CROSSING CULTURES, FINDING FREEDOM
I’m small, grey and wrinkly. But I haven’t always been like that. My wavy hair used to be very dark and the hair on my arms is still black. Such hairiness puzzles Africans who have lovely smooth, hairless arms. I explain it’s because I need the extra warmth in a cold northern-hemisphere climate. Ugandan children often stroke my hair as it feels so different from their own. One little girl rubbed my arm and looked at her hand a couple of times and was puzzled because the ‘white’ of my skin hadn’t rubbed off on her.
When I was young, I thought it was natural that each successive generation was smaller than the previous one, because I was smaller than my mother; and she was smaller than her mother. But my daughter and first grand-daughter have scuppered that theory! My feet are smaller than anyone else I know – except for my five-year old granddaughter; but even she will soon be able to pass her shoes on to me. Buying adult shoes has always been a nightmare, but more seriously, small feet are also linked with a very small pelvis. This nearly cost me my life and that of Peter, my first baby.
My freckles once prompted a school bus driver to ask why I hadn’t washed my face – I was not amused. Nor was I amused when children teased me for wearing glasses – perhaps not surprising in those early years of free National Health frames. I have crooked, overlapping teeth because of a small mouth and poor orthodontic treatment in my early teens and not improved by being discoloured due to drinking ‘black’ tea. I used to drink nothing but milk – until it was discovered that my hay fever and asthma were exacerbated because of being allergic to one of the proteins in milk. That gave me the excuse to keep goats for many years. I still miss the fun of having kids each spring. I also miss the years when my three children and eight grandchildren were very young although I never call children “kids”. Roger calls me his mountain goat whenever it comes to scrambling up hills.
At school, I felt humiliated and rejected when, time after time, I was one of the last two or three to be picked by ‘captains’ to join their team in PE lessons. I wonder why those of us who were no good at sport were never given the chance to pick a team? Would we also have chosen the best ones first, to have the best chance of winning?
I have never jumped into water in my life, or been fully submerged. I avoid being in or on water because drowning terrifies me, more than any other way of dying. My mother puts this fear down to the time when I was swamped by a huge wave which crashed unexpectedly through the open porthole while she was changing my nappy in our cabin when we were sailing to England from Uganda. It’s just as well that I was baptised as a baby with no more than an understated Anglican dribble of water – adult baptism by immersion would be more symbolic than I could cope with!
I look just like my mother – so I have been told hundreds of times, much to my chagrin. But I have to admit, when I look in the mirror, it’s true! I don’t find this easy to live with.
So would you recognise me in a market from this description? No, not in England, nor even in my current home town of Loughborough – I am like countless other women over seventy; but you might perhaps recognise me in a market in Teso, in north eastern Uganda, where my second home is.
There is much more to “me” than just my appearance. I believe that I am created, like everyone else, in the image of the Trinitarian Loving Relationship whom countless millions call God. I am not essentially different or better or more special than anyone else, but I am unique – just as you are.
I have been privileged in many ways, but I am also very ordinary. I’ve had family and friends and enemies; ups and downs; achievements and failures; unremarkable plodding, adventure and missed opportunities; darkness and excitement.
My life is also unique. No one else has lived my life, so my story is different from yours although similarities may resonate with your experience. Not many people have grown up in Uganda, crossed the Berlin Wall and done voluntary work as a teenager in Barbados, Norway and the east end of London. I’ve been to medical school and theological college, collected human bones for grafting and brains for research, lived and worked in a Christian community, taken groups to build a girls school in Teso (north eastern Uganda) and set up a sponsorship organisation in Teso for some of Africa’s poorest children.
Depression in my late fifties, which resulted in early retirement, changed me significantly. In some ways, it gave me new opportunities, but I still struggle with some of the issues. In my teens especially, both friends and strangers often said to me, “Cheer up – it might never happen”. What did they see? At such times, I wasn’t consciously sad or worried, but feeling pensive or even just blank. But in those unguarded moments, was I perhaps betraying deep emotions which I wasn’t fully aware of until years later?
Crossing many cultural boundaries has enriched my life. I could easily have been a nomad. I have often sought new or challenging experiences, sometimes getting more than I bargained for! But my experiences of crossing cultures aren’t just the obvious cultural boundaries of another country.
Roger and I come from very different backgrounds. Coming together and creating our own family hasn’t always been easy, but we’re so thankful for fifty years of learning, changing and growing together in love. In one sense, “I wouldn’t change a thing”, at least in terms of being married to Roger and having three wonderful children. As the lyrics of one of Demi Lovato’s songs say,
“We’re perfectly imperfect
But I wouldn’t change a thing, no.”
Of course I regret my imperfections, and the pain and problems they have caused. If I could, I would go back and change these. Instead, life moves on with new opportunities for redemption and reconciliation, which is part of my life-long search for freedom.
Freedom from what? I’m not sure I know the answer, or exactly what I have been looking for or wanting. Can it be summarised by saying I am looking for the freedom to become the person God created me to be? Whatever, I have felt an urge, a yearning, to keep searching and moving on. Occasionally, I take a big step, or even a leap forward in some respect, but it’s more often slow, mundane or painful – two steps forward, one or two steps back or sideways!
An extraordinary diversity of experiences, whether by choice or circumstances, has shaped me over the years, not only into what Roger affectionately calls “the little old grey-haired lady”, but also in deeper, more significant ways. Each time I come back from Uganda, I look more like a brown walnut instead of a pale sultana; but the changes within are more subtle. My heart is split between two countries, two cultures, two extended families.
We shouldn’t be surprised that God answered our prayer in the hymn we sang at our wedding:
Father, hear the prayer we offer:
not for ease that prayer shall be,
but for strength, that we may ever
live our lives courageously.
Not for ever in green pastures
do we ask our way to be ;
but the steep and rugged pathway
may we tread rejoicingly.
Not forever by still waters
would we idly rest and stay;
but would smite the living fountains
from the rocks along our way.
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
in our wanderings be our Guide;
through endeavour, failure, danger,
Saviour, be thou at our side.
I invite you to come back in time with me as you read the story of some of the experiences and challenges of my life as I have crossed cultures and searched for freedom. My dream is that you also will be enriched and blessed as you engage with my story, glimpse other cultures and discover more about what freedom might mean for you.