The kids were chanting in the kitchen, in unison, that they wanted to leave the house that morning and go somewhere.
“Dad’s out of town, we don’t have a car.” I said, curled up on the couch in my pajamas.
Winnie, always quick with an alternative to any conundrum said, “You can borrow Laura and Michaela’s car.”
It was true. We could. But it was 8:30 am on a Sunday and I thought we were going to have a slow morning.
“Where are we going?” I asked them.
“To the hot springs!” Piper shouted. “The HOT SPRINGS!”
“You need lunches, and sunscreen, hats and waters…” I started through the list.
“Easy!” they said.
Their motivation and teamwork was impressive. In a matter of 15 minutes they were ready at the door with everything we needed. They even ran down and grabbed the car keys from our neighbors.
My little crew and I were off, headed to Semuliki National Park, just 30 minutes away.
We rarely need to get in the car as a family, so driving is a really exciting activity for all of us. I try to remind myself to point out things to my kids as we drive, to help them learn about the context of where we are living.
As we crawl up a hill and round a corner, I ask them what they see in the distance.
“Mountains!” they say.
“You’re right, those are the Blue Mountains. And over the mountains is where Luke and Miriam and Isaiah live.”
“Mom I’ve known them my whole life, right?” Winnie asks.
“Of course” Piper says “mom was pregnant with you the same time Miriam was in her moms stomach.”
“Uterus.” I whisper under my breath. “That’s right Pipes.” I say louder.
“That picture of you guys at the beach is funny.” Winnie says, referring to Anna and I in bathing suits at Coronado Beach, when we were just weeks away from giving birth. It was Anna’s going away party almost 7 years ago, before she and her husband and their family moved to be medical missionaries in Democratic Republic of Congo.
She and I had our babies, and parted ways, until a few years later they asked us to join their team in the Congo. Mike, 3-month old Boston, and I made a visit to their village Nyankunde, but ultimately decided not to move there.
“Wait” Piper said “Congo IS RIGHT THERE?” she said, pointing out her window.
“Yes. Can you see the Semuliki river out there?” I asked.
“No.” the kids all said.
“Well, it blends in. That is what separates Uganda from Congo. The last time Miriam and her family came here to see you guys, they took a canoe across the Semuliki River to get back home.”
I turned on a medley of Disney songs and we sang as we drove. (Moana’s How Far I’ll Go gets me everytime).
Anna and her family had been through a lot this year. Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is ablaze with tribal conflict. The updates I was getting from her were concerning in that Nyankunde was starting to see an increase in violence. Eventually their village broke out in war, with gunfire and violence ending in innocent people being killed. Their family and almost everyone else living there fled at the very last moment into Uganda. I was worried for them and the people of Nyankunde. Our kids understood a PG-rated version of what was happening, as we prayed together as a family for the “bad things to stop”.
“Is Miriam in the US now?” Winnie asked.
“Yes.” I said. And literally as I was explaining what it means to have to flee from violence, and as the kids started asking questions, we passed a place called Bubukwanga.
I don’t expect you to know what Bubukwanga is, so let me explain a little.
Bubukwanga is a town on our road that boasts a large plot of land set aside as a makeshift camp for large amounts of vulnerable people. It isn’t technically a refugee camp, because it doesn’t fit the rules of a refugee camp, namely that it is too close to a border. And the people who come here have not been filed under refugee status yet. They are still in the active process of fleeing. I believe they fall under the category of forced migrants (soon to be refugees).
As of today, because of the violence in Eastern DRC, Bubukwanga is bustling with people. People have run from very similar areas of where our friends left, crossed the Semuliki river into Uganda, and are here for the time being, surviving.
But we drove so quickly that my kids didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
The road curved into more dense of forest, and Winnie said “this is the spot we look for monkeys!”
Black and white colobuses can be easy to spot, they gather together in the trees and the tip of their long black tails looks like they’ve been dipped in white paint. They stand out against the canopy of green, and make for a great car game of eye spy. They looked for monkeys while I thought about Bubukwanga.
When we got to Semuliki a park guide met us and formally introduced herself. We meandered through forest paths until we reached the infamous hot springs. These aren’t hot springs you swim in. Rather it is like a large lagoon, with concentrated areas boiling and bubbling. There is a long wooden walkway you can take to an island that boasts a natural fountain of steamy water spurting upwards.
Piper looked at me sideways when the guide said “the water is so hot you would not survive if you fell in”. I chose to keep the kids off the wooden walkway, and judged myself for letting my fears keep my kids back from having the full experience. Fun times.
The hot steam was billowing up into our faces and Boston said “whats that yucky smell?”
“It’s sulfur.” The guide said, as she bent down to a drop a few eggs she brought into the water. Boiling some eggs is an added bonus to the experience.
I took another inhale in and couldn't smell anything. Still waiting for my post-covid sense of smell to return.
The day was getting hot, so once the eggs were done we put them in a plastic bag and headed in the opposite direction of the hotsprings. Up towards the mountain, towards a humble waterfall. The kids took off running through a forest path that was completely overridden in bramble. All I saw were little feet turning corners as I ran behind them. The guide was up front with Winnie, I could hear her telling Winnie to slow down.
I love adventuring with my kids, but when I don’t stop them from going full force- I am surrendering fears along the way. On this particular path, it was mostly snakes, or them stumbling upon an aggressive baboon. But I could see up through the trees that Winnie obeyed the guide and slowed her pace, letting the older wiser one with a rifle lead and clear the way. I felt better about that.
The waterfall was a perfect distance away, just as Piper was starting to slow down we heard Winnie screaming excitedly about the water. We climbed up and over a few rocks, and made it to the base of a massive wall of rock, with water trickling down.
The kids swam and splashed in the water (again, having already let go of fears of schistosomiasis last year and allowed my kids to swim locally- then take medicine yearly to treat). We relaxed in the shade, they scrambled up rocks and collected sticks. I took pictures of them. We peeled open our hard boiled eggs and ate them, they were somehow salty and we all agreed they were the best eggs we’d had. Then we hiked our way back down to the car, tipped our guide, and headed home.
I knew we were going to pass Bubukwanga soon, so I preempted a conversation and asked my hot and tired kids “we are safe now, but just pretending, if you had to run from your home what would you want to bring?”
I can’t remember what each kid said exactly. I do remember it wasn’t practical, and would have been nearly impossible to actually carry for long distances. But we imagined together. Processed through it. They kept referencing how when they returned to their homes they would do x, y or z. We spent some more time talking about how some people don’t ever get to return home. And it was really difficult for them to completely understand.
Now, I understand the controversy behind poverty tourism. Rich people coming to spend time in a poor place to “have an experience”. But as we were driving past Bubukwanga I pulled to the side of the car. I gave it all a quick thought.
We live here. We aren't flying in to oogle for a day and leave.
I want my children to understand what is happening around us.
I want them to grow in empathy and love for others.
Their friends just fled their home.
Our decision to live in proximity to people experiencing this particular kind of hardship I believed changed what I was about to do from poverty tourism into something different. It was more of a lesson on our cultural context and could easily shed more light onto the situations of people we know and love here.
I took a turn off the main road and decided to show my children what a transit camp looks like, how many people are living there, and answer any questions that came up. We drove parallel to a chain-linked fence that had rags of clothing drying in the sun. Kids were out, being kids, playing soccer and jumping around. Some saw our car and ran to the fence. Our kids sat in the backseat and looked out at them. When I got to the gate where the UNHCR registers visitors, I said hello, the worker smiled, and I turned to drive away.
The people who are living in the camp are also a part of the same language group of people we live around. My children know how to greet in Lubwisi, so I encouraged them to wave, smile back, and say “Olayo”.
Piper and Boston did. Winnie offered up the best of her shy self.
The Congolese kids were surprised and laughed.
We heard some Swahili, Lubwisi, and English.
“I bet they know French too.” I said. “These kids might speak 4 different languages… I wish I knew how to do that.”
We continued the greeting in Lubwisi, asking how they were. Then we said goodbye, and kept driving.
“That big white tent is where the mamas and babies sleep.” I said. “And all these people eat from the same kitchen, up there.”
I knew the inside of the camp because I had worked in it for two days over the last few weeks. Once to do a mass screening for malnutrition of pregnant mothers and children under 5, and once because our organization donated $10,000 US dollars worth of rice, beans, oil and jerry cans just as people were arriving and no big NGO’s had shown up. People were hungry and needed assistance quickly, so your donations helped to stand in the gap of the transit camp reopening. Both those times I was able to walk around and get a sense of the place.
It’s desolate, for sure. But there is water from a pipe, an outdoor kitchen hosting enormous pots to cook large quantities of food in, and a row of pit latrines. There is a rickety old playset, but kids seemed to prefer to play out in the wide-open spaces. Men gathered around in the shade of a few sparse trees, processing through all they had just been through. During my prior trips there, they had shared some of their stories to Jennifer and I, with her Lubwisi making the bridge possible. Women were scattered, but mostly seemed to be sitting tending to their children or talking with a friend.
“Can we go now?” Someone asked from the back seat.
We got back on the main road and headed towards home.
Our talk continued, of which I don’t remember all of it. There were big questions about God.
I reminded them that Jesus actually knows what it’s like to flee. Jesus’ dad was told in a dream to leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt, because a King was going to try to find Jesus and kill him.
"This actually happened you guys." I said.
The families arriving in Bubukwanga, AND Jesus, his mom and dad all had to run because someone was after them.
In their straightforward questions about where God shows up in a situation like this, I went back to that. When someone has been through a difficulty themselves, their comfort means more. And when that someone is God, you can trust that you won’t be left alone, and he knows what is needed to get through it.
How this all looks exactly? I don’t know. Could it be provision in food and water? In safety? In the sparing of lives? In the conversations under the trees? In a functioning health center nearby. In a quiet whisper from the Holy Spirit himself, doing and saying things beyond my imagination. Certainly all of these things, and more.
I wonder how much to share with my kids sometimes. Turning off the road at Bubukwanga felt like an experiment in expanding our hearts beyond our own realities, while simultaneously not wanting to dehumanize the people living there. (If we were to get out of the car, my kids would have been completely overwhelmed as they often are at markets or walks when throngs of children they don’t know come up and touch them. Attempting to not dehumanize anyone also meant protecting my children from this as well, so we stayed in the car.)
I know I don’t do this perfectly, but I’m taking the opportunities when I see them arise.
A few days later at bedtime, we asked our kids to each pick one person to pray for. Winnie and Boston prayed for my dad, who is miraculously surviving 16 months after his 6-month prognosis. We are grateful for that and hopeful we will get to see him!
Piper whispered up a very heartfelt prayer, fork God to help all the kids who are forced to run away from their homes, including Miriam and the kids we saw a few days before. Her eyelids were squeezed tight and fluttered in childlike faith as she shared her hearts desire with her Father in heaven.