This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to Buvuma Island in Lake Victoria. Joshua and his fiance, Joy, invited me to visit her family on the island. Her mother works for an NGO on the island and helps promote health, education, sanitation, clean water practices, etc. It was by far one of the best things I have done during my time so far. Was it easy? Not necessarily. Being the only white person within miles and having no electricity or running water and being woken up by bats and rats is not necessarily 'easy'. But it's not hard either...is eye opening and an amazing learning experience.
Buvuma Island is the second largest in Lake Victoria. Everything that is not grown on the island is brought over by boat. After taking a two hour taxi ride to Jinja we then had to take a 2-3 hour boat ride to the island. They pile the boats high with everything: people, sodas, bicycles, chickens, flour, petrol, cooking oil, etc. As soon as we got on the boat I realized I was in for an adventure. The woman sitting next to me started touching and petting my hair. I don't think she had ever seen a white person before, at least not up close. She asked Joshua and Joy various questions about what I eat, whether or not I cut my hair, etc. It's an uncomfortable feeling to know someone is watching you and talking about you but to not know what they are saying. I felt like I was in a petting zoo. Especially when the other people started talking about me and petting my hair as well.
I found out later that occasionally other 'mzungus' go to the island but rarely do they take the public boats. They have there own. (These are not tourists, they are other NGO workers or missionaries.) This stuck with me all weekend. And reminded me...as uncomfortable as it is sometimes, I want to be the one on public boats and taxis and doing things they way normal people do. If I am here to be a part of a community, that's what I want to do...be a part of the community. I don't want to set my self apart. Yes, it's incredibly awkward sometimes but it's worth it.
The island itself is beautiful. So green and surrounded by water, I couldn't get enough of the beauty of it all. And Joy's family was wonderfully hospitable. They let me help sort beans and pick tomatoes. They took me for walks around the village. We celebrated Easter simply and honestly, with no sign of the Easter Bunny.
But within the beauty there were pockets of sadness. I was told that girls there often marry by the time they are 13 or 14. Children aren't encouraged to go to school because the family can get more money if they start fishing at a young age. Families often have 8-12 kids and live in tiny mud houses. It was a small culture shock for me...the island is so different than where I live in Kampala. But the reality is, not everyone in Uganda lives like those in my neighborhood (which is still 'poor' compared to US standards but nice by local standards). To see the contrasts between poverty and beauty on the island was hard. Watching kids carry heavy water jugs or run away from me because they were scared of my white skin was hard. Seeing how people live was hard. Visiting a family with 10 children living in a tiny house was hard. Hearing the stories was hard.
And, yet, I am challenged again to think about the bigger picture. To look past the dirt and mud and see the beauty in Creation and in a child's eyes as she comes to curiously look at me. I am challenged to think about the variety of ways people live in Uganda and to think about how one country can have many beautiful cultures. I am reminded that it is an amazing privilege to be here. And I am reminded how much I am spoiled by non-essentials: hot showers, technology, and electricity. And mostly I am challenged to take off the blinders that focus only on myself...and instead live like other people and experience life with them.
Yes, it's hard to see poverty. The needs of Buvuma Island are heavy on my heart. But I also don't want to paint a picture that Uganda is full of poverty and sadness and brokenness. Because amidst everything there is still beauty. And prayers for hope, peace, and Love.
*To see more pictures of my time check out my Facebook album.