PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 5

I returned to my room tonight, exhausted from an emotionally draining day, greeting the news that there is electricity but that there will be no Wi-Fi for the immediate future with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I like to be connected. I’m a wired sort of person, and I will claim that. I enjoy being able to text my sons, even though I’m on the other side of the world and knowing what is going on in the world — no matter how awful it all is.

At times, I find it shocking to remember that for most of 1988 I was completely out of touch with the world. That was the year I took my trip around the world. During my six months in Africa, I occasionally got letters from home and a little less so during the three months spent at the leprosy hospital in India. But during the last stint through Southeast Asia, China, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, there was virtually no contact. I made one call home — Thanksgiving Day from Cairns, Australia, before boarding a catamaran to tour the Great Barrier Reef.

So I have been disconnected before, and I guess that reminds me of the good part of having no Wi-Fi. I can’t escape what I am experiencing here — although truth be told, the connection between what is happening in the world and my presence at a refugee camp in Uganda is closer than I ever imagined when I bought my ticket early last fall.

And today truly was an immersion experience. We arrived on time — but when someone talks about African time, it really rings true. There isn’t a lot of need for watches in the pace of a village life. You show up for meetings when they begin, and you eat when you are hungry.

Slowly, the pastors trickled in, this time in our new location in the church. Today we had 32 — our numbers grew. And we began with review and discussion of the laments. We passed out the copies — in English, which was useful for perhaps eight or 10 of them. The younger ones had been educated and often knew English.

I asked their permission to share them, and they responded with humility and grace.  A couple of the men spoke up and pleaded with me to share their laments with whoever has ears to hear. These men feel abandon by the world and utterly forgotten. The Denka are proud people with a rich heritage. But now, they have no land, no home, no identity.

It was moving to them that people would hear their cries and perhaps even think about them and pray for them. One man told me, “Because you are here, we know that you care about us. And what is painful to us is painful to you. Share our pain with whoever will listen, so that maybe they, too, will care about us and our pain, and we won’t remain here forever.”

How utterly abandoned they must feel. How utterly alone. I knew I would before but redoubled my pledge again to them in person, to share their story and help them know that they are not forgotten, that they matter.

That is probably the reason I am most frustrated by the lack of Wi-Fi. Because I am a woman on a mission, and trust me, when I’m on a mission, you don’t want to mess with me. Those laments are going to be shared, hither and yon.

We moved from laments to the difficult task of discussing rape. For two white women from America to sit in a space with 32 African males — including pastors and tribal elders — and lead a discussion on rape is nothing short of astounding. But that paled in comparison to the conversation that followed.

In some African cultures, woman’s worth is still often defined by her ability to bear children, so the albatross of rape carries with it an additional burden.
In some African cultures, woman’s worth is still often defined by her ability to bear children, so the albatross of rape carries with it an additional burden.

First, we heard some of the cultural contexts of rape. For example, if a virgin or un-married woman was raped, she was taken to the family of the rapist, and he was forced to marry her, to assure that she would not be abandoned or cast aside as damaged goods. As horrific as that is, it actually serves as a safeguard for women because men know there will be an economic responsibility for an act of violence.

We then took it a step further to discuss the ramifications of rape in an act of war. Often women were gang raped or had objects shoved in them, making them infertile. A woman’s worth is still often defined by her ability to bear children, so the albatross of rape carries with it an additional burden. Besides that, there are issues surrounding AIDS from rape and what happens when a woman bears a child as a result of rape. What happens to that child? We were told that the community cares for the child, especially if the mother commits suicide after the birth, which is not uncommon. But still, the weight is often unbearable.

In the U.S., there is still a strong stigma associated with being a raped. When I went public as a rape survivor nearly 30 years ago, there was one and sadly, it hasn’t abated. Even though the cultures are radically different, the cone of silence around this brutal act reflects the shame associated with it.

Opening up and talking about it in the context of trauma healing with these pastors felt both profoundly heavy and radically transformative. As someone who has spent much of the past 30 years working with sexual assault survivors, I never imagined all of that training would bring me to an event like today, but it reminded me again that while God does not will all things, most especially any act of violence, God nonetheless can redeem all things, as I once again was able to find redemptive healing from my brutal attack.

Following this sacred time, we took the next step in trauma healing, which is caring for the caregiver. The simple reality is that we have had to rush this training. Normally, it could take a week — without a translator basically doubling the time taken to explain things. Add to that the Denka tradition of being very deliberate in speech and the desire to share in group settings, and you have the makings of a crammed schedule.

In a perfect world, we would have spent more time dealing with forgiveness and reconciliation but those will be given to a pastor in Adjumani with a heart for peace and the passion of a Pentecostal to proclaim it, and it will be part of our task when we return next year. (And yes, I will return. I am all in for this ministry.)

However, our focus on caring for each other proved powerful. First, those that were literate were asked to write down their pain. Obviously, it could fill a book, but they had only a sheet of paper, and then they were asked to reflect on it and pray about it.

The three key questions of trauma healing are: What happened? How did you feel?  What was the hardest part for you?

Of course, asking these questions to those who have been through so much comes with concerns, but we had been advised by the trauma therapists who support SLCD that this needed to happen. Even so, I was nervous.

However, the power of the Holy Spirit was clearly at work as they divided into groups of two to share their journey because when we came back together, they each echoed the same refrain.  “I thought I was alone. I thought I was the only one feeling this way. But now, I know I have a brother who is experiencing it too.”

It did not take away their suffering but by having others who understand, these men were able to take a step forward in healing their pain. The journey is easier when you are traveling with someone because you bear one another’s burdens.

One of the things they asked for was to know others were praying for them, so we committed to that, and I ask anyone reading this blog to join me in those prayers. It was humbling listening to them praise us for coming to them when I know that what I am doing is merely an act of joyful service. But for them, our presence makes all the difference. They told us we are honorary members of Olui Village, the name of their camp, a responsibility I take heart.

A participant receives certificate of completion.
A participant receives certificate of completion.

After taking their sufferings to the cross with prayer and focusing on the joy found in resurrection, we closed with a graduation ceremony as we gave them certificates of completion of the course. Most held them over their head with the pride of a college graduate, smiling ear to ear. While that may just be a piece of paper to me, I know it will be a cherished possession, reminding them both of what they have learned and of our partnership with them. We also took a graduation photo that I will be sending to each of them, via our translator, Daniel.

The graduates poses for a group picture.
The graduates poses for a group picture.

Partner-ship and con-nection matters in this world. That is why I like to be wired — to be in connection with others for strength for the journey.  Turning off the world is nice for a while, but in the long run, if we disconnect with what is happening, we abandon our responsibility to be agents of change as we live in denial of our current reality.

Today I was reminded once again that the best connections are the human connections and our connections with God in prayer, and through our connection with the people of Olui Camp, we can work together to connect them with the world.  And when we do that, bearing one another’s burdens, the world becomes smaller and our lives become larger as we travel the path together.

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