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Maranatha and Me

So, Michael and I have decided that we are moving our family back to Australia, permanently.

Even writing those words is tough.

I write those words with a heavy heart, taking a deep breath, and acknowledging that it is probably one of the most difficult decisions we have ever had to make. Maranatha Health has been the core of our life for a long time now.  Leaving will bring more change. And, I can only assume, quite an uncomfortable period of readjustment.

Michael and I went on our first date in November 2007. It was a blind date organised through conspiratorial match-making friends who knew we both had an interest in Africa.

Like I wrote in another blog previously: “It seems like an eternity since Michael and I were sitting opposite each other…sharing with each other our passion for Africa and our desire to move there and try to DO something one day. It was then that Michael mentioned his idea – then in the very initial stages – of ‘Kamwenge Maranatha’. I remember sitting there excitedly listening and sharing, ideas already swimming around in my head about the possibilities, about the logistics, about how to transform this vision into reality. And then, embarrassed, I sheepishly tried to bring myself back to reality. This was our first date – I didn’t even know Michael, let alone whether I could be a part of such a vision…”

From sometime in the months following, until my children came along, I had only two great loves: my husband and Maranatha Health. I have now added my 3 children David, William and Thomas to that already-bursting-at-the-seams mix. I often feel in awe of what God has given me.

Michael and I have often joked about MH being our first child. On reflection, to date it has given me much more heartache and sleepless nights than the other 3 (which is quite a statement!). In Maranatha’s defence though, it has been around a lot longer than the other 3!

I have wept tears of frustration, tears of joy, tears of grief, and tears of pride over this project over many years.

Idealistic and in love, Michael and I married in 2009, asking for donations to MH in lieu of wedding gifts from our guests. Then we got to work with the MH Australia team. We fundraised. Solidified the MH board in Australia. Were incredibly lucky to have some AMAZING people join the initial team in Oz. Begged for money anywhere and everywhere. And planned and read and studied and dreamed for 2 years.

When we finally moved to Uganda in 2011, we were young and naïve. We had in a combined effort, just short of 2 years of experience living in East Africa. Neither of us had worked as managers before, let alone managers in another cultural context. All we had, really, was a nervous willingness to be obedient to whatever our Creator asked of us.

We estimated it would take us between 5-10 years for the organisation to be fully in Ugandan hands, and this is the timeframe we committed to. At the time (I was 25) it seemed like a very long road stretching ahead of us. In our generation full of instant gratification and commitment-phobia, where it is unfashionable to commit for the long haul, even the 5-10 year timeframe seemed extremely daunting.

There have been many times over the years when I have been tempted to walk away from Maranatha Health and our calling for both personal and professional reasons. Times when funding has been cut indefinitely for complex reasons; when friends and foes have stolen funds and cement and fridges and everything in between; when one too many children have died in a month at the clinic and I’m angry that the world just keeps nonchalantly spinning, when the weight of managing so many staff has become too heavy; when the grand injustice of having an illegal factory built next to our land in Kamwenge gave me a brief insight into the overwhelming powerlessness of poverty; when programs have flopped and I’ve felt completely inadequate to run the organisation; when feeling flawed by the ferocity of grief after a miscarriage; when we faced land grabs and power grabs and big egos that wouldn’t give up without a fight; when we lost our beloved Mzee, and wondered how we would ever run the project without his guidance; when we found out we were having twins and wondered if that could possibly ‘work’ anywhere, let alone in Africa….

And so many more times, when being a part of this project has stretched me far beyond what I thought my limits were.

But in all of this, God kept showing up. In beautiful, miraculous, ordinary ways.

Being a part of Maranatha Health has built my character and moulded me into the person I am. I barely recognise the girl that rocked up in the backwaters of Kamwenge, in 2011.

It has offered me an opportunity to discover and develop my gifts, a community to embrace and be embraced by, and a grand over-arching mission to pour myself into, shoulder to shoulder with my husband.

And it has offered me a front row seat to watching the poor accessing quality health care, sometimes for the first time.

God – the creator of all good things – has allowed this organisation to flourish in spite of all the challenges, in spite of our own brokenness. This I now know for sure: She is definitely on the side of the poor accessing health care.

And we are so grateful. The good has been really good. And Oh, how we will miss it. I cannot even imagine never again being a part of the MH Uganda staff team, day-to-day. Outside of my family, it has been THE most rewarding, life-giving, eye-opening, challenging-but-deeply-worthwhile experience of my life.

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But now

…we are tired.

Down-to-our-bones tired.

We miss home. We miss the ease of raising children in our own culture. We want an Australian education for our kids. We’ve moved countries 4 times in 5 years, first not knowing if we would go back after the clinic closure in Kamwenge, then because of the twin pregnancy. But for the first time since MH Uganda began, we feel like it is actually time to leave this place.

And do you know what?

We can leave. There is this incredible organisation that will carry on the work without us. In fact, I think at this point, it is actually time to let the staff manage this place without us peering over their shoulder.

No-one wants us to be the over-bearing parents.

Of course we will never really leave Maranatha. She is our first born. We will always be there to support. We will fight for her, when we need to. We will protect her as much as we can, from afar. We will visit as much as possible.

What does this look like practically? Over the next few years, we will remain as the Ugandan Directors, volunteering a few days a week from Australia. We will do much skyping and emailing.  We will provide support to our management team, continue developing resources and policies when we need to, continue to steer strategies and programs, write reports, participate in research and encourage our staff. Most of the same stuff we do here, but just condensed. We will hopefully visit twice a year.

And while we are reducing MH to this smaller, bite-sized part of our lives, Michael and I – like all parents must do when their child leaves the nest – need to figure out what else we want to do with our lives. What else we could possibly do that will give us purpose and meaning and allow us to contribute to a more just world, both professionally and personally.

If you have an idea for the rest of our lives, let me know!

Missing autopilot

At our wedding I walked down the aisle with Michael’s pre-recorded voice singing the then-popular song by Thirty Merc entitled ‘homesick’. The chorus is:

I would give all my time

just to spend my nights with you

I will lay down my fears

just to spend my years with you

‘cause when I’m standing at your door

I don’t feel homesick anymore

In the ceremony handout we explained that:

This song means a lot to us both– with our hearts firmly divided between two continents, we no longer have a set ‘home’ except the one we have found in each other and our God.

Cheese, I know. But give us a break, we were star-crossed lovers and a little obsessed with each other at the time.

When I wrote those words in our handout, they conjured up romantic notions of unfaltering love, of fearless faith, and the aroma of adventure in Africa.

As I read those words right now my heart hurts a little. As if it is sick.

Homesick.

I love Uganda. At times I really love life here. At times I find it exhausting. Most of the time I feel fulfilled living here. Sometimes I don’t. I feel privileged to get to do what I do. Sometimes I feel like my calling is more a burden than a blessing. That’s life, really. Contradictions.

But at this moment, I miss having a physical place where I good-and-truly belong, where I’m not so obviously ‘from out’ as Ugandans say. We are going back to Australia for a visit at the end of this year, and despite my nervousness about returning home, I’m ready for a trip to Oz.

I have never felt homesick before. Honestly, never. It’s a foreign feeling for me, probably because I’ve never left my own country and culture for more than 6 months. In Kamwenge, I am quickly approaching 2 years.  While it’s a good place to live, it may almost be the polar opposite of Adelaide (except that everyone knows each other and/or is distantly related here too!). What I see, hear, feel, touch, taste and experience every day is worlds apart from the first 25 years of my life.

From day to day, I don’t see the vast differences so much.  I notice it more though, when visitors come from Australia. A friend visited us a few months ago and I took him into Kamwenge town. We walked down the street, greeted a few people, bought some meat from the butcher, and came home. I didn’t think anything of it, but when we arrived back to our house his comment was something along the lines of ‘wow, this place is really different…’. It made me realize that I don’t notice the landscape much anymore – the fact that everyone is a different colour to me, that women are carrying baskets and firewood on their head, that people speak in another language, that my local ‘butcher’ is an old man in a little ramshackle shed hacking up a cow caucus on a dirty wooden bench with a machete.

Being ‘used’ to a place, however, doesn’t mean I have forgotten the last 25 years of my life. It is amazing how much our culture and what is familiar and ‘normal’ is engrained in us.

Community values and norms, expected patterns of behaviour, social symbols and their associated meanings– never have I quite understood or appreciated these concepts as I do now. Each day, I  interpret all my interactions through another cultural lens to understand the meanings behind the simplest of exchanges. And my natural way of understanding the world is almost always the ‘different’ or ‘wrong’ way in Ugandan culture.  No matter how many times I experience some situations, each time I have to force myself to ignore the flashing red lights in my brain signalling actions as ‘bad’ – actions that are acceptable in a Ugandan context. Most of that interpretation I do silently, swiftly now …but it is still a tiring process.

Mostly, I miss the soothing familiarity of my own culture – and the deeply embedded understanding that comes when interacting with Australians. After almost total immersion in a different culture for 2 years, interacting with Australians gives me a peculiar sense of déjà vu – the ‘knowing’ that comes when you find yourself living out a scenario of a long-forgotten dream.

Or the feeling you get when you’re driving a familiar route home and you wonder how you arrived safely because you can’t remember much about the journey. You had switched to autopilot.

I miss being able to switch onto autopilot.