PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 10

I awoke in the morning feeling as though a 50,000-pound weight was suspended over my body, held up by a thread and giving me scant room with which to maneuver. I literally crawled out of bed feeling as though I had to avoid this weight that was hanging over me.

The reality is, the weight of the emotion with which we have been dealing, as we focus on Trauma Healing, has truly been overwhelming. So much pain keeps coming out, but we know we are only scratching the surface as we provide training to these leaders, in the hopes that they can help others in the process and expand the sphere of healing the training provides.

When we arrived at Mungula, the church members were still involved in their daily prayer meeting. It is impossible to over exaggerate the depth of faithful devotion these refugees have or the centrality of a shared commitment to be the people of God as they seek to fully rely on God for everything.

As we sat down, the women immediately put out a mat for my backpack so that it wouldn’t get dusty or dirty. The level of hospitality they show would put the friendliest of churches in the U.S. to shame. They focus on “the other” and their needs, rather than center on their own.

I suspect this happens because selflessness makes it harder to feel as though they are completely alone. Seeing and responding to the needs of others moves a person beyond oneself, and that allows them to find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. One of the central tenets for life in Africa is “better for all to go with less than for one to go without.”

Today, our focus was on rape and suicide, as well as the importance of sharing the burdens of pain with another person with the key questions to trauma healing: What happened? How did it make you feel? What was the hardest part for you?

The weight that hung over me grew heavier with each passing minute, as they shared stories of the struggles with rape and the realities of life in a refugee camp — how women would be abandoned by their husbands if they were raped in an act of war, how the despair of poverty and the inability to provide drove men to the edge, how women felt the intense longing and emptiness of infertility caused by stress or trauma when they were raped and men and women the deep pain of not being able both to educate their children and feed them.

We moved from that topic into suicide and as had happened at Olwa 1, we again opened a wound. Everyone, it seemed, had contemplated suicide at one time or another. And to be honest, who could blame them. Sometimes, when you are living in hell, looking for a way out makes sense.

But as they shared their stories, both as a group and in individual conversations, it was apparent a transformation was taking place. They discovered that just as hospitality reminds you that you are not alone, so does mutual sharing and bearing one another’s burdens. They were finding healing as they opened up and discovered that in their desire to end it all, they were not alone. And that led them to cling tighter to each other in the journey ahead — together.

One of the most disconcerting issues at this camp was education. Even though for us the cost seemed minimal — depending on the level of school, $10 can provide a semester of school and a uniform, and a bit more can provide the requisite shoe — that small figure was too much for many families. And the failure to be able to provide was a driving force in their feelings of hopelessness.

It wasn’t unusual for a widow or a single woman to take in a family of orphans or unaccompanied minors. (They aren’t officially orphans because the whereabouts of their parents is uncertain, most likely because the family scattered when rebels came into their village and no one saw if their parents were killed or not.) As a result, families are supporting a far greater load, making school even more challenging.

Because of this desperation, something happened today that had not happened previously. On several occasions, both Denise and I were approached by women who were grasping for help, clinging to us as a “last hope” to be able to provide them with the money to help them.

This was probably one of the hardest things for me. When the first woman approached both of us, looking for funds to help get her children to school, I felt sick. I had not brought any money with me to the camp. And I thought I could just as easily given her 50,000 shillings — about $13, and paid the 10,000 shilling tuition for the five children this widow had taken in.

But to do that would violate the principles of our organization. SLCD is committed to community development, which means that it is not our job as outsiders to lift one person above the others and help them but rather to work with the community to help them both discern their needs and who to help.

To that end, when we return to the U.S., we will work on developing a fund for the Mungula Camp. The fund would provide funds for tuition, uniforms and shoes for those that our organizer, Jacob, and his committee from the village determine needs them, thus empowering the community as opposed to coming in and controlling it.

Nonetheless, it was hard to not provide the “simple” solution. The honest truth is, I could probably have provided enough funds easily to address the needs of many of the 75 or so we had gathered for training, but it was not for me to decide. So when approached, I had to let them know (often through our interpreter) that we are hoping to establish a fund, but I could not become the “savior” on my own.

As difficult as that was, I know it is better to empower the community rather than becoming the one who comes in and doles out money to help some and not others. That would make me feel better, but it would not enhance their life together, and ultimately that is our goal.

After dealing with rape and suicide, we decided to also focus on blessings. Perhaps because the weight upon us felt so great. And when we asked them to share blessings, again I was overwhelmed.

Person after person shared stories of how they had survived horrific acts of violence and how they had felt blessed to simply be alive.

One woman’s story hit me like a ton of bricks. This woman, whose spirituality and devotion was readily evident, stood up and talked about how she had lost the use of one arm as a child.

When I looked at her twisted right arm, I surmised that it had been broken when she was a child as a punishment to her parents for some reason. When a right arm is disfigured, the person must use their left hand for both eating and toileting purposes — which makes a person unclean. It is not uncommon for that to happen to a child when a parent crosses a boundary or angers a person in power.

This woman went on to share that even though her right arm was useless, she was still able to gather her two children in her good arm when the rebels invaded her village and she had to flee. And how lucky she was to safely arrive at this refugee camp. And then she began to sing for joy.

I was thunderstruck. A woman whose story is so horrific I can barely fathom it, sees pure blessing in what no one should ever have to experience — running from your village as your home is burned, your husband is killed, and you are clinging to your children with your one good arm.

As I watched these women and men of incredible courage and faith, I was reminded that it was just a twist of fate that I was born when and where I was — to two educated parents in the United States. I am not in the position — to come in and be the leader in this camp — because I am innately superior to any of these people. I was there because I was born as a person of privilege as a matter of sheer and dumb luck.

The honest truth is, we who have, are not smarter, stronger or better than those who have not. The ability of these women and men, the intelligence, the compassion, the integrity — all equal or exceed that of any randomly gathered group in the developed world. And I have no question that their strength and courage is far stronger. The fact is, I was in the position — as the one coming in to help — simply because I was fortunate and not through any merit of my own.

My life has been irrevocably changed because of this work — because I now know their stories, and I need to help bear their burdens. I know that I have been blessed, and the only way I can respond in a godly way is to be a blessing. I can’t cure all of their struggles, but I will do whatever I can to carry them with me and help share their stories with others.

I awoke in the morning feeling the weight of their world. And the truth is, if I carried it alone, I would not be able to move. But what I learned as I saw these men and women share their journey with each other, was that as they shared their pain, they were able to move beyond suicidal thoughts they carried alone, into a burden they shared with each other. The weight was distributed. And now, I have been invited in to help carry that weight with me and help others carry it too.

After we gave out the certificates and celebrated their graduation with song and ululating (the women loved to ululate in this group), we received so much love, so many hugs and kisses and so much gratitude and thanks. I felt humbled. What I had gained was so much more than I could ever give.

Each day, as we departed, I handed out biscuits (cookies) to the children near the church — with my desire to share a little sweetness, to try to give something out, knowing I couldn’t do much. But if I could provide a little joy, then I would feel a bit better. It was sharing that made me happy.

And that really was what our training was about,  too — sharing. Denise and I sharing Bible stories and information on how to deal with trauma. The men and women sharing their stories with the group and with each other. And ultimately, our sharing each other’s burdens and then sharing songs of joy and praise, knowing that in a hard and bitter life, sharing the weight of the world and sharing blessings even in the pain, adds sweetness to life and gives one the courage to go on.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 10”

  • Helen Murphy February 11, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Thanks for sharing and for your service. I am a better person after reading this. There are so many selfish people in this country who would benefit from a visit to this country. Our country has much to gain if people like these strong, giving souls could join us here. We have so much more than we need and they want so little.

  • Paula V. Mehmel February 11, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks for your comments!

  • Stanford Edwards February 12, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    I have been reading all of your ‘Uganda Journal’ posts and wanted to thank you for your inspiring ministry and service with people who otherwise would be unseen and disregarded as we go about our daily privileged lives in the Dakotas. I would certainly and humbly affirm the previous comment (above) that was submitted in reply to your post: “…I am a better person after reading this…”
    That is an impressive endorsement of your Journal and a comment that rarely is
    applicable to most content that one encounters on the internet!


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