The sights, sounds, and smells of my debut trip to Uganda have been permanently woven into the filaments of my soul. While I am so glad to be back within the confines of my familiar life and to shower in warm water and drink Diet Pepsi at its optimum drinking temperature, there still remains a large chunk of my heart firmly tethered to the people I left behind in Africa. A month has now passed since my return and nearly every day I am startled out of my mundane life by an emotional longing to reach across 8000 miles and pick up a hungry child, hold the strong hand of a Ugandan woman, or pray with those whose enduring faith makes mine a wet paper towel in comparison. I often find myself resisting the urge to slip into the comfort of my complacent attitude and rejoin the rat race of chasing down the so-called American Dream. In those moments, of retreat into the stillness of reflection and I simply ask myself, “Do you hear what I hear?”
While I jumped at the chance to go to Africa, my mom was resistant-VERY RESISTANT. Let’s just say Mom really likes her creature comforts and when she was told about some of the amenities awaiting her in a far-away land (geckos, cold showers, mosquitoes carrying malaria, etc.) she balked. Being a woman of immense spiritual fortitude, she felt she was supposed to go to Africa and so she put on her big girl panties, applied her lipstick, packed her hairdryer and we started our adventure together. To help establish a baseline of how completely removed Mom was from the idea of going to Africa, the following are actual quotes my mother made during the informational meetings leading up to our departure and shortly after our arrival in Africa:
Me: Hello. My name is Karri Thurman. I am a registered nurse and I am from Missouri and this will be my first mission trip.
Mom: My name is Judy. I am from Paragould, Arkansas. I attend the Rock church in Jonesboro. I don’t want to go to Africa, but God is making me.”
Mom: “I understand you said that we do not need to bring makeup and the heat will just melt it off?”
Group Leader: “Yes. That is correct.”
Mom (to me under her breath): “I don’t know what kind of makeup they use, but I think mine will withstand the heat. If it melts, I will reapply.”
Group Leader: “While working in the churches, orphanages, and slums we will wear skirts.”
Mom: “What kind of shoes do we wear?”
Group Leader: “Because we will be walking a lot and in unsanitary conditions, tennis shoes or Crocs.”
Mom (in her appalled voice): “You want me to wear tennis shoes with a skirt?!?” To me under her breath: “I will not be wearing tennis shoes with a skirt and Crocs are hideous.”
Group Leader: “Upon our arrival in Africa and during our stay there will be police and military armed with machine guns. It is against the law to take a picture of any law enforcement official or military personnel.”
Mom: “Will I be able to use my hairdryer there?”
Group Leader: We will stop on the way to the orphanage and pick up the goat we are taking them as a gift.
Mom (later): “I was going to ask if I could hold the goat on the way to the orphanage to prove that I am not prissy, but I was afraid she would say yes.”
Our first night in Uganda crawling under our mosquito net after nearly two days of travel and little sleep, seeking much needed rest:
Mom: Good Lord, what have I done? Why am I here???
Note: Refrain from asking God direct questions beginning with the word ‘why’ unless you are completely prepared to have your world rocked.
Each day our 16-member team served in orphanages, medical/dental clinics, churches and villages and each moment our hearts were permanently altered by the people we encountered. The days were long, exhausting and emotionally taxing. Many of us were experiencing for the first time a degree of poverty and deprivation that surpasses the confines of our imaginations. Had it not been for the gracious, welcoming, sincere gratitude from the people we were serving, I believe the enormity of need would have completely crushed my soul. Another missionary, Katie Davis, describes it like “emptying the ocean with an eye dropper” (Davis 2011). My grandpa would probably describe it less eloquently as “pissing on a forest fire”, but both analogies are completely accurate. Each night we would return weary and exhausted to our compound and as we shared with each other our individual experiences, it was a little like riding an emotional rollercoaster for days on end. Astonishingly, that which should have left me emotionally and physically depleted, actually rejuvenated my spirit. The song in my heart was changing, but I had no way of knowing the spiritual symphony that was building inside of me orchestrated entirely by a band of outcast orphans that have never heard a spoken word, laughter, or a single note of a melody.
Arriving at the Deaf Elite Education Center was a game changer and for Mom, it was if God himself had parted the clouds and said, “This is why you are here”. Traveling to the school our team was briefed on how the deaf are perceived in Uganda and our hearts were already stirring when we arrived. The deaf are referred to as ‘Kasiru’, which translates into ‘fool’ or ‘stupid’. A deaf child born into a family is seen as a curse and they are often rejected by their families and communities. After spending the first part our day teaching and playing games with hearing children in another school, I was very apprehensive about what we had to offer these children who could not hear us. I was correct. Compared to what we received from these children, our humble offerings were but a pittance.
The children live and go to school at the center, as most have been thrown away by their families. One young boy had been kept tied to a tree like a dog. Another was thrown into a fire pit and sustained burns to a large percentage of his body. A young lady, whose limbs were bent and twisted from years of early neglect and malnutrition, had arrived at the center unable to walk, talk or feed herself. One might think that we would encounter a sad, fumbling, uneducated group of children. Instead, we were received by polite, bright, funny, and talented young people. They danced for us, sang for us, anointed us all with our very own sign language name! They were simply incredible.
It is difficult to put into words the actual environment that these children were thriving in and capture the scant conditions. The floors are dirt, aside from a few with concrete. The rooms where the children sleep are about as big as a walk-in closet with bunks stacked three high with two to a bunk. There is no water, no electricity, no bathroom, and many days, not enough food. The staff work for room and board and receive no wages for the care and education they provide.
In the gospels we are taught that “whatever you do for the least of these brothers, you do for me.” In this country we had seen the sick, poor, and hungry; but it was here, in this tiny corner of the slums, we held the ‘least of these’ in our arms. Where there should have been despair, they showed us hope. Where there should have been bitterness, they radiated joy. Where there should have been death, they showed us the very essence of life. In addition, we saw in living color, what kind of miracles happen when there are those precious souls willing to ultimately ‘do for the least of these’ all day every day. It was a testament of faith anchored in love like I have never before witnessed and it was powerful.
When we left the deaf children that evening, my mom cried the entire trip back to our compound and long after we pulled our mosquito net around us for the night. I could hear her sobbing and praying and I knew that God was answering her “why am I here” question. I also know that neither of us would ever be the same. On the days I feel myself starting to sweat the small stuff again (car trouble, bills, work stresses, etc.), I ask myself that simple question; “Do you hear what I hear?” I am remembering the sounds of the laughter, the clapping, and the singing and also of my mom crying in the night. It is then I am reminded of how important it is to live life out loud, even if not everyone can hear it. Sometimes the greatest words are spoken in silence.