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New Horizons

The Challenges and Joys of Missionary Life in Uganda

L. Charles Jackson

Before we left for Africa, we saw a TV show that said Americans were particularly incensed with “line-cutting.”_There is something about a person cutting in front of you in line that strikes most of us as unfair and even rude. Ha! The first time you buy groceries in our “big” store here in Mbale, Uganda, called Bam, you suddenly realize that there are five brown hands of various sizes filled with milk, bread, candy, or rice pushing their way in front of you. It’s as if the first person who can trick the cashier into taking something becomes the winner.

Your first instinct is to blurt out, “No butting in line!”—but then you remember that you’re a missionary. You remember that you’re here to give the gospel, and yelling at all the “cutters” might not be so great. If you get angry, you’ve blown a good testimony, but if you stand there politely, you may never get to buy your goods. Heading to the “queue,” as they call the line here, always makes me smile a bit, as it is one of the small challenges we face daily. My wife, Connie, still doesn’t love it, but she does a great job, and I find the whole thing rather amusing.

When we first arrived in Mbale, after leaving a wonderful church in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived and worked for almost twenty years, we often felt like we had been transported back in time to the 1870s or to the American Wild West. It was exciting and unsettling all at once. It was hard to tell where everyone and everything was going in such apparent chaos.

We often heard shouts of mazungu, which means “white person.” Little children would run alongside our vehicle yelling mazungu and waving their hands. Things are much more comfortable now, that is, familiar. In our area of Mbale, the yelling has slowed down a bit, and I’ve noticed that some of the kids are now running along beside our car and yelling to me, “Pasta Ericki” (a testament to fellow missionary Eric Tuininga’s good work here). I’m finally now known as “Docta Charlsi.” There is less running, but there are still smiles, waves, and happy voices greeting us.

We love it here, and, in some ways, it feels like we’ve been here forever, while in other ways it feels like we just moved and know next to nothing about our new home. The strange and foreign experiences we have had in East Africa have given us stories to last a lifetime.

When you move your family (for us, that just means Noah, the last of our six kids) to a foreign country, you encounter things that everyone told you about, but nobody could have really told you about. The simplest things from shopping to driving a car (on the left side of the road) can be a challenge. And then you wonder why someone is standing and staring into your living room window, apparently thinking that it’s perfectly normal. I want you to know the joys and challenges we are having here in Africa, so you can learn, laugh, and pray with us as we serve you here. I also hope that what I have to say will enable you to pray more intelligently for all of your missionaries overseas.

Even the smallest daily tasks, like buying food, can provide missionaries with everyday experiences that can be exhausting and challenging. Sometimes we’ve found ourselves quite tired, and then we are amazed that all we did was drive to town and shop. You have to understand that shopping and driving involve getting pushed, shoved, and sometimes hit.

We also go to the market, which has smells that you couldn’t imagine, and as soon as you adjust to the smells, you start to realize that what you just felt on your feet were a few rats running from the tomato stand to the avocados.

We have noticed that many of our missionary friends here are also experiencing the exhaustion and emotional strain of trying to figure things out, without their internal/cultural compass going crazy—while remembering that we’re here to bring the gospel to people. The market has actually become a nice place for us to shop and to strike up friendships with people like our bean lady and the old Muslim guy who usually has good cauliflower. We now appreciate the drive to the market as part of a weekly routine.

Speaking of driving, I enjoy it most of the time, but this is also one of those strange daily challenges. Driving in Africa is partly chaos, partly skill, and mostly just the good grace of God in helping you to make it through another day without a bad accident. Since I started driving here, I have lightly hit three pedestrians and two cows, killed a chicken, and been hit by two trucks and multiple motorcycles (called boda-bodas)—and I’m just the new guy.

Just last week, as we came home from Kampala, we almost got stuck in the middle of the road because of a dangerous mudslide from the torrential rains. The veterans here could tell you many more stories about driving in Uganda.

In fact, as you’re compiling a prayer list for missionaries, you may note that more missionaries are killed in Africa (and other developing nations) in vehicle accidents than by anything else. Yes, even more than snakes, spiders, lions, or any of the other African predators that usually keep people from wanting to visit us. Pray for your missionaries to be safe on the road as they travel each day.

The stress and strain of driving doesn’t come only from potholes or crazy drivers. You also have the constant challenge of corrupt police officers, who pull you over and ask if you have anything for them to drink. The first few times this happened, the policeman was surprised that no one in the car seemed to understand how this whole “bribe” thing worked. He was supposed to ask for lunch, and I was supposed to offer him some money. My wife and I would look all over the car for something that he could eat, while he puzzled at why we didn’t know the game yet.

Ignorance will only work a few times. I have been pulled over countless times, and I’ve been arrested three times for supposed traffic offenses. Once it was in Kenya, where we (Connie, Noah, and I) had to stay overnight in a strange place and go to court the next day. The courtroom story is worth a whole New Horizons article. Long story short: the judge let me off, and we drove home a day later than anticipated, but we were tired, frustrated, and a bit dazed.

Being in a foreign country and being told to give a corrupt policeman (who smells of alcohol) your car keys, and then hearing another one say, “Go to this cell; I’m holding you for forty-eight hours,” is unsettling to say the least. By the way, I didn’t give him the keys, and another time I was also able to avoid being jailed.

Driving is a challenge, and I don’t even have time to describe what a border crossing is like in East Africa. We have been through the crossing in a record thirty minutes, but we have also sat waiting for searches, bribe attempts, etc., for more than three hours. Connie is great at bringing coolers full of cold water and bananas. Somehow we laugh about these encounters, because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry—and so far we’re still laughing.

The primary thing I do on a weekly basis—besides getting arrested—is to teach at Knox Theological College (KTC), the Bible school started by the OP Uganda Mission. I also preach at churches in our presbytery (Mbale Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in Uganda), preach at the churches of my students, and provide counsel and advice in multiple ways. I’ve preached at funerals, and last year I officiated at a wedding. There are always youth conferences, pastors’ conferences, teachers’ conferences, and other speaking opportunities. Since our son Noah attends Rift Valley Academy in Kenya, we travel there to visit him almost every six weeks. When I go to Kenya, the Lord gives me opportunities to teach classes in Nakuru, Kenya, at the seminary of the Africa Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Teaching at the seminary in Kenya has been a joy.

I have also loved teaching at KTC so much! The “boys” at KTC, as I call them, are not really boys, but young men and some older men who don’t have much formal education. They love the Lord, and some of them are already pastors. In fact, one even claims to be an apostle. As you may have guessed, he, like some of my other students, is Pentecostal. A handful of others are from our own presbytery here in Mbale.

The students come from a variety of backgrounds, but all of them are very poor. They struggle every day to sort out how to go to seminary while supporting their families. In spite of the many challenges that my family and I face in Africa, we don’t face anything like the challenges that these young men are facing. It may sound simplistic, but I’m honored to receive all the blessings that I’ve been given so freely by God and give a little back to these men who struggle so much. One of the biggest needs in Africa today is for pastoral education. Pray for Eric Tuininga and me as we play an important role in meeting this need.

There are many things before us. The teaching, preaching, counseling, and conferencing will soon be supplemented by a Christian reading room/coffee shop. A December edition of Telenews described our hope to use a reading room to introduce good books to a population that generally doesn’t read. We’re trying to create a book room/coffee shop with local crafts and rooms for outreach such as Bible studies. Please pray for this endeavor.

Connie loves working with the village schools and with schools near our house, teaching phonics and helping teachers to teach. She is also working with many women here on a personal level to help with so many things. She has taken on a semi-fostering role for an orphan, Alice, and our house is now the breakfast spot for Alice and four boys on their way to school. Connie has done such a great job at hospitality that our house is usually filled with good food, laughter, and a growing list of friends. Everyone reading this should know that you are most welcome to visit us here. We have a guest room and good food. In some ways, things have not changed for us since our move from the U.S. However, in other ways, we can’t believe the new things that God has allowed us to share.

We have five children and three grandchildren still in the States. We miss our family dearly! We often dream of a future that could somehow allow us to work in East Africa forever and still have access to our growing family of new daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Pray for us as we navigate this all-too-common struggle that missionaries face when they leave their families and friends for a foreign country.

The cultural challenges here are exhausting and strange, and also often beautiful and very fulfilling. We praise God because we feel like we are a genuine part of the blessing of Pentecost, reversing the scattering of Babel by helping to build the church throughout the world. We are so blessed to worship with, sing with, and pray with our brothers and sisters here in Uganda. Although many things here are strange to us, we are able to experience what Paul meant when he said we that we are fellow citizens in Christ. Pray for us, pray for Uganda, and pray for all your missionaries as they face the daily challenges of living in a foreign land.

The author is an OP missionary to Uganda. New Horizons, May 2017.

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