Monday in Masaka
David R. Weiss, March 25, 2013
The day began in darkness and drizzle at 5:55 a.m. Given that yesterday ended when I finally climbed in bed at 2:48 a.m. and I didn’t fall asleep until well after 3, even bright sunshine would not have made me particularly chipper to greet the day.
But greet the day I did, throwing on my clothes and closing up the overnight bag I packed the evening before, hoisting my backpack, and headed out the door so I would be waiting when Rev. Mark pulled up at 6:30. Oh, and of course, I grabbed my balls on the way out the door. Soccer balls! Ten deflated balls gifted to me by the Hamline University women’s soccer team to be delivered to the New Life Primary School later today.
As we left the guesthouse, driving in the dark and the drizzle, making a right turn into the far left lane the car suddenly lurched left and came to a stop. Our front left wheel has gone over the edge of the pavement (any shoulder had been lost to the night’s rain) and the axle itself was resting on the edge of the road. Thus began my day, climbing out (did I mention it was dark and drizzling?) and, joined by two good men from the roadside, gripping the muddy front bumper (did I tell you how RED the mud is?), leaning into the damp hood, and hoisting twice unsuccessfully and waiting ten minutes for the traffic jammed behind us to crawl past until one car graciously waited for us, Mark got his wheel angled just right, and with some mixture of adrenaline, testosterone, and sheer (and increasingly damp) desperation we lifted the car back onto the pavement, the tire caught traction and the day was redeemed from the edge of disaster. I drove the rest of the way with drying red mud on my hands. Well, there’s a good morning for you!
We drove for three hours then, thankfully on paved roads, moment by moment less dark, but with unremitting drizzle toward Masaka, a city about 90 miles west of Kampala. Even in the rain and the weariness (did I tell you I was a bit short on sleep?) it was a beautiful drive. The scenery was verdant green – at least out my side window. Sadly the windshield wiper on the passenger side had surrendered most of its rubber stripping long ago, so my front view was mostly verdant green behind a muddy red smear. Along the way we stopped and bought cooked bananas from a street vendor. I wouldn’t call them delicious, but “warm and satisfying” was a significant step in the right direction, so I was grateful to see the day moving in a more promising direction.
Then the day simply blossomed as we reached the school. If any of you have seen The Mission you surely remember the scene where the Jesuit Father takes the Papal Representative to see the beautiful mission with the huge plantation – cooperatively owned – a model of abundance in the midst of simplicity. Today that was me. New Life Primary School is not nearly so grand as the mission in the movie, but in its own way it is. Serving 600 students, about 65 of whom are orphans or come from families that are basically destitute. The other 535 come from the community, which means they come from poor families since virtually everyone here is poor. Tuition is on a sliding scale, but few families pay anything at all. (The school does get government subsidy.) About 150 students are nursery age (so pre-school), the remaining 450 are grades 1-7.
Today only about 500 students were there. You might recall it was a dark drizzly morning and had rained harder during the night. And many of these kids walk two-and-a-half hours to get here. They leave their homes at 5 a.m. to be here at 7:30. They stay until 5 p.m. and get home about 7:30 at night. And if you count the deep ruts in the dirt roads used to get here, they do walk uphill both ways. Apparently some of the kids don’t have umbrellas or raincoats, so they thought better of trudging to school today. It’s a great school, and education is a big value here, but at two-and-a-half hours I can’t say I blame them.
New Life has seven full-time teachers, plus a variety of staff (lunch lady, PE leader, matron – who runs the boarding house where the 65 children without homes live). The teachers were gracious and quick to welcome me. Rev. Mark credits them with the real success of the school. “They have owned it in their hearts,” he explains. “They are like second mothers and fathers to all these children.” And what makes that happen is “integrity and respect.” He continues, “They all have their own families so they need to know that when I say they will be paid, that they will be paid. And they need to know that I trust them to lead the school.” Mark spent eleven months out of Uganda in 2011 because of threats on his life. But, he tells me with pride in his teachers, “when church friends of mine from the U.S. visited here while I was gone they told me it was like I never left. Because they see this as their school. Their calling.”
And it showed. I stopped briefly in every classroom. Kids were squeezed into long bench desks (imagine picnic tables cut in half) and in every room I entered, the moment I crossed the threshold, every child rose in unison and said, “Welcome visitor!” In each class I explained who I was, where I came from, how cold it still was in Minnesota, and a bit about my church. I wore my “Potluck of People” t-shirt today. Speaking of t-shirts, at 70 degrees it was perfect t-shirt weather (except for the drizzle that kept up through lunch), although several of the teachers were in coats to stave off the cold. In the two youngest classes the teachers translated my greeting into Luganda; in the others they asked the students questions about what I said to make sure they followed my words. Twinkling eyes, bright smiles, and clapping met me in each room.
In grade 7 the students got to ask me questions. “How many years are you?” Like me, they were incredulous that I carry 53 years beneath my long hair. And 99.9% of them – boys and girls alike – have shaved heads. “How many pastors are at your church?” “How many children have you?” Five did not overly impress them, since the average family here has eight kids. But when I added that I have five grandchildren they could not believe a man with so much hair could have grandchildren already. And, from one intense young man, “You say you teach religion. What can you say about how God is connected to the Trinity?” What?!!! Okay, I’ll take that. Meeting them at their 13-15 year-old level, I explained that Augustine, an early church teacher from north Africa, described the Trinity as a “fence around a mystery.” That we can name the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but that the whole mystery of God is too much for words, so it is hidden behind the fence.” They seemed relieved that such a wise man had come from Minnesota.
I ate lunch in the staff room. It was corn flour mixed with water and cooked into a paste that tasted quite like stiff mashed potatoes, covered by a scoop of (pinto?) beans in sauce and a scoop of a dark green diced leafy thingy with bits of onion and tomato in it. Brought to the staff room for us by the lunch lady and served up in bowls. I could not understand the Luganda that Mark spoke to her, but when she added a fork to my bowl I was glad he thought to accommodate my Western utensil-envy. It was tasty, and Mark explained it is the recipe recommended by UNICEF for teachers because it provides a complete meal. Then he added, “the children get a lighter porridge because if they ate this they would all fall asleep after lunch.”
Earlier when we arrived Mark thanked me for the soccer balls and directed the PE teacher to get them out of his trunk. Over lunch he opened the bag and exclaimed, “Hey, you have real balls!” Why, yes I do. He meant, of course, that he was excited because these balls of mine, though well-worn and having seen many a kick, were obviously top quality and would hold up for a lot more use. Or something like that. He and a couple other male teachers proceeded to use a small bicycle pump to resuscitate the colorful balls to full strength.
And then in a moment of eschatological glory, they proceeded to toss all ten balls out into the field where half the kids were playing random games (in the drizzle); the other half were eating lunch. And what an explosion of energy, joy, and movement! Pockets of kids here and there seamlessly divided up into games of soccer, keep away, kickball, netball, and who knows what else. Every ball was in motion. Every child was in motion. And the Hamline University women’s soccer coach earned BIG karma points today. I could only smile, but it was a WIDE grin.
After lunch I was invited to the big room where ALL the students had squeezed into bench desks relocated here for this impromptu assembly. Now imagine this. Thirty girls are at the front in three lines, ready to sing and dance. 300+ kids are squeezed onto benches. And the larger kids are standing outside the building peering in through the open air windows. They start singing in voices that sound strikingly like British cherubs. The tones are beautiful and full of joy. I need to pay close attention to hear their words. A phrase in Lugandan and this: “We say welcome, Uncle David. We are happy that you came. Now we send you on your journey. And we bless you in God’s name.” Again and again. Dozens of time. While these girls are dancing. Never have I been so wondrously serenaded. I know, I know, they do this for all the guests, and today they just switched my name in. But more than 400 of them switched my name in. And I swear they meant every word. And I am teary-eyed again. There is SO much grace here!
And then, hold onto your seats, because in the next song one girl came to the front (the other 29 stayed back by the wall). All the girls sang, but only this one, maybe ten years old, was dancing in delight and beauty. But, because all good things must come to an end, before I knew it, she was dancing right in front of me – and holding out her hand – OH MY GOD – and singing, “Come dance with me, Uncle David.” And excuse my religious language but, holy shit if I did not make my “America’s Got Talent” dance debut held in the loving hand of this girl who seemed impervious to the judges who, wherever they were, were loudly banging their buzzer and pleading for it to be over.
Finally I was treated to a traditional dance by eight of the girls. Mark explained that for sake of time they would not don their traditional outfits. Instead they tied colorful sweaters around the hips, because this was one of those traditional African dances that drips with sensuousness as these not yet women magically moved their hips in a way that was entirely innocent but utterly intoxicating. BUT WAIT! Here’s this girl again, she was gorgeous but far too young to be asking me out onto the dance floor again. “Come dance with us again Uncle David!” And there you have it, the image to spoil your day: me with eight beautiful 8-10 year-old girls shaking my hips as fast and furious as I can, keeping my rear toward the 400 students, both so they can enjoy the show and so that I can hide my face. Oh well. Let’s all give thanks to God for small favors, because during this very much NOT a Kodak moment, Rev. Mark failed in his efforts to figure out how to snap a photo of me with my camera. A failure for which we can all be thankful.
I spoke a few words to all the children, promising to carry them in my hearts – perhaps the easiest promise I have made. And they sang a final “Farewell” song to me. We said good-bye and drove less than a mile to where Mark grew up. I met his mother, a gracious 75 year-old woman whose dignity did not need either English or many teeth (she had command of neither), but she managed to say “Welcome,” and “Thank you,” and it was more than enough. We ate fresh pineapple, bananas cooked with tomatoes and onions (actually, yum!), and eggs scrambled with tomatoes and onions. Sitting (finally) in the sunshine of a more typical Uganda day, it was a moment that stood still.
Then back into town to set me up at a hotel for the evening. I’m at the Shabert Motel, a three-story beauty with an inner brick courtyard open to the sky. I’m on the third floor, with a door to the balcony, although it’s dark now, so I’ve kept the door closed lest I draw bugs inside. Here I have a four-pedestal queen-size bed with a full mosquito net canopy. Margaret, where are you?! Twelve dollars for the night, then back to Kampala mid-morning tomorrow.
When I checked in at the front desk, the clerk was full of questions. Where do you come from? What are you doing here? How was your day? When will you go back? What do you do in America? How old are your students? How many children do you have? Is that enough for you? (It seemed to satisfy her when I added in my five grandchildren, though she added with the usual surprise, “You – grandchildren?”) She told me, with full sincerity, “You must come back with your wife and children and we will welcome you and your family.” When I told her how old my students were, I asked how old she was. “Twenty-one.” “Ah, so in America, you could be my student.” And she blushed with delight. At the end of our conversation I inquired, “May I know your name?” “My name is Rena.” “Hello, Rena, my name is David.” To which she replied with laughter, “I know, you just filled it out on my card!” My turn to blush. It was all innocent, not even flirting really. But Rena’s cheerful and seemingly endless curiosity was the perfect cap to a perfect day that began with dark, damp, muddy drizzle and ended with brilliant sunshine and so much more.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”