Pieces in a Puzzle

DISCLAIMER: This post is a bit philosophical. An area of life I am extremely unqualified in and have little interest. However, I am at the crossroads of another transition; therefore thinking more deeply about my life than usual.

Comparing life or aspects of life to a puzzle has probably been done a million times, but it’s a metaphor that holds true. I think about all the events, experiences, and people in my life and how they’ve enriched me, allowed me to grow, and ultimately expanded my “puzzle”. It’s as if each life event is a piece in an ongoing puzzle, each experience slowly adding to the beauty and complexity of a life. As human being (and planning obsessed, borderline OCD human being), it’s easy to try and fit puzzle pieces together. I think I know what’s best for me and which new place or job or school I’m going to next. While just like putting together a puzzle requires some planning and effort, we also can’t force a puzzle piece to fit, it will look odd and eventually ruin the image. Sometimes, finding the right piece is easy. The first one we grab locks in place perfectly. But more often, it takes piece after piece of careful fitting before the right piece is found. We think we know the color scheme and shape, but so frequently the right piece is surprising until we see the whole picture.

The last two years of my life were not a time of effortlessly finding the next puzzle piece, as much as I tried every single application that might be the right “fit”. Instead it was a time of learning to be patient and enjoy the pieces of life that were already fitting together rather than looking forward to completing the picture. I never would have guessed that I would spend a year teaching English in South Korea after laboring over an engineering degree, I might have guessed that I would spend five months in Uganda, but in no way could I plan the people I would meet and how it would change my life. Even my OCD grad school search was a period of waiting for the perfect fit. No matter how much I planned, stressed, and obsessed, I couldn’t force my acceptance or scholarship offer.

Yet all of my waiting and random unplanned adventures have only made my unfinished puzzle more colorful and rich. I can’t imagine life without the wonderful people I met in Korea, I can’t imagine life without my Ugandan experience. God is the ultimate puzzle maker, He knows exactly how all the pieces will fit one step at a time, and He knows exactly how the finished product will turn out. While, I will probably never completely stop planning and obsessing, I am grateful for how all the pieces have fallen together in ways I could never plan, and I am grateful for how each “piece” or experience has shaped who I am.

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Moving on

My days left in Uganda (and as an SP intern) are rapidly diminishing, meaning I should probably conjure up some final insightful blog post. Unfortunately, I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye or final words. I’m really good at counting down to transitions that I often forget to stop and take the time to enjoy the present. So while there are many things I’m looking forward to, there are just as many things that I’m going to miss about Uganda and my job.

I’m going to miss:

-The pace of life here. The pace of life could also be added to the list of things I won’t miss, but as a slightly OCD time obsessed person it’s been nice to know that even though I may have a million plans and things to do in one day, most days never go according to plan. Instead of being focused on results, I find myself focusing more on experiences, processes and most importantly relationships.

-Fruit. While Karamoja is severely lacking in the fruit and veggie department, the rest of Uganda more than makes up for what Karamoja lacks. Juicy, sweet mangoes that grow in the wild, giant avocados, pineapple that tastes like candy, and bananas of more varieties than I knew existed.

-Weather. If you know me well, this is an obvious aspect of Uganda that will miss. Since I’ve been here and even while traveling throughout the country, there is no part of Uganda that has bad weather. During rainy season in the mountainous areas, it can get chilly but never too cold and even in areas where it gets hot, it’s never unbearable. The perpetual cold and rain of the Netherlands is not exactly beckoning me.

-Starry skies in Moroto. I’m now back in Kampala, but I was gifted with two breathtakingly last starry nights in Moroto. Looking up at a sky filled with bright twinkling dots inspires me and also leaves me feeling like a tiny speck in a massive universe.

-People. This is an obvious aspect of any move that is difficult. I’m extremely thankful for both the interactions I’ve had with Ugandans and how I’ve learned and grown, but also for my expat friends who I can effortlessly feel like myself around, have insightful (and not so insightful) conversations with, and who inspire me with their travel and life stories. I’ve almost taken for granted all well-traveled my circle of friends is here and it will be a difficult adjustment to perhaps be around people who haven’t spent their lives globe-trotting.

I’m already missing life in Moroto, although very much looking forward to the next stage in life. Like all places I’ve visited and lived in, Uganda will have a special place in my heart.

Just Living

 

Usually when I mention Uganda or another African country to your average American (or Korean) their eyes glaze over, and once they’ve figured out that Uganda is in the continent (country) of Africa I can see images of starving and emaciated children, millions of people living with AIDS and elephants and lions flash through their minds. A typical conversation might go something like this:

“Oh you’re working in AFRICA? Wow! That must be so hard with all the diseases and starving children.”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“How fulfilling to be able to save so many lives. You’re so brave to be there!”

The conversation might continue to mention someone they know doing a short term mission trip to “Africa” and how wonderful it was, but if you try and mention any other details about “Africa” and how perhaps it’s more than just starving children, AIDS, malaria, and unique animals, the person will lose interest.

Why many people can’t seem to grasp the concept that Africa is a continent made of up of many, many individual and unique countries with separate cultures, languages, and customs frustrates me. But what what frustrates me more is the perception of Africa (that the media only reinforces) as a continent just riddled with poverty and disease, corrupt leaders, but filled many beautiful animals like the lion “king of the jungle” (thank you Disney for confusing jungle and grassland). Of course none of these perceptions are inaccurate per se. I live in a place where people do die of hunger, where on almost a daily basis one of our staff gets sick with malaria (which actually isn’t that big of a deal if you receive treatment), and where almost all the Ugandans I know have lost a child or a young relative prematurely. I can’t gloss over the fact that all the African countries I’ve been to are filled with hardship that we can barely dream of in the western world. But they are also filled with so much more than hardship. To characterize an entire continent so negatively is the same as when people ask me if all Americans carry guns to school. Sadly, there are people who carry guns to school and shootings do happen, but of course there is so much more to the United States than shootings, McDonalds, New York City and LA, and fat people.

The “Africa” I know is filled with people just living. Just like in every other country I’ve visited, people in Uganda have families, they fall in love, they have favorite foods, they laugh, they cry, and they enjoy life. Even in the midst of harder living conditions than we have in the west people are still living. Yes, there are corrupt governments but people have still found a way to get by. When I read the news about the state of government affairs in the US, I find myself disgusted, but when I’m living there I realize it’s not as bad as the media presents. Yes, there are many people living with AIDS (particularly in Southern Africa), but there are even more people living without AIDS and many people fighting to stop the spread of AIDS. Yes, there are many unemployed people who are barely scraping by, but there are also many people who have regular jobs, who work hard, who send their kids to school to give them a better life, and people who have hope for their country and want to stay and make a difference.

I’ve only been to a handful of African countries and each one possesses a slightly different set of struggles, different languages, slightly different animals, vastly different geographies, different cultures, different beliefs, different political systems, different dress, and simply different ways of life. The African continent is arguably the most diverse culturally and certainly linguistically, yet this is not the Africa that most people know. Instead of only seeing Africa as a place with famine and drought, disease and despair, corruption and power struggles, my hope is that people would see it as a continent filled with people full of life and ideas, bright and colorful culture, music, and art, and landscapes and animals that are a photographer’s dream. Just as it’s unfair to characterize America by obesity, fast food, and guns, it’s unfair to characterize Africa by only the negative.  

How are you?

Phrases don’t always carry the same meaning in every country. In Korea, I very nearly banned the phrase “nice to meet you” from my speech due to its constant improper use. “Nice to meet you” directly translated back to Korean more closely resembles the phrase “Nice to see you again”. Because of this translation error, I was greeted with “nice to meet you” by almost everyone I “met” on a daily basis. The confusion was humorous at first, but very quickly grew old. I found myself cringing when I was forced to use “nice to meet you” in its proper way, instead trying to at least replace “nice” with different adjectives.

Even the simple expression, “how are you?” carries slightly different connotations in different countries. “How are you” is most often treated more as a greeting in the US than a genuine inquiry to a person’s well being. Even so, how are you is not used at the beginning of every conversation and one might expect slightly different responses from person to person. In Germany and much of Europe “how are you” is only used when one really wants to know how a person is. If you ask how are you don’t be surprised to hear about how horrible someone’s day is with all the details. A simple “I’m fine” would only suffice if the person was truly fine. At first, I was a bit taken aback when I received what I deemed long winded responses to how are you, but later I learned to appreciate the honesty of people and how the question was taken literally. When someone asked me how I was, I knew they were genuinely interested in my well being, rather than just throwing out a standard greeting. 

In the US how are you may be viewed as a greeting, but its frequency of use pales in comparison to Uganda. How are you in Uganda is the equivalent of hello. A standard conversation might run like this:

“Hello! How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m very okay.”

Sometimes people are so zealous to answer the question that they don’t even wait for you to ask. “Hello. Fine. How are you?” Ugandans are some of the friendliest people I’ve met (particularly in all other regions of Uganda besides Karamoja) and probably are mostly interested in my well-being. However, I’ve about had my fill of how are yous. My daily walk from the office to lunch allows me to disclose my well being at least twenty times as I pass by a village full of young children. “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” At first the small children running up to greet me was cute. But my patience for repetition (and children in general) is rather limited and these days I find myself getting irritated with the rapid fire stream of greetings. My answer to how are you does not change in the one second between the first greeting and the second and more importantly seeing a mzungu walking past the village should cease to be a novelty, given that I walk the same way nearly every day. The only thing that prevents me from completely ignoring these greetings is the knowledge that I have some kind of image to present since no one here comes in contact with many mzungus. So every day I robotically respond “I’m fine. How are you?” a million times in a row as I briskly walk past to the peace and quiet of lunch. 

I know I’m being impatient and intolerant, but pretty soon I won’t be “fine” if I hear one more “how are you” 😉 Image

Good thing they’re super cute or I my patience would be exhausted by now.

Blending in

The more time I spend in Uganda and other African countries, makes me wonder what it is that draws me to these places. In my natural, comfortable state, I am pretty close to opposite the average “African” (if I’m going to do some generalizing) citizen. I immensely enjoy planning (as long as its long term big picture planning), I love structure and schedules. I dislike being late. I have a terrible sense of rhythm, and am a bad dancer even for a white person (not that it stops me from having a good time). My ideal diet would be mostly plant and whole grain based. I have the attention span of a two year old; therefore am lucky to sit through a one and half hour church service (forget about an all-day affair). While I consider myself semi social, I am not nearly as relational as people here are. I would likely prioritize finishing a to-do list or making it to a meeting on time, than stopping to chat with someone. I prefer hugs to handshakes. I have no immediate or even long term plans to have a family, and if I ever decide I want kids it’s hard for me to imagine handling more than two or three. Repetition in speech, writing, or song irritates me and when viewing the Bible and faith I struggle with theology that is legalistic or merely focused on evangelism.

There are a million reasons why I do not blend in here and why I often become frustrated, but I also love how different life is here. It is slightly less stressful (in some ways) knowing that meetings will NEVER start on time, deadlines are flexible, and no one takes life too seriously (a lesson that could be learned in many other countries). I appreciate the rhythm and character of music here since it’s so opposite to what I’m capable of and used to and I appreciate the passion people put into their worship even if I’m the awkward one stiffly standing and singing. I appreciate how relational people are and how they will stop whatever they are doing to talk, no matter how trivial the conversation is. While I seriously doubt I will ever learn to love African church services, it is admirable that young children are able to sit through three hour plus services and that people often devote their entire Sunday to church. I’m not sure if I will ever understand the obsession (for lack of a better word) with fertility and “producing” here, and it is one area of Ugandan culture that for the health of the country and people that could perhaps adapt a bit (without trying to sound like I’m trying to change culture).

There is a vibrancy, color, and relaxedness to life in Uganda (and the other African countries I’ve visited) that I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world. In spite of the many, many reasons I look silly here, I do enjoy Ugandan life and there is so much I will miss.

Life is short

Originally I thought my next blog post would be a glowing report of my holiday in Lamu, Kenya in my more typical travel blog style. I will write about Kenya soon, but right now I’m trying to wrap my mind around a very, very sad piece of news: Juma has passed away. On Friday May 25th after it seemingly recovering from meningitis, Juma went into a coma. On Sunday he was airlifted to Kampala and emergency surgery was performed to reduce pressure on his brain. He apparently had a brain aneurism and due to lack of proper treatment at his hospital in Karamoja the pressure in his brain continued rising, requiring emergency surgery Kampala. The facilities in Kampala could not perform the necessary corrective surgery and so he was airlifted to Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday (after much stress trying to sort out his travel documents). Sadly, Juma never made it to Nairobi. During the journey his lungs filled with fluid and eventually he stopped breathing. I’m not a doctor and all the information I have has been acquired second hand, but my understanding is that his death was not a result of meningitis, but the brain aneurism and conditions that followed.

Just writing this post and thinking about Juma’s family and anyone else he left behind breaks my heart. It is so sudden and shocking to think that just over three weeks Juma was driving me out into the field to visit project sites. Juma was an invaluable asset to our team and he determination to break the cycle of cattle raiding in Karamoja and provide education to his children, makes his death even more heart breaking. Sadly, frequent death is a reality in much of developing Africa. Most people here have experience the loss a loved one in circumstances that would rarely happen in developed countries.

I wish I had something insightful and meaningful to say about his death, but I’m frankly at a loss for words. It’s so hard for me to understand why I was born in a country where events like this are rare, and where I don’t have the fear of potentially losing a loved one. As a thinker and doer, I keep wishing there is something I could do or could have done to “fix” the situation, but no amount of “fixing” will bring Juma back or replace the loss felt by his family. Juma’s family was fortunate that he worked for Samaritan’s Purse because his insurance (and SP’s assistance) paid for the medical bills and did give some kind of financial help to the family after his death. I hope and pray that this will help them stay on their feet and the children will still have the chance to keep attending school. Juma’s death is a further reminder that life is painfully short, so each day we should make each day we have count.

Please pray for Juma’s family that they would be able to get through the loss and that all their needs are provided. Juma was fifty two years old, young by western standards, but sadly right in line with average life expectancies for Uganda. Rest in peace Juma, you are sorely missed by all who were touched by your life.

Juma

I have yet another reason to feel blessed: access to good healthcare. Since I wrote last about our trusty driver Juma, he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with meningitis. As I’m sure you are all aware, meningitis can be quite serious. Like other public services in the Karamoja region of Uganda, hospitals are very quality. Juma was doing well at first and seemed to be responding to the drugs, but on Friday he went into a coma and Sunday was finally airlifted to Kampala to receive emergency surgery to reduce pressure that had built up in his brain. I believe he had a stroke simply because the staff at the hospital in Karamoja failed to monitor his condition regularly (they were understaffed when I visited the hospital) and his blood pressure rose causing a stroke. Today (Monday) he will be flown to Nairobi for further treatment.

For those of you who pray, I would appreciate your prayers for Juma’s recovery and healing. I am thankful that he was brought to Kampala in time and hopeful that he will eventually recover, but who knows what damage has been done. Meningitis is a very real problem in Uganda (particularly in the north), and unfortunately most adults have not been immunized. Pray also for the health of our other staff and Juma’s family. I have my vaccine, but of course there is a slight risk of contracting a variety of meningitis that is not covered by the vaccine.

As I mentioned in my last post, Juma has a large family and his wife is expecting end of the month (another real problem in Uganda—family planning). Juma is fortunate to work for Samaritan’s Purse because his insurance would not have covered all the costs associated with all his treatment. It’s sad to think about how his condition might have been prevented with better medical care, but even sadder to realize that most people in his situation would have received no treatment due to lack of proper medical care and no money to pay for it. This experience further confirms my belief that healthcare is a basic human right. I am thankful that I received quality healthcare growing up and I pray that my country would find a way to provide quality healthcare to ALL its citizens at a price tag that people can afford.

Please keep Juma and his family in your prayers, and prayer for wisdom for his doctors as they continue to work towards his complete recovery.