Under My Skin

I sometimes wonder if I’m the same person that I once was when I arrived in Uganda some six years ago, naive and totally clueless about the Ugandan culture, traditions, mindsets, beliefs, etc. I know I will always be an American, but I also believe I view life, friendship, politics and poverty differently. Africa has become ingrained in every aspect of my life….from what I eat, to how I spend money, to my manner of speech, to living without creature comforts (oh for a jar of Hellman’s and a can of Shout) and to developing patience. I surely do worry less and more richly appreciate the little things. And for these gifts, I thank the Lord for the opportunity to serve in this once strange land I now call one of my “homes”. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, The Poisonwood Bible, where one of the main characters says “Africa has gotten under my skin in more ways than one.” (She was, in part, referring to the worms that bore up through the feet of the barefooted.) I believe I understand what she meant.

Days seem to pass so quickly when there are no seasons, or ‘Hallmark’ holidays which are celebrated. The dry season is hot and windy and dusty and the wet season is hot and muddy and thick with mosquitos. I’m forever focused on what needs to be done, and who needs what, and how difficult it will be to accomplish those tasks. Hassan remarked that I used to carry a small notebook with my ‘to do’ list, but now I have a much larger one, haha. Anyone who has ever spent a considerable amount of time in a developing nation understands that the simplest chore might take hours, or days to accomplish. And honestly, some things just never get done….a concept that was nearly impossible for me to grasp…..because everyone knows Americans can do anything, or so I’m constantly told! And everyone seems to think Americans have a limitless supply of money, which compared to Africans we do.

We lost our dear friend Aloysious. I miss the man so much. We always enjoyed our time with him, though he was often difficult. He made us smile…..always wanting hammers and tools he couldn’t possibly use, his insistence that his past life was “confidential”, calling me Mother, and quite frankly, using the few shillings we gave him for emergencies to buy little plastic bags of waragi (local gin sold in little sealed baggies). Somehow I knew the morning of his death that he would be leaving us. I texted Hassan and told him we had to find a place to bury Aloysious, it felt urgent. Aloysious always said he didn’t care where we buried him, but that really wasn’t very helpful. Thankfully an old friend of his offered for him to be buried deep in his property about an hour from Kampala. We had a coffin made and the body was prepared. We rented two busses for all the people who wanted to say goodbye and attend the burial. The grave was dug (and lined with bricks and concrete) in a field by a wooded area. A priest performed a brief ceremony and the coffin was lowered by ropes into the grave and covered with concrete. (The practice of lining and covering the grave with bricks and concrete is commonly done to keep out ‘night dancers’, cannabal spirits.) In retrospect, it was all so simple….no embalming or mortuary or funeral home, just a simple casket and people who cared about him.


I had to leave the country for a few days (my ever present visa issues), so Hassan and I went to Rwanda. The bus left us at the border because Hassan was delayed at immigration (the clerk decided he wasn’t Ugandan based purely on his appearance and that his passport was fake). You know those border checkpoints you see in movies where you just hand your passport to an officer, pay your money and they stamp it? Hahaha, not in Africa. You walk, you wait, you answer a hundred questions, you wait, you walk along a road flanked by commercial vehicles, latrines, armed guards, wait, go to a bank to pay your visa, get back in line, wait more, answer more questions, get your passport stamped and then you realize there’s no way to get where you’re going because the bus is gone! It took us hours to finish the last 10 miles of our journey, but we made it. Kigali is a nice break, it’s so clean and modern and the internet works and there’s hot water and you always feel safe. We visited the Genocide Memorial and Hotel Mille Collines (the original Hotel Rwanda) and did paperwork. We only stayed two days and then headed back to visit one of our Shelter graduates who resided just across the Uganda border. He’s such a smart, good kid, but to make a long story short, his family doesn’t want him. His mother abandoned him, his foster mother abandoned him, his father never wants to see him again and his foster grandparents and uncles said they didn’t care what we did with him as long as he left their property. It was one of the few times I’ve ever seen Hassan angry, but it’s impossible not to be angry when every person a child knows as family abandons him just so as not to be bothered. He is back at the Shelter with us…OF COURSE HE IS! He’ll go to school next semester and we’ll just have to be creative in skirting the rules, because children are only supposed to be with us for 3 months before being relocated to their families.

I wish he were the only child who isn’t wanted by his family, but we currently have several others in the same situation. (No child wants to go back if he knows he will be beaten or starved or made to sleep in a cage or chained to a porch.) We just learned we have one little boy who is HIV+, so we must find a facility for him that will give him the medical care he needs. I get so sad sometimes when I look in their faces and hear their stories. An American woman recently told me that I didn’t understand poverty. She said I had a misguided view of poverty and that I saw myself as a savior using the Bible as my crutch. Really? Now, that got under my skin! Of course she said that never having lived in a third world country and never having done any mission work! I invited her to come and stay with me for a few weeks but she called me nasty names, haha. I think I’ve lost my train of thought, but truthfully, we do the best we can with the resources we have available, without ANY assistance from the Ugandan government. Fortunately, we have such good friends and sponsors and prayer warriors and mostly importantly, the true, living God!

Speaking of sponsors, we have generously been given a donation which will allow us to create a Classroom at the Shelter. We are in the process of emptying our store room, washing the walls and purchasing desks, cabinets, bookshelves, a chalkboard, file cabinet and teaching materials to have an honest to goodness classroom rather than a make do space around the dining table. The boys are so excited and we’re all so happy because it will prepare them for entry back into school when they leave the Shelter. (By the way, did you know school here is not mandatory and isn’t free even for the poorest children?) Hopefully it will be completed within a week.

The Sewing Project at the Remand Center is going really well. The residents have surprised us by making very cute dresses and shirts for their new uniforms. They’re now in the process of making shorts. Not only is this Project providing a service for the Remand Center, but it is teaching these children a valuable life skill. At last count there were approximately 30 children enrolled in the Project, which is great considering we started with about 15.

Everything else is going well! Poor Harriet is now roach infested…..but at least no more rats. We’ve sprayed, dusted with insecticide, put out sticky traps, but these roaches must be tough little critters because we can’t seem to get rid of them. Life definitely stays interesting! I hope y’all are fine, am betting you’re anxiously awaiting Spring. I’m so happy I’ll be back in Nashville for Easter (Peeps, yay!). I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone and catching up on the latest. God bless!! Love and hugs!!

Kathleen Houk knh3@me.com



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