

We first went to the Kitanga slum in Kampala. It’s far smaller than the Kibera slum in Nairobi, but we also got a far more personal look into it. A little over five years ago I visited this slum and met a pastor who had begun a church in it. When he started sharing Christ with the community, children and teenagers began coming to him. They either weren’t safe in the homes they had or they had no homes to go to. The pastor began letting them sleep in the church, and then moved in himself with his wife so they could keep the children, especially the teen girls, safe at night.

So Kitange had a good church. It was a start.

The new school in Kitange

The new school in Kitange

Well, just a few months ago Kitanga also got a school. Preschool classes all the way up through 5th grade meet in a building on the edge of the slum, and administrators plan to add another grade each year. When we pulled up near the school in our vehicles, Kitanga children, most dressed in their uniforms, flooded to greet us. They showed us the inside of their school, and presented a small program. I asked their principal if they have to pay school fees, and he told me they use a sliding scale, and that many do not pay anything at all.

There’s some beauty!

Anna and this little sweetheart spent the entire morning together.

Anna and this little sweetheart spent the entire morning together.

We went back outside, threw a couple soccer balls into the field, and the older boys were off, leaving the girls and babies free to show great interest in us. I listened to a couple of folk tales from the ringleader of a group of 11-year-old school friends while the soccer girls swung babies onto their hips and played with toddlers.

Light the World has an active ministry in the slums. DSC_0048Several of the children at Mercy come from there, and Mercy works with their families to try to rehabilitate them until they are able to take the child back. L the W also offers microfinance loans to women who need them.

So after a little while, we split into groups and went with LtW staff members to visit some of the families in the neighborhood they are working with. We all have different stories, but I will share mine with you. My team (Dave, me, our Em, Emily Mascari, and Anna Lindus) had Wilfred as our leader. We went first to Florence’s home. Florence is leading a women’s prayer and Bible study group in Kitanga. She and her husband Moses accepted Christ a few years ago. She runs a small duuka (shop) next to her house and hopes to expand it to provide

Moses, Florence, and their little girl, Asfa

Moses, Florence, and their little girl, Asfa

more income for their family. We entered her home, taking our shoes off at the door so we did not make a mess on the tarps spread across the dirt floor. They sat us on the couches that nearly filled the room, honoring us while they sat on the floor. Florence took their baby from Moses and we learned a little of their story. Their baby, Asfa, is five years old but looks about two. She had a fever when she was very young and it resulted in brain damage that has left her mentally at the age of a baby and physically with very stiff limbs.

DSC_0056I have to be very American here and say this: any middle-class American would enter the slums and say, “This is no place for a child to grow up.” That is what our first impression would be.

That impression would be wrong.

The best place for Asfa is exactly where she is. Her parents adore her, and it was clear not only by the ways they looked at her but by her physical condition. Her skin was clean and perfect, with no pressure sores. The entire time her parents were talking with Wilfred, Florence was unconsciously doing physical therapy with Asfa, stretching her feet and hands, moving her elbows and knees, making her stand up for a few seconds and catching her when she tottered. Florence showed me the notebook she keeps for Asfa’s medical records, carefully filled out with every time they could afford medication and the illnesses and treatments she has had.

Beautiful.

Moses sang us a song he wrote about his faith in Christ, about how we should all bear fruit because we are connected to the Vine. That, too, was beautiful.

Asmin and I

Asmin and I

Dave prayed over that little family, and as he did, I was so glad to once again see Wilfred and Light the World in action. Wilfred knows that the best thing for both children and their parents is for the child to be in the home God placed him in. When you take a child permanently away from parents, they lose hope and motivation. Of all the children at Mercy, only a few are adoptable because all of the others have some form of family who can—and who deep down want to—care for them. Wilfred wants to share Christ with the families and work with them so they can become fit families for children. Then fathers work hard to pay school fees and put sufficient food on the table, and mothers can really care for their children.

We next visited Asmin, a Muslim lady, at her home that she has made clean and even pretty with a lovely curtain separating the sleeping and living areas. We asked if we could pray for her, even though she follows Allah. She said yes and prayed first before I prayed over her, asking that she would know the Christ who will draw her close to God. Asmin has a sweet presence about her, and she hugged me, drawing my head close to her own, when we finally left her.

This little girl was put in Dave's arms in the slums.

This little girl was put in Dave’s arms in the slums.

Then came the surprises. Someone came up to Wilfred and told him of a baby that was in trouble, so we trekked through some narrow paths, avoiding line-drying laundry around our heads and water runoff at our feet. When we arrived, neighbors handed Dave a tiny little girl (at least we think it is a girl). Nine months, they said, and she couldn’t have weighed more than 10 or 11 pounds. They told Wilfred the father had abandoned the family, and the mother goes off working but does not care for her baby. They were angry about the state of the baby, and the women’s raised voices drew several drunk men to the area. “Take her,” they told Wilfred. “She needs care.”

But Wilfred, without talking to the mother, was not ready to just take the child, so he had Dave hand her back (Dave was all set to take her, but we know we are also, to put it plainly, CLUELESS about the bigger picture!) because he wanted to get out of there before the crowd got too agitated. He will send Julius (his assistant who does a lot of work in the Kitenga slum) to the house quietly to make more inquiries—and then he will probably take the child.

We discovered this house in the Kitenge slum was where our son Patrick was found

We discovered this house in the Kitenge slum was where our son Patrick was found

We visited one more house, another Moses who has a child being cared for at Mercy. He showed Wilfred the progress he is making so that his girl Prossy can return home.

That was, honestly, enough to process and pray about for an entire day, but we were also scheduled to visit the hospital, with its rows and rows of metal beds with children in various stages of sickness, their parents camped out on straw mats by their sides because they have to administer the majority of the care. I first prayed with a woman whose two year old came down with a fever four days ago. His body still radiated heat, and she patiently urged juice down his throat, sip by tiny sip. She was so calm, and I couldn’t help but think how frantic I would be in her shoes, watching my child grow more listless by the day, knowing that hope was slipping away.

I checked on the soccer girls who were holding babies and chatting with mothers. As I walked down the hall to find another group, I passed an open doorway and saw a room that, though full of beds, held only one boy, skeletal, sitting up on a crib at the far side of the room.

Skin stretched across cheekbones, neck reduced to the size of the spinal column, eyes that were far too big for a shrunken face. I’d seen faces like his in pictures of concentration camp victims, but never, never in real life.

I pretended I didn’t notice the open door and continued down to check on the other group.

But on my way back I was with my friend Angel (I lived with her during the five weeks I was in Africa several years ago), and she said, “Mama, do you want to visit here?”

Holy Spirit took over, and I said yes without thinking much about it. We met Agnes and Eugene, and they introduced us to Earnest, who is 7 (same age as my PJ) and who began having diarrhea 4 months ago, and is now vomiting and coughing besides. I put my hand on his foot, and felt his cool, thin, dry skin. We looked at the x-ray and prescriptions given by the doctor (not that we could do a thing, but it just felt like a way to express sympathy). We listened to their calm recitation, and I fought to keep my face as smooth as theirs.

I asked if I could pray. Both said yes, and Agnes told me that she was a believer in Jesus. “God is my only hope now,” she told me.

“He is our only hope all the time, really, isn’t he?” I said.

Her smile stretched wide and she nodded.

Suddenly, just before I began to pray, soccer girls filed in. They laid hands on me, and I let what was in my heart spill forth in words, and I knew the Holy Spirit was groaning in far better utterances than my limited language in the very presence of God.

In the middle of my prayer, I felt something cool and dry touch my hand, and when I opened eyes, I saw that Earnest had put his small hand on top of my own, his fingers curled over mine. That did it. I had to turn away and sob quietly.

The girls filed out, and I stayed behind to talk more with the parents. Eugene showed me the medications the doctors prescribed and admitted that they could not afford it all. I told him I would be back.

I gathered Angel and Rachel (our two wonderful Ugandan guides for this day) and Dave, and Rachel came up with a plan. We went back and told Eugene that we would take him with us to the pharmacy and buy him the medication. Then Rachel began telling him he needed to accept Christ. “Dave,” Rachel suddenly said, “Do you have anything to say to Eugene?”

Dave, taken off guard at first, said no, but then he asked Eugene why he had not yet made the decision his wife so clearly had. “I’m not ready,” Eugene answered.

So Dave simply and wonderfully reminded him that it is a gift, unachievable by ANY of us, EVER. We have to simply accept it. “Do you want to?” Dave asked him.

“Yes.”

“Then there is nothing standing in your way. Your sin does not keep you from the grace of God.”

Dave wanted to be sure that Eugene was not making this decision simply because a muzungu was asking him questions. “No, no,” Eugene answered, and then he prayed with Dave while Agnes beamed, and she and I clasped hands and lifted them to the heavens in thanks.

We drove with Eugene to the pharmacy down the hill and filled the prescription for his son. Dave gave him his email address, Rachel gave him her phone number, I waved at him from the van window, and he was gone.

The ride home provided time to pray and think because we got trapped in a traffic jam caused by an 18-wheeler that was trying to fit into an incredibly narrow driveway. (I’m always amazed at how patient people are here with this. School children gather to watch; men walking by stop to give advice; and cars and bodas wait patiently until the truck moves out of their way.)

By the time we arrived home, it was time to grab a quick bite and go to Light the World Church’s cell groups. Most of the team stayed here for the group Wilfred and Vena host, but Dave and I, along with our Em, Julia, and Britta (and Ugandans Isaac and Rachel) headed up the hill in the dusk to a cell group that meets nearby. They welcomed us in and translated all they said into English. Babies nursed, one little girl came and sat on Dave’s lap, and a small boy sitting in a chair in the corner fell asleep and didn’t even wake up when his chair toppled over.

And through all the life that was happening, the members shared testimonies and requests and we sang and prayed and even cried a little. And then, in the dark, we trekked down the rutted dirt road by the light of Julia’s iPod.

The water was off when we arrived, so Wilfred heated water on the electric stovetop, and we had jerry-can showers.

It was a beautiful day

*Please pray for Earnest, Eugene, and Agnes. Pray for Earnest’s healing. I’ve been thinking about him much today.

*I will write about today later (we visited Jinja, where an American friend of mine works with a women’s jewelry-making business—beautiful stuff and a very cool model).

*Tomorrow we are painting at the babies and toddlers’ home and playing with the children there. Julius already rescued the undernourished baby from the slums, and tomorrow I will be going with Isaac to take the baby to the hospital for a checkup and some testing. Please pray for this, too.

*I do have pictures. I’ll try to post some tomorrow. Sleep beckons.

Thanks for reading,

Jen

Countdown to Africa

Dave, Emily, and I leave for Africa in four days! We are very grateful that the three of us are able to go together—what a privilege!

I’ll post updates on the trip right here on my (Jen’s) blog: www.jenunderwood.org. If I’m able, I’ll upload some pictures as well. Here’s a bit of what we’ll be doing:

WHO’S GOING?: Twelve of Dave’s soccer players will go on the trip, along with one of his assistant coaches (Lauren Lindner Anderson, who was a former player and student years ago), and two of the girls’ moms.

WHERE AND WHAT? We do have a schedule (though it’s pretty flexible, as it needs to be): In Kenya the girls will play several soccer matches, one of them with girls from the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy in the heart of the Kibera slum. Our girls will also attend classes with the KGSA students.

We have also connected—through Jody and Aaron Hoekstra—with a woman named Mary who started a babies and toddler home outside Nairobi. I had heard so many wonderful things about Mary from Aaron, and when the opportunity came up for us to visit her and her babies, we jumped at the chance.

In Uganda, of course, we will see Wilfred (the director of Mercy Childcare who helped so, so much with Patrick’s adoption), his beautiful wife, Vena, and their two young children.

In Jinja we will get to see a friend I worked with when we lived in Sterling, Kansas. Sarah now works as a designer and project director in Jinja, Uganda, and will show us the work she does with the African women who make crafts for her company.

A few more games, work with the soccer ministry run by Light the World Church in Kampala, processing/prayer time with the girls each night, a church service at LWC, a visit to a cancer hospital… It’s full, but not so planned that we cannot stop to help someone or spend more time with people or take a detour.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? We covet your prayers for this trip. We know that God uses trips like this in significant ways in teenagers’ lives, and we expect that from this trip as well (He uses it in our lives, too!). Please pray that all of us will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading on this trip and then beyond it when we return to Chicagoland. Pray that we will spread the sweetness of Christ wherever we go on our trip (including airports and guesthouses), and that we will be a true encouragement to the believers we work with. Pray that we will be a great support to these brothers and sisters in their Gospel work.

Thank you!

Dave, Jen, and Emily Underwood

Jackfruit

NOTE: It’s been finals week–ugh!–which is why I haven’t blogged lately. This post is the piece I wrote for my final writing class assignment (also this week). It’s about my time in Uganda but probably won’t fit into  the book about Patrick’s adoption.

“Jackfruit”

The pimply jackfruit sits on Vena’s knees like a second pregnant belly, the size of a basketball but misshapen, yellow-brown. The stink of rotten onions fills the small car—Vena picked it well—and Wilfred puts the windows down.

The look, smell—the dense weight—it would never sell in a U.S. grocery store, the muzungu thinks. But machete through the ugly rind and what a treasure. Pineapple-banana scent, warm yellow color, exotic tulip-shaped fruits nestled, jewel-like, in a yellow velvet pulp.

The muzungu peers her neck to catch fragments of the sky between the shacks, leaning buildings, trash heaps that crowd the narrow alleys and streets crisscrossing this hill-mountain. She shifts Patrick on her lap so he can see their upward climb. He points and jabbers, waves at children. Wilfred turns this way, that way—a fun maze without the fun.

At the very top is a flat space, with a large concrete building that looks as if a wrecking ball swung through it a few times but then gave up. Wilfred crunches to a stop on the rubble that is working its way out from the structure. Men, young and old, squat on the ground, sit on chunks of cement and in blown-out window ledges, stand around in small groups. It is a Sunday, but, judging by the looks of the area, this may be the scene every day of the week. Two young men approach as they get from the car, and Wilfred huddles with them, slips them some cash.

Vena hands Wilfred the jackfruit and leads, picking her way carefully in her Sunday shoes. Just over the crest of the hill, they see the slum, spilling down the side. Cast-off building materials poured from a giant dump truck, heaped up haphazardly into “homes.”

Vena nods at the women cooking over open charcoal fires, sitting on doorsteps feeding babies, hanging laundry. The muzungu follows her, clutching Patrick to her side as if he will somehow transform her white skin, her other-ness. She nods, too. Some women dip their heads, a couple even smile, but the men’s eyes are hard. The rare muzungu who comes here bears judgment or pity, neither of which builds a father’s sense of manhood.

I’m Alice, going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.

No, that’s not quite intense enough.

The red dirt paths between the homes form channels for run-off from above. They are walking on the slick, smooth bank of a stream. The smell of waste grows stronger when the water pools, covers the vegetable scent from cooking pots. She copies Vena’s flat-footed, splayed-out steps, leans on buildings at tricky spots. If she had her arms free she could touch fingertips to the walls on both sides, elbow-to-elbow in some spots.

Down, down, down. The maze driving up the hill was nothing compared to this. How does Vena know where to go?

Then Vena stops.

“Uncle? Uncle?” she calls.

She ducks her head inside a doorway.

Excited chatter. A woman steps out, near the same age as Vena but looking older with her hair in a kerchief and her chest sloping like a soft hill all the way to her waist. She hugs Vena, pats one large, strong hand on Vena’s belly. Wilfred, who came down the hill behind the muzungu, stands by, holding the jackfruit, smiling.

Vena turns to the muzungu. “This is my cousin. We grew up together.”

The cousin tucks her head, but the muzungu reaches out for one of her hands, shakes it. The cousin’s head comes up, her eyes brighten.

“This is Jennifer. She is adopting Patrick,” Vena tells her. “She is living with us for awhile.”

The cousin motions them in. Their eyes adjust to the sudden dark. One room, no windows, though light filters in through a jagged hole high up in the wall, covered with a piece of cloth. One small, upholstered chair sits next to the door. Across from it two others are stacked, with a small coffee table perched on top. Vena takes the jackfruit from Wilfred, puts it on a shelf that holds a bag of rice, a bag of beans, and says something to him, tipping her head toward the chairs. Wilfred sets the coffee table in the center of the room and places the chairs around it.

“Jennifer, sit there.” Obediently the muzungu sits. Her knees touch the table. Patrick slides from her lap and stomps his feet, glad to be down. He beats his hands on the table.

There is a rustle just above the muzungu’s head. Halfway up the wall, the bricks jut in, forming a wide, deep alcove. A man sits up inside this, swings his legs over the side.

“Uncle!” Vena says. He slips down, one hand clutching his loose pants, the other holding his buttonless cardigan closed over his bare brown chest. He blinks but then recognizes Vena and begins chattering in Lugandan. The muzungu pulls up her feet so he can shuffle between the table and the chairs. Vena hugs him gently.

“Jennifer, this is my uncle.”

He turns to the muzungu, a smile splitting his wrinkled face. Cracked brown teeth fill the gap. Beside him Vena’s white teeth gleam. A picture perfect for toothpaste advertising.

Vena told the muzungu once that she, Vena, had such nice teeth because she had no sugar as a child. “We were lucky to get one meal a day,” she said. “No money for sweets.”

“So if a person has nice teeth, they were probably poor growing up?”

Vena shook her head. “They were poor AND their mamas cared about their teeth. The ones with teeth like…?” She pointed at her gums and looked at the muzungu.

“Stumps? Decayed?”

“Yes. Their mamas gave them sugar cane as babies. Cheap. Keeps them from fussing. Easier for the mama, but bad for the teeth.”

The uncle settles in his chair, the one near the door. Wilfred stands, uncertain, until the young cousin pulls a wooden stool out from against the wall. She and Vena hold a hushed conference, and the cousin slips past the door cloth.

They talk, the voices up and down, laughter tinging. Patrick moves down the table, wiggles his way between the uncle’s knees. The uncle asks Patrick questions. More laughter.

The muzungu does not understand, but she smiles, watches, tries to look at the room without showing that she is. Labels—the plastic ones from 2-liter soda bottles—have been fastened to the wall. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Mountain Dew, Sundrop; a red, orange, purple, green, yellow patchwork. She watches the uncle’s hand rub Patrick’s head, answers the questions he asks her through Vena.

The cousin comes back with soft drinks, lukewarm in glass bottles, small cakes in cellophane packages. The muzungu hopes Vena gave the cousin money for this.

Is her reluctance to take—masked as guilt for their spending money on her—a way to separate? She remembers the story of the three Southern pastors, firm in their conviction that drinking alcohol was a sin, being offered beer by a pastor at an overseas conference. Two refused, one accepted. When the two later said, “How could you?” the other answered, “I thought one of us should act like a Christian.”

Translation: not separate, not better. Seeing past the outside, looking in.

The cousin pulls aside the doorcloth and sits on the stoop so she can talk to Vena and still greet passersby. A few stop to chat. A few try English with the muzungu. More laughter. The bright patchwork on the wall fades as the light changes. The cousin’s shadow stretches behind her.

Vena stands.

“No, Uncle, do not get up.” She leans down to hug him.

The muzungu steps over the table, stands near the uncle. “Good-bye,” he tells her. The cousin reaches for the muzungu’s hand, holds it for a moment before Vena leads them out.

Out to where sewage smell drifts up from the water in the path.

Just like jackfruit.