It smells of moist earth, fresh air, and lush green leaves. It feels like the grass beneath my feet, the cool patter of raindrops falling on my skin, and the warmth of small hands in mine. It tastes of fresh fruit, brightly colored curry powders from the market, and warm matooke that is fresh from the charcoal oven. It sounds like rain, wind, and children laughing. Africa is beautiful, but if you look too closely you can see what some might deem to be the ugly side of paradise.
My first impression was and always is—how can this be? Poverty on this level reeks of abandonment, of a God that failed to answer even the smallest prayer, and forsook His people in what was paradise now turned to living hell.
That is always the impression if you look with your eyes instead of your heart. But if you looked closer—look deeper—you can see something that is truly incredible. Faith. Faith is something you cannot see as a physical object, but you can see it in the way it manifests itself.
People who feel that God has forsaken them do not smile every day. They don’t open their homes to strangers and offer what little they have. They don’t give their children holy medals to wear in devotion to saints. They don’t pray at Mass for hours on end. They don’t pray. Period. Because they would see no point. During my stay in Africa, I never met a soul who appeared forsaken.
If you look closer at the people of Uganda, you see their faith manifest itself in the most incredible ways. I’ve never been more welcomed in my entire life, nor had the privilege to serve beside such truly good and devout people. It doesn’t matter that they’re hungry, that their houses are small and dilapidated, that the clothes on their backs are frayed and full of holes, or even that they are struggling to pay for food, much less their children’s education. God is good to them. They have their friends and their family, but most of all they have their faith.
It is the most incredible thing to witness, and sometimes it is a paradox. How can someone who has nothing have so much? Some days I think I know the answer, other days I’m sure I don’t. But I do know that these people have given me renewed faith, because I am sure that if God was not there giving them grace, sustaining them somehow through their faith, they could not survive. But they are here, so He must be as well. It’s a miracle we seem to take for granted.
One day as I was walking home from the nursery school, I found myself walking beside one of my students. She was a small girl, maybe four or five, very thin, and often solemn, though not unhappy. Her uniform had a rip in the side that hadn’t been patched, and part of her collar was starting to come loose. She had her small plastic lunch pail in her hand, and was trudging over the wet grass through the convent and toward home.
Most of my students exited through the gate, turning left or right to walk home alone, but this little girl had to walk through the convent, the primary teachers college, and down a long dirt road to reach home. She walked alone, without fear, never deviating from her path or stopping to talk or pick up pebbles to toss at each other like some of the other children did.
So I offered her my hand, and without a word she took it, and together we walked towards home. When it came time for us to part ways, she looked up at me and smiled, then let go of my hand without a word and walked away.
She was one of those children that often came to school with her lunch pail empty. If there had been something in it that morning, she’d eaten it already, too hungry to wait because there had been no breakfast and possibly no supper the night before. Her uniform needed replacement, or at the very least some loving hands to mend it, and her old sandals were becoming too small for her feet. But she didn’t let any of that stop her.
She never raised a hand against her classmates, never raised her voice, never stared jealously at the other children’s things or tried to take them. I’m sure that the guidance of the sisters and teachers helped her, but still she needed faith. Her small miraculous medal was worn about her neck, and she graciously accepted her porridge and whatever snack a classmate was willing to share with her. I don’t know who gave her the miraculous medal she wore on that frayed blue string, or who she went home to every day, but whoever it was they had given her an enormous gift in sharing their faith. Even if it was all they had to give, I get the impression that it was enough.
It astounded me, to watch her be so grateful for what little she had. The porridge, the snack, her friends, her teachers, her small exercise book in which she wrote her lessons—everything was a blessing for which she was grateful. She, and so many of her classmates. I don’t remember her name, and by the time I return to Uganda she will have moved on to primary school, but I will always remember her and pray that her faith never wavers, and that she continues to bless people with her presence as she did me that day we walked home from school together. Her example made me thankful for what God has given me.