The following article was published in the December 16th edition of The Clatskanie Chief, my hometown newspaper.
Former Reporter Writes About
“Lovin’ and Livin’ in Uganda”
by Ruth E. Howard Special Correspondent
I’m in love.
I admit it – I have been “captured by heart.”
Before I came to Uganda in January, I described in a Trident column in The Chief how Clatskanie had “captured” my heart and those of my family more than two decades ago. But, I also wrote that another place, not a person, had stolen my affections.
I am learning that “home” is a relative word and I mean that in a very good way.
In the nearly one year that I have been here in southern Uganda, this place has come to feel more and more like home. I am surrounded by beauty – in the awesome scenery of the lush green flora, bronze-colored soil, the massive skies and clouds, and the breathtaking star-studded nights.
I have found beauty in the people with whom I work and in those whom I serve. And, I continue to discover beauty in the experiences – in the ordinary and in the surprising which I encounter daily.
There is satisfaction and fulfillment in the work I am doing – spending time with young people, hosting visitors, assisting in communications and more.
I have become accustomed to the “inconveniences” of living on an island in the world’s largest tropical lake. Running water, hot showers and refrigeration are not necessities. I have found a new “normal” and learned I can live with much less.
I came in January to work with Shepherd’s Heart International Ministry (SHIM), a non-governmental organization based on Lingira Island, one of the 52 Buvuma islands on Lake Victoria. SHIM was co-founded by a good friend of mine, Karina (Thomas) Smith, who as I did, grew up in Clatskanie.
I stayed with Karina on Lingira Island during my first trip to Uganda, in eastern Africa, from October 2006 to March 2007. It was during that time, in January 2007, that SHIM was founded and in the nearly four years since, it has blossomed into an extensive ministry focused on the development and transformation of the islands.
I often describe a visit to the islands as “stepping back in time.” The western influence that has permeated the urban mainland areas, like the nearest city of Jinja, has for the most part, not reached the many islands scattered across Lake Victoria.
The majority of islanders still live in mud huts with grass-thatched or tin-sheet roofs. They rely almost entirely on fishing for their livelihood. Clean water is a rarity as sanitation is not understood or valued. Children often have no or limited opportunity for education compared to those of the mainland.
The 40 percent HIV/AIDS rate among island adults is staggering, compared to the six percent of the rest of the nation. Diagnosis, treatment and counseling for HIV/AIDS are only available at mainland clinics, which to reach usually requires hours of travel in a wooden boat across the vast lake.
Access to other medical services is limited – for many years the islands were considered “forgotten” by the Ugandan government and other entities.
But, God, the creator of the universe, never forgot the islands. And, I am so grateful to be part of a group of people which God is using to help bring change to the islands.
I also appreciate serving under the mission agency, Global Outreach International, based in Tupelo, Miss., which provides valuable counsel and various types of assistance from the states.
Most of all, I am delighted to serve a God who is a God of hope, especially in the darkest and most hopeless situations.
During this year my main focus has been in working with SHIM’s child development program, which is like a child sponsorship program. Presently, about 40 students, from primary (elementary) through secondary (high school) and up to those in vocational and university institutions, are receiving assistance with school fees, as SHIM has linked sponsors, primarily from the U.S., with these students.
Some of these young people are complete orphans, without mother or father. Others have a single parent who is struggling to survive and care for other children. Some have been rejected by a stepmother or a stepfather in their polygamist families. Their stories tug at my heart and my prayer is that an education will open a path to a better life.
It has been my joy to get to know these students and be a valuable link to their sponsors. In this role, I have also worked closely with the island’s secondary school, Lingira Living Hope. As one of only two secondary schools in the 52-island Buvuma chain, the school was established in February 2006 to bring education within reach of the islanders.
Beginning with temporary mud and roughly-hewn timber structures, the school has gradually advanced and now boasts a brick and concrete classroom and office block. Building dormitories for the students is an imminent priority to attract more students and encourage expansion. In November the school graduated its fourth class since its founding.
As with many new ventures, my job description has grown and become fluid as the months have passed. One role I especially enjoy is helping to host teams and visitors who stay at SHIM’s island base. I am always amazed at how an island, five miles in circumference, could attract people from all over the United States, as well as those from around Africa.
Considering my 11 years at The Chief, it is no surprise that I also “fell” into a position of helping with communication, which has included e-mail correspondence with the ministry’s friends and supporters, as well as creating newsletters to provide a glimpse of what is happening here.
SHIM is a tree with many branches, and it is my delight to serve with a group of people, made up of Americans and Ugandans, who are so diverse in personality and responsibilities, but who share a common God-driven vision for the islands.
Other “branches” of SHIM include evangelism and discipleship, economic development, family ministry, educational development, water and sanitation, and women’s ministries. (For more about SHIM and its ministry branches, please visit the website at http://www.shimuganda.com/).
It is difficult to put in one article nearly a year’s worth of experiences. There have been highlights such as being part of teams to conduct youth seminars and crusades – one on a southern island and two others near the Kenyan border.
Helping with the reorganization and expansion of SHIM’s island library was personally satisfying. We are anxious for the islanders to take advantage of this small library, which now boasts some 2050 volumes. Books and good reading material are hard to come by in these remote areas.
Starting and then co-leading a girls’ Bible study at the secondary school has fulfilled two of my “loves” – working with youth and teaching. Seeing these young women blossom spiritually and in other ways has made any effort very much worthwhile.
In the last school term, which ended in November, I was privileged to teach a computer class to two of the four grades at the island’s secondary school. Some students had never before touched a computer, or much less knew of such technical terms as “hardware,” “software,” “modem” and others. I am excited to lead these students and others next year on a continued exploration of this sphere of technology.
As with any “love relationship” there are disappointments and challenges. Seeing young people in whom you invested take a destructive path makes you question what more you could have done to spare them such a choice.
I have encountered homesickness, loneliness, doubts, fears and more. But, in those times I find it helpful to step back and see the bigger picture. And, as I do I am reminded that I am so very grateful. Grateful to be here and to be included in what God is doing on the islands and in Uganda.
I am also thankful that this place feels like home.
My original one-year commitment has stretched to 16 months as I plan to return to the U.S. in May. After a visit home over most of the summer, I intend to return to Uganda, my “new” home.
I have a feeling that my work here will continue to expand and develop, especially concerning working with young people.
Abraham is one of my favorite Biblical heroes. When Abraham was in his 60s God called him to leave his homeland for a foreign country he had never before visited. Abraham went – taking a bold step of faith. And, when God brought him to that new “home,” he promised to make Abraham a “father of many nations.” If Abraham had not gone, he would never have received God’s incredible promise and its subsequent fulfillment.
I believe God has called me to Uganda for the foreseeable future. And, I trust that He will continue to work in and through me here in this blessed “foreign” land for as long as He intends it to be my “home.”
I want to wish all of my family, dear friends, and The Chief’s readers a most blessed holiday season. May Christ be your focus as you celebrate.