Yesterday, my son Charles and I returned from 2 weeks in Uganda. I wrote some of my thoughts on Uganda‘s culture while there. As we flew 9000 miles to return home, I reflected how much the beauty of eastern Uganda had settled my mind; God’s green brush strokes on a red dirt canvas.

the road to Light Village from Mbale

the road to Light Village from Mbale

We have a tendency, in the states, to rush. Ugandans do not. Which is not to detract from their work ethic – the villages I spent time at were all up by 6 every day, often earlier, with heavy physical workloads all day long. Kids come home from school as the afternoon approaches evening, carrying loads. But conversations were never peppered with glances at a cell phone. Some would take my hand and walk with me as they talked. Eye contact and names were important. People asked of my family, my land, and remembered details when I saw them days later.

Uganda can be captured in the smiles of its people all over the lush, contoured red land, blanketed in tropical greenery. A German girl who’d been staying in Nairobi the past year mentioned to us the change in people’s attitudes as soon as the Kenya/Uganda border was crossed. Smiles widened, and a more helpful people approached. We experienced the same in Uganda.

Martin and his grandfather

Martin and his grandfather

pause

pause for photo

Agnes

Agnes

George

George

a boy runs behind our Land Cruiser

a boy runs behind our Land Cruiser

I admit my knowledge of Africa came mostly from movies I’d seen, and I expected dirt and plains, giraffes and lions. Nothing like what we were actually greeted with as we drove hours from Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria, through Kampala, Jinja, and to Mbale and One City’s Light Village in the foothills of Mt Elgon. Temperate weather, less mosquitos than Florida’s back yards, colors shouting to your eyes you’ve been missing out for years.

We spent a night at Sipi Falls, home to three waterfalls (well, 4 since the top one is a “twin falls”). Charles and I rappelled down the 100m (300ft) main waterfall the following day. That first and only night at Sipi, we sat by a fire in the cool air and looked up at the Milky Way, the first time I’d seen it with my naked eye in quite some time (aside from a previous night on this same trip). As the embers burned, the evening laid itself out, waypoints of life’s stories and experiences dotting it’s course.

sunset from Sipi Falls

sunset from Sipi Falls

The Milky Way, visible from Light Village

the Milky Way, shot from Jacob’s camera

look closely and find me rappelling

look closely and find me rappelling

rappelling down Sipi Falls

rappelling down Sipi Falls

Charles rappelling down Sipi Falls

Charles at Sipi Falls

Our friend and guide in Sipi, Martin, walked us across the street to his small (8 by 10 meters or so) plot of growing coffee. He told us the story of arabica coffee’s journey to Uganda from Ethiopia, and how he appreciates it much more than robusta, which has twice the caffeine and a more bitter taste. Sitting on a stump in my Bata Safari Boots, we shelled dried coffee cherry pits. Martin roasted them in a tin over hot coals (“the pan must be evenly heated!”), and we ground them using an 80 year old wooden mortar and pestle his grandmother had owned. Boiling the grinds in water, he then poured us the freshest coffee I’ve ever had.

pouring coffee, freshly roasted and brewed

pouring coffee, freshly roasted and brewed

Although our friends Mike and Deb, who we were visiting and helping, had much to do while we were there, days began early and ended early. We were home by 5 each day, and often had time during the day with nothing scheduled, where Charles and our friend Jacob and I would wander the Light Village and it’s surrounding areas. Twice we hiked small local mountains as Mike and Deb focused on getting Light Village construction completed, stopping along the way to pile locals into our car with us. Sam, a local politician who came with us (one of the good ones!) explained it is custom when you enter someone else’s territory to ask the leaders if they’d like to be the ones to guide a hike. Agreeing, they simply walked off the side of the road where they’d been talking to other locals, jumped in our car, and wandered around the mountain for hours with us.

On another hike, pastor James Tukole walked with us. When we spotted baboons across the field, he led us through 45 minutes of mildly chasing them through the brush. We’d began that hike parking our car at Damascus’ house, a local who took great pride in showing us around his home before we set off on the hike. He’d been putting the finishing touches on a chicken coop outside, where a piglet was sleeping and rabbits were hopping around. After losing the baboons at one point, we wound up at Damascus’ house again and headed back into the village.

looking across the valley

looking across the valley

Ugnadan countryside

Ugandan countryside

African trees are stunning

African trees are lonely; incredible

I am constantly reminded in my life to focus on where I am. My thoughts return often to a post I wrote in 2011, 10 short months after Ezra died. I wrote it just after spending a weekend with our friend VJ, and realizing he and I (and Robyn) had all come to this same conclusion that everything matters. These moments making up our life are all equally a part of us – each morning we wake, each opportunity we pass, each death we cry over and each birth we do as well. VJ died 2 years after that weekend.

“Slow down” is a phrase we use often, as a motivational speaking reminder to pause more often. I think we’re mis-speaking, trying instead to say we should focus on what’s in front of us. I have been avoiding the word “busy” lately, as we use it simply to get out of conversation. “How have you been?” “Busy.” It says nothing, and really, we’re all always active, getting things done and going about life. I feel I’m always working on a hundred things. Where we go wrong is when we are so focused on the “busy” we lose the people, moments, and experiences right in front of us. Busy is worthless.

These past couple weeks in Uganda re-centered that for me. Accomplish much, live with precision. Wake up, work hard, love others. Focus on what’s in front of you. Ugandans walked through the mountains with me, pointing out each plant’s purpose and use. They shared stories of their families with me, and asked about mine. We paused at the top of a waterfall to be silent as we looked out. At the top of each hill. When the sun went up, and when it went down.

Uganda has been through a lot, and yet its beauty and its people’s smiles persist. I couldn’t help but draw parallels while I was there with my own family’s struggles. Our commitment to never be bitter, to affect change for the next family, and to recognize the grace which gives us a chance to still be beautiful out of our ashes. I’ll return.

messing around at Light Village

messing around at Light Village

into town

into town

hello from kids in the village

hello from kids in the village

monkeying around

monkeying around

kids on the side of the road coming to say hi

kids on the side of the road coming to say hi

kids bringing wood somewhere

kids bringing wood somewhere

a woman walks home from church

a woman walks home from church

more night skies from Sipi Fals

night skies from Sipi Falls

Kyle Matthews