Today, I woke up in paradise.
Last night’s drive in from the airport offered little in the way of visual perspective. The morning sun, however, reveals the truth of Uganda’s natural beauty.
The mild and moist life on the equator offers this eastern African country a lushness that defies full explanation. Palm trees, flowering bushes and an overall thick vegetation blanket rolling hills and valleys.
Stone and brick homes surround the immediate vicinity – most topped with the regions trademark red clay roofing tiles. These tiles stand in visual contrast from the endless green that envelops every structure.
I’m told that Kampala spreads out for numerous valleys in each direction, all leading to the edge of Lake Victoria, the head of the Nile River and the second largest fresh water lake in the world.
The morning sun lights the sky in soft pastels that reflect off of the lake which is just a few miles away. The stillness
that consumed the evening continues this morning as a cool, sweet breeze carries the rhythmic thumps of a nearby church’s worship service. Their praise mixes with a chorus of rooster crows, and the chatter of countless birds, including the red-crested turaco (whose call sounds like a monkey) to become the morning’s soundtrack.
Some say Eden was in Africa, and in this moment, I can believe it. Any concern, any fear that I might have held about this trip melted away in this dawn.
Breakfast included fresh pineapple and mango. I should point out here that if you live in the United States, you have never actually had fresh pineapple. It is always picked early and shipped thousands of miles. Here, it is plucked only a few days before, making it juicy, sweet and strong.
Our primary destination today is Watoto Central. The Watoto Church has several branches in the city, one in each direction (Watoto North, Watoto South, etc.) with Central serving as the hub.
In the light of day, Kampala comes into focus. Uganda is a country of contrasts. The natural beauty is interlaced with a city that – to outsiders – feels chaotic and soiled. My neat-freak inner self wants to Clorox the whole city, but my initial impressions are supplemented by a better understanding and give way to acceptance (more on this later).
Structures span a wide chasm from gated homes surrounded by tall walls topped with barbed-wire to simple brick structures with rusted tin roofs. Mostly, though, there are the shanties about the size of a walk-in closet. They are made with hodgepodge of plywood, planks and tin with permeable walls that serve little to shield the inhabitants from any wind or weather. Some serve as homes, some are shops, but to virgin eyes seeing thousands upon thousands of these shanties is difficult to watch. Nothing in the United States – short of the homeless – even comes close.
What’s striking is that all of these types of structures (gated, brick, shanties) often stand right next to each other.
The drive to church is short but adventurous (I’ll post about Ugandan traffic next). Watoto Central holds one service on Saturday night and five on Sunday with an estimated attendance of 20,000 weekly and at about 40,000 total members at all of its locations.
To facilitate moving that number of people through, they have developed a simple entrance-exit system. Members attending the 10 a.m. service (us) wait on one side of the building, while the previous service exits through the other side of the building.
While we wait, I draw a few stares. I can almost hear their thoughts: That muzunga is almost clear. Fair.
Watoto Central’s building is a retrofitted movie theatre. It is the largest, indoor public gathering spaces in the city. It also has a horrific history. The theatre was used as a detention and interrogation center during the rule of Dictator Idi Amin. When the church took over the building, they scrubbed blood off the walls and aisles.
Today, the inside looks like a traditional movie theater (flat not stadium seating) with a balcony. A modern, horizontal TV screen spans the length of stage. There’s a small band with keyboard, drums and guitar. They are almost swallowed by the size of the stage. Within minutes, two choirs dressed in bright yellow tunics took the stage, then five young worship leaders stepped forward.
From note one, I fought back tears. I’ve grown up in a non-denominational church. I’ve experienced amazing worship, but nothing, nothing that compared to this. Every voice from the front row to the very last sang in unabashed worship. There was no pretense, no games, no eyeballing the neighbor to see if they were raising their hands.
This was praise – pure and anointed. At the end of 40 minutes, I was exhausted and left with a lump in my throat.
Sunday’s sermon focused on parenting. That might seem odd to those from North America, but remember that 51 percent of Uganda is under the age of 15. They are going to be parents soon. They need these lessons. Frankly, we all need these lessons.
I walked out of that one Watoto service understanding that for all our “development” and “technology” in the West, we’ve lost something that the Ugandans have found. Their faith is the center of their lives, not an afterthought. They love it. They live it. I want that.
Church concluded and we headed to Café Java, an Americanized restaurant. Our hosts – Randy and Judy – are doing a nice job of easing us into the cuisine. Baby steps.
Sunday afternoon was spent resting. We have a busy week ahead, so we ran only one errand.
We stopped at the local mall, which looks much like our malls, to purchase drinking water. Remember, you don’t drink the water here. Not to brush your teeth. Not during your shower. That’s life on the equator.