On Christmas Eve, in a pretty church in comfortable Charlestown, RI, the pastor was reminding us that ‘God shows up in unexpected places’. Among several examples, she spoke of meeting a young man named Emmanuel working a sewing machine in the Luwero Triangle area of Uganda in 1986. A vicious bush war targeting civilians had just ended, the pastor was there helping with development work. Most unexpectedly I had been there too around just that time.
After the service the pastor asked why I had been in the Luwero Triangle in 1986. I just was. I had arrived in Kenya a few months earlier age 24, planning to learn about my late father and his family. I was a registered nurse and it was the time of Live Aid, perhaps I could help starving refugees? Cultural disconnect and my lack of appropriate experience made short shrift of both objectives. My blended Scottish-Kenyan ancestry meant I was neither local nor tourist, I was a tribe of one adrift in a nation of many.
I made friends with visitors from other countries and traveled through much of East Africa. I was in South Africa when the Pass Laws were repealed; a young life guard tried to order me off a (formerly) ‘Whites Only’ beach, until he heard my British accent. I spent three weeks in Somalia, still in the ‘pre- Black Hawk Down’ days but already rushing headlong toward ‘failed nation’ status. The rule of law seemed arbitrary at best and there were guns everywhere. I have never, before or since, felt my own death to be so close at hand. In the first week and already heading with all possible haste for the border, my companion and I found ourselves passengers in an ancient SUV preparing to drive through an ambush. It was a remote location, the only other vehicle shot up, burnt out – still smoldering, and surrounded by pools of blood. I discovered many things in those brief seconds; about myself, my fellow human beings and the nature of life. No shots were fired. There were frightened people by the makeshift barricade, we helped an injured man and traveled on to Mogadishu. The opportunity of the Uganda trip came soon after and, even though I knew the country’s recent bloody history, it seemed a perfectly reasonable idea to go there for a visit.
Why was I in the Luwero Triangle in 1986? What I remember of Uganda is the vibrant fertility of the place, the rich red soil sprouting glossy green trees heavy with bananas. I remember ground nut stews and the elegantly tailored outfits in bold prints worn by the Buganda women. There were child soldiers and road blocks, random gunshots during the night in the capital, Kampala. Traveling in Africa was a series of quiet epiphanies. What it is to be in your mid-twenties, still sure you already hold the answers to most of life’s questions and that you will easily absorb the rest in no time at all! Mostly that year taught me questions. Who am I? What is my purpose in this life? What matters? The conscious mind looks for answers it can process but the soul finds its own lessons.
Along roads lined with heaps of human skulls, among homes ripped apart and painted with racist graffiti the soul lesson was about living. In Somalia I learned that I am not afraid of what comes on the other side of dying. Whoever thinks to claim power over an earthly life, the spirit is subject only to Divine will and needs neither fear nor courage. The people of the Luwero Triangle lived through years that taught the full power of fear and the limits of courage. Yet the atrocities that defied human understanding had not murdered the spirit of hope. The people I met were not trying to reclaim power in their lives through revenge but by rebuilding. Visitors were invited to witness what hate had done, but also what the human spirit could do. My mind couldn’t fully appreciate what that meant at the time but it is a lesson my soul absorbed and it has shaped my life ever since. Lessons from death are always lessons about living.