Last week a beloved family on our team moved back to America. Their 5-year term was complete, and a flight opened up for the first time in over a month.
In the midst of their packing they dropped off a container full of Duplos and a handful of My- Little-Ponies, which my kids were ecstatic to receive. The lid immediately came off, the toys scattered all over our living room floor, and they went straight into make-believe for hours.
Meanwhile our Ugandan friend was in our kitchen cooking for the farewell party later that night. We sat and sorted beans together, as she also ran between the onions sizzling in oil and a pot full of boiling plantain.
I walked over to the girls and asked them to pick out a pony for Robinah to give to her daughter. My request created a tension in the air, but no words. The girls were frozen in their play, unsure of what to do.
“Can you agree on which one and then bring it over once you’re ready?” I asked.
I went back to the tray of beans.
In less than a minute Winnie walked over with a pink fluffy tailed pony in great condition.
“Here.” She said.
I held it up to Piper. “This one?”
“Ya the pink one. We want to give her the pink one.”
It was hard to tell if there was any emotion as they handed over their new toy. There wasn’t any attitude, and there wasn’t any heart. It seemed… perfunctory.
Mom asked us to give away a toy. We don’t really want to. But we have to. So, here. Done.
I asked Robinah if her 2-year-old daughter would like the pink pony and she enthusiastically accepted the gift, putting it into her cloth purse. It was a small gesture of ours, a tiny attempt at trying to be thoughtful and distribute the wealth.
I never really followed up with my girls, to turn it into a teaching moment, or to see what was going on in their hearts. The day gave way into a sending off party that night, outside, socially distanced under the pink-yellow sky, with platefuls of food, and the familiar weight of having to say good-bye.
A few days later, feeling COVID cooped up, I asked Winnie and Piper if they wanted to go on a walk with me.
“Can we get lolly’s?” Piper asked.
“Sure, but it’s going to be a longer walk than where we usually buy them. Do you still want to come?”
We packed our small bag and set off towards the market. We stopped in a few roadside ddukas but they didn’t sell candy, so we kept walking. Many stores here are no bigger than a closet. They can be dark inside, and it often feels like sneaking into a fort when you enter.
Trying to find a place that carries what you’re looking for is akin to a scavenger hunt. I’m looking for a lollypop… I wonder if this one has lollypops… nope! No go. We’ll try the next one! We’re looking for soap… oil… bread… Fanta… sugar… etc.
We eventually found our lollypops and were close to Robinah’s house, so we decided to go and visit her.
With our limited ability to socially engage during COVID and develop relationships outside of our small circle, we lean on Robinah for a lot.
Help in the house, with our kids, as a confidant, language helper, and a cook. She does it all.
We walked a little further and veered off the main road. I held Pipers hand as we squeezed between buildings and shimmied over a long tiny creek full of green sludge. We hugged a well-trodden path against a compound wall, as ducks waddled past our feet.
As we got closer to Robinah’s compound I bent underneath people’s clotheslines, and the girls weaved through the maze of dangling skirts and dresses. We stopped to say hello to a few curious kids whose mothers and aunties were sitting outside brushing and braiding one another’s hair.
And then we came around the corner onto Robinah’s dirt compound, which this afternoon appeared deserted. Laundry was drip drying, and no one was around. We had only ever seen it as a place of gathering and activity.
“Awwww…” Piper said, disappointed. “Nobody is here.”
On one side was a row of a few rental rooms. On the other side, an outdoor kitchen. A girl stuck her head out from the curtain hanging from Robinah’s doorway. She was surprised to see us. She put her sandals on and brought out three chairs, then called to the room at the end. Robinah’s mother (in-law) came out and was surprised to see us as well.
Winnie leaned in. “Can we have our candy now?”
I looked around and it was just us. I don’t think an adult would be envious of my children’s suckers, and we had bought a few extra to share.
“Sure.” I said.
The girls sat and enjoyed their treat while I struggled more than usual to pull out whatever Lubwisi words I knew. Nothing I pieced together made sense. Everything I wanted to say I couldn’t. I wished I had brought a dictionary, or some notes.
If eyes could speak this woman was cheering me along, motivating me to keep trying. In the middle of our “conversation”, I kept hearing a loud cracking noise and looked past the compound to see a group of boys slamming rocks against each other.
“What are they doing?” I asked in English.
She stood up and asked us to follow her over into Robinah’s 1-room studio. She moved the curtain to the side, bent down, and smoothed her hand against the inside floor. Then looked up at us.
We didn’t fully understand, but in the midst of trying to figure out what she was doing, something else happened.
My girls got to see inside of where Robinah lived.
Someone they know and love, who knows and loves them. Someone who has made them laugh, gone on walks with them, and taught them about their new world. Someone who loves Jesus and leads a worship team with full abandon. Someone who has put way too much sugar in their tea, to their delight, over and over again, and fed them cookies before lunch, over and over again. But mostly, someone who shares her life and her joy with the people she loves, including us and her two children and husband.
My girls were getting a glimpse into a very intimate, very humble, and completely different way of living. This room was the size of our kitchen, perhaps smaller. 2 single mattresses. A TV in the corner. Some stacked chairs and the family’s clothes in a pile.
And then Piper gasped. “Winnie look!”
I glanced down at Winnie to see if she saw it.
Proudly standing in the middle of a small table was one toy.
The pink my little pony.
Winnie didn’t say anything until we got back to the main road.
“Mom? Do you think that is the only toy Tricia has?”
“I don’t know. Did you see any other toys?”
“No.” she said.
We continued to walk home with our backs against the setting sun.
“Mom?” Piper asked. “Why do so many kids we see have holes in their clothes?”
It was as if the veil had been lifted.
We spent the remainder of that walk talking about the different ways people live. We talked about how some people are born into a life where they don’t have a lot, and there aren’t a lot of options. Some don’t even have what they need. Including parents.
These people are real to them now, they are kids who come in the afternoon to drum on our porch and to play out front. They have personalities, and are quite fun. Some of these kids mothers and fathers have had to abandon their children and go to other places for reasons we don’t fully understand, but I imagine have to do with desperation and finding work to survive.
We talked about how Jesus said he draws close to people in these circumstances, and how he asks us to do the same, which is one of the main reasons we moved here, however imperfect we may do that.
To be honest, I am very imperfect at doing that. I hesitated giving to a woman who came to my door, asking for clothes for her young son who had just had a big growth spurt. The stores and markets are all closed right now due to COVID, and what he was wearing was getting too tight.
I have some shirts and shorts for Boston when he grows, that I shopped for at thrift stores in America. My initial internal response was that I wanted to hold on to them. Because I liked the clothes, and because it feels good and safe to have more than you need.
I asked her to return later, and I went inside to let her request settle. Before I got to Boston’s suitcase to see what we had, I relented.
Of course I could give some clothes away. What was I even thinking?
We are new to having “a front porch ministry”. Every ask evokes a different reaction. I always say yes to a hungry person, or someone sick needing medicine. I guess I’m just kinda weird about clothes, but I am thankful for Jesus who covers the massive gap between my inadequacy and His perfection. I am thankful for the Holy Spirit, who gently guides me towards trust and towards letting go, who unfurls my fingers from the things I hold tightly. And I am thankful for wise team leaders, who have reminded us that we are here because other people (you) have given freely to us.
In a lot of ways, children understand God so much more than adults. The things I thought I was teaching them as we walked were already fact in their world.
If someone is hungry, of course you feed them.
If they don’t have clothes and you do, you give them clothes.
That was only common sense.
Their sense of justice and responsibility was refreshing.
But the part that seemed new to them was they were seeing their privilege in light of the norm, instead of assuming their privilege is the norm.
We are living in the majority world now, and the majority does not live like us. So what does that call us into?
I wish I would have talked with them about the dangers of when we have too much. Not just when people have holes in their shirts, but when we have too many shirts to count. When taken to the extreme, we have contented ourselves with comfort and security, over God.
There is a real need in both sets of people.
We are being helped here in Bundibugyo, just as much as we are helping. Our worldview is stabilizing to give us a more accurate picture of reality. Our hearts are breaking and in each crack seeds of empathy and understanding are being planted.
And perhaps I didn’t need to say anything to them, maybe having seen that my little pony was enough fodder for now.
It has probably been a year since Winnie has prayed around our dinner table. Boston usually speaks up first and after his ‘Amen’ it is quiet, or there is some muffled laughter at the cuteness of a two-year-old, eyes scrunched, head bowed.
Then we begin eating.
But this night, the night of the pink pony sighting, when I asked if anyone wanted to pray, she cut in quickly. “I do.”
My eyes locked with Mikes.
She prayed, “Jesus. Thank you for my mom…”
I don’t remember the rest of the few words she said, but the heart they were coming out of was soft. And grateful. And humbled from the day.
I too was thankful. For being here, for the chance that we have as a family to be challenged and to grow, and the honor to respond to all the opportunities to love well.