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Out of Africa, and into the unknown

A good friend of mine once told me that sometimes you find yourself in an "emotionally back-breaking, physically torpid, spiritually dehydrating place where you're pretty positive your life is being changed but you won't know for sure until later."

Well, that "sometimes" for me is today, and probably tomorrow, and the next day, too...

And that place is Uganda.

I returned from a two-month trip to that East African country about two weeks ago.

It has only been in the last few days that I have realized the impact those eight weeks will have on how I live the rest of my life. Uganda will permeate more than the decisions that I make about what I will do with my life, it has saturated who I am.

It is a place of naked desperation. Its poverty is always staring you in the face, begging for money on the street, pushing you on the bus. Its smell wafts up your nose. But that alone did not change me.

For me, the catalyst was simply human connection, the relationships.

I learned how to move with the people: to stroll leisurely to the market with Patrick; to take tea for a lengthy conversation with Benson; to stop for a chat on the dirty, washed-out roads in Gulu; to pray with displaced people in their cramped, mud huts; to enjoy just simply being together.

Once one does that, the mass problems of poverty, AIDS and war begin to have faces. And faces turn into names, names become personalities and personalities become friends.

It is those friendships that changed me - the way I think about time, relationships, money. It has shaken my American cultural framework.

In Gulu, a town in the war-torn north, we would delay work for hours just to sip tea and learn about one another, our opinions, beliefs. Because work will happen when we make it happen. Time does not hold us in an ironclad fist.

Our glorification of tasks causes us to miss out on some things that are deeper and more important. Ugandans have discovered that something more important is often relationships. Their emphasis on community is inescapable and enlightening. In America, we take care of ourselves; in Uganda, they take care of each other.

In Kampala, we stayed for a week at a guesthouse in a wealthier neighborhood where a missionary couple used to live. Every day, we'd return from town and find the dishes that had previously been piled in the sink washed and put away. The stove would be wiped clean. The floor even looked mopped. We had no idea how this happened. Only that it did.

Eventually, we discovered that the missionaries' old housekeeper Deborah still had a key to the house and was coming in every day just to clean it for us.

Hope, a nursery school teacher, would bring me a late-morning snack of meat samosas and a bottle of Fanta every morning I helped teach crafts in her class. It seemed like a treat I didn't need at the expense of other more urgent needs, especially once I discovered she had to buy the samosas from a restaurant and that drinking pop is considering a luxury by some.

In Kampala, a man named Abba told me and my friend that he would find families to give us free room and board if we came back to volunteer at a relief agency. The invitation was mind-boggling considering it came from a resident of a developing nation and was offered to two residents of one of the richest countries in the world.

But, it makes sense in the context of Uganda. If the community is meeting my needs, shouldn't I also be attempting to meet some of the community's needs?

This is the reason that Uganda has permeated my being. The faces in the news are not just AIDS orphans or victims of the war; they are now my friends, my neighbors, my community.

And they have educated me, loved me, cooked for me, protected me…

Not that these amazing people don't have flaws, and the culture didn't anger me (it did). At times I saw humanity's selfishness, cruelty, pride, injustice…

But, that's just it. They have the same imperfections, the same needs as I do.

And whether or not I can wrap my mind around the immensity of the problem of poverty, or can understand the frightening rate at which AIDS is spreading in Africa, or can map the complexities of the web of war across the continent, I can still love, I can cry, I can give, I can live life with my African friends.

And while I can't claim to know what that looks like while I'm living here in the Northwest (for now), I fully intend to figure it out.

Rebecca Mayer worked as the special section editor of the News-Times until leaving for Africa in July. She is back at the paper on a part-time basis. You can reach her at 503-357-3181.