PUTTING ROOTS DOWN IN TESO, UGANDA
Chapter 10: Change of Direction (1991-1997)
Opening paragraph: And now for something completely different: a new stage in my life and a change of direction, with some unusual opportunities and challenges and many interesting and exciting experiences. What a relief! I thrive on change and challenges. Having never had a ‘career’ as such, I hadn’t anticipated that the 1990s and middle age (forty six to fifty six) would be such a rich and varied period of my life; it included drawing on past experiences as well as learning new skills. The children left home, got degrees and started working, giving us a new kind of freedom; I became a mother-in-law and a grandmother as the family doubled in size (from five to ten – another six to come later); I took up watercolour painting, started having some interesting holidays abroad, collected bones and brains in Nottingham; and I put down roots in Teso (in north-eastern Uganda)…….
Chapter 11: I Love Teso Because Teso First Loved Me (1989-1995)
The pain of having to leave St Leonard’s Church was eased by new and challenging jobs at Nottingham University Hospital and the amazing experience of organising and leading working groups to visit Uganda to help build a girls boarding school in Ngora, Teso, bringing healing, friendships and encouragement not only for the people of Teso, but also for me.
Invited back to Teso to work alongside Christians in the Diocese of Soroti, the foundations of some deep friendships and a sense of belonging were laid.
Chapter 12: Rwanda After the Genocide (1996)
A disturbing and challenging visit to Rwanda as part of an international team to help the Anglican Church begin to explore issues of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Chapter 13: Living in Different Cultures (1996-2000)
Further visits to Teso to run training workshops; developing close friendships across cultural boundaries which sustained me during two very difficult years when I worked in three churches in Wednesfield where I encountered so much resistance, unlike in Teso where people were so open to explore new ways of working and relating, in churches and families.
EXTRACT: By 2000, I had travelled extensively throughout Teso, mostly on the backs of bicycles or small motorbikes or in vehicles, along many muddy and rough roads, tracks and footpaths. I had established some deep and lasting friendships, staying with friends in their simple homes. I now felt that my home in Uganda was in Teso, not in Ankole or Kigezi in south western Uganda where I had grown up and lived with Roger.
Home is where you feel you belong, where you can be yourself, where you have close friends and a sense of being part of a family. Deep friendships develop with people whom you trust, enabling you to share together all sorts of experiences and personal problems, with openness and honesty and in an atmosphere of mutual love, acceptance and respect. Amazingly, I felt all of this was now true for me in Teso, even after only a few years of visiting, which is a great tribute to the Iteso who are particularly open and accepting, generous and loving. They continue to show me so much love and friendship. Of course our ways of life and cultures are very different, but that hasn’t mattered. The bottom line, the common factor, is that we are all equal as humans, having been created in the image of God. Richard Rohr writes, in “Falling Upward”, “Life moves first toward diversity and then toward union of that very diversity at ever higher levels. It is the old philosophical problem of ‘the one and the many’, which Christianity should have resolved in its belief in God as Trinity. Up to now we have been more in love with elitism than with any egalitarianism; we have liked being the ‘one’, but just did not know how to include the many in that very One.”
One family in particular, Emmanuel Opolot’s, ‘adopted’ me, gave me the Ateso name of Arakit, built me my own round grass-thatched hut in their compound and asked me to be godmother to their last baby who was born the first night I stayed in my new little home in January 1999. Others were also accepting me as part of their families – a great privilege and a source of support and nurture, especially at times of stress. My full names, including Arakit, have now been passed on and given to another baby girl born just last year, eighteen years later.
Together, we have adapted and adjusted, accepted and appreciated our differences and diversity whilst learning so much from each other and building on the love and friendships which bind us together in the One, irrespective of our cultural backgrounds. This sense of belonging in a very different culture feels such a privilege. It is a humbling experience and a real gift which has enriched my life so much in the past twenty five years. Most of my spiritual growth during this time has happened in Teso. I would not be the person I am now without the formation which has taken place in Teso during this last third of my life.
So how do you cross cultural boundaries? You can certainly go crashing in, blind to the treasures of another culture and trampling on their humanity. For centuries, the Western world has despised most other cultures, especially those which are very different and deemed to be “primitive” or inferior; we have sought to change them or even destroy them, even by violent means.
If you force your way across a national border, you would be at war – or at least thrown out. We are now used to crossing country borders with more respect and humility than our ancestors did, showing our passports and having them marked in some way at the border. We come in on their terms and have to abide by their laws and requirements. But are we as respectful when we engage with their culture, which is different from physically crossing their country border?
So again, how do you cross cultural boundaries? Look around as you enter quietly, with all your senses alert. Tread carefully, with gentleness as if you are walking into a wonderland with fragile seashells strewn on the ground and delicate webs bejewelled with tiny rainbow drops floating across the path. Take your time. Take care not to crush the beauty and goodness. Instead of a critical spirit, enter with a sense of wonder, marvelling at the differences. Become aware of what you have in common – your shared humanity, love, hope for the future. Look for the treasures and enjoy them. Ask questions with respect. Listen for the secrets. Open your heart, ready to learn and receive. And be ready to share yourself, not out of a desire to change the others, but in love and humility.
Of course, this doesn’t only apply to cultures of different nationalities or races, but to all the various ‘tribal’ cultures around us, including ‘tribes’ such as different generations, different religions, different social groups. We all belong to various tribes and have to interact with other tribes. My grandchildren’s tribe is very different from my own, for example. We may find ourselves crossing, or belonging in, more than one different culture every day although they might not be as obvious as when I go and stay with my friends in Teso. Diversity is a vital aspect of the created world which needs to be valued and safe-guarded, not destroyed, as we seek unity within the One.
Of course there are aspects of every culture in the world which are wrong, not because they are different from my culture, but because they violate what most people now accept as basic human rights, although some might still want to argue about what these are.
The aspects in any culture which are wrong need to be challenged, but most aspects of cultures are neutral or positively good and need to be valued and celebrated no matter how different they are. Although the challenge to a culture may come from outside influences, I believe those within the culture should be the ones to make changes, out of their own free will. Haven’t we all experienced anger and resentment if someone criticises a member of our family or a group we belong to? Even if we actually agree with them, we become defensive and protective because we feel outsiders don’t have a right to criticise – it is for us only, who belong to the group. Too often in the past, early missionaries demanded that new Christians should wear Western clothes to cover their bodies from sight. Why? What has this got to do with the Christian faith?! If a culture treats each other with respect and honour, and has rules about sexual activity and relationships, what does it matter if they do not cover their bodies? It is perhaps only in our perverted cultures where nudity might present problems and encourage immorality.
This chapter includes: stories of Teso and the deep attachment my first grandchild, Becky, developed with Teso aged only four. My time in Wednesfield ended with a mental breakdown and early retirement on grounds of ill-health.
Chapter 14: Changing Fortunes (2000-2004)
Having retired and moved to be near the expanding and growing family, Roger and I got more deeply involved in Teso, visiting regularly and working in a variety of different ways, especially when Teso was torn apart once again – the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) invaded, killing and abducting thousands whilst hundreds of thousands fled into camps seeking safety, but without adequate provisions.
Chapter 15: New Beginnings (2004-2018)
The invasion of the LRA left thousands of orphans and vulnerable children struggling in appalling poverty, often living in camps and child-headed families, with no hope of continuing at school. I was asked to start a sponsorship programme, focussing on girls (but not excluding boys), to take some of the brightest and neediest through post-primary education to the highest level each was capable of. I reluctantly agreed to help just a few, but as more people than I expected offered to sponsor, so the programme grew. Visiting and getting to know the children and their families disturbed me and changed me profoundly. I became passionate about developing the programme and supporting them in more ways than just paying school fees. One of them quoted a proverb many years ago: “There’s a saying that ‘a bad ending is a good beginning’, but I don’t know whether it will be true.” It came true for him as he is now a nurse in charge of a government health clinic. The programme became a charity which has resulted in hundreds of young people, their families and even communities, being transformed as they have qualified with professional and vocational skills before getting married. But it wasn’t easy for anyone!
After ten years, a new group of trustees, with no experience of Teso, took over and quickly excluded me from the charity, which then began to fail, pushing me once again into depression and a sense of failure and frustration. However, it is a joy to maintain friendships with so many of the old students as they build up businesses, careers and families – and a privilege to be called Mama by them. I continue to visit and be involved in Teso in various ways, including taking young people to Teso, some of them my own grandchildren, for work experience.
To see more about the young people sponsored by TESS (Teso Educational Support Services), watch these two inspiring videos made by Sarah Fencott.