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.

Commission on the Status of Women at United Nations in NYC

A few months ago I received an email from the Divinity school list-serve that was soliciting Presbyterian women to be delegates for the 56th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations in NYC.  I clicked the link to find out more about this year’s commission and discovered the Priority theme is “The empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges.”

My first thought, “I HAVE TO GO!”

and my second, “I’m not Presbyterian.”

So, I decided to email my contact at United Methodist Women (UMW) who helped me arrange my travels this summer in Uganda to find out if I could be a UMW delegate.  She replied back with a kind email informing me that the UMW delegates would be rural women from around the world to speak to the CSW about their personal stories and ideas for advancement.  I could not be prouder or more excited about their choice of delegates… However, that leaves me out.  Yet, she forward me to the people arranging the UMW events and delegation at the CSW to see if they would have a need for me.

After a few more emails we decided that I could help with publicity, worship, and logistics!  They also agreed to play for my housing during the dates of the CSW!!

On Wednesday, Feb. 23rd I will be flying to NYC to stay with the delegates, help navigate NYC, assist with preparation for their presentations, attend portions of the commission, plan for worship, and — give daily updates, blogs, pages, and video on the United Methodist Women’s network about the happenings of the CSW.

I will defiantly keep you posted as well.

Leading Women’s Reflection

On Tuesday I lead a workshop for women in a village near Busia on the Kenyan-Uganda border. When the program was arranged, I tried to explain: wait, I don’t want to lead a workshop, I want to hear from the women. But it was no use, I would lead a day workshop for the women of the region.

I designed the workshop in a way that would allow them to share their songs and stories with me.  I started with a group reflection and study of the story of Deborah.  I wanted to teach them my favorite way to interpret scripture: Read the scripture, feel into the scripture, and then respond out of the scripture.  We read the amazing story of Judge/Prophet/Warrior Deborah (If you haven’t read it or it’s been a while, check out Judges 4:1-24).  The 20 women and I broke up into small groups and then answered questions about the way the characters may have felt in their circumstance.  Then I had them answer questions about what we have to learn from each character.  It was a simple Bible study, but you could tell that the women hadn’t done something quite like this.  Once they understood that I wanted to discuss questions and then share with the group… the lesson worked well.

I shared the way that I respond out of this Scripture based on the last five weeks of my life.  Basically it went something like this:  Deborah is called the Mother of Israel in her victory song because she saw Israel’s oppression, hurt, and lack of leadership.  Therefore, what it means to be mother is to listen to God and be able to lead and provide for your family. In traditional women’s roles, we have been viewed as “property” and that we should be “managed.” Some people say that God wants it that way, but God sees us as beloved and able to be faithful leaders for God.  We can be mothers and women like Deborah and Jael.

During my group meetings it is almost always a man who is translating for me.  This was significant for me in this meeting because I felt like he was accepting my message and helping me to empower these women.

I wanted to hear their songs and stories!  So I talked about the song that was written about Deborah and her story of faith.  I invited them to share their songs and stories of faith.  Like the small groups, it took them a little while to feel free to share, but once they began they were open to share their lives with me.  They shared for over an hour.  Some sang worship songs in their language and songs learned in English, others talked about their marriages, issues of poverty and sickness, struggling for education, having faith in God, and being healed. The Ugandan church has a rich history of testimony and the women need no help or training in how to share the way God has been, is, and will work in their lives!

We took a break and then spent some time interpreting Gen 1:27, being created in the image of God. I focused on having them ask questions trying to discover more about this passage to “feel into” the text.  This turned into a discussion of what it means to be created in the image of God.  I was amazed by their interpretations: they talked about treating everyone fairly because of God’s image, they talked about being made like God, and having God inside of us.  To respond out of the text I asked them to think about how women gain their worth.  We discussed beauty, marriage, and children and then how our worth should be built on the foundation of the image of God.

I emphasized the fact that women are able to interpret Scripture through the Holy Spirit and that you can use this process to interpret the Bible in your life.  This is not always something that women believe about themselves… but it is important for them to know that God has given them the ability to interpret Scripture. —I did the “image of God” lesson on Thursday with a woman’s group and when I was finished explaining the process, one of the women asked what she should do if she cannot read. I had never considered her question and told her to interpret Scripture with a group of women.  Have one read the passage and everyone answers questions in community.

After the workshop, the woman leader who was interpreting for the women’s stories and the image of God lesson asked me how she can share this with her women’s group and if there were more examples.  I told her all she needs to do is be open to the Holy Spirit, keep reading, trying to relate to the text and characters, and then relate the text to her life.  But I am not satisfied with my answer and this question has not left me since she asked it.

There are women’s groups that meet at church every week and there are no women’s Bible studies or curriculum— or none that I have seen or heard (and I have asked).  Churches are lucky to have Bibles, they are extremely fortunate to have hymnals, and curriculum is expensive to print and produce.

What if there were a relevant and culturally sensitive theological curriculum to address the theology of women’s issues and development in Uganda?!

Who would write such a thing? I cannot pretend to take on a task like this as an American woman; however, maybe I could help co-write something that could be adapted, reviewed, and edited by a Ugandan woman theologian.

There are no ordained women in the East African Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  But there are women Priests in the Church of Uganda (Anglican Church).  Today I met with Rev. Joy Isabirye, one of five women to serve in the Busoga diocese.  She is a professor of Old Testament, working on her PhD in ethics in Nairobi, and in her third year of ordained ministry.  She is Rose’s mentor and we went to visit her yesterday.  She answered my never-ending questions with an open heart!  I wish I could type out our whole conversation!  She encouraged me greatly and explained her theological views on polygamy, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, traditional women’s roles, and many other topics.  She also directed me to talk with Rev. Dr. Olivia Nassaka, Dean of Mukono Christian University, about my work. She focuses on theology and women’s issues.  Hopefully I will meet with her this week.  I’ll keep you posted on developments.

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!