This column contains the personal reflections and experiences of Karen Gleason, founder of Friends of Ruwenzori, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of other leaders of or donors to the Friends of Ruwenzori Foundation.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about Florence, a woman who volunteers daily at the Kitojo clinic. I first met her on my second trip in 2003. She is a member of KIDA's drama and dance troupe. That year she played the lead role in an AIDS drama, taking the part of a promiscuous woman who entertained many men and later comes down with AIDS. (The drama ends happily because she learns how to live "positively" with HIV.) After one performance, I passed out some small gifts to each actor, things like plastic Easter eggs with candy inside and small lotion bottles. I gave Florence the one small bottle of perfume that I had, because she had "used" make believe perfume in the play. She loved it! Before I returned home, she presented me with a beautiful basket she had woven herself. I still treasure that gift that was given with such gratitude and generosity. I learned from Rev. Ezra that Florence was angry with her husband who had given her HIV, so angry that she had planned to kill him and take her own life. Ezra had talked her out of it and had encouraged her to join the drama group as a positive step towards emotional and physical healing.
Florence is uneducated and does not speak English. When I returned in 2007, she spoke to me through an interpreter that she remembered me from four years previously and was so glad that I had returned. That touched me deeply. I certainly remembered her. I noticed how joyful and active she was at that time. She danced with sheer abandon at the drama shows. Since the clinic was now a busy place, she and her daughter created a small shelter outside to serve and sell her prepared food. Every day I would see Florence cooking for groups and cleaning up at the clinic. I showed her a photo I had taken of her on the previous visit and she laughed heartily. Rev. Ezra told me that she actively engaged in "positive living" and had even forgiven her husband for infecting her with HIV. They were both still healthy and living together.
This February, I returned to Kitojo for the fourth time. I was overjoyed to see Florence still looking healthy and still volunteering at KIDA and dancing and singing enthusiastically. The feeling must have been mutual, because she greeted me with such joy! In fact, every time she saw me she would run over to me, grab my hands and "Karen! Karen!" There was still no English between us, but we didn't need a translator. I treasure the non-verbal and lasting deep connection that we have as fellow human beings.
"GROWTH AND ABUNDANCE"
Kitojo, a village area in Uganda, used to have no buildings other than small dwellings hidden away in the bush, some visible from the dirt roads that traverse the area, some not.
Now there is a building on the Rwaihamba-Mituli Road and a very prominent one. It is the recently expanded clinic and community center of the Kitojo Integrated Development Association. Every weekday dozens of people fill its waiting rooms, examining rooms and offices and a large meeting hall, capacity 200, fills often for classes and seminars. Outside, many villagers congregate on the veranda and on the grass to socialize, make baskets or rehearse drama shows and many others work or tour the organic vegetable garden. In the adjoining shed, classes in tailoring and carpentry occur for the youth of the village. The KIDA center is an extremely busy place! It serves over 700 HIV positive clients and their families, people who, prior to KIDA’s beginning, had no access to medical care, let alone services to empower them with skills and training.
I marvel how KIDA has grown in its outreach to the poor and HIV infected villagers in the Ruwenzori foothills of Uganda. Rev. Ezra and his wife Marjorie continually amaze me with their vision and creativity to move the programs along as they see the needs expand. They are overjoyed that the people they love are seeking help because the act of seeking help is a big hopeful step among people devastated by AIDS and poverty. They must get tested and self-identify their HIV status. Then they are lovingly included in the community and have access to all the expanded programs. Many are getting their lives back when they go on antiretroviral treatment. We found women who are almost ecstatic that they can return to the backbreaking farm work! It means that they can feed their children as well as feeling well again.
We have experienced similar growth in our organization, the Friends of Ruwenzori. Thank God our resources have increased along with the expanding needs in Kitojo. I want to qualify this statement with “So far, we have kept up with the need.” It’s my lack of faith that causes me to say “so far”. Sounds like I am pushing my luck! But I believe in a God of abundance and growth, not scarcity and limitation.
"THE RAIN BRINGS THE BLESSINGS OF GOD"
This past February, the day after our group had arrived in Kitojo, I was walking along a dirt path with our hostess Marjorie Musobozi and my teammate Flo Haedt. It was Sunday and we were returning from services at a small country church near Lake Nyanswiga. It began to rain, a few drops at first, but soon it escalated into a downpour by the time we reached the tourist home. Marjorie told us that it was almost time to begin planting seeds in anticipation of the March rains. She made a statement that I will always remember:
“We work the soil, we plant our seeds and we wait for the rain. When the rain comes, it brings the blessings of God.”
The inhabitants of Kitojo and the surrounding area of the Ruwenzori foothills of Uganda depend on the rain for survival. The soil is rich, the sunshine plentiful, the people hard working, but the rain is seasonal. It comes in March, April and May and again in October, November and December. Irrigation systems are non-existent. Subsistence farming is the primary source of food.
“We wait for the rain.” I’ve reflected often on the depth of faith required in this waiting. Waiting is hard for us in the West, even when we are waiting for something we want but don’t really need. How hard it must be to wait for the very thing needed to survive! I saw no signs of anxiety in the Ugandans who had to wait for the rain that was very late this year. It rained that one day in February, but not again until April when the late rainy season began.
“The rain brings the blessings of God.” I marvel that Marjorie makes a direct connection between a natural phenomenon, the rain, with an evidence of God’s love and care for the people who depend on the rain, yet receive it as a blessing.
I’m glad we named our foundation after the Ruwenzori Mountains. The clouds that cover these mountains bring perpetual rain to the mountains (and seasonal rain to the foothills). The name Ruwenzori means “rainmaker”. The people of Ruwenzori believe in God as the “rainmaker” and the “blessing giver.” I hope I can learn a deeper faith from my Ugandan brothers and sisters. At “Friends” we do our work of tilling soil and planting seeds: having meetings, networking, raising awareness and fundraising. Then we wait for the “rain” that, I believe, God brings by inspiring love and generosity in each open heart that volunteers and gives. The joyful fruit of success in engaging more people and raising the needed funds is indeed the blessing of God!