Walking with Winnie
I grab her hand and whisper "let's go". She looks up at me with a sly little smile and shrugs her shoulders "where?". Her younger siblings are in the other room playing, and I know they'll want to come too, but this time I just want Winnie.
She curiously follows me around as I pack a few things. Water, always. Some hand sanitizer. And then I reach back into our freezer and grab a bag of tiny pieces of beef and stick them in an old jelly tin.
Her eyes light up with excitement. I put my finger to my lips "shhhh". If her brother and sister know we are going to visit the litter of puppies and feed their mother- we'll never get there in time. We have precisely one hour before our Palm Sunday zoom call with all the Serge missionaries of East Africa.
We walk hand-in-hand down the road outside of our house. Motorcycles and a few big trucks whiz by, everybody always staring. Before COVID-19 I always assumed people stared at our whiteness. Now I wonder if they're questioning our social distance.
I can't seem to remember the rules today. They're nuanced and they morph each time the President makes an announcement.
Am I allowed to hold my 5 year old's hand? Can we leave our house for exercise?
Adults are keeping their distance from one another as they pass us. 5 years old may seem too old for handholding here, where you see children even younger cradling infants on one hip and guiding toddlers with their other hands- but I decide I don't want to let go of Winnie for two reasons. Safety from the road, and... it's not often she reaches for me and holds on tight.
"This isn't the way we usually go" she says.
"We're walking a loop today, instead of just straight there. I thought it'd be fun to see some new things."
"Do you think the puppies have opened their eyes yet?"
"They have. I went to feed Police (the mother dogs name) just a few days ago. They've all got their eyes open. And a few are even crawling around."
Winnie squeezes my hand and tugs on my arm as she adds an extra skip into her step. "This is fun." she says.
COVID-19 has the world cooped up. Being out of the house and walking is fun. Seeing Bundibugyo through my daughters eyes is a different experience. I watch as she points out every living creature. The spotted goat eating grass in a ditch. The baby chicks scuttling through a dirt compound. The bird with the blue beak sitting on a wire. And the cow, complete with Winnie's new ability to correctly imitate the actual sound of a cow.
New parts of the world are becoming real to her. She is changing. Where there were just superficial 'moo's' before- there are learned, lived, and truer sounds.
We walk past groups of kids her age. They chant, "muzungu! muzungu!". I assume, the confidant little girl I know will greet them or say something back, as I've been trying to model this with the adults we have passed. But she pulls in close to my side and hides her face.
"They're excited to see us Winnie. Look them in their eyes and say "Wasayo."
She can't yet and that's okay.
We keep walking.
Parts of me begin to ungrip as I get the chance to be with just one of my kids, and to not have to worry about two others at the same time. I'm more free to talk, to listen better, to give thoughtful answers and to enjoy her. I can tell we are both uplifted, hand-in-hand, with fresh air filling our lungs.
We talk about how people build their houses by making bricks out of mud, and we talk with children who are washing their clothes in a bucket. We take note of what people are wearing and why. She points at certain crops, banana and cassava, and wants to know more. And almost as if on cue, a woman walks towards us cradling an armful of freshly picked cassava leaves, called sombe.
We say good afternoon to her, and ask her about her sombe. She doesn't speak any English but she tells us all about it. I translate to Winnie, but I only know about 10 phrases in Lubwisi, so really I'm just making things up and we all start to laugh. The woman wants to know our names, and wants to teach us how to say that.
Our brief encounter is showing Winnie how to communicate with people who don't speak your language. It can be so awkward, and so fun... if you're willing to not take things too personal and push past the embarrassment until you get to the laughs. Then you can usually leave with a new word or two.
My kids have been having a hard time connecting to a few of the Ugandan kids their age who we've introduced them to, because of the language barrier. They all spend time playing with toys on opposite sides of their room. Piper (4) is adamant; if you don't speak the same language, it's just not fun. I had this romantic idea that kids know how to break down barriers faster than adults do, if you just let them play. But in reality, ours may need the equivalent of some toddler icebreakers.
This walk is showing me Winnie is hungry for explanations of the new world around her. It seems so obvious, but we've been swimming in a sea of new that we've mostly been addressing what's right in front of us, not talking much about crops or fabrics.
Right after we say goodbye to the lady with the sombe, we hear someone greeting us from the side of the road.
I look up and see Destiny, the long-time best friend to one of our missionary families.
"Hello!" she says, her smile as bright as ever. "I've seen you asking that woman about her sombe. My mother is back there cooking sombe right now!"
Destiny's father comes to the side of the road, and so do her 4 sisters. We talk for awhile, until they invite us to come and sit in their yard. As we take a few footsteps up a slight dirt hill I see an inventive hand washing station, with four old plastic water bottles filled with soapy water hanging from strings tied to a branch. I'm brought back to the global reality of coronavirus, the dark blanket which is covering our world. How quickly a walk outside today had made us forget.
We sanitize our hands and make our way to their freshly swept dirt compound. It's shady, the perimeter lined in cocoa trees. We meet Destiny's mother who is sitting on a wooden stool, plucking bright green leaves off their red stems. She smiles, and visually takes us in while her husband (the chatty one) asks us questions about home.
"I've heard the virus has come to your country and it is bad. Is this true?" he asks.
"Yes, in some places it is really terrible."
He shakes his head and as he's doing it I'm feeling a shift occur. The African is pitying the American for the disease that has overtaken their (my) country. This is new ground for me. I accept his condolences on behalf of my nation and feel completely powerless as I explain that all my friends and family's lives have changed. He feels so sorry for the lack of hospital resources and all the death, but I assure him my family is healthy at home and for this we are all grateful.
Later as Winnie and I are leaving he encourages us by reminding us of God's sustaining power. Coming from a man who was born and raised in a culture where people naturally are forced to develop a baseline of long-suffering, his words hold weight. Coming from a man who has lived through endemics like Ebola, I trust he has relied upon God during many hards times of uncertainty, financial insecurity, and the stress of providing for his family of 9... and because of this he may know God better in this way.
Rather than coronavirus sending us down a black abysmal hole of confusion or pity, it is patching all my worlds together. This foe is uniting us all across the globe, stitching us together. With threads of fear, most certainly, but this morning the thread of faith is stronger.
Here, in Western Uganda at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains- there is a man named Stanley who is praying on your behalf, to God, to protect you and sustain you during this time. He is genuinely concerned about you.
Is this not beautiful?
It reminds me of a quote by Steve Saint that our team here has referenced a few times over the last month. "The world is looking for people who have scars in the same places where the world now has wounds."
In this time of pandemic, many of the attributes, life skills, and cultural imprints that will help us pull through, are the scars my Ugandan neighbors carry and live with every day.
My family and I still have so much to learn from the people around us.
It was time for Winnie and I to leave though, to finish our walking loop and bring the pieces of meat to Police (the extremely hungry and bone-thin mother dog).
We would be visiting Stanley again no doubt.
Our zoom call was in only 15 minutes, so when we got to our destination I gave her 5 minutes to snuggle those puppies. I of course, spent my time wondering which of these fourteen may be our future dog. She was in the moment, laughing and rotating them each onto her lap, in awe of their tiny squeals and squinty eyes.
And for today, this is just what we needed. Some fresh air. A chat with a neighbor. The gift and hope of someone elses faith. The joy of new life. And a little something to look forward to.