Ben in Rakwaro

While walking along one day, with my camera hanging from my shoulder, I was abruptly approached by a man who named Henry. Eyeing my camera, he asked if I was a journalist. As I described my work as a photographer and filmmaker, he asked if I would be willing to do a documentary for his organization in a rural town in Western Kenya. Pulling out his business card, I noticed that it targeted the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. Anybody working to help children is a friend of mine, so I sat down to talk with him further.

Africa, Causes, Travel

Kayaking the Nile

Taking advantage of a rare lull in our schedule, we took brief trip to Jinja. Famous for its location at the source of the Nile, Jinja is one of the most popular destinations in Uganda. We arrived at our hostel just in time to join a truck full of rafting guides out to a campsite overlooking Bujagali Falls and the Nile. Waking up the following morning, we stood amazed by our view. The camp’s hillside setting allowed a large scale view of this beautiful, historical and important river. Deciding that there was no way that I should miss an opportunity like this, I hired a guide and decided to go kayaking.

The water was surprisingly warm. Ibra, my guide, was about my age and a friendly guy. A brief refresher course got me going and soon I was moving into new kayaking territory. Learning the t-rescue is the first step in learning how to “roll.” Although I had already learned the “wet exit” or how to get out of a kayak when it tips over, the t-rescue was a new approach. While upside down and under the boat, you are supposed to run your hands along the side of your boat until you feel another kayak bump against your boat. Despite being upside down, you somehow keep oriented, push off the other boat and flick your hips, snapping yourself back above the water. Sounds easy, huh? Or not. It was surprisingly hard to orient myself to being upside down and breathing in water.

From there we launched off into the fun part of the trip. We started at the damn, just near the source of the Nile, where it meets Lake Victoria. Passing through intense rapids was quite a thrill. Exotic birds appeared along the shores, the water and on the Nile’s islands. Between rapids, Ibra and I carried great conversations. The sun shone brightly on us but a breeze kept the weather pleasant. The trip reinvigorated my interest in white water kayaking and I’m excited about more opportunities in the future. What better place to go kayaking than at the source of the Nile?

Africa, Life, Travel

The Peace Tree

Civil war ravaged Southern Sudan for over twenty years, leaving devastation, death and destruction in its wake. Along with this damage, however, the war has left great hope among those who survived and who look forward to a bright future for their emerging nation. Hearing the stories of what the Sudanese experienced during the war, was one of the most remarkable parts of our visit.

Sudan’s political upheaval is largely a result of a nation that is supposed to be shared by two distinct people groups that could not be more different from each other. The Arab muslims have occupied Northern Sudan since the Mohammedan invasions of the 8th century. Southern Sudan has always remained the territory of black Africans. When the colonial powers of Western Europe mapped and divided the lands of Africa into colonies, they paid little attention to the potential problems that their artificial boundaries could create.

In his acclaimed work The State of Africa, Martin Meredith pointed out that “When marking out the boundaries of their new territories, European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground… In some case, African societies were rent apart… In other cases, Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups, with no common history, culture, language or religion.” (pp. 1-2) Meredith quotes Lord Salisbury of telling an audience in London, “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.” (p. 2) This is evident in Britain’s decision to unite two polar opposite people groups into the single nation of Sudan.

Since Sudan gained its independence in 1956, the government has operated from its predominately Arab-run capital in the North, Khartoum. The trouble is that almost all of Sudan’s vast natural resources reside in the South. The Southern Sudanese have long complained that the North has exploited their resources and used the resulting wealth only to develop the North. When the Sudanese government declared Islamic Jihad against the South, it began an aggressive and violent campaign to forcefully Islamicize the people of of Southern Sudan. This decision precipitated Sudan’s long and bloody civil war. Eventually the South rose up to defend themselves against government forces. Led by John Garang, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) eventually rose up to defend the people of Southern Sudan against the government forces of the North.

In 1990, the government sent a large army into the South in an effort to invade Northern Uganda and use it a base for further military campaigns in the region. When the people of Luwolo learned of the approach of the governmental force, the elder of the village walked down to a nearby stream and prayed. When he finished his prayer, he predicted, “If this land belongs to us, the government’s army will not cross this stream. If they do cross this stream, the land is not our possession.”

While the people of the community fled to the surrounding hills, the SPLA army emerged and managed to surround the enemy. As the North’s commander approached the stream, his vehicle was struck by enemy fire and he fled on foot. The SPLA gained a critical victory that day and the North’s army never did cross that stream.

Thirteen years later, in 2003, the war persisted in Sudan. In the area of Luwolo, there was a tree that had long ago fallen. The children used to sit on its fallen log. One day several children discovered this same tree standing upright. It was a frightening site to many people, because everyone knew that the only the day before it was fallen. When they called the same elder to come and see, he predicted that as that tree had fallen and stood again, the district of Luwolo and Kajo Keji, although marginalized and ravaged by war, would rise again. He predicted that in the time of peace a town would spring up in that area and that people would gather to be part of its development.

This phenomenon, confirmed by international journalists, is coming to pass. Peace has come to Southern Sudan, Luwolo is developing and the beginnings of a town are developing there. This tree, known as the “Peace Tree” has since fallen again, due to Termites. What remains of the Peace Tree serves as a reminder to the local inhabitants of how far they have come in such a short time.

Africa, Travel

My grandmother died last week, while I was in Africa. It was incredibly difficult to not be able to be there to say goodbye or even to attend the funeral. I wrote this letter to be read at her funeral:

While fully confident that God’s timing is perfect and that His providence never fails, I cannot begin to understand why He chose to take Granny home at a time when neither Rebekah nor I could be there to say goodbye. Over the past few weeks I cringed every time I received another email from Missy, fearing that it would confirm Granny’s death, forever settling that I would never see her again. I cried out to God to preserve her life. I longed for that time in March when I would be able to return and see her again. Were it not for my being stuck in the heart of East Africa, I would have been there for her and would be sharing in the grief of friends and family at the funeral today.

Although I will never see her again in this life, I know that I will see her again in the life to come. In our special times together, Granny shared with me about her genuine faith in Jesus Christ. She trusted in Jesus, believing that His death had paid the full price for the penalty of sin. Now this same Jesus has freed Granny from the presence of sin for she lives in a place that He prepared for her in heaven. Living eternally in the presence of her precious Savior, she will never again taste the pain caused by the sin of our fallen world. She has received a new body with perfect health that can never fade. Every hurt and pain that she has ever experienced has been healed by Him who gave His life for her.

While it is comforting to know that death can only mean gain for Granny, we who remain behind in this life will grieve our loss. She truly loved us and we all felt it. I’ve lived far away for so long but in those special visits that we had together, she expressed her heart for us as her grandchildren so vividly. I thank God for the gift of her life. I have long considered myself blessed to have a grandparent alive on both my mother and father’s side of the family. Now Granny is gone, leaving a void that can never again be filled.

I’m so grateful for the way that she loved my father and sought to lead him down the right path. Over the years she has shared her memories of my father with me and I will treasure them forever. He died when I was so young but by Granny and his sisters have helped me to learn more about his life by sharing with me how much he meant to them. I trust that their long-awaited reunion in heaven has already been beyond wonderful. Although their graves lay side by side in this world, their souls reside in a much better place. I long for the time that I too will be with them.

I’m weeping as I write this. It seems so impersonal to merely write an email at such a critical time of life. I hope that my family can understand how badly I long to be there today and how much it hurts to be so far away at this time. Please know that I am grieving with each one of you and that I share in your loss.

Thank you for being there for Granny as her life ebbed away. I’m sure that you made her feel loved during her dying days. I do not know why God chose now to take her home but I do know that everything He does is right and that I can trust Him. I thank God for Granny and all that she meant to every single one of us. May she now rejoice as she rests in heaven. I believe she would say to us with the Apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philipians 1:21)

Life

Sudan

A fortunate turn of events landed us an unexpected opportunity to travel to Sudan. When we started filming for the African Children’s Choir in Kampala, Uganda, they asked if we would be willing to join them the following week to film their work in Sudan. Money raised by the children’s choir has been going to help the people of Southern Sudan since the late 90’s while Sudan was still at war. Having desired to visit Sudan for a very long time, I was thrilled to accept the invitation to take a trip to Sudan.

The difference between Sudan and Uganda was immediately noticeable upon crossing the border. Sudan’s roads are not passable for anything but a 4 wheel drive. We drove through streams and up and down though bumps that only the toughest of vehicles can handle. Our 45 kilometer trek took over two hours to drive.

In addition to the roads, one of the first things you notice in Southern Sudan is that it is very under-developed. This is not surprising considering that Southern Sudan has been at war with North for over 20 years. The recent peace agreement, reached a little over two years ago, has finally brought reprise to the region.

Upon arriving at Liwolo, located in Kajo Keji County, we were welcomed warmly. Prior to beginning our tour, rain suddenly begin to pour on the area. They told us that every time visitors come who are welcome on their land, it rains when they first get there. They have many examples of this happening and believe that it is a sign of God’s blessing on the visit. Hearing this, we were relieved that it rained for us and glad to see how much they welcomed us. They even warned another party, before we arrived, that they better not travel because it was about to rain!

When the rain subsided, Charles began to show us around Liwolo. Charles is a learned and articulate man who has long worked in education. He is Sudanese and is the Field Director for HAAS (Humanitarian Assistance for Southern Sudan). This is the organization that Music for Life and the African Children’s Choir has partnered with to help their development. As he passionately describes what has been done and the ongoing goals of his organization, it is evident that Charles is passionate about serving his people.

Since the late 90’s HAAS, the African Children’s Choir, and a few other donors have partnered to start 13 schools, a teacher’s college (one of the few of its kind in all of Sudan), a medical clinic that is only within a large radius for the region, dormitories for the college and boarding school students, a library, homes, increased agricultural production and much more.

As I walked through all of this development and saw mud huts with thatch roofs, sticks tied together to form a fence around compounds, a complete lack of conveniences like electricity, water and plumbing, it reminded me of being on a frontier. Its an area that war has kept from development yet the people who have suffered so much are motivated to change all of this. I believe that it will be exciting to see how much this area changes over the next several years! We need to pray with our Sudanese brothers and sisters that God will preserve the peace of their land and protect them from further war and exploitation from the North.

Africa, Travel

Jeffrey

The reality of immense human suffering tends to be obscured by our distance from it. The greatest divide between us in the West and the worst tragedies of our time is not merely measured by miles but by circumstances so completely foreign to our experience that we can hardly relate. Getting up close and personal with tragic situations, and the people effected by them, can put a personal face on what is otherwise seen as a vague humanitarian crisis. I recently met a young man who did this for me and I would like you to meet him as well.

Jeffrey was born and raised in Northern Uganda. He was very young when the Lord’s Resistance Army, known locally as the “rebels”, stormed his village. One of his uncles scooped him up and hid him in a burlap sack and tried to carry him away. From the small holes in the sack, Jeffrey watched as the rebels brutally murdered his other uncle who had been a favorite to him. Unable to escape, Jeffrey was abducted by the rebels and forced to join their army.

While among the rebels, Jeffrey witnessed inconceivable brutality. One elderly man was demanded to carry more than his aging body could manage and when he unable to do so, they threw fuel on him and burned him alive. A rope was once draped across a raging river and the children were ordered to cross it hand-over-hand. Many of the children could not make it and fell into the rushing river without anyone to help them. He witnessed children who were forced to kill other children or be killed themselves.

One day Jeffrey saw his chance to escape, ran for his life and hid in a tree while the rebel soldiers searched for him. When he returned to his village he found nothing left but ruins. With no family to care for him he despaired of life. One day a woman found him and recognizing his pain and need, she took him in. She found a place for him among the children of the Otino-Awa Children’s Home and this is where we met Jeffrey. He has made great strides but continues to receive counseling to help him through the trauma that he experienced at such a young age. Jeffrey is only one of thousands of children who have faced similarly tragic circumstances. What is sad is that the vast majority of them will never receive the kind of support and help that Jeffrey is receiving now.

The LRA was founded by, Alice Lakhwena, a self-proclaimed prophetess and political activist. Joseph Kony succeeded her as the rebel leader and has waged war against the Ugandan government since 1986. While the LRA claims to be defending the rights of the people of Northern Uganda, the reality is that these are the people on whom they have inflicted so much suffering. They lack a defined political agenda but embrace a policy of terror. Without the popular support of the Ugandan people, they developed a strategy to reinforce their army by abducting children and forcing them to become killers. For thousands of children like Jeffrey, this has caused immeasurable devastation.

The LRA finally reached a peace agreement with the Ugandan government in August of last year. Now that it has come time to negotiate the terms of that peace, however, the agreement is breaking down. The International Criminal Court has indicted Kony and some of his chief officers of crimes against humanity. This creates a delicate situation, with convicted criminals seeking to negotiate not only for their cause but for their ongoing freedom. Recently when LRA troops appeared near Juba, Sudan, where the talks are scheduled take place, they learned of a nearby encampment of Ugandan soldiers and promptly disappeared.

Although the government of Northern Sudan has long supported the LRA’s cause, the rebels believe that the emerging government of Southern Sudan is sympathetic to the Ugandan government. This has caused them to demand that the peace talks take place elsewhere, in more neutral territory. Kenya has rejected their request to host the talks in Nairobi. Meanwhile, the Ugandan government continues to insist that the peace negotiations take place in Juba, Sudan. There is fear that if the if the agreement is not reached soon, violence will once again break out in Northern Uganda. It is the daily story on the front pages of Uganda’s papers. For the sake of Jeffrey and countless children just like him, let’s hope, pray and labor to see that this does not happen.

Africa, Travel