A Gala Greeting in Gulu TowneRich Stigall
We Americans could certainly learn some profound things from Africans. I can venture to say, that you have never experienced a true greeting and welcoming until you have spent some time in Eastern Africa, Uganda. Greeting in Uganda is an age-old pattern of question and answer, of iteration and reiteration, sweet replies repeating the questions in different tonalities, eyes penetrating—locked into yours, holding each other’s hands in a continual pattern of first traditional hand shaking, then changing grips to knuckles, thumbs and back to shaking, its rhythm punctuated by subtle, soft coos and hums.
Goood MORning! How are YOU? How was the NIGHT? How is THERE (the land where you come from—the farm/weather report)?
It is very hot, a summer drought….
Hum, coo…Oh, It is hot?
Yes, it is hot, very hot indeed.
Oh, It is hot. But, How is your family?
Yes, please, my family is good.
AH, family is good?! Good, good, Praise the Living God, good, good! Your family is good…
Coo, hum hum, coo…smiling, shaking, holding…
Always good news of weather and family are shared. Bad news, if ever, only emerges much later, discreetly in conversation. You do not greet people with anything but good news. This is slowly appreciated and never rushed. This is the cadence of caring that warms the soul and creates friendship. It is the slowing of time to rest and fully absorb, to appreciate the Present, a gift of relationship.
Family is central to life in Africa, but the African family is nothing like our small nuclear American family. I was initially confused by the way people referred to their families. My Ugandan friend, Ruth tells of having three fathers and two mothers. That translates to “one of my mothers is my father’s sister and one of my fathers is her brother. Relatives that look after you as a child are your mothers and fathers. Even cousins several times removed are called sisters and brothers. The self made man does not really exist in Africa. A western philosophical maxim: I think therefore I am, attests to individualism. In Zulu there is a saying: “one is a person through others,” or as Kenyan theologian, John Mbiti puts it: “I am because we are. “ There is no me, without you…attests to integral community. The extended family—the clan and tribe are essential to the distinctive richness of culture and identity.
The strength of tribal family clan has a far reach in the children we serve. Great care is taken by the Parish Pastor and management committee to keep them connected to their clan. They do this by identifying a clan member who serves as that child’s “guardian” and communicating with them how together, we can help the local church community provide life care that they are personally unable to do. Culturally, the guardians are expected to offer whatever support they can. This often translates into once a month, the guardians volunteering on a Saturday to work the garden or bring fire wood, rice or perhaps a pair of socks to contribute toward the children’s well being. On school breaks the children often go to stay in the home of their guardian or another member of their tribal clan. This continues to connect them to their culture and community.
Mind you…these guardians may have seven biological children and eight more they are “Mother” to. They are materially poor people who are working as hard as they can to care for all they can. My American/western mind has a hard time grasping the “sacrifice” all Ugandans make for their extended clan. There is neither hesitation nor question—this is their family responsibility, both culturally expected and embraced. I can only think of the empty rooms in my house…and “family” opportunities never considered nor realized.
What does the face of family—and the face of generosity and hope look like?
I can tell you…it is a sacrificial spirit of care in the face of extreme poverty and trauma. Gulu Towne in Northern Uganda has been an epicenter of political trauma and LRA atrocities, for over 35 years. It is estimated that 99% of people have lost multiple loved ones and suffered horrendous acts of violence. Millions of people lost family homes and were destined to a meager existence on IDP (internally displaced persons) camps—refugees in their own country. Every person has a story of pain, suffering and extreme loss. It would seem an impossible place to find hope, let alone greeting.
Hope springs eternal. Hope comes when you least expect it—in the face of an orphaned child and her guardian’s quest. Child selection is a challenge as the Management committee reach out to rescue the children who are at the end of the line, who have no parental/familial champion who can raise them. The clan and tribe are sought out in placing children. Hope comes through the heart of each child, through the hands of those who love, and through the spirit of service. In just six months a hope filled dream has become a reality for 36 children and the parish community that is supporting them.
We have seen and kissed the heavenly faces of hope.
After multiple flights over two days, we embarked upon our eight-hour bouncing journey up-country toward our first destination. Stiffly, we unfolded off our Coaster, to a Gala Greeting in Gulu Towne, The Father’s House. There were about 50 women, the management committee and of course the children patiently awaiting our arrival. We would be their first team of Buzungu (foreign/American) visitors. A long table was set as a banquet covered with several white lace tablecloths in the center of the outdoor space.
They were all seated and had been waiting some hours for us—the visitors—their special guests. An immense program of welcoming speeches and children’s songs ensued. Joy was palpable, but the best was coming…celebration was unleashed in THE DANCE!
The heavy, animal skin drum beat a cadence that beckoned response. We could feel the strength of the drum in our very being. Slow swaying of arms gave way to leaping, processional syncopatic stomping and swirling radiant rainbows of joy. The colors of Africa emblazoned their native Gomezi pageantry (Native formal dress). Vibrant, ripened African colors enveloped the women guardians—mango orange, golden maize, verdant jungle greens, royal purples and every richest hue came alive in the sweeping dances of the women who wore them.
The celebration was about the children of the Father’s House. The banquet was brought by the guardians. Rich gifts of rice, ground nut sauce, roasted chicken, goat stew, lentils, stewed cabbage, carrots, greens, tropically sweet pineapple, papaya, mangoes and bananas. The quintessential accoutrement—Masala spiced, African tea to wash it all down.
It was a heavenly banquet—a feast for the eyes and a savory celebration for the soul.
“The poor will see and be glad–you who seek God, may your hearts Live!” Psalm 69:32
Together as one, our hearts were glad and fully alive!
Hope has a face here and joy has a dance…
Thirty six children, their guardians and “Mothers” have made and blessed this place into a HOME.
Greetings….You are MOST Welcome to the Father’s House in Gulu Towne