PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 7

Perspective is an interesting thing.

On my first day at Olwa 1 Refugee Camp, I went to what I thought was the designated latrine. I had to hold my breath when I went in and found it to be, well, primitive.

After using it for a couple of days, one of the women saw me coming out of it and pointed me in a different direction, signaling a shack just past the church. I later found out that was the “good latrine.”

When I went there the next day, I discovered that I had, in fact, a far superior experience using it.  Funny thing, though, had I gone there first, I sincerely doubt I would have seen it as an upscale refugee camp latrine. Perspective is everything.

When I got my plate of food from the women at lunch, I knew immediately I could not eat it all. I had a full plate of goat or beef stew, not sure which, along with cabbage and a mealie porridge like substance we called sadza in Zimbabwe. Our organization provides the meal for the women — likely the only meat they may get for a long while.

And truth be told, I wasn’t a big fan of the meat. I know, I know … but I also am fully aware of the importance of hospitality in their culture and that I needed to honor that.

But when I brought our driver his meal and saw several children lurking around the back, I got an idea. I quietly sneaked out as they were serving the meal and shared my meat with the children. They responded with glee and happiness at what was quite grizzled meat. Perspective.

One of the missions of SLCD is to help with women’s and children’s issues, so John and Denise brought with them 100 of the popular pillowcase dresses that people make for children in Africa. They are simple drawstring dresses that can be made from pillowcases.

You might wonder the difference a simple dress can make. Well, all the difference in the world for some children. If a child in the slums is wearing a dress, as opposed to rags, it means that someone cares for her. Which means that there will be consequences if she is snatched to be raped or to trafficked or whatever other horrors could await. Perspective.

I thought a lot about perspective today because of an encounter I had with Mary, a leader in the church, on Saturday. The very first day I arrived, she came up to me and pointed at my glasses and then to her own eyes. Or I should say, eye. One was missing. The horror of war.

I am basically legally blind without glasses, so I couldn’t give her my glasses. I have to travel with a spare because the risk of losing a pair is too great. But for some reason, I brought a third pair this trip.

When I brought them today, I assumed they would never work for Mary. I couldn’t imagine living in that refugee camp with my vision, to say nothing of fleeing by foot or even living for years with that kind of correction.

But when I gave them to her, Mary put them on immediately. And as our sessions went on, I saw that she was using them to read her Bible. I was utterly amazed and can only imagine what she was going through as she could see a whole new world using my glasses. How out of focus her life had been and how she was able to see it with new eyes, even if what she was seeing was a refugee camp. Perspective.

Today, we dealt with the hardest pieces of trauma healing, as we focused on rape and suicide. That is tough in any group, but with a group of refugees from the horrors of a violent war that consists of village raids, it is pretty unimaginable. We shared some tools to deal with their trauma, they shared with each other, and then those who wished shared with the group.

When it came time to share stories, my jaw dropped to the ground. One woman stood up and talked about the fact that she had lost her only child, her daughter, to the war, and she was left a widow, old and alone with no one to support her. She was bereft and wanted to kill herself. But she told us how, through the support of her pastor, she was able to take on her role as the caretaker of her daughter’s small children. She said they were hungry,and struggling, and it was hard, but she continued on.

Then Rebecca, a woman in the front row who exudes a joyful spirit, often leading the songs, stood up. I had noticed Rebecca from the first day because she is clearly a doting mother. Her adorable son sat on her lap much of the time we were in session, and the care and love she had for him was evident, as it was for her smaller daughter, who was shared among the many women in the group in search of loving cuddles.

Rebecca got up and started talking and told a tale of desperation, which I tell with her permission. She was HIV positive — she didn’t indicate how it happened, but one can guess. I watched her during the rape discussion, and I knew it hit a chord.

Then she talked about how she had a plan. She was going to kill her children first and then herself, so that they would avoid suffering. She believed this was the most compassionate thing she could do. She didn’t want to die and leave them with no one, and she didn’t want to watch them die either.

I just stared in disbelief. This woman — this joy-filled spiritual leader who adored her children — describing something so horrific it made my skin crawl. But for her, this truly would have been an act of compassion. Perspective.

She was stopped before she completed her plan and now, sometime later, she realizes it was wrong. But still … I don’t even know how to process this. The juxtaposition of the woman in front of me and the story.

The whole day was like that — stories of horror, of children missing and not knowing where they are, of fear of hunger, even in the camp, of unspeakable brutalities. And of wars and feuds that have gone back in centuries. Of what happens in a society when people see each other as enemies not humans.

I heard these stories and then returned and read Facebook posts about the current division in our country. How it is so steep, it is almost as if we can’t even begin to understand where the other person is coming from. Of the desire to demonize those with whom we don’t agree.

And that concerns me greatly. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think the ban on refugees is horrific and wrong and immoral. I think that of every single issue that divides people by race, gender, orientation and economic status. They dissolve humans into being “the other.” And I will fight them with every fiber of my being.

But I think that we have become so divisive because we refuse to see each other as humans and instead make people into caricatures or else demonize them. How quickly does that change into becoming immune to the humanity of the other and numb to the world? We’ve lost our perspective.

I think what is happening is that we have lost our focus as a nation and that focus is on our core values. We’ve lost focus on what it was that made us a great nation — and that is our humanity and our basic decency. Our desire to care for others.

I don’t —  I can’t — believe that the vast majority of the American people are selfish and uncaring. I truly can’t imagine very many people hearing Rebecca’s story and then watching her with her son and not having their heart break, nor have their hearts filled with joy and wonder as she danced and sang.

The healing power of God, even in the most horrible of places, is transformative and profound.

When we hear, when we listen, when we engage people of good will with stories and images, our perspectives can change. We can see our human connection with our neighbors, across the street and across the world, regardless of color or creed. And we can all be transformed.

I know coming here has put my “First World problems” in perspective. I am not concerned whether my children will have food to eat or if they will watch me die of AIDS. I don’t have to figure out how to deal with seeing someone who attacked me at the watering hole in the morning. I know every single person in that camp would trade my problems with theirs, and I would never want to even imagine theirs as mine.

As we sang our final songs, these women presented each of us with a cross. Sudanese women take their little crosses to worship with them and hold on to them and wave them as they take their pain to the cross and find joy in celebrating the faithfulness of God with each other. They internalize the reality of the resurrection as they live in a world that feels very much like Good Friday. Perspective.

I was given a gift by the poorest people in the world. It is worth more than all the crosses I own combined. Perspective.

We ended the day with a reminder of our baptisms. That each one of them was a beloved, precious and beautiful child of God. And as they came forward to receive their certificates, I placed my hand on their heart and told them that. That they were beloved, precious, beautiful children of God. And in spite of her pain, I saw Rebecca’s face as I did this. She found peace with a new perspective from God.

From the perspective of God, each of those women is blessed. And we are blessed when we see them, and each other, as beautiful, precious and beloved. When we see through the eyes of love. Because that’s the only perspective that will lead us to peace. Together.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 7”

  • Heidi February 4, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    This brought tears to my eyes.


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