Uganda – Tell Me Your Story, Face to Face

Fight Awareness

Beginning this week, TCON will have a team from the USA composed of staff and supporters visiting  our field projects in the Teso Region and attending one of our widows conferences. We look forward to sharing stories and reports from a variety of voices in the coming weeks. Today, our newest staff member, Craig Nason, reflects on embarking on his first trip to Uganda.

Aboka Lam!” – Acholi Proverb roughly translated “Narration alone is inadequate”

On a journey to Peru several years ago, I found myself in a crowded church built on a sandy hilltop an hour north of Lima. The community there was originally founded for migrant workers who moved to the country’s capital looking for work. They were allowed to build crude homes on barren dunes that rose just east of the Pacific break. With the most basic infrastructure absent, a promising future may have seemed fleeting to those who settled there, but it was the best option they had at the time. Over many years, the families of Pachacutec struggled with fathers who would leave town for weeks at a time seeking work and a regular income. Many women were left behind to raise families, and many children would lose touch with their dads entirely. The promises of a better life escaped most.

In such a place, the smell of dirty children reaches you long before they wrap their arms around you to welcome you to their hometown. Their smiles suggest a story that is hard to conceive as possible in their desperate context. And in such a room, I came eye to eye with an emaciated mother, holding a tiny newborn in her arms. As she approached me, the horror of her story was obvious. My Peruvian friend shared with me the details. Left by her first husband, she had become an addict who chose to designate whatever meager income she had towards her drugs and not her child. When she became pregnant again, she was further marginalized in the community. She wanted to keep the baby, but she hardly had the tools to care for herself. And there she was, standing in front of me with all her burden and all her joy, together in her arms. I knew her story. But the story is not enough.

The Acholi people of Northern Uganda maintain a similar proverb: “Aboka Lam!” Aboka Lam means that you can’t fully understand something by just hearing the story. Aboka Lam means that just because you hear my words doesn’t mean that you know the depth of this feeling in my heart. Narration alone is inadequate. A further bridge must be crossed. For an area of Uganda that has endured a regional civil war that was one of Africa’s longest and cruelest, Aboka Lam makes sense. Who can really empathize with the trauma of a former child soldier or the burden of an outcast widow raising 7 children? And for those unfamiliar with Uganda’s postcolonial history, you should know that these kinds of stories are not uncommon.

This week, I board a plane for the long journey to Kampala, Uganda. For me, it marks full immersion into the new work I’ve recently begun with The Children of the Nile (TCON). I have sought the pulse of this nation, and the history of TCON’s involvement here, but now Uganda and I will finally meet face to face. I’ve come so that I might cross the bridge and know the people here, not just as a story or a statistic, but instead as flesh and blood, as brother and sister. I am humble and cautious as I enter a new culture. The history is important, and the often ugly legacy of Westerners coming to Africa with notions of conquering and fixing the problems here are important to keep in mind. There is still a popular position that collectively labels Africa as backwards, broken, and even ignorant. This voice seems to subtly suggest: “If only we could import and enact the solutions that only WE possess, everything would be right!”

But I am here to learn, and to aid in empowering some of Uganda’s most vulnerable as they rise to a future hope that ultimately only they can realize. TCON started based on a direct response to desperate needs. We formed a relationship with some of Uganda’s most marginalized population: the Widows. These were the widows who had lost everything only to be told they would be given nothing. The mamas. The grandmamas. The women of wisdom. The nurturers of Uganda’s future. TCON learned their names, gave them seed to begin farming, and saw their voices become a force in the community. These same ladies smiled as they shared their restored hope on the streets of Soroti. There is no doubt that the burdens of the past will still walk with these women. Novelist Andrew Rice captures this notion in his novel’s title, which employs another Ugandan proverb: “The Teeth Smile, But the Heart Does Not Forget”. Nothing can erase the pains of years past. But in Uganda, we are seeing a new future begin to take shape right now.

And that is the story I am looking for as I move from Kampala all the way north to Gulu. Something always happens when I allow myself to be confronted by those on the margins of our world. Something powerful takes place when I encounter people who fight daily to survive and have no relationship to the privilege I know every day. Such people have a voice worth hearing and a heart worth learning. I’m confident I’ll smile and laugh with them. And I’m likely to question and cry when I leave them. And when I return, I’m looking forward to sharing with many of you who’ve been a part of the TCON community over the years, and also with new friends who are just discovering us now. I’ll do my best to tell the story. But it will be a challenge – Aboka Lam!

craig@tcon-uganda.org