As we sat in an incomplete circle, I let my eyes rest on each of our 21 girls. I fought the tears that threatened to escape the webs of my eyelashes as I thought back to the last lazy Sunday afternoon we spent together before term break.
None of us knew that day of storytelling and hanging in hammocks and napping on the coolness of our home’s concrete floor would be the last we would have altogether — all 24 girls, Gabriel and I.
I knew as soon as I looked around the incomplete circle who was missing. Nantale, whose mother’s was still battling cancer in the village. Joy, who was diagnosed with malaria over the term break and was still recovering. And Suni, who did not return with the required materials (uniform, books, etc.) and was asked to come back after they were acquired.
Nothing about the incomplete circle felt right. We were not whole. The girls did not know it yet, but we would never be a whole circle again. Instead, on that first night back from break, our circle included a few of the school’s staff members whose presence felt intrusive in the intimacy of the evening. Since we only had a few minutes to spend together, I tried to ignore the others as I cleared my throat to speak to our girls.
But my voice caught before it could even make a sound and I was forced to give Gabriel the look that said, I can’t do this. I can’t. I need you to speak. And so my sweet husband began…
“Sometimes, we think we understand why God places us somewhere. But sometimes the reason why He has placed us there is completely different from what we expected.”
Gabriel was as encouraging and lighthearted as he could be, given the circumstances. He did not tell them of the months of conversation we had with leadership, leading up to our difficult decision. He did not tell them of our disagreements on philosophy and how we felt personal philosophies had infiltrated the organization. And he did not tell them of the nights we lay awake in bed, talking and praying into the early hours of the morning as we sought discernment on what we were supposed to do.
Instead, Gabriel went on to explain to our girls that sometimes God places people in our lives that challenge us to re-evaluate exactly what it is we believe and how firm we are willing to stand for what we believe is right. And sometimes, to stand for what we believe is right, we have to make difficult decisions.
And then he told them of the difficult decision we recently had to make — “Auntie Sarah and I are moving. We are going to West Africa.”
Our girls took a few minutes to silently process the news of our resignation before the questions started to spill forth.
“But who will be our houseparents?”
“Who will teach us?”
“When are you leaving?”
“When do we have to say goodbye?”
The last question was the most painful to answer — “tonight we say goodbye.”
Knowing we would only be given a few minutes with them, we wrote personalized notes ahead of time to give to the girls as a source of encouragement. Gabriel drew silly cartoons on each that illustrated some of our inside jokes. We thanked them for making us laugh, for sharing their stories with us, for trying hard in their studies, for being patient with us as we tried to learn luganda…
And after the cards were given, they gathered around to give each of us a hug. Cleo went through the line three times, while Kati went through it four. I was thankful for their antics, as they helped to lighten our mood.
Although we were not ready to say goodbye, we had peace about our decision to leave. We felt that to stay would compromise some things we felt strongly about as we bent to others’ own personal philosophies. But having peace about the decision to leave did not make the goodbyes any easier.
Knowing we will no longer hear their sweet voices at our window, calling us out to sit with them on the verandah or play cards or jump rope or have a dance party, hurts. Not knowing how their days have been — which class was your favorite today? What did you learn? — it hurts.
But if we had the choice to do it all again — to come to Uganda and be houseparents at this school and stand firm for what we thought was right — we would do it all again, despite the goodbyes we are now having to say.
Just as we tried to be lighthearted with our girls as we said our goodbyes, we are looking to the future with hope for what is still to come. And it is our hope that we bring these lessons that we learned in Uganda with us.
A measure of wealth
Here, wealth is not measured by material possessions. It does not matter how many cars you have, or pieces of fine jewelry, or even how much money you have in the bank — because all of that is expendable and it will not last forever. Wealth is measured in land, family and relationships.
The concept of “Africa Time” is widely known by any who have traveled to or lived somewhere on the continent. For westerners who keep time, it can be a difficult adjustment because it seems no one cares to be precise. You might set up an appointment to meet someone who arrives an hour or two late. But if you dissect it, Africans aren’t trying to ignore watches — their culture is simply event focused, rather than clock focused. When it’s the right time for the event to start, it will start.
Learn to laugh at yourself
We have enjoyed trying to understand Ugandan humor. And what we’ve learned is that often, we mzungus are the source of it. Just this past week, a Ugandan friend invited us to a comedy event in Jinja where the MC shone a spotlight on our table of mzungus and made jokes throughout the evening about the “white people” in the crowd.
…the small stuff. No one is immune to sweating in Africa, but you can control the things you sweat. If no one in town has chocolate for milkshakes, or the electricity has been cut for a few hours without reason, don’t sweat it. Kyili bwe kyili — it cannot be helped. There are much larger problems to solve than where that three-month-late-shipment-of-dr-pepper is.
We loved our short time in Uganda. We loved the people we met, the food, the weather and the raw beauty of the African landscape. And the dance parties — oh how we'll miss the dance parties with our girls. While we are sad to leave, we also look forward in anticipation of what’s to come.
To protect the privacy of Amazima's students and families, we do not use their legal names in blog posts. Unless we had permission to publish their story, aliases will be used.