The People of Uganda: The Music of Abiding Faith

 

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Ugandan Women at the River; Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

I tell my story best when I tell the stories of the people that God has placed in my life. Quite often, my heart recalls beautiful memories of a people that became an important part of my life. They are a people who touched me beyond measure when my husband and I served as missionaries to Uganda, East Africa.

The Ugandan people captured our hearts quickly and completely. We saw the great need and set about our work in village after village, doing whatever we could to promote self sufficiency and good health. We worshipped in their churches and learned about the amazing resilience of their Christian faith. Perhaps we helped make their lives better in small ways. There is no doubt that the Ugandan people made our lives better in big ways. It was so many years ago, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The two of us stepped off of a plane in the Nairobi airport to begin a new life. As very young missionaries, we had no idea what we would face in the days to come.

Getting to Uganda from Kenya was a long, dusty ride through the most beautiful places we had ever seen. Through bush country and savannah, through banana groves and rain forests, through tea plantations on the mountainsides and the deep waters of Lake Victoria, we were getting acquainted with this continent.

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Ugandan Crested Cranes; Watercolor

The terrain was ever-changing, and the way was marked by the majestic beauty of elephants, giraffe, cape buffalo, gazelles, flamingos and Ugandan crested cranes.

The most moving sight of all was the people, barefoot and downtrodden, wearing rags and carrying heavy water containers. Yet, the sight of women at the banks of a river dipping their water jugs to carry to their families was a portrait of beauty and community. In spite of the toll the war had taken, these women retained their pride and dignity, and their joy. They wore basutis (native Ugandan dresses) of many vibrant African colors. In spite of the fact that their basutis were torn and tattered, they caught the rays of the equatorial sun and were bright with the greens, oranges, burgundies blues and yellows that mirrored the Ugandan landscape. The women stood together in the river, at times laughing and talking to one another, and at other times singing, in spite of their ominous sociopolitical world.

Their country had all but been destroyed by the evil dictator Idi Amin, who orchestrated the genocide of 100,000 to 500,000 Ugandans. Churches were burned to the ground, schools pillaged, roads were in shambles. Children were left orphaned in a country of widows. Their faces showed the wear of grief, their bodies the mask of mourning.

They were why we had come, sent by God to comfort a grieving people. The days ahead found us digging water wells, distributing agricultural tools and vegetable seeds, giving out books, bibles, blankets and sewing supplies, bringing in simple medicines and vaccines.

I can never think of the Ugandan people without recalling Lamentations 5, a scripture passage that was read in a church service to describe the plight of the people. As the reader read through her tears, the entire congregation wept, mourning so many losses. I offer the text here in its entirety:

Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners.
We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows.
We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price.
Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.

We submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread.
Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.
Slaves rule over us, and there is no one to free us from their hands.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert.
Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger.

Women have been violated in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect.
Young men toil at the millstones; boys stagger under loads of wood.
The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music.

Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head.
Woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it.You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

— Lamentations 5, New International Version

That worship service in the Church of Uganda (Anglican) sanctuary was unlike any I had ever experienced. The people wept freely and openly, grieving the loss of husbands, children, parents. Once described as “the pearl of Africa” by Sir Winston Churchill, Uganda was a land of incomparable natural beauty that now had been ravaged by war.

As the reading of the scripture in Lamentations came to an end, one woman with tears flowing down her cheeks began to sing and dance. The congregation joined her, singing with great fervency, “Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. And I’ll lead you on wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance said he.”

The aisles of the sanctuary filled with dancing and weeping all at once.

Their mourning had turned to dancing. The inner joy of a people was not, and could never be, destroyed. Their hearts, so filled with the music of their faith, could not be silenced. They could sing. They could dance. Even through their tears. That is the music of abiding, persistent faith.

How grateful I am to God for choosing us to enter into community for a time with these wonderful people.

 

 

Dance Then, Wherever You May Be

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Some people just know how to endure grief and difficulty. While many of us cave in the midst of grief, others thrive, meeting their dark moment with unconquerable inner joy. Such were the people of Uganda in the terrible years of Idi Amin’s reign of terror. He was a monster bent on genocide and on destroying the country that was called “The Pearl of Africa.”

For eight years, Amin carried out mass killings within the country to maintain his rule. An estimated 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives during his regime. Aside from his brutalities, he forcibly removed the entrepreneurial Indian minority from Uganda, which left the country’s economy in ruins. Schools were gutted. Churches were banned. Wildlife was destroyed by poaching. Amin’s atrocities were graphically accounted in the 1977 book, A State of Blood, written by one of his former ministers after he fled the country. Now a country of widows and orphans, Uganda suffered greatly.

At the end of Amin’s reign, my husband and I moved to Uganda to help with the country’s long recovery. We worked with villages digging water wells, distributing seeds, fertilizer and gardening tools, bringing in medicines, vaccines and protein supplement, and offering books, bibles and sewing supplies.

During that time when grief was still very acute, we worshipped at St. Andrews Anglican Church in Jinja, Uganda. Expressing their faith, the congregants also expressed their intense emotions of grief and loss with tears, prayers, and testimonies. One congregant read the following prayer from Lamentations 5:

A Prayer for Mercy

Remember, O Lord, what has happened to us.
Look at us, and see our disgrace.
Our property is in the hands of strangers;
foreigners are living in our homes.
Our fathers have been killed by the enemy,
and now our mothers are widows.
We must pay for the water we drink;
we must buy the wood we need for fuel.
Driven hard like donkeys or camels,
we are tired, but are allowed no rest. . .

Murderers roam through the countryside;
we risk our lives when we look for food.
Hunger has made us burn with fever
until our skin is as hot as an oven.
Our wives have been raped on Mount Zion itself;
in every Judean village our daughters have been forced to submit.
Our leaders have been taken and hanged;
our elders are shown no respect.
Our young men are forced to grind grain like slaves;
boys go staggering under heavy loads of wood.
The old people no longer sit at the city gate,
and the young people no longer make music.

Happiness has gone out of our lives;
grief has taken the place of our dances.
Nothing is left of all we were proud of.
We sinned, and now we are doomed.
We are sick at our very hearts
and can hardly see through our tears. . .

But you, O Lord, are king forever
and will rule to the end of time.
Why have you abandoned us so long?
Will you ever remember us again?
Bring us back to you, Lord! Bring us back!
Restore our ancient glory.

Good News Translation

The people were on their knees in prayer, some crying silent tears, others wailing out their grief. One woman began to sing and quickly was joined by the whole congregation.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he.

In the midst of their tears, they sang this joyous tune, and then, all over the building, they began to dance. That is the way they endured their unspeakable grief and loss. That is how they embraced life after a time if deathly evil . . . with singing and dancing.

“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with a garment of joy.” – Psalm 30:11