Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Home Again

After a crazy 48 hours of traveling, including a quick overnight stop at the new AIM headquarters in Georgia, I'm home in Iowa City. I'm slowly but surely getting unpacked and organized and spending time with dear friends who are still around.

It's actually not very weird to be back. A year went way more quickly than I could've imagined, and it seems like I was just here! Life in Uganda is simply very different than it is here in the States, and I appreciate aspects of living in both places. But there are some things that I'm extra thankful for and enjoying more than usual. Right now I'm loving...
  • berries and peaches
  • free drinking water at restaurants
  • my very soft bed and great pillows
  • fast internet
  • breakfast cereals... Although who am I kidding? Cereal is wonderful any time of day!
  • soft water
  • wearing clothes that I actually like
  • good coffee
  • a washing machine that finishes in half an hour! While we were incredibly blessed to have a washing machine at our house in Uganda, it didn't clean clothes very well, it took 2-3 hours to do one load, and it would often just stop half way through a cycle. Today I actually walked into the laundry room to check on the machine because I didn't hear it washing. Turns out it was done already! Amazing!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Time Flies! {2012}

My teammates and I rang in the New Year at a local hotel's celebration, complete with live music, dancing, and fireworks.

Some of us took a trip out the Queen Elizabeth National Park for a safari day, and the rest of the team joined us the next day for a team retreat at the most scenic pool I've ever seen in my life.

The biggest thing to happen in January was opening myself to the undeniable realization that this year that I've spent in Uganda isn't the end goal. God hasn't placed Uganda on my heart for so many years for me to spend one year serving on the mission field and then go back to life as usual. I began to accept that He was calling me to something bigger. Much bigger.

I continued teaching Dade, full time now that I wasn't at the local school. Although this wasn't what I planned to do in Uganda, it became a huge blessing and gave me so much joy. It provided me with more flexibility in my schedule that allowed me to build relationships in the community, spend time with other missionary families living in Mbarara, and explore possibilities for serving here in the future.

I was honestly terrified at the thought of pursuing long-term missions and was often overwhelmed with the realization of just how big God's plan was for my life. Sometimes it was a joyful realization and other times it shook me to the core. But I kept seeking the Lord, praying for direction, and beginning to really dream about the possibilities for working with young children in Uganda.

We had an unexpected three weeks off of school when the Skinners went back to the U.S. for a family emergency. While we missed having them in Mbarara, I took advantage of the extra free time and took another quick trip down to Kigali where I learned more about the international Christian school where some AIM missionaries were serving. Then a friend from Kigali came stay with us for the weekend and experience a little bit of what life is like in Mbarara. I'm sure she'll never accidentally get tear-gassed in Kigali!

I met an older Ugandan women who I quickly discovered shares my heart of hearts for children. Laura moved from stranger to acquaintance to cherished friend in a matter of days. She immediately impressed me with her openness and love for the Lord.

I also traveled to Kampala to visit some babies' homes and pick the brain of another AIM missionary who has been working with vulnerable children in Uganda for many years. It was an educational experience, and I appreciated the chance to make those contacts. The highlight of my time there was seeing the girl I sponsor who has grown from a darling little girl into a beautiful young woman since the last time I saw her in 2008.

This was a month of refining the dreams I had begun to dream based on my new knowledge and understanding of what's happening with children in Uganda. It was also a time of wrestling with the realities of what it would mean for my life if I committed to long-term missions. I was constantly reminding myself of God's promises and enduring love for me.

I spent a lot of time listening to challenging sermons and studying the Bible. I felt desperate to saturate my mind with God's truth and appreciated the ample free time in my schedule to do so.

Trust and obedience became the most challenging and important words in my life. The two things I felt God continually calling me to, and the two things I feared the most...

I was blessed to go on two separate trips to beautiful locations that showcased Uganda's wildlife and landscapes. The first was a women's retreat for the missionary women in our community at Lake Bunyonyi. The second was a field trip to Lake Mburo with the Skinner family and Kelsea. Both trips provided great opportunities to further relationships, learn, and encourage one another!

When I finished teaching Dade for the day, I would often spend my afternoons at Laura's house. It was in those times that our friendship deepened as we shared our lives with one another, laughing and crying and telling secrets. Her life a beautiful picture of the Gospel at work! When you look at Laura, you can't help but be attracted and drawn to the Jesus in her.

We finished school on a great note and celebrated our accomplishments!

Some of my team mates and I rafted the Nile River before attending our AIM Central Region annual conference in Jinja. It was at conference that I was so encouraged to continue in the good work of going out and making disciples. Africa isn't the easiest or most desirable place to live, but the Lord loves His people here and calls them by name. He desires to be in a saving and sanctifying relationship with them and to see them resting secure in His promises as they too learn to go into all the earth and make disciples. Talking with and hearing from other AIM leaders and missionaries helped me to gain more perspective and encouraged me to keep seeking God's desires above all else.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Time Flies! {2011}

As I look back on the past 11 months that I've spent in Uganda, I'm amazed at how much I've learned, experienced, grown, and have been able to try.
I'm overwhelmed by the support I've received from back home.
I'm humbled by the many encouraging relationships I've have developed here.
And I want to take a moment to look back and reflect on what the Lord has done in me, in my life, and in Mbarara.

I arrived in Kampala, Uganda on August 5th. I had three days of orientation at the AIM Central Region office and guest house, a week of language learning class, and a whole lot of time to sit around waiting to travel to Mbarara. I was delighted to be back in Uganda and loving it just as much as I remembered.

On August 19th, we arrived in Mbarara, met the team, and began settling into our home and learning to navigate town. One week after moving into our house, Kelsea and I left to go to Kamwenge, a rural village more than 2 hours away from Mbarara, for our home stay with a Ugandan family. The family we stayed with taught us how to cook, clean, wash, and garden. At the end of our time with them, they generously declared us to be "real African women."

I slowly but surely began settling into a daily routine. Three afternoons a week I met with a dear friend, Sophie, for language lessons. Not only was she a naturally-gifted teacher who helped me tremendously in learning Runyankole and the culture, she was constantly making me laugh with her bizarre stories and good nature.

I began observing at Ruharo Infant School each morning trying to learn about the Ugandan school system and preparing to teach there. I was shocked, sickened, and deeply saddened by many things I saw and experienced in the classroom, and I began to put some pieces together about Ugandan culture. I also began homeschooling Dade two mornings a week.

And of course there was the Great Power Outage of 2011 in Nkokonjeru when we went 20 days without electricity. Candles, lanterns, flashlights,and early bedtimes were the norm. This was an unforgettable experience that I hope to never repeat...

I began teaching in middle class and top class three mornings a week at the local school. I focused on literacy and math skills and play-based learning with these little ones. I found planning lessons for such large classes and such young children in such a developmentally inappropriate environment to be difficult. I prayed a lot, came home exhausted, and praised the Lord for the little successes and small victories.

Dade and I continued to get to know one another in second grade. I gained a better feel for the dynamics of homeschooling and transitioned from managing a whole class to just one student. I enjoyed the freedom of being able to do some elaborate and time-consuming projects with him that couldn't normally be done in a regular classroom setting.

And Martha, our new team mate and house mate, joined us! What a wonderful addition to our family!

I noticed some marked improvements in the phonics skills of my students at the local school, and I continued to plan lessons that involved hands-on, kinesthetic learning as much as possible. Sometimes this caused the class to break out into total chaos as the children never had opportunities for this type of learning, but I pressed on. Some days I cried. Other days I just laughed... And every day I asked the Lord to give me wisdom.

We kicked off celebrating the holidays by having not one but two Thanksgiving feasts! One at our house and one at the Skinner's house with over 80 people, ex-pats and locals, representing seven countries. I felt incredibly thankful for God's protection and provision in this new stage of life. He is faithful.

After finishing out the Ugandan school year, I made the difficult but right choice to step out of my teaching role at the local school. Looking back, my time there was so valuable because I learned a lot about the Ugandan education system, views of children in Uganda, and the challenges teachers face here. I am no longer under any disillusions about teaching in Uganda. I'm still deeply passionate about education and teaching, but in the end, I needed to step away from my role there.

We took a month off of homeschooling, so Kelsea, Martha, and I traveled by bus down to Kigali, Rwanda for the first time. There we met a wonderful family who was also serving with AIM, enjoyed sightseeing and some shopping, visited the Genocide Memorial, and drank lots of really good coffee!

When we got back to Mbarara it was time to celebrate Christmas! Most of the singles on our team spent the night at the Skinner's on Christmas Eve, and we spent Christmas day opening gifts, relaxing, skyping with family, and building a huge fort in the living room from which we watched Elf (a favorite movie any time of year!).

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Please forgive me...

With only 8 days until I land on U.S. soil, I'm trying to prepare myself for re-entry in little ways.
I realize that returning to life in America is going to be an adjustment. I enjoy living in Uganda, and life here has become quite normal to me. Sometimes I forget how strange things here must be to people experiencing life in Uganda for the first time.

I often find myself asking silly questions trying to remember something about American culture or terminology.
"What do we call Irish back home?... Oh yeah. Idaho potatoes."
"Do we say 'take away' at home?... No, it's called 'carry-out' or 'to-go.'"
"I hope I don't say 'It's over' or 'It's not there' when we're out of something."

I anticipate missing the slower and simpler way of life in Uganda. Fewer options can be freeing and being home before dark most evenings leaves me with plenty of free time.

But for all the little Ugandan habits and sayings I've picked up, I haven't completely forgotten what America is like! I really think that I'm going to appreciate the organization, health codes, and abundance of systems and structures in ways I never have before. I can't wait to shop at a real mall and go to the gym as often as possible.

So please forgive me...
  • if I am giddy about the extremely wide aisles, shopping carts, clean floors, and selection at the grocery store.
  • if I spend a lot of afternoons at the mall enjoying brand new clothing and aesthetically pleasing shopping experiences.
  • if I am appalled at the price and quality of produce. I might have a hard time understanding why we can't get gigantic avocados for 15 cents, four green peppers for 25 cents, or a pineapple for 50 cents. Or why bananas taste like plastic and pineapple is so sour.
  • if I spend hours at a time browsing the Internet and watching YouTube videos just because I can without worrying about many megabites I'm using.
  • if I rave about how comfortable the furniture is and how nice it is to have carpet.
  • if I get overwhelmed with and can't keep up with the go-go-go of the typical American lifestyle.
  • if I spend a lot of time at the gym. I've missed it a lot.
  • if I say strange phrases that totally don't make sense in American English. I'll figure it out soon enough!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Celebrate Life

Yesterday I celebrated my 23rd birthday. Hard to believe really!

I never could've guessed, dreamed, imagined, or even hoped that this is what my life would look like at 23. But the Lord knew all along. He ordained each one of my days and worked so mightily and wonderfully in my life to bring me to where I am today. He changed me and grew me in order to prepare me for the past year of my life.

And yesterday I got to celebrate life with a few of the people who have enriched it so greatly this year!

I couldn't think of a better way to begin my day than dropping by to see Laura and the babies. They are always a bright spot in my day!

Afterward, I went into town, and Martha treated me to a birthday manicure and a delicious chapati. The "firsts" here are endless... my first birthday chapati! I also had a birthday package from my family waiting for me at the post office. The timing couldn't have been more perfect! You just never know with the African mail system, but they've really impressed me this year.

I also received the most wonderful phone call from Dade! Their family is flying home today to begin their three month furlough, and we already miss them so much. It was a treat to chat with him because I'm sure going to miss that kid.

But certainly the highlight of the day involved my dear team mates! They threw me a birthday party complete with pizza, cake, games, and prizes. In my opinion, the best kind of party is one that I don't have to plan, so I loved it. Our team has become like family to me, and it was a blessing to celebrate with them!

I've been introduced to so much British culture this year, and one thing I've learned is that the British know how to party and will find any excuse to have a party. So Zillah was in charge of preparing a hilarious British party game called "pass the parcel" in which a wrapped packed is passed around the circle. When the music stops, whoever is holding the package has to unwrap one layer where they'll find a prize as well as a dare. In order to keep the prize, they have to complete the dare. Some of these included wearing a chicken outfit, doing a headstand, pushing a matchbox across the floor with your nose, and giving a speech about me without hesitation or repetition. Needless to say, there was so much laughter involved!

And that was probably my favorite gift of all. Laughter. Real, true laughter is something I adore, and there was plenty of that last night!

Year twenty-two was an incredible time of growth, change, adventure, and learning to serve more graciously and love more deeply. I honestly can't imagine what year twenty-three has in store, but God knows exactly what the coming 365 364 days will hold. Undoubtedly, there will be many more surprises and twists in the road, but I trust and pray that they'll all serve to bring Him more glory and to make me more holy for the sake of His eternal kingdom.
"...I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me."
Philippians 3:12

Monday, June 11, 2012

Did I Do That?

How do I begin to sum up the past seven days? Each one was full of adventures, growth, and people dear to my heart.

Last week, some of my teammates and I travelled to Kampala and then on to Jinja, Uganda to raft the Nile river together. This is something that I've been wanting to do for a long time, and I was happy to finally have the opportunity to do so! The five of us from our team were joined by another American couple for this rafting adventure. We had a kind and very impressive guide who grew up in Jinja and said he's rafted the Nile over a thousand times and clearly still enjoys it.

We donned our rafting gear: life jackets, helmets, and wooden oars with rounded edges. We stood around on the shore listening to the many detailed and sometimes confusing instructions: If you fall out, don't swim. Don't stand. Keep your feet up. Face backward so your helmet and life jacket can absorb any blows. Hold on to the rescue kayak this way, not that way. Watch out for rocks.

Eventually we got in the raft to practice rowing together, following directions, flipping, and getting back into the raft. So far, so good. Off we went. Thirty kilometers and eight rapids, ranging from Class III to Class V.

We approached the first rapid, which was actually a small waterfall. "Row forward. Harder. Get down! Lean back!"

No problem! This was a little like the log ride found at many water parks in the States. Anticipation, the thrilling drop, and a big splash at the end. On we went.

Now, I've grown up swimming and spending plenty of time in the water, and I've never had any fear of water. It has never been an issue for me. That all changed when we flipped going down the second rapid, and I got trapped in the swirling water under the boat, unable to come up for a breath. If you've never experienced something like this, let me tell you, it's awful. It's nearly impossible to tell up from down and everything is swirling around you except the one thing you need most. Air. Eventually, I came up to find every one laughing and smiling at the thrill of being thrown out of the raft.

I tried to shake the thought of drowning from my mind as I choked up river water and then hauled myself back into the raft once it was turned upright. On we went.

The next stretch of the river was 5k of calm waters, so we alternated between rowing for a few minutes and floating and enjoying the scenery. We passed through some more rapids, and yes, we flipped again. By this time, log rides were far from my mind. I'd now compare it to being in the heavy duty cycle of a washing machine while being sprayed with a fire hose.

My highlight of the day was actually during one of the calm stretches of the river. The sun had disappeared behind dark, stormy clouds, and cool rain was falling. Our guide served us each a large portion of the sweetest, juiciest, candy-like pineapple you can imagine, so we sat in the raft floating down the Nile river eating pineapple in the rain. Incredible. At that point, we were also free to swim in the river for a bit. The water was wonderfully warm, and the rain only added to the delightful experience.

By the end of the trip, we had flipped on four out of the eight rapids, and I was thoroughly beaten, bruised, scraped, and bleeding in multiple places. I was completely mentally and physically drained yet amazed that we'd all just experienced that together!

On Wednesday, the excitement continued as we joined together with many of the other missionaries serving with Africa Inland Mission in the Central Region for our annual conference. It was a thrill to meet and learn from people living in Uganda, Rwanda, Chad, Republic of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Tanzania. If I could summarize the overarching themes of my thoughts from conference, they might go like this:
  1. It's an honor to serve with an organization that serves and loves Africa so well. Even when it seems impossibly hard.
  2. I deeply appreciate the way AIM cares for their members so thoroughly. The systems, structures, and procedures they have in place for our safety and well-being are amazing.
  3. I'm humbled knowing so many individuals and families who are obedient to the Lord's leading in their lives. Especially those who are going to the places where so many people are unwilling to go... 
  4. I'm so thankful  to serve on a team that functions the way it does. We make unity and support for one another a priority and work hard for it. God's grace has protected and sustained it.
  5. My team has become like family to me, and I love them. What a blessing to work alongside and share life with them!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Have You Been Doing Lately?

Over the past week I've been busy spending time with wonderful friends and enjoying some culminating activities. I remember the beginning of my term here and experiencing so many "firsts." Now, with only 20 days until departure, I'm transitioning to a very different phase of noting the "lasts." On Tuesday, we had our last team meeting here in Mbarara before the Skinners go home for furlough. On Friday, we had our last day of school, and Martha spent her last night here at this house before moving into her new apartment.

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending a "Visual and Performing Arts Show" where Dade displayed his artwork from this school year and Martha's piano students had a recital. We were so proud of all of them! It has been an honor to be a part of these families' lives over the past year and a joy to watch their children grow in so many ways.

On Friday, after a bit of final school work in the morning, we celebrated the last day of school by playing games outside, making homemade ice cream, and reflecting on our favorite memories from the past year. It was a school year full of surprising changes and unexpected blessings! Lots of laughter and a few tears shed by all... But the wonderful memories are too many to count!

Teachers love summer too!
But I certainly haven't seen the last of these two adorably kissable babies yet! I can't get enough of them.