By Lauren Chang
It all started as an ordinary trip to Uganda—that is if you consider moving halfway across the globe to be a student missionary for three months “ordinary.” I used to believe when I was accomplished enough—like when I became more self-sacrificing or developed a skill in medicine, dentistry, or law—then, God could use me. Well, I now know after three months of missionary time my preconceived notions of “helping others” couldn’t be further from the truth. God doesn’t need great people to do great things. He only needs people who are willing to say “yes” and take a leap of faith—something I think people like Abraham, Moses, and many other missionaries realized very quickly.
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I left on September 26, 2017, with fellow PUC pioneers Tom and Mick Borecky and later, my friend Sadie Valentine as volunteers for the Kellerman Foundation. Originally founded by Dr. Scott Kellerman, the foundation was created to help the Pygmy people in Buhoma, Uganda, who were displaced from their indigenous home in the National Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Coming to Uganda was a leap of faith because we knew we were called to work with the Kellerman Foundation, but initially, we had no idea what we were going to do. The only job we set up was to build two simple structures: 1) a banda, which is a community center that also functions to collects rainwater; and 2) a Pygmy house made by mudding bamboo frames. In fact, until we were invited to join research projects by Dr. Kellerman and Dr. Jean Creasey, a dentist in Nevada City, this was all we had set up to do for three entire months.
What I expected out of this missionary experience was to connect with the locals, to help others, and to grow and change because of it. All of those things turned out to be true—and to an even greater degree than I expected.
But what I didn’t expect? Generosity, friendship, and warmth like you wouldn’t believe. Downtime, and lots of it. Emotional breakdowns. Success not according to accomplishments and achievements, but according to relationships. Sobbing after listening to Christmas music because I missed home. Things not going to plan. The emotional toll of being constantly watched by everyone because you are a mazoongu or “foreigner” in the local language of Rukiga. And most of all, the feeling of helplessness from witnessing some of the poorest people on earth. I don’t think any amount of National Geographic pictures could have prepared me for the heartbreak of seeing and meeting kids with bloated bellies from malnutrition or people dying from extremely curable diseases. We saw some of the poorest people in the world, and I still struggle with processing and dealing with that degree of poverty to this very day. But despite it all, these people are some of the happiest, most generous folks I have ever met. They invited us in time after time for the holidays or to share meals simply because we had become friends.
One of our friends Christine Twasiima (Rukiga for “we appreciate”), works in a tourist shop with mountain gorilla merchandise and crafts. She spent countless afternoons teaching me how to weave baskets. There we would weave with our grass piles and needles for hours at the door of her shop, either talking and laughing with the other shopkeepers or hiding inside from the tropical rain. For many of those afternoons, she shared her lunch of matooke (bananas made like mashed potatoes), beans, and sweet potatoes in a light sauce, telling me that all the locals purposely prepare more food than they need in case of hungry visitors or friends. And the people know everything about everyone. One day, when I decided to stay in for a day of resting, I thought nobody would even notice. Later, I found out that everyone was worried and asked Tom and Mick as they passed by if I was OK and why I wasn’t there. Christine even called me to check on me. What I love the most about the culture is it is relationship-oriented and there is no sense of time at all. People will sit around and talk to you for as long as you’ll let them because this culture is centered around relationships—not productivity.
Another friend of ours named Gemma is the manager of a gorilla trekking lodge. We initially came to buy ice-cold sodas, but we ended up becoming instant friends when I asked her to teach me some Rukiga. Two months later on her off-days, Gemma took us to her hometown via a 4-hour bus ride at 4 a.m. through windy mountain dirt roads (and lots of honking!). After escaping the clutches of death, however, we ended up having one of the best days of our entire trip. We visited Gemma’s house built from the ground up by her father, met the family—seven people were there, and this is not including the other siblings and their kids!—saw the family beekeeping houses, gardens, crops, flowers, forest, and the breathtaking mountain views. The air smelled of pine and a picnic was set out for us in front of the house that was cool and shaded as we ate the most amazing home-cooked meal of stew, greens, and potatoes—all cooked on a clay furnace with three holes and a single fire underneath. Our day ended with loads of gifts sent back with us: fresh honey from their beehives, sugar cane, mangoes, clay pots, and a gorgeous necklace. In my entire life, I have not experienced better hospitality than in Uganda.
I talk so much about these experiences because really, besides the research and two days of helping to build the banda and the house, this was what we did. The research took a lot of time and effort to conduct, it’s true. We spent many days going out into the communities and conducting focus group interviews and surveys or recording data at the hospital for our research. Additionally, I have grown much closer to my friends and family who were a fantastic support system as we worked through all of the struggles and hardships we encountered together. But sometimes, I ask myself: “Why did God bring us all the way to Uganda if what came out of it was personal growth, strengthened and new friendships, research, two structures, and the witnessing of terrible poverty?” The answer? I am unsure, but at the very least, I have a renewed commitment to helping and loving others as God calls. I believe God uses ordinary people who are willing to say “yes” to do great things, and even though I am unsure of what that entails from my time in Uganda, I trust what He has set into motion, nobody can stop.