Category Archives: Personal reflections

This Lopsided Earth

Ugandan baby

Scan after scan after just-to-be-safe scan

The Risk of just-born jeopardy,

Entirely absent from my pregnancy plan,

Concealed by the masters of modern medicine.

Launching oft-futile guerrilla assaults;

Striking in response to the misstep of man

Rebellion against the promised assurances

of midwives and monitors and surgeries and scans;

But rarely a success in battle.  If it occurs:

there is shock, and shame, and blame, and a cry

That ‘no child should die’!

No baby should lie

Without a life to satisfy

 

But in the occupied territory, where risk reigns in little lives:

Over the great chasm of access and supply

Faintly, if you have ears eager to listen to the cry

And block out the lapping of luxury at your heels

And make room for what this dystopia reveals

And pierce through the privilege that cocoons your truths…

 

With each live birth, each safe passage to our world;

Comes the quiet grief of a mother’s tears

Sidelined by other-ness and foreign fears

Whispering of sweet promises unkept

Until, with un-lived memories; she wept

Wept for the babe, their newness now gone

Wept for a health system she cannot depend on

Wept for the vacuum of drugs, staff and cars

Wept for tiny hands, now safe in the stars.

 

Geography seals fates for these babes, and thus;

They’re torn from women who, despite the distance, are like us…

But with sad acceptance of their world;

Where children do die

Where babies do lie

Without a life, to satisfy…

In a world where risk is always nigh

 

No just-to-be-safe scans, no monitors, no available staff

The certainty of risk beyond our comfortable grasp

A gamble for mothers, who bet on their own hearts;

A gamble unseen, unheard by us; their counterparts

A gamble, in Uganda, which mothers’ lose,

If only there were other choices to choose….

On this lop-sidedly serviced earth,

For every 19 Ugandan babes?  1 ill-fated birth*

 

A little story behind the poem:

I started writing this poem a few years ago, when a staff member at MH lost his newborn baby. It was him and his wife’s first baby, and the grief seemed to swallow up our team for a few days. I remember the jarring nature of the baby’s death, some 12 hours after birth, when staff were still celebrating the original message that he and his wife had welcomed new life into the world.

It was tragic, and mainly left unexplained. There was deep sadness. One of the things I love and find frustrating about Ugandan culture – in equal measure – is the passive acceptance of, and embracing of the world as it is with all its suffering. It seems to allow Ugandans the ability to grieve well, and then rise up out of the ashes, resilient as ever. In the same breath, this acceptance often prevents a critique of the source of the suffering; so often relinquishing the possibility for questioning and change.

This particular little baby died in a big hospital; all seemed fine until it wasn’t. MH doesn’t offer maternity – we don’t have space or resources to do so – though we hope to in the future. But the lack of quality maternity services in our region, juxtaposed against the incredible obstetric/neonatal care available in Australia that I have been lucky enough to access with my own births, will always stay with me, and drives much of our passion in the journey of MH.

*based on 2017 infant mortality rate of 54.6/1000 live births

Little Lives

I’ve been writing a little bit of poetry lately. My brain feels very full of Maranatha Health and theory and programs and I find it difficult to sit down and write anything apart from work. But poetry seems to be the exception to this. I’ve never shared my poetry before – a little scary, so thanks for reading 🙂DSC09798

Little Lives

Another day

Dances in front of me, fast and frenzied, and departs the stage

Again the curtains fall and before the lights are dimmed ready for the next act

I feel the hurried lurching of little lives

Passing by,

the uncovering of fate and fears and freedom.

A birthday, and new skills, and fresh individuality

Swirling into the shadows of shared history

And then, occasionally the moment freezes.

A gift.

And in that moment I breathe in the sweetness of my children’s cheeky joy; I linger in my magic power to kiss away pain; I melt into the circling chubby arms declaring their love; I laugh at familiar punchlines that signal home; I stand in wonder as little hearts make room for grown-up failures in our shared life

But so often

the frame stubbornly refuses to freeze.

And life escapes and I run and we survive and days dissolve and the mess of life seems to pass by without any of us stopping to smell roses or daisies or sunflowers:

or the intoxicating scent of freshly washed toddler skin;

or the sniff of sweaty after-naps snuggles;

or the fragrance of trampoline-jumping joy and pool-splashing fun

or the post childcare aroma of summer days and sand pits and playing hard wrapped in the wiff of I’m-home-and-can-let-it-all-out explosions.

I will miss it, I say…

All the whilst wishing giant chunks of the not-so-good-days away, where illness and chaos and sleep deprivation and brotherly rivalries and too-much-yelling take hold and the exhaustion blocks out the smells of a life brimming with beautiful ordinary things

But when the pauses declare themselves

Aren’t they marvellous?

Aren’t these things we’ve created so marvellous?

And then the relentless weight of motherhood feels so…

light.

The Chaos

“But…our life is not conducive to twins! You need to find just one baby”

“I can’t un-find a baby Kim. There is definitely two in there.”

“Are you sure?”

“yep…I know what I’m doing!”

“holy crap”

“Yep…”

This conversation (with some more colourful wording  from both of us edited out for your sensitive ears) took place at the Maranatha Health hospital in Kabarole District, Uganda, in my husbands’ consulting room, as we used the ultrasound to check on my not-yet-showing belly.

It was the first of many terrified, frantic, awe-struck discussions around why God and the universe would see fit to give us the ‘blessing’ of twins.

My extended absence from this blog has been for this very reason; a reason I could never ever in a million years have forseen. But, twins we had.

It has been a long journey, this shedding of our previous ordinary identities, and our tumultuous-yet-triumphant transformation into Naalongo and Ssalongo [Rutooro words for mother-of-twins and father-of twins].

Somehow, someway, Michael and I survived 2016. The year of upheaval. Of reluctantly moving our family back to Australia due to the high risk nature of my pregnancy, for close monitoring. Selling our house in Oz, buying another, and moving in before the twins were born. Of finding work for Michael in Australia. Of overseeing the MH project from afar. Of coping with the sheer discomfort of the last few weeks of my pregnancy, carrying around 5 and a half kilos of baby inside me. Of expanding our hearts and lives as we met our new little people, William and Thomas. And then, the all-consuming sleepless, relentless reality of two newborns to care for. Newborns that didn’t particularly like the outside world very much (or sleep) and decided to express their discomfort very often and loudly (if only we had known it was due to allergy!). Newborns who decided the only solution to said discomfort was to breast feed All The Time.

It was a tough first 6 months. The hardest of my life. The combination of sleep deprivation and exhaustion has rendered the memories of those early days with the twins into the hazy, murky back-waters of my mind. I remember specific moments: Michael and I staring at each other over the table one night, glancing at (but not able to eat) our defrosted donated dinner, our toddler having a meltdown because he wanted our attention and we simply couldn’t give it to him, while each of us juggled a crying screaming baby, knowing there was at least a few hours left of wailing before sleep would eventually come. I remember the look of panic in his eyes that mirrored my own – “How do we ACTUALLY survive this!?!?!”

It wasn’t pretty, but we did survive.

And then sometimes, all the sleep deprivation and baby cries and breastfeeding exhaustion and baby eczema/allergy flare ups and toddler tantrums and my own intense feelings of inadequacy pulled me completely under in their swell and the only thing that saved me was my village grabbing me by the cuff of my shirt and pulling me out spluttering and gasping for breath – primarily my husband, my own mum, my mother in law, and then a multitude of different friends at different times taking a baby to hold, giving me a shoulder to cry on, cooking me a meal, playing with my first born little boy and reminding me that THIS IS A SEASON.

Sure there were lovely bits too. Snuggly new born cuddles. Watching Dave’s language explode with humour and insight. The twins holding hands while I tandem fed (they more often poke each others’ faces now!). Fun time with family and friends on the not-so-hard-days. My incredible support system showing me love. Sunny autumn days gathering walnuts from our tree. Imaginary fun with Dave. A thousand ways Michael has supported me as we walked in the thick of it together. Dessert nights with close girl friends to remind me of me. First smiles and then giggles. Pool play. Learning how to love another 2 humans. Warm, easy conversations with my own mum about motherhood…

And then, somewhere in the midst of it all, we decided that we would move back to Uganda. Uganda – and Maranatha, the organisation we founded – is home in so many ways, after all.  We have been living there on-and-off since 2011. So the decision felt inevitable, and right. The reality of course – uprooting our family, leaving our incredible Adelaide-based support network, heck, even getting on an international flight – was largely terrifying. But nevertheless, in April we packed up our house and our life and moved countries once again (dragging some grandparents along to help us on the long-haul flights), hoping we would find a house to live in soon after arrival!

With approximately 20 hours of flying behind us, we shuffled out of the familiar mugginess of the Entebbe airport – a faster speed was impossible – with my parents, 11 month old twins, a very overwhelmed and tired three year old, a double pram (not that we have used it since), 2 porta cots, 2 car seats, 8 bags of luggage, and eagerly looked for the person who was meeting us. After a couple of minutes of frantic searching with lots of stares and offers of taxis, Michael and I faced each other with dismay and realised that the person sent to pick us from the BnB was  either a)very late or b)not coming, two extremely likely scenarios in Uganda! In true Findlay laisse-faire style, Michael and I realised we had no cash on us at all, no working phones with Ugandan SIMS within easy reach, nor an address for the guesthouse we were going to.

We marched over to where the taxi stand was and after discovering my father had brought a small amount of Ugandan shillings from a previous trip, set about finding a taxi to bargain hard with. This was an interesting process, given I had no clear idea where in Entebbe we were heading to! Eventually we all piled into an SUV (with all our luggage there was actually only 3 seats available!) and drove in the general direction of the guesthouse based on my husbands’ super amazing memory. Along the way, we stopped maybe 6 or 7 times, showing motorbike taxi drivers the one photograph we had of the house, in the hope someone would know the place. Our twins and toddler loved the excitement, with David yelling at the top of his voice “ Look mummy another goat!” every time we drove past the multitudes of goats on roads.

On our first day back in Uganda (after finding our accommodation), we took a walk through a quiet neighbourhood. Walking along a dirt road, with only a sprinkling of houses right by Lake Victoria, there was a group of people lazily chatting in the shade of a big tree – some boda (motorbike taxi) drivers and several women. They turned to look at us, and then with mouths wide open their conversation ceased. After a respectable recovery time, the women started laughing and broke out in applause, which led to some dancing, until I felt like I was the star of some bizarre African musical featuring a set of miracle twins. It became apparent to me at that point that anglo-saxon identical twins are not a common occurrence here.

I won’t bore you with the gritty details of the first few months – finding a house to move into and making it suitable for us, getting over jetlag and reteaching our twins to sleep, adjusting to life without grandparent help and consistent power, finding the right people to help us out with child care at home, walking alongside of our 3 year old as he experienced intense culture shock and homesickness, re-entering MH and (for me) adjusting to being back at work after a long absence….

We are rebuilding our community here, slowly. Our staff, as expected, welcomed us and our kids back with open arms. And despite agonising almost every day if we made the ‘right’ decision for us and more significantly our children, I’ve come to the conclusion there probably isn’t one. Sometimes, I’m realising, the story isn’t supposed to be just about ‘us’ as individuals. Mark Sayers, a Christian pastor/sociologist, introduced me recently to the idea of people having 3 ‘stories’ – my story, a community story, and then a universal story. In the west, he argues that almost all of our life and decisions are made based on our individual story – what is best and meaningful and important to me. More than any other time in my life, Michael and I are trying to move away from this. Our decision to move back to Uganda, regardless of some of the challenges this brings personally, is born out of the inextricable weaving together of our personal story with the story and community of Maranatha Health, and our universal story of hope for a more just world. So that is why we are back here.

We try to take all 3 kids with us to work once a week. On those days, David hangs out with a crew of staff children who sometimes hang out at MH in the afternoon (or at the moment during school holidays, all day) with Ellen, the staff children’s carer on staff. Despite his limited Rutooro -he is learning slowly- he often leads the pack, with a group of them running around MH giggling and playing like they own the place. The crèche, a tiny room which is a third of an old shipping container, is now referred to by Dave as ‘my office’. William and Thomas, while mostly looked after when at the clinic by our very energetic young nanny Violet, wander happily around until they see Michael or myself and are reminded of their separation anxiety that seems to plague them still. The other week I spotted them both wondering into one of the wards, and then guiltily tottering out with mouths stuffed full of sweet potato that one of the mums on the ward feeding her own child had given to them. They certainly draw a crowd, and I often walk out to the MH playground to find a crowd of 3 or 4 people just staring wide-eyed, gaping at the site of 3 mzungu children, 1 who is about as gregarious as is possible to be, the other 2 identical in looks (though polar opposites in personality!).

Michael and I divide our time fairly equally now, between the clinic and home. We often swap over around midday, where one of us rushes home on a boda and the motorbike driver waits out the front for the other while we give a quick handover: ‘this email needs to be sent, this management issue came up, someone needs to talk to this staff member….” and “this child’s been tired, this was what was eaten for lunch, this load of cloth nappies is washed…”. I feel utterly grateful to have a husband who sees child-rearing as just as important a task and wants to share equally in that responsibility.

So this is life now. It’s messy, chaotic, busy, mostly unplanned, and so much less productive than it ever was a few years ago. I spend so much of my time feeling like I am on the brink of catastrophe, wondering if there is a better way to do ‘life’ here (or anywhere), but I think the answer is that in this season in life, just being a part of MH Uganda and raising our 3 children is enough.

I’m enough.

At least, I’m learning to be.

The fluke of geography

Due to a fluke of geography

I was born into a society that taught me I could do anything.

I was born in a country that places a high priority on all children having access to a reasonable standard of education, that offers social and financial support to those who can’t find work, and that gives government loans for university, and only makes you pay them back once you can afford to!

I was reflecting on this the other day, after an interesting conversation with a friend in Fort Portal. This friend has a low-end job, comes from a poor background, and will probably never move beyond these circumstances.

We were discussing the fact that David, my son, is currently obsessed with motorbikes. I was joking that I hope he doesn’t become a boda-boda driver when he is older (a motorbike taxi – an extremely ‘low end’ job with little prospects which often comes with a lifestyle of women and alcohol).

My friend reminded me that David is an extremely stubborn, head strong little boy, and will do whatever  it is he wants to do…no matter what I want for him!

I sighed, and agreed.

He then nostalgically described his primary school days, a time when he thought he could become whatever he wanted in his heart to be. He remembered his peers saying they wanted to be pilots, doctors, engineers, teachers. He shook his head and clicked his tongue in disgust at their naivety.

I asked him what he wanted to be, back then.

He hesitated, obviously embarrassed to share this with me. Quietly he spoke: ‘a doctor’. Following this, was a sort of half-laugh-half-sigh.

He continued…

‘you know, that was never going to happen. As a child, I didn’t realise. But Africa has a way of separating people – there are those that can manage, and those that can’t. ‘

I sympathetically agreed, listing all the hurdles with him – having to work and study at the same time, trying to find school fees, going to a government school where teachers don’t turn up for days so your grades suffer, trying to get into university – but not being able to afford the fees and bribes nor knowing the right people…

He explained that he could barely manage to finish S4 (year 10) because of school fees, and needing to help his family in their garden. By the time he finished, he was offered a job, and took it. Now, he said, ‘its fine – you manage what you can, and try to enjoy life’.

Then I offered thoughtfully ‘you would’ve made a good doctor’.

But in my mind I was thinking – this life is so UNFAIR.

Because I didn’t want to become a doctor, not in a million years. But I am pretty sure that if I really wanted to, and worked hard towards that goal, I could’ve managed.

I explained to my friend that I felt very lucky – almost guilty – that I had the opportunities I had purely because I was born in Australia. That even though neither of my parents finished high school (but went on to technical college), even very few people in my extended family have gone on to do further study, even though I went to reasonable but not amazing schools…I still easily managed to get into university.

It was easy to get a place, because there were so many places and so many courses and so many universities. It was easy to get the grades, because I had good teachers who cared about me and knew how to teach – which is mostly the norm in Australia. It was easy to afford, because the government paid for my course at the time, and I only had to pay for text books, which wasn’t much of a stretch even on my part-time salary whilst living out of home.

And that about sums it up.

The ease of it all.

Obviously there are children in Australia that face an up-hill battle to get an education, that don’t grow up in safe and loving homes, and that struggle for survival in a variety of ways.

But the majority find it easy.

Not because they are deserving

Not because they are so much more hard working

Not because they possess some gift or intelligence the rest of the world doesn’t

But because of the fluke of geography.

Pushing bananas up a hill...

Pushing bananas up a hill… (photo by Matt Curtis)

It takes a village

Ugandans love children. As a culture they celebrate them fiercely. Everyone seems willing to smile and get down on their knees to say hello to a child. Babies are cooed at and admired. For women, bearing children is a sign of prestige and of strength.  I have earned a respect through motherhood that I tried futilely to gain for the duration of the time I lived in Kamwenge.

When I speak of African children, the oft quoted proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ comes to mind. In my imagination, this phrase conjures up exotic images of intricate networks of beaded half-naked villagers working together for the good of the communities’ children. Our over-use of this saying in the West highlights the exoticism and idealism with which we frame our discussions of child rearing in Africa. I’ve heard it said that in the developing world, child–rearing is somehow a more ‘natural’ process, beyond reproach.

To confess, I have many times scoffed at this idea.

While I believe wholeheartedly that a village – a community if I may use a less exotic term – is essential for raising children (given how exhausting and monumental such a task is!) it is also true that if everyone is responsible, than in a sense no ONE person is responsible.  My time in Kamwenge exposed me to some of this –children neglected and uncared for, malnourished and left to be looked after by young siblings or distant relatives. I think I saw the worst of this, working at the referral health centre in Kamwenge.

There are many great and (in my opinion) not-so-great things about parenting ‘Ugandan style’, as there are in any culture. I don’t need to thrash them out here.

But one of my greatest reservations about moving back to Uganda as a family were some of those ‘not so great’ bits to Ugandan child-raising, especially when I plan to be a working mother here and have other women look after my son for chunks of time. I would think of all the opportunities that I perceived our son would be missing out on, not living in Australia; that I, as his mother, would be denying him, by making the choice to live here, away from his culture and community.

Before we arrived here, when I was super-stressed or having a moment of doubt, all the marvellous moments of my own childhood unravelled before me, as a taunting list full of red crosses, marking the experiences my own son would not have.  The freedom of playing in parks and exploring creeks, running through sprinklers in bathers on lazy summer days in our backyard, the safety of playing with neighbourhood kids, the amazing quality of suburban kindergartens and playgroups, and most significantly, a community of friends and family that were invested and involved in my upbringing. I feared that we wouldn’t find a community for him to belong to here.

However.

Slowly and surreptitiously

Without any intention or expectation

And in the midst of my concern that this could not happen…

A community has begun to form, winding its way around my son and through his little life.

After all, community is something that Ugandans know how to do.

I see it when I take Dave to our clinic, and he immediately squirms out of my arms into the arms of one of our staff.

I see it when he waltzes into the reception area at Maranatha, climbs onto the receptionist’s lap and begins to play with her phone.

I see it when he hears a cow moo, then searches for and is picked up by our security guard at the clinic, in a successful attempt to be taken to see the cows grazing nearby.

I see it when our landlady at the apartment where we stay buys him bunches of bananas so she can watch the ecstatic little dance he does every time he is given a banana!

I see it when Dave shrieks with excitement and then runs outside to play every day when his 6 year old neighbour (adopted by our American friends that live upstairs) arrives home from school

I see it when we take him to the shop where I buy most of our consumables, and the staff greet him with a big smile and call his name ‘Mandela!’ and produce a ball for him to play with while I shop.

I see it when we attend church on Sunday, and his Sunday school ‘teacher’ cuddles him and jokes that he is now her child, while I hold her little girl of the same age.

I see it when the cleaners or groundskeepers in the apartment block where I stay rush to help Dave down the steps on the compound where he continues to attempt death-defying acts.

I see it when we sit down for lunch and after polishing off his own g-nut stew and rice, he looks to see which woman on our staff will feed him some of theirs.

All these moments are small, but they remind me to take a breath and be thankful for the village here that is helping me to raise our son.

And perhaps

scoff at the proverb a little less.

Cuts and bruises

If you had asked me a few years ago what was the most rewarding part of Maranatha Health in Kamwenge, I would have said without a doubt, the staff community.

If you had asked me what was the most gut-wrenching thing about closing the clinic and leaving Kamwenge, my answer would have been the same.

In Australia, I really missed being a part of the Maranatha Health Uganda team, especially when coupled with the grief that it may not ever exist again.

But when I reflected on our Kamwenge team, wearing the rose-coloured glasses of distance and with the nostalgia of time passed,  I often wondered if the memories I had floating around in my head were deceiving me in the way memories often do.

Memories of hard long hours but with people that really cared about outcomes for those we were serving. Memories of staff giving of themselves to others. Memories of making a difference in peoples lives, together. Memories of laughing and frustrations and chaos and fun. Memories of real community. Certainly not perfect. There were also lots and lots of hard bits.

Sound cheesy?

So we are back.

And do you know what the absolute coolest thing is?

Most of the staff DO want to come back and work for Maranatha Health again, just like me!

Since we have arrived back in the country, most of our old staff – be they nurses or cleaners or receptionists or security guards – have contacted us asking for their jobs back. They have called us from new work places, from training schools they are attending, from their gardens in Kamwenge, and from various places around western Uganda. But the message is almost always the same – when can we start?!

And then when staff come to talk with us about their position, there are reunions as those that are already here greet those returning. There are hugs, questions about families and marriages, stories of new babies (at last count there are 5!) and lots of excitement in finding out about who is returning.

Some of the staff are taking pay cuts to come back and work for us. Some are relocating families.

The whole experience of gathering our team back has been extremely counter cultural – for Australia also but definitely for Uganda. Generally, money and conditions are the determining factor in jobs here. Ugandans aren’t generally very sentimental people.

But again and again, staff are saying that they miss the team, they want to work with us to make an actual difference to patients, and they want the experience, skills and training that comes along with being a part of MH in Uganda.

Which is good news, considering our new project is very much focused on sharing all of those aspects of MH with other clinics!

The other day, Michael met with a key former staff member – someone we were hoping would come back to join us for MH#2.

That staff member agreed to join us, a decision we are incredibly thankful for. But in discussion with Michael (which he relayed to me later), this staff member thanked us for returning to this place and for trying again, and acknowledged that almost nobody would have come back to this country, after what happened last time (read here).

That is the first time someone here has openly acknowledged us for this.

And do you know what? Despite knowing I should be here, and despite enjoying the first few months, moving back to Uganda has been tough.

And so here it is. The acknowledgement I needed to give myself:  It should be tough!

My trust was broken. Last time I was in this country, my idealistic, hopeful self – the self that wants to see the best in people and tries to downplay the corrupted agendas of others – took a good ol’ beating.

The staff returning, however, has helped to heal some of the cuts and bruises I collected from the last time I was here.

Motorbike meditations

I have always loved riding on boda-bodas – the humble motorbike that serves as the main form of taxi transport for short distances in Uganda.

There is of course a lot of negatives about this form of transport, top on the list being the amount of accidents that happen every day, due to terrible driving, hazardous roads and conditions, lack of helmets and protective gear, and also the decision making (whether effected by some form of drug or not) of your chosen chauffeur. I don’t take bodas (unless there is no other choice) in Kampala, but up-country, where the roads are quieter and you can befriend and loyally use the same boda’s daily – it is my main form of transport (except when I am with my son – no bodas for him!).

The freedom that comes from sitting (side-saddle for me) on the back of a bike with the breeze in your hair is unparalleled in my humble opinion. It was one of my favourite things about working in communities in Kamwenge: at the end of a long day in the village, riding on the back of a friend’s boda-boda  along a dirt track, the sky hazy with the sun’s disappearing rays and the smoke from the evening cooking fires in the village, the hum of the boda not quite drowning out the birds evening calls.

I have tried being in the driver’s seat of the motorbike – a colleague in Kamwenge was giving me lessons for a while, and I managed a few rides around the place. But I didn’t enjoy all the concentration required to ride the bike myself.

So now, enter the new me, in Fort Portal. I am tired. We are starting up MH again. Motherhood is relentless (and rewarding and amazing and all of the good stuff that gets written about… ) There is rarely time to myself. There is a lot to process and much change happening in my life. And there are no grandparents here to look after my child for the day if I need a break.  I have always had a tough time knowing how to switch off my brain and adding motherhood to this mix has made for an interesting journey over the past year in Australia. Even more interesting now I am here.

But lately, it has become almost a daily ritual to go to town in the late afternoon, to buy food we need for dinner from the market while Michael stays at home with David. I normally catch a boda. And for the five minutes to and from the market that I am on that boda, there is nothing else to do. No child to be responsible for. No list to write or action. No need to concentrate on anything in particular.

So I look. I breathe. I listen. To what’s around me – trees and birds and people and the sun setting over the Rwenzori mountains. And to whats within me – my fears and prayers and reflections on what’s good.

And with that comes some clarity and a little pause from the pandemonium of life.

Freshly mixed paint

Life is a paradox of powerful  proportions. A grand experiment that cannot be manipulated, managed or predicted.

If this year has confirmed anything to me, it is this single message. At the end of every year I emerge around New Year from the haze of chaos for a moment of reflection. And every year I comment on how chaotic, how unexpected, how contradictory the year has been.

“Why, how surprising!’, I remark to myself, and shake my head at all the unpredictable things that have happened.

Not this year.

This year I was prepared for the chaos and contradiction and unpredictability of it all, after the past few very ‘entertaining’ years.

And, oh, how chaotic and contradictory it was.

*contented/exhausted/with-hindsight-things-look-better sigh*

On the 24th of February this year we had a Maranatha Staff party, to celebrate the success of the 1st year of operation of the Maranatha Health project in Kamwenge. This party happened to coincide with two very unique occurrences:

The illegally constructed factory next door turned on its machines for the full day (click here and here and here to read more about this disaster!). We discovered on that day the machines were very loud and dirty and would not allow us to continue our work at Maranatha!

The factory next door - this is taken from the back of our home!

The factory next door – this is taken from the back of our home!

I took a pregnancy test and to my delight Michael and I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. I had a baby growing inside of me!

It's positive!

It’s positive!

These two immensely life-changing events shaped our year from that point on.

As the months wore on and it looked less and less like Maranatha Health would re-open for business in the short term, the waves of grief that washed over Michael and I at various times were interspersed with a growing excitement about the new life we would soon bring into this world.

In my life I don’t think I have ever felt such contradicting emotions. Since marrying Michael, Maranatha Health has been like a child to us:

We have

birthed it, in both Australia and Uganda
invested hours of our time, energy and resources into it
dreamed of its future
and had many many late nights agonising, hoping, planning, and working to make sure it flourishes.

Ironically, as this chapter in our lives came to a close, we were discovering the joy of growing a human baby. What an incredible blessing, what saving grace, that we were able to focus our energies on this new life. Perhaps it was God’s way of seeing us through the grief of Maranatha closing.

And now, this much anticipated new life has arrived!

I have a son. David Mandela Findlay.

An adorable, magnificent, inquisitive, cheerful, fascinating little human that is a combination of myself and my husband. And OH MY GOODNESS I LOVE HIM. My heart bursts for him. That all-encompassing, selfless love that parents have for their children –love that is both tender and fierce, love that takes your breath away so you feel as if you are drowning, love that makes you gasp for sanity, as if for air – I am all at once astonished, relieved and in awe of how strongly  I feel that love.

Though I have tried, words are completely inadequate in capturing the uniqueness of this new experience – of pregnancy, birth and now motherhood. I have written very little throughout my pregnancy and the first 10 weeks of David’s life, for fear of the incompleteness and inability words have to capture such magic and the mysterious transformation that takes place inside of oneself when you are given the privilege of your own child to love.

The sleep deprived whirlwind of chaos/exhaustion/ shock/ joy has lifted after a very bizarre first few weeks. I am loving the adventure that is involved in getting to know who our little person is. And the most surprising aspect of the experience so far is the fact that I have already forgotten how life was different and how I was different. Motherhood feels to me like a discovery of a part of myself that always existed, a natural extension of who I am that has now been given a chance to BE – a confidence, a courage, a compassion that I now know was always me.

And into the future, as we face the uncomfortable unknown that looms ahead, Michael and I are filled with a new kind of hope, a gentle reminder from our creator that He has made us to do something good, and will show us the next step with time. We have been given an opportunity to begin afresh, but this time as a family, whether that means a fresh start in Kamwenge, or somewhere entirely different.

When my husband proposed to me, he rewrote the entire text of the Dr Suess book ‘The Places You’ll Go’ (my favourite children’s book) for our context (and yes, he is an amazingly romantic man!). My favourite (rewritten) page in the book is below, and it resonates with me more than ever now:

“In Africa or Australia
or some other place,
in a big busy city
or somewhere with space.
With kids or without,
or one on the way,
we’ll continue to shout
and have our say
to convince other people
things are not all ok.”

Whatever the case, we as a family of three are excited to begin splattering some freshly mixed paint on the blank canvas that is our life.

Scary. Surprising. Satisfying.

Stay tuned.

(and here’s some photos of the journey of Davey so far – I couldn’t resist)

40 weeks pregnant!

40 weeks pregnant!

Less than 12 hours old

Less than 12 hours old

A week into motherhood...

A week into motherhood…

DSC_0472

Fast asleep

Milk drunk

Milk drunk

Everything is hilarious these days!

Everything is hilarious these days!

‘…the fainting energies of your soul’

I dread going into Kamwenge town at the moment.

Why?

Because I am sick of talking to the torrent of people who enquire about Maranatha Health. About the factory. About why we are STILL not back at work.

I love that people care. If anything this entire drama has just made it blatantly, 100%, no-way-around-it obvious that the health service we provide in Kamwenge is an absolute necessity. We have the support of the community. No issue there. Whatsoever.

But on entering every shop the conversation plays out something like this:

Interested friend/acquaintance/random stranger who knows me: How is Maranatha?

Me: We are really suffering, all of us are seated. You know it’s tricky.

Friend: Eh, Sorry, I know. These leaders of ours. [shakes head] And we really need Maranatha.

Me: I know. We are trying. But you know, these leaders in Kamwenge, they don’t even care.

Friend: They are too corrupt! They have really eaten money from this thing. And now it is taking long. Why don’t people come and shut this factory down! I have heard that [insert ridiculous rumour here]. Is it true?

Me: No. That one is not true, this is what is happening [explain what is happening].

Friend: But really, how far? It is taking long. We can’t manage without Maranatha. People are dying.

Me: I wish you would tell that to your leaders, to the district. They need to hear that from all of you people!

Friend: Ah, but why? They can’t even listen to us. They will just laugh….

This is followed by a detailed story of a relative/friend/child who they know has either died in Kamwenge recently because Maranatha is no longer working, or has paid ridiculous amounts of money to get the treatment from outside the district.

Then I do the obligatory shaking of the head and clucking of the tongue to express my disappointment at the situation. Then the conversation moves on to other things.

This happens in every shop. I even went to buy a phone charger the other day and the boy in his late teens in the electrical shop who looks way-too-cool-for-school in his chains and muscle top had this same conversation with me.

It gets tiring witnessing an injustice like this up close – with all of its ugliness and corruption and stupidity and unblinking carelessness thrust into my life. The frustration of being so tightly woven into the fabric of the issue; knowing that I have to keep watching no matter what, because I can’t just shrug my shoulders and walk away when it gets too hard.  The vulnerability that it’s my fight, my story, my life that is affected, as much as the lives of the people of Kamwenge.

Michael and I can’t imagine our life without Maranatha, without Kamwenge, without Africa. It has been a part of our journey, our identity, our purpose for so long now…

Whilst there have been steps made, meetings had and reports written from several key ministries that express self-evident truths about the illegality of the factory, no-one has yet provided Maranatha Health with exactly what we want (and need) to be able to return to work:

ACTION.

A willingness for someone to stand up and pronounce that, yes, it is within my authority and jurisdiction and responsibility to force this factory to shut and move. Well, we may still succeed. We will know, either way, within the next 2 weeks.

However, our greatest sadness comes from the state of the Kamwenge district leadership.

Since we have moved here, we’ve heard story after story of district officials eating money. Of serious all encompassing corruption. Government money in Kamwenge often does not get to its intended recipient – that much is clear. The average citizen in Kamwenge town will tell anyone who will listen that Kamwenge District is more corrupt than others – that there is a culture of entitlement and a lack of accountability within the leadership, and has been for many years.

But somewhere, in the back of my mind, I have always hoped that perhaps I am simply being too cynical. Believing too many of the rumours. Missing out on the opportunity to hear the positive stories.

But now I have sat in a room and heard the top leaders in the district, telling us that we should just go to another district, that it isn’t their business what happens to Maranatha. I have had conversations relayed to me about technical staff within Kamwenge bragging with others that they have the money to take their children to the next district for treatment, so what do they care if Maranatha leaves.

This is one of the greatest evils I have ever been confronted with: Individuals accepting leadership positions that are charged with the responsibility of representing and protecting the citizens of an area. Draining every last drop of finances and power and hero-worship and VIP treatment and personal benefit available from that position. Then taking even more – that which is not legally and rightfully theirs to take. And then, at the end of all that, knowingly making decisions that will bring suffering for the community, against the will of those they are representing.

One of my strongest character traits is empathy. But there is no way I can empathise with some of the characters we have been dealing with in Kamwenge. Because it is not humane, and I am human.

And so whether we end up staying or have to pack up and re-invent our life somewhere new, whether Maranatha lives on for another 100 years or if next month we must pack our bags for Australia, the most difficult hurdle that is yet to come in this battle will be something I perhaps did not expect.

Grief

Grief for the people of Kamwenge, that their leadership continues to fail them on such a grand scale.

Grief that there is such evil that exists, that it is moving around and amongst us all the time, clawing its way ahead and swiping at the good endeavours in this world.

Grief that most of the time, injustice wins out, while a God whose quiet pleas for justice whispered into the hearts of men so often floats away, unacknowledged. It will only be because of this God and the stubbornness of a few of us that it may not win this time.

Grief that the church so often fails to be the voice of justice and truth when it is needed most.

Grief that I have no power to change most things in this world, this country, this district, this town. That there are a million more small battles like this one that happen every day, with people far more fatalistic and used to defeat than we are, who will give up much earlier.

But in the sadness that sits heavy on me when I witness the indifference of leaders to the plight of the poor, I have found comfort in knowing that I am not alone in this struggle against my own grief; many before me have experienced that same tiredness in their soul:

“Accustom yourself to look first to the dreadful consequences of failure; then fix your eye on the glorious prize which is before you; and when your strength begins to fail, and your spirits are well nigh exhausted, let the animating view rekindle your resolution, and call forth in renewed vigour the fainting energies of your soul.”

-William Wilberforce, leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade.

The enthralling exhilaration of the unknown…

Maranatha Health in Kamwenge has received a gob-smacking, hideously ridiculous, completely unexpected setback, and by way of association, so have I. Before I share my thoughts about it all, here is a link to a letter we sent to our supporters recently posted on FB on the MH page, to give you some context and information into the issue that has arisen. If you haven’t read this, the rest of the blog probably won’t make much sense. In summary, a maize mill factory has been constructed next to our health centre, and now chugs out noise and dust 24/7, forcing us to close the health centre and move off-site.

So, less than ideal, obviously. Frustrating. Unjust. Corrupt. I could think of some less-creative, four letter words as well, but will spare my readership the full brunt of my frustration.

To be honest, I don’t really feel like writing today. In fact, today I feel like crawling up into the foetal position, eating copious amounts of chocolate, lamenting the world and my place within it, and reading some of the more sinister of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

But alas, I write. Partly for therapy, partly to let everyone know that my world continues to spin, and partly to share this journey with all of you because the fate of Maranatha affects so many inside and outside of Kamwenge.

Once again, for the millionth time since being involved in this Organisation, I find myself uncomfortably squeezed into the enthralling exhilaration of the unknown.

Once again, I am reminded that I am a teeny-tiny person in this very big, very wide world and my comforting illusion of control has again been mocked and exposed by that same afore mentioned world.

Despite the dramatic dialogue in this blog, we are feeling quite positive, generally. Things are really looking up. We have had some extremely positive developments in the past few days. In addition, media is now splashing the story (albeit slightly inaccurate, tabloid-esque versions) around Ugandan newspapers and TV news.

I’m just having a bad day.

The first few weeks, when we discovered that yes, it was definitely a factory next door, and yes, they were running their machines 24/7 – things were tough. At that point we knew very little about Ugandan law, about industrial and residential zones, about environmental acts, and so had very little understanding of how we could challenge such a situation. We lacked voice and a platform. At least now we know what we are dealing with and the channels for redress. Of course, on a day-to-day level, that knowledge doesn’t make it much easier to manage the constantly oscillating situation and our parallel emotional response; one day we feel we are close to winning the battle and will be reopening the clinic in no time, and the next day we wander around our home listlessly wondering if we should start packing our bags for Australia.

Michael and I have prayed in the last month more than I think either of us has ever prayed before. Not that it’s a very noble prayer these days – most of my prayers consist of a repeated request to finish my season of ‘character building’ and a demand for life to get easier, speckled with a less selfish appeal for justice for the poor of Kamwenge.  But I have never before been so aware of how frustrating it must be, for God to continue calling people to love, when the world is so interested in other sinister motivations and agendas.

Every time we think we are moving closer to a solution, we face serious set-backs and suffocating scenarios, reminding us again of the complexity of Ugandan concepts of justice. In a conversation with our Ugandan father, we discussed concepts of justice in Africa, and how the law is applied. Justice here is tangled and twisted with power and relationships, with desires for peace and amicability, with political and business motivations confusing responsibilities. Often it feels as if justice is a negotiation process between parties towards a resolution, rather than a direct application of law. The problem with this, of course, is that unless someone wise and fair is mediating this negotiation, those with more bargaining power and a louder voice will always win. The poor, thus, will always lose*.

Since this issue has arisen, we have found so few people outside Maranatha in a place of authority – a leader, an MP, a government technical worker – who immediately recognises or assumes the position of the law. Time and time again, we are required to remind those involved in resolving this issue exactly what Ugandan law states about residential vs industrial zones, about factories and Environmental Impact Assessments, and the simple ethical and legal realities of our case. More likely, they are interested in what the district leadership ‘thinks’ about the issue, the identity of the investor behind the factory, the size of the two investments for comparison, and what the political ramifications are.

Instead of the acknowledgement that I crave – that we did all the right things, that this project is necessary for the community, and through no fault of our own we are experiencing a grand injustice – many leaders patronisingly explain that this situation is ‘complex’ and ‘politically sensitive’.

It doesn’t FEEL politically sensitive to construct/approve a massive maize mill factory that pumps out dust and noise 24/7 next to the only decent health-centre-soon-to-be-hospital in Kamwenge district. To me, it just FEELS really, really, really stupid. Politically. Ethically. Environmentally. Legally. Everything-ly.

Of course, we have come across many compassionate Ugandans over the past 2 months who hear the story and immediately get behind our plight – who have offered so much of their own knowledge, networks and resources to help us fight this. Our Ugandan family have been a core support to us (we joke that we are currently Kamwenge refugees seeking asylum from the noise, residing in their home in Kampala), and our father, as the chairperson of our board, has wisely led us through the decisions we have had to make.

A few weeks ago I was sitting with some of our staff, after we called a meeting with all of them to discuss the issue. Annet, our receptionist and a compassionate woman who has grown up in Kamwenge, was sharing with me that she was called to help a relative in town. The relative’s child had severe malaria, and needed a blood transfusion. Since we have been closed to patients, the only way to get such a transfusion is to travel 1.5 hours in a vehicle to the next district. The 2 ambulances, owned privately by the churches, both charge fees of $40+ to transport people out of Kamwenge. The average wage per month in Kamwenge would be below this figure. Annet shared how she had to find the money immediately, to save the child. But she clicked her tongue and sadly asked “what do others do, those who can’t manage to pay?” then shook her head and quietly ushered to no one in particular “they take the child home to die”.

We have experienced some really tough stuff in Uganda to date. Some big challenges. But this one is a doozy. This one feels like one of those life-defining-moments, where until you see it resolved, there aren’t many answers to life’s questions, and the future looks like a blank canvas.

I honestly wish I could write a blog that stated that I know 100% that Maranatha Health will still be in Kamwenge in 1 year. I wish I could write that the district will fight long and hard to keep us here, since they know we are essential for this community.  I wish I could write that despite the corruption in Uganda, I still believe in the Ugandan legal system enough to say that we would win such a black and white case. I wish I could write that I am sure God will magically and miraculously end this problem.

I try to convince myself of those things every day.

But I don’t know.

All I CAN write is that we will give 100% to fighting for the poor of Kamwenge and their right to access quality health services– until we have won or lost.

And that God WILL be cheering us on, just like he has cheered on those who have challenged injustice throughout history, calling on those in this country that know him well, to act justly and righteously.

*On re-reading my description of justice in Africa, it occurred to me that this concept is more of a description of justice everywhere, at least at an international and corporate level.