How God’s Word Carried Me Across the World

During the months I spent researching in preparation for my trip to Africa, God so miraculously revealed to me how His Word directly paralleled to much of what I was reading in academic journals and articles. I hate to admit this, but I typically tend to keep the “intellectual” side of my life very separate from the spiritual. Yes, I know that God is present with me always… But it’s only when I’m not preoccupied with studying things other than Scripture that I actually acknowledge Him. Well, even when I fail to acknowledge Him, God shows up… in a big way. While academic resources changed my mind about development and poverty, God’s Word changed my heart.

The night before I left for Africa, I wrote each of these verses down in the front of a fresh journal. Through my travels, my research in Africa, my ministry in the Dominican Republic, and my studies and reflections, these verses have continually carried me through and pushed me forward. They have reaffirmed my feeling that God has me here for a reason… pursuing knowledge and understanding of need, poverty, loss, and oppression as a part of His will and desire for my life. And He did more than whisper these affirmations – He wrote them plain and clear in the pages of His book.

“A Father to the fatherless, a Defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling.” – Psalm 68:5

“He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.” – Proverbs 28:8

“He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.” – Proverbs 28:27

“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” – Proverbs 29:7

“She opens her arms to the poor and extends her arms to the needy.” (The Wife of Noble Character) – Proverbs 31:20

“Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” – Proverbs 31:30

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12:32-34

“…From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” – Luke 12:48

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” – Luke 18:16

“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” – Luke 18:22

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and blameless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:27

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Reflections of Africa…

It’s early… the Ugandan landscape is as beautiful as ever – Lake Victoria still and soft in the freshness of morning. God gave us a perfect sky of blues and greys and yellows, the most lovely clouds I’ve ever seen, and the air of Africa. I’m sitting on an airplane, ready to embark on the last leg of this journey: South Africa.

I am sad to leave this country and these people. I could stay a long, long time in Uganda and know peace and joy every day. God has answered my prayers. I wanted to learn, to experience new, unique, and authentic things, to really know people. All those things were achieved here, and at an overwhelming magnitude. I have seen places and people and parts of the world that I could not even imagine in my head before this…

I snacked on grasshoppers, I danced in ankle bells and grass skirts, I ate fresh pineapple on the side of a red dirt road. I walked through urban slums and held the hands and kissed the heads of a hundred sick, dirty, beautiful children. I worshiped and prayed to the Lord with people of different color skin but the same heart. I wore dresses and necklaces and drank wine with the US Deputy Ambassador. I ate roasted goat around a campfire while listening to Jja ja whisper African folktales. I learned how to drum, how to weave, and how dance really is universal – it’s the same everywhere, it unites us. I talked to Jamaican, Scottish, British, American, Indian people all living here in Africa for one reason: to make the world better. I made best friends, and their eyes and their names and their hugs are imprinted on my heart forever. I walked with chickens and goats and cows as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I waved to a thousand people and shared smiles with three thousand more.

My life is forever changed. My heart’s home is in Africa. God’s plan is perfect and good and beautiful. I am so alive.

Uganda: Rural Life

This has certainly been an adventure… I have had the time of my life. Africa has far exceeded my expectations – my time here has been incredible in every sense of the word. I don’t even know how to put it into words, it’s just too much and still sinking in. But I know I must, because I don’t want to forget a single detail of my time here – the people, their smiles, the way the food tastes, the sounds of the land waking me up, the unreal green everywhere I look.

This entire experience has been so physically and emotionally and spiritually and intellectually overwhelming that I have to remind myself it’s really happening. I know this will require more than a week’s worth of reflection… I will think back to my experiences here for the rest of my life. I hope it informs my future choices, career path, lifestyle… I know that’s a tall order, but I have complete confidence that it will. And I know that I will come back many, many times. I just know it.

First of all, I adore the group of people we are here in Uganda with… I love them so so much. Empower African Children  is just the most incredible non-profit, so honest and genuine and transparent. So much momentum and desire to more forward, grow, and change lives. We are with Frank Roby, the CEO, and his wife, Linda, as well as two staff members, Courtney, who works in the Dallas office, and Jeremy, who works here in the Kampala office. Then the 6 amazing students, all our age, spending the week with us: Maureen, Faith, Brian, Daniel, Willington, and Simon Peter. Ugandans and Americans, blacks and whites, students and adults, all together, all friends. We’ve only spent 3 days together and already, we’re a family. I can’t imagine how much closer we’ll become in the next 3 days.

Kampala is an interesting city. Coming from Kigali – organized, clean, and beautiful – Kampala left an unpleasant first impression. It’s very crowded and very loud and dirty and the traffic is the most frustrating and horrific phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. However, it has slowly started to grow on me. There are hidden gems within this place, you just have to look past the chaos and urban slums. Even so, it was really refreshing to get away from Kampala and spend time out in rural Uganda. I feel much more in my element there, much more at home. My heart longs for the red dirt roads and the endless green, the cows and the goats and the chickens, the children running free and the sky gorgeous both in its clear blue warmth and in blankets of rain-filled clouds.

We spent the early afternoon touring Sunrise School, a little patch of heaven on earth that is so much more than a school. We saw classrooms and a garden, the health clinic – Grace Family Health Center, the community programs, including an artisan group of 25 women making crafts, as well as the camp grounds and guest house where we stayed the night.

I particularly enjoyed touring the health clinic with Moses, a gentle and nurturing man, eager to show us around. The center provides pre-natal and maternal care to women in the community who would otherwise have no access to it. Rural women have 2 options: spend all their money on transport into the city and hospital fees or deal with pregnancy and childbirth entirely on their own, putting their own health and their baby’s health at risk. I’ve read so much about neglected maternal health care (Nicholas Kristoff’s Half the Skybut now that my older sister is expecting and I have a little niece or nephew on the way, it resonates so much more.

After taking a refreshing and filling lunch of local food (Maureen guided me through and made me try absolutely everything), we began our service projects. They threw us immediately into the work with a long hike up to the top of a steep hill through grass taller than me. It was quite invigorating and so nice to use my legs! And of course, the view from the top was astounding. There, we gathered grass, tied it up into bundles, and carried it down the hill atop our heads in the African custom. My body was created to move and sweat, my muscles to work hard, and my lungs to breathe fresh air. Then, I painted the labor room in the health center a bright and striking green. The process was very informal and haphazard, little planning or regulation, but the fact is – it was a stark improvement in appearance from before. Ugandans and Americans: we toiled together to benefit a community. While some of us painted, the rest thatched a roof over a small vaccination area (vaccinations are offered free to the community each Thursday) with the grass we gathered. We finished the afternoon worn out, totally covered in paint and dirt and dust, itching from the grass and smiling altogether. God was with us and the day was lovely.

While resting between work and supper, I stumbled upon a little girl, Agnes. She immediately ran away from me, not from fear, but from wanting me to chase her! She was such a spirited girl, quick in her movements and bright in her eyes. She was also dirty and sick, with wounds all over her skin and gashes full of dust on the soles of her small feet. I don’t know who she belonged to or where she came from, but I know she wanted me as her friend. I picked her up and spun her around, tickled her to the ground, and locked my eyes into hers without looking away. She touched my heart in those few sweet moments.

More later!

Uganda: City Life

Today was a nice transition into Uganda. We got to meet up with Frank (CEO of Empower African Children, the non-profit we will be partnering with here in Uganda) and his wife Linda for a lovely breakfast this morning at the ARA (American Recreation Association) where we are staying. I was slightly cranky and cramping – ugh! – but in high spirits, nonetheless. Michael forgot to change his clock since Kampala is an hour ahead of Kigali so I had to wake him up!

I’m so glad Frank and Linda are here with us, they’re both such sweethearts, completely committed to changing kids’ lives and fully capable of doing so. Linda told us about a church group she’s leading to the Holy Land this Christmas break and said Michael and I were more than welcome to join! I’d so love to go… Already planning my next adventure…

Amon took us around Kampala, and you could so tell this place is his home. We went to the National Museum – very informative, but not the most exciting place in the world…

But then – LUNCH! Oh my gosh it was incredible. We requested authentic Ugandan food from Amon, and he gave us exactly that. We all got a bowl of broth with half a fish in it, bones, skin, and all. Then we got a plate full of interesting local things – pumpkin, a certain kind of banana, cassava, an other yummy things. I tried banana juice – a very strong and incredibly sweet syrup-like drink… seemed like it should go more in the category with caramel than with juice. The passion fruit juice was a bit tart and the cocktail juice – watermelon, carrot, and other things – was refreshing. We also had bowls of purple millet; you pull some off with your fingers, roll it into a ball like dough, press your thumb in to make a mini bowl, dip it in the fish broth, then eat the whole thing! I can’t even describe the taste!

We walked around the corner (for our digestion, according to Amon) and spent some time at the craft market! I bought tons of great handmade bracelets for all my girlfriends (and for super cheap!)

Kampala is quite different from Kigali. I picked up a habit early on of writing down every interesting sign and billboard I saw while driving. Some are incredibly thought-provoking and others quite absurd. Please enjoy:

  • CocaCola advertisement (the only American brand I saw advertised in Uganda): “Open Happiness – A Billion Reasons to Believe in Africa”
  • “Beating my wife destroyed my marriage. Don’t do what I did.” – True Manhood, USAID
  • Newspaper headline: “Educated Women Cheat Most”
  • “Save the children in Uganda!”
  • Gallery and craft shop: “Support the women in Uganda”
  • “Democratic Governments thrive on openness” – Human Rights Uganda, ActionAid
  • “Who are you really sleeping with? Get off the sexual network, get tested for HIV, start a new life” (numerous billboards picturing embracing couples)
  • Gaddafi National Mosque – built by Idi Amin and finished by Muammar Gaddafi…
  • “Is this a fair fight? Choose not to use violence.” (Picture of  husband and wife slapping each other)
  • “La Butchery: Goat’s Meat, Ox Liver, Kidney”
  • “New Obama” – Sudanese Restaurant
  • “Obama’s Kabalagala” – another restaurant
  • “For Democracy, Reject Ignorance” ; “Listen, Analyse, Choose” ; “We are all Ugandans – Voting should not divide us” – political statements painted boldly on fences

Rwanda to Uganda, aka the Longest and Most Amazing Road Trip Ever!

I honestly could have spent another month in Kigali, touring around, exploring the city, uncovering hidden gems and discovering the amazing work being done there. Each day held a new wave of hope and encouragement. The people there are beautiful, just as the landscapes are. However, it’s time for us to move onto our next adventure! Uganda: here we come!

A 15 hour drive starting at 6 am really does sound like a miserable experience… But it was far from that! In fact, our road trip provided some of my favorite experiences so far. First of all, I spent hour upon hour simply looking out the window and never getting bored. A Texas girl never ceases to be amazed by hills…

Our first stop was customs and border control… I was sufficiently intimidated by the police officers in their scary uniforms holding big guns. Luckily our passing through was relatively harmless. I payed 500 Rwandan francs in order to pee in a hole on the  border (what a joyful experience) followed by a 10 minute walk in no man’s land between Rwanda and Uganda. There’s a certain sense of vulnerability that comes with walking through nowhere, the mysterious place where no US Embassy exists. Kind of creepy, actually.

Our next stop brought us to the BEST pineapple I have EVER had! Right there on the side of the road, a large stand selling tons and tons and tons of fresh pineapples. We got out, stretched our legs, and Amon bought each of us several large chunks of the delicious fruit. With one bite, juice comes spilling out, leaving our hands sticky and our bellies full. Yum yum yum.

Next, we stopped at the equator! A very tourist-y thing to do, but you just have to do it! We got to witness the experiment about water flushing different directions in different hemispheres – it’s actually true. A sweet man showed us three separate large water funnels, one north of the equator, one south of it, and one exactly on it. He filled each with water and floated a flower on top to show the direction in which the water was draining. Counterclockwise in one hemisphere, clockwise in the other, and on the equator it just sucked straight down! We all oohed and aahed, genuinely amazed. And then of course, we took the brilliant photo with one foot in the north and one in the south.

Our tourist spirits were again brought about when we spotted zebras on the side of the road! I am so used to 1-45, Houston to Dallas, seeing horses and cows the entire way. But zebras?! Just there grazing on the side of the road? Fascinating creatures. Absolutely fascinating.

Our last stop before we reached Kampala was my very favorite: a drum-making shop. The shop owners took us through the shop and out back to see the creation in process – carving the bases, stretching the cowhides for the top. Very interesting. When we went back inside the shop, an impromptu jam session had erupted – drumming and dancing! Grass skirts were grabbed and tied around Allison’s waist and then mine, and we instantly joined in the dancing. It all happened so fast – first we were onlookers and next thing I knew I was a participant! We shook our hips so fast, moved forward and backward in a circle, and laughed the whole time. I was so invigorated! This was such an authentic experience, and so special!

By the time darkness came, we were almost into Kampala. We had yet to see a nicely paved road – we drove from one country to the next almost entirely over red dirt. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The traffic leading into Kampala is unlike any I’ve seen before… It seemed as if the entire city was out, either walking between shops, eating, milling around, making last minute sales or purchases for the day, shouting, listening to music, walking between cars, swerving through traffic on their motorcycles (commonly known as “boda bodas” and very dangerous). While I was ready for sleep, the city was coming alive.

Eventually, we pulled into the American Recreation Association where will be for the next 7 nights. Allison and I found our beds neatly made and mosquito nets pulled like curtains around them, again giving me the feeling of princess canopy bed. Time for rest before a new adventure!

Last Day in Rwanda (Part 2) – Dance!

Leaving Urukundo was tough – I wish we had been able to stay longer… I have a feeling that I may be back sometime in the future. Those children’s sweet faces and prayers will forever be imprinted on my heart.

After leaving, we headed to our last stop in Rwanda, a non-profit pertaining to Allison’s research on community arts programs. This program in particular was started by Rebecca Davis Dance in partnership with FIDESCO, an international humanitarian and development non-profit. The program offers dance classes to street boys (kids who don’t attend school and survive alone on the streets), as well as basic IT courses. Rebecca Davis, an American ballerina, started this program out of her desire to “use dance as a tool of community revitalization.”

This really affected me… For the past semester I have been greatly struggling to understand who I am as a dancer and what I am even supposed to do with it. I asked myself more than once, “What’s the point? What can I do for the world with a degree in dance…?” God has continually given me peace through these times of frustration and encouraged me to continue pursuing what I love. Because I truly, truly love to dance. Seeing what Rebecca Davis was able to do with classical ballet training combined with a highly successful academic resume (Fulbright scholar and a masters of International Relations) really encouraged me. I had hoped that dance could be used in this way, but up until this point, I never actually experienced it.

As we walked into the area where the classes are held, we heard music and my heart just about skipped a beat from excitement! We hadn’t expected them to be holding class on a Friday afternoon, but God’s timing proved to be perfect yet again! They were stretching and warming up just as we walked in.

I adore the universality of dance… Those boys spoke not a word of English and have probably never seen a ballet performance in their life, but who cares? We speak the same language. They stretched in the very same way that I would in a jazz class at SMU. We all have the same body, 2 feet and 2 hands. Cultural differences seem to set us apart, but in reality – we are all dancers. Mirrors and pianists and leotards – those are not what define a dance class. Half of them were shirtless, wearing tattered shorts and dirty from head to toe. But everything inside of me smiled to see them do the very same things I do every single day. A dance class for street boys in Uganda is no different from a dance class for students in an American university.

http://rwandayouth.com/

After warm-up, the boys lined up to go across the floor one at a time. They started out with their battements, striving to press their shoulders down and stretch their knees. By the time pirouettes came around, I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to join them. After my first time across the floor, giving my very best triple pirouettes, I got cheers and thumbs up from lots of the boys. Somehow, approval from these boys gave me infinitely more satisfaction and joy than an A in ballet class…

We jumped and leaped and spun across the floor over and over and over again. I had the time of my life… I ended class with hugs and high-fives. With each goodbye, God whispered to me that He blessed me with the gift of dance so that I could bless His children through it. I will be back, I have absolutely no doubt. Yay dance!

Last Day in Rwanda (Part 1)

I woke up at 5:45 am beneath my mosquito net, really not feeling well. Apparently I had been moaning and coughing in my sleep. It stormed badly the night before, and water came in under our door, completely soaking my backpack and clothing I had set out for the day. I took a deep breath and committed to praying through the day. I’m here in Africa, I’m alive, and I am beyond blessed.

The girls and I freshened up and made our way to Mama Arlene’s home to greet her good morning. She truly is an angle, bringing heaven to earth. She glows with the love of Jesus even at 6 am. Then we went up to the nursery to help the other “mamas” (kind, beautiful young women who speak very little English) bathe and dress the little ones. Allison helped wash them clean while the rest of us waited to help dry, lotion, and dress. Little naked black babies, dripping wet and wide-eyed, tip-toed over to us one at a time and stood before us with silent expectation. I gingerly wiped water from their cheeks, tummy, and bottom and I felt more privileged to show love in this way than ever before. They badly need new clothes, especially underwear and socks, but they use what they have and are thankful. I now value clean panties so much more. What a luxury.

After baths, the children ate their breakfasts of bread and porridge on our laps or in our arms. Ketetha even walked in with one of the babies strapped to her back, a long piece of wrapped cloth holding him on. The African women carry their babies this way while walking along the roads or bending over in the fields. I will never forget the image of a sleeping, chubby-cheeked face pressed against mama’s back. Precious. This is one custom I am committed to adopting. Strollers will become useless! I will also carry things on my head and wear long patterned skirts. I am an African woman.

After breakfast, Mama Arlene took us into the pre-school on Urukundo’s grounds. Oh goodness, seeing those kids in class was like a little present from God. Mama Arlene would ask “Good morning, how are you?” in her assertive, aged voice and 15 little voices in a Rwandese accent would politely reply “I’m fine, thank you” perfectly in unison. Children were asked to complete tasks individually, such as count 1 to 10 in English, or retrieve a blue, yellow, and red block from the shelf. So much discipline and gentleness. A better quality pre-school experience than any I’ve ever seen.

Ketetha and I spent the rest of the morning in the nursery, helping to feed the babies and keep the little ones occupied with books and puzzles. I made special connections with Nelly, David, Emmanuel, Soso, and Ejid. They are bright and beautiful children – it hurts my heart that they were found alone and left behind, “throw-away babies.” But Mama Arlene adopted them into her home, the same way God saved me from a broken world and adopted me into His kingdom.

While I was with the little ones, the boys helped clear land with machetes – the African way – and the girls helped to knock down a brick wall and organize Urukundo’s book an movie library. It was the least we could do for a woman who has done so much in so many lives.

I told Oscar – Mama Arlene’s sweet assistant and the pastor at Urukundo, a young man who has been through so much and survived the genocide – that I know God is calling me to live in Africa. He turned over his shoulder and looked back at me with such affirmation, with eyes that said “of course He is.” Oscar is a tall and lovely man with a deep, kind voice. He walks through the hills and dirt paths with Mama Arlene securely on his arm, laughing “mom” whenever she teases him. They are precious.

When we left, Mama took me into her arms, so strong for 85-years-old, and whispered “Oh Katie, God love you” in my ear. Oscar held my hand and said “I will see you again very soon.” I hope he’s right.