Phoning continent to continent, she ventured: “Progress can be fantastic, as well as fairly awful!?”
A whiskered mouse is poking its head through the stack of onions. There is hunger in the villages but the large covered market in Gulu town is well stocked. Even though the fruit and vegetables are the wrong shape for British supermarkets, the produce is artistically arranged; even the ugly tomatoes can play a part in the show. I want to run my fingers through rice and beans and nuts and lentils in large sacks and bowls. And you sure know it when you find where they sell dried fish. There are clothes shops galore. Seamstresses deftly treadle and feed their purring sewing machines, using their hair for a pin cushion. Bright and tidy waxed fabric shops are vibrant with colour. Such variety. Here a lady is trying on a dress. There a lady is having her hair cut. Neither has any privacy. A stall holder with a sad face and dead eyes quaffs a little plastic bag of lethal alcohol in one swig. But the women with visible war wounds are here too. Mothers and daughters sleep on the floor in the heat of the day. Some watch preachers on their phones or on small TVs. Babies, content in the security of their cardboard boxes, look around. A thousand and one different sights and sounds and scents. A little girl – about a year old I guess – toddles towards me smiling and raises her hands as high as she can in that international entreaty which says “pick me up”.
Some days before London’s recent jihadist horror, I found myself changing trains at London Bridge. Not knowing when next I would have the opportunity, I went up The Shard. It is, pardon the obvious, a tall building. High speed lifts give little indication of movement. Soon one can look down on the miniature model village with toy train set that is London, 72 stories below. One can look, but most visitors to the observation gallery on that day had their backs to the view and were busy taking selfies. A towering feat of engineering. A concrete and glass monument to modernity. A symbol of progress. And at the pinnacle of this achievement – selfies.
Meanwhile in Entebbe, shopping malls are popping up all over town, offering Kentucky Fried Chicken, air-conditioning and muzak. I did see a rodent in the shiny supermarket and cashiers asleep at their vacant tills but there the similarity with Gulu market ends. The message of the mall is, “Western modernity is best. Don’t get left behind Africa – be like us!” Maybe if those who are enthralled by the aspirations of consumerism could see what was at “the top”, there would be fewer rushing to jump on the lift that gives no impression of movement to get a slice of the “progress” the West has embraced.
There is a place at Entebbe airport to wait for your cargo. It is like a long covered British bus stop. At each end there is a café and both cafés are in competition with each other. Having spent some time there, and having patronised both ends, I am known. Once they get over the disappointment that I only want water not food, two girls start chatting with me. Anne is 30 and has a two year old daughter. Bethany is 23 and has a three year old daughter. Both fathers have deserted them. They were contemptuous of African males but I assured them that there were plenty of white so-and-so’s which made them laugh.
In a conversation I am beginning to hear repeated, they spoke of their dream of coming to England. But whenever I hear this desire, and press for some reason for the enthusiasm, I hear things like “I love the accent, what people wear, the weather”! I asked if there was any help for single mothers in their predicament. “No. We have to fight”.
My stay in Entebbe allowed other valuable conversations. The Ugandan friend I met had been invited to speak in Europe on “a current moral issue”. The conference had been expecting some insight on issues of sexuality but instead he asked why it is that today people get so insistent about their rights to sexual identity yet the same passion is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to providing people with water? Why is water not a current moral issue? Driving to Gulu, the familiar sight of straight backed women and straining children carrying jerry cans is so common that it is easy to accept it as part of the poverty-looks-pretty scenery rather than be outraged for our failure to give everyone clean water. So next time someone gets worked up about rights to this or that expression of sexuality, do ask them how they feel about water! Light the blue touch paper and retire. My friend gave me the theory and then a few days later I have the practical.
Courtesy of newfound friends Clive and Florence, I find myself on Acholi land in the company of some wonderful old ladies by the borehole pump on their peaceful homestead. The whole area was deserted during the war and Florence’s family were among the many Acholi displaced to safer places. Now as the exiles return, the young welcome the presence of the old, not just out of respect for elders but because they know how to cultivate the land. Sadly, as displaced people return to homesteads that their ancestors farmed for generations, they can often find that someone else has grabbed it. Land grabbing is a huge problem. Sometimes they use the courts. Sometimes there is violence. People with money are throwing poor people off the land. The problem is that land ownership is a foreign, modern – progressive? – concept. Acholi belong to the land, not the other way around.
The ladies are waiting. Perhaps the water table has fallen or maybe the pump has a fault but right now they have no water. If they wait, usually the pump starts working again. The light of Christ shines in their sparkling eyes and their gentle smiles and their beautiful faces. They speak little English and I am happy to listen to the cadences of Acholi. I hear a lot of “mmmh”. Florence gives me the headlines in English. They show me their goats, including the cutest jet black kid a few days old, and the one pregnant cow which means soon they will have milk. Back on the veranda, I eat sweet peanuts but this year’s drought has blighted the harvest. When tea is served I pray and ask God to send angels to guard the farm. Florence tells me her grandfather used to pray that prayer every night and she imagined them stretching wings over the homestead.
Thank you for your prayers. All 32 boxes of my books have arrived. The necessary clearance took a few days during which time I was most grateful for the persevering assistance of the freight handlers I employed and the nourishing sustenance of your prayers. I was kept in peace. The staff house is making fantastic progress too.
As we leave the homestead, Clive shakes the hand of Florence’s aunt. There is an Acholi tradition that you do not touch your in-laws so the aunt says Clive must pay a fine. They have asked if we are brothers – all muzungus look the same – and as Clive is returning to the UK they decide that I, his brother, must pay the fine. There is much laughter as we drive away.
I didn’t pick up the toddler in the market. I bent down and gave her a gentle hug. And then her mother picked her up. Smiles all round.
That picture of childlike trust, which Jesus says is a Kingdom entry requirement, speaks volumes to me on my journey of grace through this beautiful land of beautiful people, noble and scarred, thirsting for something better than the shattering shards of awful progress.
The Call in Action