Uganda – named ‘the pearl of Africa’ by Sir Winston Churchill – has a population of 26 million, 50% of them under 14 years old. The north has experienced armed conflict since the 1980s; the south has had greater stability.
My son Dan and I recently went on a medical mission to the north. Most tourists head for mountain gorillas in the Bwindi National Park’s impenetrable forests in the southwest, bordering on Rwanda and Congo. But we travelled north beyond the Victoria Nile River, hoping to avoid guerrillas from the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
‘Very few people come to see us these days,’ said the Anglican Bishop, the Rt Rev. Nelson Onono-Onweng of the Ugandan Diocese North. Only a few NGO whites venture north to do surveys and bring food aid.
This is a forgotten region, where life has been disrupted for many who once quietly lived in villages and farmed the land. Now thousands live in refugee camps, crowded together in mud-walled, grass-thatched huts.
We journeyed to Gulu – a town north of Entebbe and Kampala – where the Ebola virus outbreak took place.
The troubles have turned life upside down for ordinary people in Gulu. 300,000 of its 540,000 inhabitants are refugees, many of their children having been abducted by LRA rebels.
Arriving after a long car ride, we went to a medical clinic in north Gulu. The crowds were already waiting expectantly.
A reading from the Scriptures, a short exhortation and encouragement from God’s Word, and prayer. Then the lines formed – men, women, children, crying babies, the blind, the maimed, old and young alike.
We were given efficient interpreters, interviewers and record-keepers. Dan saw patients in one room, along with a medical assistant and interrogator; another room was for dressings. A room was set up as a pharmacy with a table full of medications.
We hardly stopped for a break, as the lines grew longer. There was resistant malaria, amoebiasis, leishmaniasis, worms of every sort – guineaworm, whipworm, ascaria, tapeworm, hookworm – abdominal pains, fever, cough, TB, burning and itching eyes, leprosy, many deep-seated and long-standing infections, skin diseases, protein deficiencies with protruding bellies (kwashiorkor), cancer, venereal diseases, AIDS, and much more.
At one point Dan called me to come over to look at a young lad sitting quietly on a young woman’s lap. His one eye was clouded over in yellow opaqueness and the other was halfway so.
A lovely looking young chap, but sitting with a whimper and quiet answer when spoken to – almost totally blind from river blindness. Dan quickly got up and came to the window with glistening eyes that soon turned to big tears. ‘I just have to get away for a second and compose myself’, he said. ‘Just stand here and talk to me for a moment while I get a grip on myself. It’s so hard, as we can do nothing for this little fellow’. A wipe of the eyes with a dirty shirtsleeve and then he returned to his chair.
We continued for a couple of days, and then made arrangements to go further north to a refugee camp. A jeep full of medicines, people and (on top) a big green box packed with every sort of drug.
We eventually came to the camp of thatched huts crowded together like a beehive. In we drove and looked for the camp commander, who showed us to the small building where we would work. First there was a welcome with speeches and thanks, then the reading of God’s Word and prayer.
And then the rushing crowds, long lines and more fatigue. Longing anxious looks and grasping hands for medicine as the day continued. For us, a sip of water, a bun with jam and peanut butter – and on we went.
That evening we went to see the ‘night commuters’, mostly children who walk in from rural areas each evening to the safety of the town. Here they sleep wherever they can – in empty school buildings, on church verandas, on the streets.
In the dark and under one little light bulb they gathered, some alone and others with parents in the background shadows, to sing and hear a Bible story, and to laugh and play in the dark.
You should have heard their singing, and then the shouting as they were presented with two soccer balls. Oh, the joy and fun we all had as we held the balls and a couple of lads pumped them up there under that glimmer of light. It was as if Christmas had come early!
The next day, we went back to our refugee camp. We did what we could and as fast as we could, but the lines never ended. In the afternoon the sky darkened, the winds came and a torrent of rain followed.
The crowds scattered. Our time was up. So we sloshed around in the mud putting everything away, and waved goodbye for the last time.
Each night we arrived back in town too tired to eat. A quick shower, since all day there was no water to even wash our hands; then horizontal on the bed after turning on the fan to ‘high’. Wrapping the mosquito netting round, we tucked ourselves in for the night.
Some nights the electricity and fan went off, and we would wake up in a sweat. Maybe we had a thought or two about how nice air-conditioning would be right now, but more likely thinking about the many folk we had just left – hungry, maybe cold; some feverish and sick, curled up on the cold, wet earth, or on a reed mat in the dark of their huts.
They had no lights, no running water, no food, little clothing and little hope for life. But most would smile and even laugh in the midst of their terrible conditions.
When we think back to those five days of ministry, we are overwhelmed. We had treated over 1,500 patients! But really it was so few compared with those still unreached.
Many heard about God’s love in Christ. We carry the memories of these gracious folk (and maybe some resistant malaria and who knows what other parasites in our blood!).
What a gracious God we have – who allowed us to fly safely to Uganda and back, to encounter no harm in a dangerous area, and to share his love and participate in so many lives.