Sunday, November 22, 2015

Visiting Africa is not all black and white

People much more eloquent than me have written about Africa being a place of contrasts. After only a couple of days in Uganda, I can well understand what they mean.

The generosity and graciousness with which we have been received is humbling. Many of them  know Paul and Sue from their previous visits and the ongoing work that Uganda Kids makes happen, especially in a couple of local schools and the parish. We have been ferried, from place to place, by a lovely local couple, Lucy and Aloysius (she is a nurse, he is the principal of one of St Joseph's School), and also hosted at their home for lunch.

There is a genuine warmth to their greetings, an appreciation of the effort we have made in travelling across the seas to be with them at this time. Forget the eyes being mirrors to the souls - for Ugandans, it is their smiles that illuminate and inspire, whether they be shy and sheepish or dazzling and captivating, white teeth emerging Cheshire-cat like in the midst of their ebony faces.

But the flipside of this warmth and welcoming nature is a tendency towards self-serving: a politician who attends Mass, coincidentally at the height of an election campaign; wives attending a married couples' group burrowing through a gift basket of jewellery and taking more than the solitary item suggested; elderly people lamenting about their lot in life, in the hope that they may be able to elicit enough sympathy that it will lead to financial largesse.

The contrast, however, does not lie in these external observations. The above actions hardly distinguish Ugandans from any other people in the human race - deep down, we all have a tendency towards self-interest! The paradox I am referring to is the one that lies within....

I sit in the community sessions and find myself becoming uneasy with some of what is being shared. I am making judgements, either about what is being articulated or about the people speaking. It is not my intention to do this but the habits of a life-time are hard to stifle, even if I am a long way from home. 

And then it dawns on me: this type of sharing - the process of coming together and sitting around in a circle, to speak openly about topics important to the hearts and minds of the Ugandan people, is the way things are done here. It is the dialogue, the talking, that is key. This is what I mean by 'contrast' - my western expectations, my tendency towards speaking with a point in mind, compared with the Ugandan way of simply being together. 

Even the Mass reflected this, in all its 120 minute glory, colour and reverence. Time with God, their Creator and Saviour, is not something to be rushed, slotted into the multitude of other commitments from which we, in other cultures, so readily bounce.

We spent time with three different parish groups yesterday: the elderly, the Married for Life and the women. In each gathering, significantly conducted in circles (no-one was at the head, everyone could see everyone else), I learned much about Ugandan cultural issues, its past and various sociological trends.

But the greatest lesson learned was realising that the real "heart of darkness" of Africa is that which we carry within us.  

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