Guatemala and Camu

When I think of that smell of wood and plastic trash going up in flames, my heart fills with love and that love wells up as water in the corners of my eyes. These are tears of truth, not of sadness or joy.

As I write this, it takes everything not to pick up my backpack and breath in the smell of burning that still lingers on the cloth. Yet, last night when I got home from Guatemala I washed and showered and washed again and lathered to get the smell off my skin. This morning I put lots of mouse in my hair to cover up the smell that lingered.

My backpack had almost the same exact smell when I came home from Uganda.

For me, it is a smell of truth and one that connects me deeply to the entire world. Yet, last night on my plane flight home from Atlanta to Nashville I wanted to apologize to the person next to me for the way I smelled. “I promise I don’t always smell like this,” I wanted to say — while deep inside I wished it would never go away.

Smell has a way of bringing you back to a time and place, I know there is a lot of academic research about it — but I’m not as interested in quantitative studies about smell and memory, as I am about the stories. I was talking about smell with a friend recently and he spoke of walking past a woman and the simple fumes of her perfume brought him to the time when he was first falling in love. The smell of Irish Spring soap has a similar effect on me.

Do I quickly wash off the smell of open wood fires because I am afraid to go back to the times and places where I saw women suffering from poverty and patriarchy?

Today in a class — I am auditing a class at Vanderbilt Divinity School on Albert Camu from Prof. Victor Judge — we discussed “The Fall.” Spoiler alert — The story is about a man who is on a bridge and watches a woman about to jump to her death — he says nothing. She jumps — he does nothing. As she screams for help, he neither says or does anything. There is a lot more to the monologue — but the man forever avoids bridges.

I’ve seen the plight of women in poverty and heard about the effects of patriarchy. I know enough to say something. I know enough to do something. I know enough to use my words and actions to say something before, during, or after she jumps off the bridge.

Today in class Prof. Judge said, “Every moment is important and has consequence. Every waking moment has a promise of change.” With my recent experience in the foothills of the volcanoes in Guatemala in the forefront of my mind — my heart erupted and tears streamed down my face. During the intermission I explained to Prof. Judge they were tears of truth. He lovingly replied, “I hoped they were not tears of unhappiness.”

I wrote in my notes:
So what am I to do? There is so much… I am willing. I can continue to organize Sunday morning class spaces (ha ha not fair — I am currently working with imagination and creativity) But (or maybe I should say AND) I am called to be on the ground, smelling of fire, eyes not only welling with the waters of truth, but also the dust from the roads blown by trucks filled with travelers and produce, the sun bringing color to my face instead of using concealer, brushing my teeth with purified water — sometimes afraid, sometimes overjoyed, sometimes at peace, but always present.

Directly after I wrote that, Prof. Judge said, “Those who remain vigilant to combat the plague are the least likely to contract it.”

If I combat poverty and patriarchy, then I am less likely to participate with it.

Hiking a mountain in San Juan, Guatemala.

The Blessed Mother Mary photographed while hiking a mountain in San Juan, Guatemala.

The Help

Everyone of my closest friends told me that I HAD TO see The Help.  After going to see it tonight… I know why! Could their be anything more worth while than telling of cross-cultural stories of suffering, healing, pain and hope?!  I was deeply touched by the moive for 100 different reasons — most of which have to do with the many stories I heard this summer of the women in Uganda.

Sarah, a friend of mine in Uganda told me about her childhood on a taxi ride to Jinja.  She showed me the place she used to live with her “step” mom (step mom in this case stands for her dad’s second wife).  ‘s mom lived in a town nearby to go to school and work for Sarah and her sister’s school fees.  Sarah used to walk to the garden to dig in the morning before school, she would arrive late to school and was usually punished for being late.  She would leave school early to go back to the garden to work and when the sun went down she would go home.  Usually Sarah’s only meal was posha and beans at school.  Sarah, the eldest of four girls, took care of her younger sisters too.  She said that she had ulcers as a child and could barely take care of herself– let alone the other girls.  To make matters worse her dad was an alcoholic and was never kind to Sarah or her sisters (she did not expound on what it meant that he was “never kind” — but to this day, Sarah is the only one who will speak to him — her sisters will never go near his home.)  When her mother realized the situation her daughters found themselves, she quit college to come back and care for her children.  Sarah’s mother soon got a job as a primary teacher (elementary in the States).  I know this did not pay for all the bills.  I am not sure how they made ends meet or if the ends were just empty stomachs.

I thought about The Help and how I don’t understand how people could rationalize having separate toilets!  I don’t understand how they could let their neighbor live in a situation where she was constantly beaten.  I don’t understand.

However, I can’t help but hope that 50 years from now my daughter is asking the same thing of me — how did you rationalize letting those women in Uganda live in such poverty and pain?  Because that would mean that women like Sarah and her mother have found a way out of poverty and women like Nancy had the courage to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Somehow these tangents connect in my head…

It’s been 4 weeks in Uganda and I still wake up in the morning under my mosquito net and think: Whoa, I’m in Africa.

Sometimes it’s not the mosquito net that reminds me it’s the blaring radio music as early as 7:30am.  There is a constant backdrop of pop music played from house windows, restaurants, stores, churches pretty much anywhere there could be a radio playing it is on and usually at full volume.  There is a song I hear literally 5 times a day (I heard it 6 times yesterday).  Actually pretty much anytime I hear it I say to whomever I’m with, I have never heard this song!  (My sarcasm is usually lost on them but I get a kick out of it.) The song is called, Takatiki.  Takatiki is the sound a clock makes like our tick tock.  The song is about a woman who is waiting for her lover to come home, to call, and to be with her.

Last night I went out to listen to live music.  Much of our pop music trickles over to Uganda, but there are many pop Ugandan and African songs.  Another popular song is sung by a man and says, I would rather be with an ugly woman who can produce children and welcome others than just a beautiful woman.  Another one is called Mwami which is the word for husband in Lusoga (it sounds a lot like “mommy” and I originally thought she was calling for her mommy).  A woman is singing to her husband who fulfills her.

Before I left the states, my best friend recommended that I read the book: He’s Just Not That Into You.  (This is the kind of book that only your best friend who loves you and knows your past relationships recommends) I didn’t get a chance to read it, so I brought it with me to Uganda. Basically the book is about the excuses women make for men who may treat them poorly in various situations anything from not calling to fear of commitment to dating other girls it tells the reader to get rid of the guy who is just not into them.  I laughed a lot at myself then I thought about these Ugandan pop songs and the many American pop songs about fulfillment in being intimate with another person.  I am realizing that a lot of empowering women is helping us realize that our worth is not dependent on the men in our lives.

Polygamy has touched so much of this society.  You can see the pain it causes the women and children and the church, for the most part, is silent.  The church does not want to split families and is struggling to address the even deeper issue of poverty.  I want to know what goes through the heart and mind of the third wife and what about the lives of her children?

Friday I went to a culture day with Mukwaya (my teacher/introduction leader friend).  It’s the African version of solo and ensemble where every school choir in a district sings for judges.  Each culture day has a theme to educate the community and has numerous performances.  First each choir must sing the East African Anthem then they compete with speeches, traditional songs, original compositions, and traditional instruments.  This culture day was about the East African Community. I learned that Uganda, Rwanda, Brundi, Kenya, and Tanzania are in a partnership and will soon have one currency.  The speeches and some of the original compositions were advocating for open trade between the countries and have a single language, Swahili.  One of the original compositions talked about poverty and how the east African community is helping to end poverty and children suffering. (I kept thinking I hope this is more like the European union and not NAFTA.)

The traditional songs and instruments were my favorite!  There were no endongos, but there were many children playing the endingidi (thumb piano) and endungu (bow harp).  It was sometimes hard to hear.  I had a really good seat for the anthems, but it got REALLY long and REALLY hot inside the hall space, so I gave up my seat to get some air outside.  When we came back we stood in the back but Mukwaya made sure to translate the songs.  One of the songs was about being a barren woman.  She went to the witch doctor and he blessed her and then she had twins!  The kids energetically acted out the whole thing ha ha!

Ugandan School Song and Dance 100_0271 100_0272

Almost every day this week I have visited with a woman’s group or choir.  I love the time I get to spend with the women because each group is different and I never know what to expect and I always learn something new!  Thursday I met with a group of women who have a development project where they teach women to sew for 5000 shillings a month (that’s $2).  I met some of the women sewing, some with their babies at their feet.  They learn on paper bags, but eventually they are able to make cloths to sell or find a job in town.  It was originally made for the women in the church, but now they have opened it to the community.  This church has a fantastic choir they taught me three songs.

I love choir rehearsals without the instruments present or when the power is out.  Almost every church, in which I have been, has an electric keyboard. I have yet to meet a woman piano player. It was explained to me that men play the instruments because a woman does not have time to learn. The instrumentalist uses one of the 10 drum loops on the keyboard and plays it behind every choir song. Many piano players do a great job of playing by ear and they transpose each of the songs using the black keys.  Yet, it is always TOO LOUD.  It is impossible for me to teach a song with a drum loop and someone trying to figure out chords in the background.  So, I usually ask them to learn the song with me, then I helped them learn the accompaniment.

Kawala UMC DancingSAM_1937

I have to constantly tell myself to slow my speech, especially when teaching.  Today I was in a group and no one was willing to translate, so I spend 1.5 hours speaking slowly to a room full of blank stares by the grace of God we learned the song, “Draw Me Close to You.”

Saturday I went to a beauty parlor, mostly because I wanted the experience to see how and where women get their hair done, but I also wanted to get my toes painted.  I waited for about an hour and watched a weave put into a woman’s head and some other women get up-dos and then put on a gomsei.  My pedicure took about an hour I don’t think my feet have ever been cleaner!  The boy scrubbed my feet!!  I had to ask him to stop because I was worried I would not have any skin left! The basin for my feet was filled with burning hot water, so I knew that it was clean and the water for the clippers was steaming too, so I felt pretty good about the whole thing It cost 15,000 shillings, which is about $6 and my toes look great.  However, my feet became dusty again the moment I walked outside!

Thank you if you are still reading — I realize this is just a random assortment of thoughts and experiences… but I have to share these experiences of a lifetime and find a way to process the privileged that I own in order to have them!

Gustavo Gutiérrez speaking directly to me…

Last night I heard Gustavo Gutiérrez speak at Vanderbilt.  His message was clear: Poverty is not the will of God or a fact of life, but we have made poverty.  As Christians we can not ignore or simply be “generous” to solve this problem, we must be critical of and fight against causes of poverty.

Gutiérrez spoke about the story of the Good Samaritan.  In Luke 10 the question is posed for Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  The story continues to tell of a man who was half dead and eventually helped by a Samaritan man.  Gutiérrez points out that the most important character in this story is the half dead man and he is the only one we know nothing about his social or political status.  There is the Samaritan man, the church figures who choose not to help, there are the robbers who live a life of thieving, and we know the innkeeper at least has enough money to own an house to open to others.  The only thing we know about the half dead man is that he is in need.  Christians are called to approach people only because they are in need.

On my way home from the lecture my gas light came on in my car.  I petrified to run out of gas so I stopped a the nearest gas station.  After the tank was full I got out of my car to put the gas pump back in it’s holder when I heard/saw a figure approaching on crutches.  It was about 9:00pm and so I jumped in my car in hopes that they would leave me alone.  A middle aged, one legged, African American man approached my Jeep.  I hesitated before I rolled down my window… “Do you have some change to spare,” he asked.

I said a little prayer to God… OK… I get it… this is you approaching my car and I now have the opportunity to help you… “Are you hungry?  I could buy you something to eat inside,” I replied.

“Thank you,” he said, “There is a Sonic a block away, could you buy me a Jr. Burger from Sonic?”

“I could do that.  Wait on this corner and I’ll go get you a hamburger.  Do you like everything on it?”

“Yes.  Everything mam.”

So, for less than $5 I was able to feed Jesus, who also goes by Eugene when I meet him at a gas station, a Jr. Cheeseburger meal.

One of Gutiérrez major life questions is, “How do we say, ‘God loves you,’ to the poor?”  When no one is born to suffer and poverty is a sub-human condition in which the majority of humanity lives today.  He reiterates that we must not only tell to the poor, “God loves you,” but also, “Your condition is not the will of God.”

This reminds me of one of my favorite anonymous quotes:  “Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it.

…Well, why don’t you ask Him?

Because I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.”