Skip to content

The Maddest afternoon of my whole life…

Wow. I’m sorry to be quite so annoyingly effusive, but that was the most amazing experience of my life. Uganda 2 – Angola 1. See match report here –

You can see a brief highlights package here (1 min) – Where the players ran to after the 2nd goal – that’s where I was. These pictures are from a game two years ago, but they give you a flavour of the stadium and the atmosphere. If you want more pics, do a Google Image search for Namboole

In a nutshell. Both teams had to win (a draw was useless) to have any chance of qualifying for the world cup. Half-time, nil-nil. They scored a beauty early in the 2nd half. We then got a man sent off. Not looking good at all. We then absolutely fluke an equaliser, and Angola fall apart. They get a man and the manager sent off, and we, in the 89th minute, score the winner.

I’m going to write down some random thoughts, interesting I hope to football and non-football fans.

  • ATTENDANCE: The stadium is Chinese built (1997) and is just 10 mins from our house. There’s no seats, it’s just a crucible of concrete steps and you sit (in theory) on the edge of one step with your legs hanging down to the next step. The stadium is a complete bowl, so you can walk, on the same step, all the way around 360 degrees. That basically means there is no way of controlling how many people are in the stadium, or where they sit. To say it was a squash is an understatement. I have no idea how many people were there. I doubt even the stadium managers do, to be honest. But just when you thought it couldn’t get any fuller, another 5,000 people wandered in and you had to squeeze even closer to the person next to you.
  • COIN-THROWING There is an athletics track around the pitch. At half-time, a (very talented) Ugandan ball-juggler came around doing skills in front of the fans. His friend had a bag to collect the money. The idea is that you, and the 100 rows of fans behind you, hurl coins down to him to appreciate him. Of course, from the back of the stadium, it’s impossible to throw a coin onto the track, so you chuck it as far as you can and rely on the goodwill of the fan it hits to give it another lob forward, and so on and so on. That just meant for me, at the front, it was raining coins. All sanctioned and official and encouraged by the authorities. Think of the fuss made in the UK when just 1 coin is thrown! I had one hit my ear. It hurts.
  • SAFETY The whole experience is chaotic. To get into the stadium, there was thousands of fans crushing against a gate until it was opened, at which point everyone surged forward. There’s cars and motorbikes weaving around outside the ground within mm of your feet. I frequently just burst out laughing with the absurdity of it all. And yet I never felt in danger.
  • NATIONAL ANTHEM Uganda has the shortest national anthem in the world. Apparently it’s just 8 bars of music. If it lasts 15 seconds I’d be surprised. It’s hilarious. By the time you’ve worked out its playing, it’s over.
  • DEMOCRACY When a government official came out to greet the teams, he was widely booed. I love the fact that, despite Uganda being a long, long way from being a fully-functioning democracy, people  still feel it acceptable to publically (when anonymous, of course!) boo a leader. That bodes well. People weren’t able to do that 20 years ago here.
  • BRAZIL 2014 This game was a 2014 Brazil World Cup qualifier, but it felt a million miles from Brazil. Apart from one small banner, there was no FIFA presence, no sponsorship, no pictures of the World Cup anywhere. If this was the FA Cup, Uganda v Angola is like Accrington Stanley playing Tamworth. A million miles from the fame, glory, exposure, and money of the actual tournament itself. We are a far-flung footballing outpost here, and it feels like we’ve been forgotten completely. But it also feels like no-one here gives a monkeys, and I love that. In one sense this isn’t about the World Cup. It’s just about supporting your team through the ups and downs, wherever it takes you.
  • RIOT POLICE When the Angolan player got sent off, he was not a happy chappy (it was 1-1 at that point and he’d just given away a free kick that we blasted into the wall). He argued and argued and argued. In the end some Ugandan soldiers came on and marched him off the pitch. Hilarious. He then had riot police who had to cover him with their shields as he left the pitch because all the stuff raining down on him from the Uganda fans by the changing rooms. The Angola manager then went ballistic at something, and stormed onto the pitch ranting. He then got sent off. Cue more soldiers to escort him off, and more riot shields to protect him. It was gloriously and hilariously chaotic. I was in hysterics.
  • NOISE The noise is astonishing. Utterly breathtaking. I’m writing this almost 24 hours later and my ears still aren’t functioning properly – it’s like I’m permanently wearing earmuffs, and Ros is getting tired of me saying ‘pardon?’ It’ not singing, or chanting, or unified. It is just a 4-hour long, deafening, intense, continuous, mind-blowing cacophony of noise. Pure, loud, inseparable, noise. It really is indescribable. I never once got close to hearing any noise on the pitch – in football games in the UK you normally hear at least the referee’s whistle, perhaps some shouts from the pitch, the booting of the ball even. Not here. Not a chance. A lot of the noise is whistles, horns, and Ugandan-style vuvuzela’s. But a lot of it is just people’s non-stop shouting, cheering, and making all sorts of hooping and whooping noises that no Westerner could ever hope to replicate. Just extraordinary.
  • POSTERS People bring home-made posters to the game. I saw several in support of Nelson Mandela (‘The King of Africa’, and the stadium is called ‘The Nelson Mandela Stadium’) and one artistic efforts of a Crested Crane (the Ugandan national bird, and symbol) beheading with its claws an antelope (the name of the Angola team). Awesome.
  • UNITY This is not meant to be a profound theological point, so please don’t read anything into it, but there is something tremendously uplifting about watching a country so wrecked by poverty, crime, dictatorships, and corruption, come together for an afternoon to just be proud. I can only remember two pieces of happy news since arriving here. Kiprotitch’s marathon gold medal at London2012, and this. After the second goal went in, for the remaining few minutes of the game, the scoreboard gave up on showing the score (as if anyone wasn’t aware!) and just read “We are proud of our team and our nation”. And you know what, for an afternoon, they really were. Sometimes I feel so much despair for the future of Uganda. And yet yesterday, even just for a few hours, 56 tribes and languages came together in the stadium, around little radios, and around TV sets in bars, to feel Ugandan again.
  • ACCEPTANCE The 3 students I went with decided it was most fun to sit with the ‘ultras’, the hard-core fans. When the goals when in, I was surrounded by flares, and semi-naked, head-to-toe body-painted insane Ugandans hugging me. They LOVE it when an outsider cares for their team as much as they do. I had hundreds of people trying to shake my hand as we left. It was the most Ugandan I’ve ever felt. It was perhaps he first time I felt truly accepted here as an insider, and not just an outsider that people are fascinated by and want to gawp whilst imagining my non-existent fabulous riches.
  • FOOTBALL It must be said, the quality of football was pretty poor. Energetic, frenetic, attack-minded, but poor. It largely consisted of 22 players trying to move the ball up to the opposition goal as quickly as possible. Not necessarily long-ball, but just lack of patience, vision, and strategy. It made for a thrilling watch, but the thought of Uganda coming up against Spain is absolutely terrifying.
  • THE FUTURE It is still desperately unlikely that Uganda are going to qualify for the world cup. Depending on the Senegal result today, it is very likely that we’re going to have to go there, to Dakar, in September, and win. Against a team containing Ba, Cisse, Diouf, Diop, Faye, another well-known stars. If we do, amazingly, get through that, then we have a two-legged play-off against another group-topping team in Africa, probably a team like Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa etc.  But oh let’s dream. The Ugandan team in Brazil 2014. It takes my breath away just the thought of it. Do you know what? If I had a choice right now, I would honestly, truly, hand-on-heart, prefer Uganda to qualify for the world cup then England. I think, probably, I’d rather Uganda qualify for the World Cup than England win it. Little by little, as the months roll by here, my identity is starting to change. And, as always when it comes to feeling ‘at home’, the footy has much to do with it.

GO CRANES!ImageImageImage


Hardcore Ministry Part II

I’ve just spent the weekend with Isabirye David, my former student and current friend who is now a minister in a rural, remote, poverty-stricken backwater parish in the South-East. It is a hard place to visit even for 48 hours. And an even harder place to live, as they do. And it is an even harder place to live and minister in, as David does. I really can’t express this enough: It is a tough place to be. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural Africa in my life, but I’ve rarely seen life lived like this.

There’s so much I’d love to write about, so many stories to tell, so many snapshots about mossies and rats and disease and snakes and poverty and friendship and witchcraft and kindness and death and mangoes and mud and chickens and beauty and ugliness. But it would take to long, and it feels too personal. So I’m going to keep some things for myself.

However I did manage to do some filming. My camera is worth £200. That’s more than the land, possessions, crops, and house that most of these folk own put together. It wasn’t right to go there and get it out (This is where Google Glass might come in handy.) That meant I missed so much, but that’s ok. Sometimes life is better experienced through eyes rather than through a screen. It stays in the memory for longer.  But, as I say, I did actually do a bit of filming. It’s the truth, but not the whole truth. But I hope you enjoy it:

5 final thoughts from the weekend:

  1. Tough place to sleep: Crickets were so loud and also were inside the bedroom. Rats were everywhere, scraping around (David has lost many of his clothes to rats, but with the house in such poor condition you can’t keep them out). Mossies were so tough. We had no net but I was plastered head-to-toe in repellant. They didn’t care – they were crawling all over me sucking my blood. They even managed to bite me through a sheet I wrapped myself in (which made me overheat). Namugongo mosquitoes are feeble compared to these. I reckon I must have picked up 30 bites at least. At one point my foot felt like it was going to explode with the red-raw, painful, swelling due to all the bites. Grim. Was so, so grateful to get back into my safe, netted, comfortable, rat-less bed. 
  2. I’d love Prof Dawkins and other New Atheists to go there. It’s so easy to be an atheist when your life is so good. Atheism is pointless and senseless there. I’m not saying belief is right because atheism is hopeless. I think belief is right because it’s true. But it’s so easy for the New Atheists to speak about just getting on and enjoying your God-less, future-less, heaven-less, hope-less life when they’re living in Oxford Colleges. Come here and say that to these people. There is nothing in the world more beautiful than true, Christian hope.
  3. Tear-inducing generosity. At one point we visited an elderly widow with no children. We found her sitting alone on a mat in the dust in the yard outside her mud-walled, mud-floored, leaky-roofed house. At the end of our brief visit, she got up, went into her house, and brought me out a chicken. I had a camera in my pocket worth more than her house, and more money in my wallet than she’d probably handled in the past 2 years, And she gave me a chicken (she had 3 in total). I felt like telling her not to be so crazy. But she wasn’t being crazy, she just appreciated having a visitor, a somebody, come and visit a nobody. I look back with regret that I didn’t tell her that, soon, we will be together in Christ in heaven, all equal before the throne. In the end I came home with 4 chickens. The cocks woke us up this morning with their crowing, and my car is full of their poo.
  4. I have the best job in the world: it’s really hard living and working here sometimes, but we help produce people like David, and David goes and preached Christ to people like that. My work is never going to make an impact on world politics, nor fix the environment. It’s not even really going to help this place come out of poverty. But there’s a few in that church who genuinely, through thick and thin, love the Lord Jesus and have committed their lives to him. To contribute a small way to that is a real pleasure.
  5. David is an outstanding man. That parish hasn’t had a minister there for several years. No-one will go. When they are sent by the bishop, they whinge and whine, demands transfers, and refuse to live there (just travelling in on Sunday’s). He wants for nothing more than to stay there for years to come serving these guys. He looks at the conditions they live in and thinks that, because he has a bed, he is really really lucky. He’s humble and hard-working, generous and heavenly-minded, sociable and hospitable, committed and courageous. I learnt a lot about my own feebleness and wimpy-ness.

There’s so much more I could say, but that’ll do for now. Please do watch the video – and please do pray for David and Kasoze parish.

Catching Kony…

I was teaching on the cross last week (as in ‘about the cross’, as opposed to…well, whatever) when I encountered a massive cultural difference that hit me square in the face:

I was trying to get over to them the idea of God’s justice in dealing with sin…it must be punished. I wanted them to realise that, as humans, we all long for justice to be done. I tried to ground this in real Ugandan life so asked them a question that I thought would resonate deeply:

“What would you want to see happen to Joseph Kony (Ugandan warlord who has been responsible for the rape and murder of thousands, currently on the run in the jungle) if he were caught and brought to Kampala”

I was expecting them to reveal the ‘innate’ human desire for justice….jail him, hang him, make him pay back all the victims in any way possible.

Instead, the whole class agreed: Let him go. For free. No trial, no truth, no punishment. Just forgive him, and let him go.

Well that took my breath away (and scuppered entirely the point I was trying to make). I tried another one…what if your wife was raped? Same response.

This explains a lot of what we see here. Amongst Christians (and remember over 85% describe themselves as Christians) there is a tendency to be reluctant to punish anyone. We know ‘Christian’ charity/aid/NGO/church workers who have stolen huge amounts of money, been involved in huge sex scandals, or even child abuse, and rarely face any censure. The worst that happens is often they get moved to a different role within the same organisation. It’s almost unheard of to find someone losing their job here.

When you see a huge corruption scandal in Uganda (and believe me, rarely a day goes by when you don’t) often the response is simply that the person has to pay back the money. OK, at least that is a punishment, but given that this is sometimes years later, and they have made loads of money on it by investing it, it doesn’t seem much of a punishment or deterrent.

So, what’s going on? I don’t know. I think partly it’s a misunderstanding of the cross, whereby they think that God forgives us by just forgetting. I think it’s partly a shame-based culture thing, where actually just the sheer publicising of the sin is considered punishment enough. I think it’s partly a misunderstanding of God’s provision of government to bless and punish, and I think it’s partly an effort, so common here, to try and out-do others in terms of holiness.

One of our observations of parenting here (generalisation alert: I know, I know) is that it ranges between extreme harshness (severe beatings, quite nasty language and brutal tone) and extreme freedom (many parents seem desperately reluctant to inflict any punishment on any kid, and tend to just give in to whatever they want). The latter would fit with this idea of ‘we must forgive, and forget, and not punish’.

My students were aghast, quite genuinely aghast, when I suggested that I could forgive someone who did something terrible against me or my family, but still testify against them in court. We spent an hour debating it, but they still looked at me with complete horror at the thought.

Finally, this is also a culture where regularly, regularly, without any trial, explanation, and sometimes in cases of misunderstanding or mistaken identity, suspected thieves (note ‘suspected’) are chased down by strangers on the street and beaten to death. Doesn’t even make the news when it happens here. I’ve seen it happen (and I’ve also thought that, if I were mugged, I’d think twice about calling out for help). So this idea of forgiveness, leniency, and no punishment doesn’t seem to apply here. Quite the opposite.

Which means, like almost every aspect of Ugandan culture, I get so muddled up mentally with apparent contradictions and confusions that I give up even trying to figure it out and quickly retreat into my well-worn cosy mental shell of ‘I just don’t get Uganda’.

And you know, I really don’t.

Hardcore ministry

Just spoke to a former student of mine who left in December. He came to visit and I asked him some questions about his new parish:

  • At the age of 25 I think he is, he is minister of a parish with 16 churches. That means him and 15 lay-readers working underneath him. He is responsible for all of them.
  • The main church (‘mother church’) has 200 people in it. An average weekly collection is approximately £4. About 40% of that goes to the diocese and archdeaconery. The rest is for his wages, and any church projects to run. His congregation is poor. He is poor.
  • The main church, the most well-constructed one of the lot, has no roof. The congregation crowd to one side in the shade and move as the sun moves.
  • His house has an ant-hill that has built up inside it. His bed after just a few weeks is getting devoured by the ants. And he has a snake problem.
  • His outside ‘long-drop’ toilet is a few planks of wood over a deep pit. It’s so old and so unstable he has tied a rope to a nearby tree and holds onto that whilst doing his business in case the floor gives way and he plummets in. People regularly die in Uganda that way.
  • The house has no electricity, and it’s a 1.5km walk to collect water.
  • Many of the Christians in the church are involved in spirit-worship and traditional African religion.
  • Each church can be kilometres apart, but he has no means of transport apart form his own two feet. And it can get hot, very hot there.

When I think of him, and his situation is by no means unique, I am embarrassed by some of the things I teach and suggest in my lectures. How much of my stuff is relevant to a situation like that? I’ve made it a matter of priority to go visit in the next few weeks for a weekend and try and reconnect a bit with church life outside of wealthy Kampala and prevent any of my lectures sliding into irrelevancy.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

And pray that it’s a strong rope, will you?

It’s good to talk…

I just had a conversation on the phone that went like this (she called me):

Me: Hello?

Her: Thanks for your message – it’s ok.

me: Ah OK thanky……..(beep beep beep…call has finished)

Most Ugandans don’t have a lot of spare cash, and there’s no free minutes or such like here. So, a phone-etiquette has developed that says it’s perfectly allowable to speak for as few a seconds as possible (charges here are by the second). There’s rarely any platitudes at the start (no “How are you doing? How’s the family?”) and I don’t think I’ve once had a Ugandan say to me ‘Bye’ or such like at the end. You say what you have to say, and then hang up.

I’ve no doubt I innocently make mistakes that Ugandans find incredibly rude every single day. This is one of those areas where I have to remind myself they’re not being rude to me.

What I’ve learnt is how NOT to dilly-dally on the phone. If you want the call to proceed to a second point, even a second sentence, don’t pause to take a breath…if you do, the other person’s gone. Often I’ve been tempted to phone back and say ‘Hang on, I wasn’t finished’ but usually I leave it a few hours out of embarrassment.

File this under the ‘must adapt quickly to British culture when back in the UK’ category (along with ‘driving laws apply’ and ‘brutally picking at your teeth with a toothpick after a meal is not polite’). And please don’t be offended if I put the phone down on you before you’ve finished. I might just have saved you a penny…

The joy of cheese

We’ve been doing trips to East Africa for 11 years now of varying length (8 months, 3 months, and this one, a record of 15 months now) and over that time many people have asked us what we miss from the UK whilst being out here (serious answers like friends, family, and our church excluded).

Since our first day in Africa (9th Jan 2001) the answer has almost always been the same. Cheese.

I’m not sure why. I don’t obsess over it when in the UK – in fact I rarely progress past Tesco own-brand cheddar. But something about being out here just makes us want to eat cheese.

It’s probably related to the fact that we can’t get it at all here. Anything in Uganda that tastes even a little bit like cheese is prohibitively expensive. Anything that has cheese on the label that you can afford has no right to call itself cheese. Awful doesn’t begin to describe it.

Once, back in 2001, we stayed with a wealthy British landowner running a private game ranch in Central Kenya. We had a lot of cheese there. A few weeks later it emerged that Prince William had gone there just days after we had. I always like to think we ate all his cheese that day, and left him sorely disappointed.

For obvious reasons (like 4 months sitting in Ugandan customs) it’s not a smart idea to mail cheese out here. And you’re technically not allowed to bring it out in a suitcase either, although some visitors have bravely smuggled some in for us.

So, you can imagine our delight when one of visitors last week, who I won’t name in case customs are reading, pulled this (see pic) bad boy out of his bag. We’ve had a terrible weeks power along with soaring temperatures which means most things in our fridge have gone off, but the cheese is holding on well and, amongst the occasional downs of living here, it has been a great source of joy to us in recent days. It’ll be a sad, sad day when we finish off that Double Gloucester with chives. Image

Ugandan paparazzi

One thing I wanted to use this blog for was to highlight  a few differences between life here and life back in the UK. And one thing struck me today which I thought I might write about:

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but when I left the UK, I presume it’s still the same now, it was unacceptable to approach a young boy in a shop who you’ve never met before, take out your phone, and start taking pictures of him without asking the parent’s permission. I’m guessing nothing has changed substantially in that regard since we left?

Not here though.

This afternoon on two occasions I turned round to see someone taking pictures of first Josh, then Dan. Once the person had even put Danny onto a toddlers bike thing in order to make it look even cuter. The second person was trying to tickle Josh to make him smile (and, if you know Josh, you can imagine how unimpressed he was by a Ugandan stranger even attempting this)

It takes just hours for a parent to leave the UK, but much, much longer for the UK to leave a parent. Inside I felt so cross for them daring to infringe my kids’ rights to privacy. I felt really angry that a stranger could do this. I felt like exchanging a few harsh words, asking them to delete the picture, and storming away.

Of course, I did no such thing. Because each time I feel like this I remember that we are novelties here and even in Kampala most have never seen anything quite as weird and wonderful as Josh and Dan, and people are fascinated and excited and even proud of them. I remember that Western attitudes to privacy and image-rights are non-existent here (yet?). I remember that we are the visitors here in this culture, not the owners. And I remember that the boys’ novelty-factor also gets us into many situations and opportunities that we would have no access to if, to put it bluntly, their skin was black.

So, I allowed them to take their photo, and carried on with the shopping, seething on the inside but smiling on the outside. I suspect that the day the inside and the outside behaviours match is either the day to return to the UK in defeat, or the day we become fully contextualised in Uganda.

I’ll keep you posted…