Greetings from the children of the Bukasa community in Kampala. I’ve been welcomed by the best of them—including being given a lavish red-carpet “press day” welcome by Disney at the opening of their Animal Kingdom theme park back in the 90s. But even that doesn’t compare to the welcome I was given by these children, and really all of the children wherever we went in Uganda.
Love magnets … every one of them. As to what the kids were trying to say after the words “How are you?” my money is on “do.” I’m sure they meant to say “doing” but that’s how they charmingly interpreted our typical American greeting.
Really, my fellow Buyamba Uganda volunteers and I expected to be called “muzungus” —a common greeting from the children of Uganda that means “white people.” Coming from these little ones, it’s endearing. Back home, as an adult, it would be, well … “awkward.” I’d be rather unsettled if a black person used the phrase, “Hey, white person!” when greeting me on the streets of LA. Given our nation’s history and present racially charged atmosphere, I’m sure it would be even more “uncomfortable” the other way around.
Whether at home or abroad, no one wants to make race an issue, or be made to feel uncomfortable because you’re one or the other. And yet, during my time spent in Uganda among the poor, and the “poorest of the poor” I became acutely aware that I was, in fact, a white American. Just by virtue of my race, and place of birth it seemed that I was considered “rich” by more than a few of the Ugandans I encountered—even though I’m most definitely not by Western standards.
Early on in my journey, I found myself a magnet for some of these folks who seem to look on me as a benefactor—someone who could afford to pay for this, buy that, or as a few destitute mothers pleaded with me to do, sponsor their child’s education.
As the days wore on, and I found myself immersed in a sea of orphans and/or children with only one parent (usually the mother) the genuine pull towards wanting to help them had to be tempered with the stark reality that I could not be the savior of each child, or every struggling single mother who needed help. Nor, as I would learn later, was it wisdom to presume I knew what they needed the most. Or that money in and of itself would cure all their ills.
That was a hard pill to swallow, no more so than in the slums of Bukasa where the harsh reality of abject poverty met us at every turn. It’s impossible to fully describe some of the scenes that I and the other Buyamba Uganda volunteers witnessed there.
There was the blind and mentally disabled young girl in a tattered blue dress who was making her way down a narrow alley towards all the commotion our presence was creating, her hands sliding tentatively across the dirty brick wall. As she brushed by me, I reached out gently to touch her shoulder—to let her known she was seen. At first startled, she quickly rebounded, offering me a shy, tentative gesture of welcome in return. I wondered if she was receiving any medical or social services aid, a concern that grew after later reading a statement on the AbleChild Africa website: “Disabled children in Africa are largely invisible, experience widespread violations of their rights and are too often denied their dignity and identity.”
Then there were all the children taking care of children. One 4-5 year-old boy had his baby brother in tow, the toddler clad only in a dirty tee-shirt. As snot ran from his nose, he rubbed his crusted eyes, wailing. His brother and his friends were busy playing with an old white plastic car, just one toy shared among five boys. But the wheels still moved and it served as their entertainment as each child in the group took turns rolling the broken car down the hill.
Outside a dilapidated place of worshp called, The Miracle Church, the pastor, spying our little group, slipped out and warmly grasped my hand. “Bless you and thank you for coming,” he said as he flashed us a smile as big as all outdoors …. it is so wonderful that you’ve come here to be with us.” A bit taken aback, I wanted to reply, “This? What we’re doing here … this is nothing. We’re here for a day, and next week we’ll go back to our comfortable lives.”
Though that thought was understandable given what I was experiencing, I would later rethink that attitude.
As we continued through the slums, the images became more disturbing. Animals in various states of well-being … goats, chickens, roosters, cows—and a few mangy “slum dogs” were everywhere. Chickens drank sewage water and scrounged around in rubbish. Children ran through the same water, and being there were no toilets I could only imagine the disease that was being spread throughout the community. I find myself being very thankful for the “super pack” set of immunizations I had reluctantly taken two weeks before I left for Uganda.
Whenever we met a mom of a God Cares School student (our primary purpose for being there), she would immediately embrace us, humbly inviting us into her “home” where we would sit and listen to her story, then pray together.
The women’s houses were little more than cramped and wobbly “lean to’s” —constructed from dirt/wood/corrugated metal or brick. Most consisted of one small room that had to be shared with several family members, usually children and/or an aging parent. The fortunate mothers had a curtain separating them from the rest of the family. This was considered a luxury. In every way, they tried as best they could to make a home from whatever scavenged goods they managed to find.
Remarkably, though we were surrounded by filthy, contaminated rivulets of water filled with garbage—breathing in what to us was the unpleasant stench of both human and animal waste—it was not uncommon to find women sweeping in front of their houses, or washing clothes in makeshift pots. Most greeted us with a smile as we passed by, and none—child or mother—refused our embrace when it was offered.
They had so little, yet it was clear to me that they were making the best of a deplorable situation and doing it with more grace and dignity than I’ve seen those who have plenty, yet seem to find reason to complain about anything and everything that causes them discomfort. I could sometimes include myself in that indictment.
One particular mom, Violet along with her 11-year old son, Joseph, will forever be etched in my mind and heart. She invited us into her neat and orderly hovel, and poured out her heart. She had cancer, but no means to treat it. Her son, who sat quietly on the bed next to us, his stillness filling the atmosphere, was also ill. He suffered from unexplainable fainting spells, making any chance of attending God Cares School—his only real hope to escape that cycle of poverty—impossible. To comfort himself, and his mother, Joseph played his simple musical instrument as we talked.
Despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation, Joseph’s mother had faith that God would provide … and heal. But she needed encouragement—just as each of us do when life deals us blows that we’re ill-equipped to handle in our own strength. “Lord I believe … help me in my unbelief.”
And so we prayed for Violet, and Gloria and Rose, and all the other mothers—each of whom had their own story to tell—and their dreams for a better future for their children.
But prayer, as comforting and transformational as it can be, still must be accompanied by works. The question for me was, “What can I do to help?” Is it even possible to help one child break out of the cycle of poverty and hopelessness? How can they believe that’s possible if they don’t see anything different other than what they’re surrounded by every day?
These are the questions I asked myself when visiting this community. And after arriving back in the US to my own fairly comfortable life (though uncertain future), I had to ask myself, so now having seen what I saw, what is my responsibility? What would God have me to do to help the people of Bukasa and Jinja in my own limited way?
The answer, I found, wasn’t complicated. I would “go after the one” by continuing to fund my sponsored child’s education—and to never stop praying for her. And as I prospered, I would find another child I could sponsor, fully assured that the Dongo family who runs God Cares’ School not only cares deeply for their own people—Ugandans helping Ugandans—they know how to do it. This, I would learn, is all important. It’s that delicate balance of meeting basic needs and a quality education, while, at the same, working to overcome that third-world malady known as “learned helplessness.”
So, really my visiting the slums of Busaka and Jinja was not a waste, even though I felt that mere hugs and smiles, with some small gifts of clothes and supplies, were hardly sufficient in the face of such overwhelming poverty. But it was for that time, and on that day. Because, as I would soon learn, even the simplest expressions of human affection and compassion—be it a gentle touch, an embracing hug or a word of encouragement—can do more than we can possibly imagine to revive even the weariest heart.