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MCC workers face tragedy in Uganda

by Irvin J. Kroeker

A fatal accident recently interrupted Dale and Marika Christy's Mennonite Central Committee assignment in Uganda, leaving them to struggle with their grief following a tragedy in which their car hit a young girl, killing her instantly. The couple is from San Jose, Calif., and attend Lincoln Glen Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation.

It happened so quickly. Without looking, the child stepped directly in front of the automobile. The moment it happened, Dale knew he needed to leave the scene immediately. Violence erupts quickly in Africa when a car hits a victim. In all likelihood a mob would soon form, demolish their car and even threaten to kill them. So Dale left and drove to a safe place—the nearest police station.

Life on hold

In that moment, their three-year assignment in relief and development was put on hold. They turned their attention to surviving in a foreign land where customs are dangerously different than their own. They dealt with grief that ate at their guts and their feelings about leaving the scene of a fatal accident. They wondered how to console the girl’s parents.

With heavenly wisdom to guide them and prayers from a host of family members and friends back home in California’s Silicon Valley, the couple maneuvered through a maze of police reports and negotiations with the family. Their supportive Ugandan friends helped them navigate legal matters and cultural issues to make peace with the family and gained the forgiveness of the girl’s father.

A traffic fatality is listed as a major danger in literature prepared for workers planning to live in Uganda.  Death from traffic accidents run a close second to fatal illnesses from infectious food and water borne diseases, bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, vector borne diseases, malaria, plague and sleeping sickness.

The Christy’s were emotionally drained following the accident. They needed rest and so returned to San Jose, where Dale and Marika’s parents and friends welcomed them with open arms. They also found embracing love at their home church, Lincoln Glen Community Church.

Preparing to return

Their one-month respite in San Jose ended with a Ugandan meal prepared and hosted by Eric and Charlene Shenk; Eric is a member of Lincoln Glen’s mission board. The Shenks entertained 50 guests on behalf of the Lincoln Glen mission board, the largest group ever to attend a mission board meeting and certainly the largest bunch ever to eat in the Shenks' basement.

Following the meal, Dale and Marika spoke about their work in Uganda. With patience and thoughtful answers, they fielded the same questions they had asked of themselves many times since the accident.

Dale and Marika live in Boroboro, a central village five miles from Lira (population 100,000). Boroboro is headquarters for the Diocese of Lango of the Anglican Church of Uganda, which provides the village with schools, a clinic and a church. The church acreage includes offices and staff housing. The diocese was looking for a couple with knowledge of relief, development and peace-building work, and Dale and Marika were a good fit.

The Christys work under contract, seconded from the Mennonite Central Committee to the Anglican Church to shape a strategy that facilitates rehabilitation of wartime refugees back into their villages in northern Uganda. Dale and Marika’s job is to help people settle into their homes after having been displaced by 20 years of war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of the most brutal forces Africa has ever seen.

"Anxiety affects attitudes"

The LRA vacated Uganda two years ago, so it is easier for people to go back to their village homes in the mountains. But they are hesitating, afraid the LRA might come back. During their occupation, LRA soldiers kidnapped children, brainwashing young boys into becoming young soldiers obsessed with killing and forcing young girls to become sex slaves to older soldiers. Village adults, parents of the kidnapped young, were wantonly wasted.

“We are fortunate,” said Dale at the meeting two days before he and Marika returned to Boroboro. “But despite there being no conflict for two years, there is still an absence of peace for many people who were traumatized during those awful war years.”

He said, “People are nervous, fearing the LRA may return…. Anxiety affects attitudes. People are tentative about investing themselves in a new future. After all, what is the point of developing your home and your land if you may be forced back to camp?”

Yet the LRA’s departure has spurred rehabilitation.

“Development has begun,” Marika said. “People are building, investing, planting, harvesting and…thankfully…healing. But things move slowly…. There is a dreadful shortage of health care professionals in Uganda, especially in the North,” she said.

Church agencies like MCC and the Anglican Church work to improve the situation. Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist and other churches in Lira also help. Many non-government organizations (NGO’s) are also active in the region.

Preparing for future service

Dale and Marika will have finished their MCC assignment in June 2010. At that time they hope to go to Ireland where Marika will continue her education aimed at a Masters Degree in “Gender, Globalization and Rights” from the University of Ireland in Galway. Dale hopes to find work with an NGO in Ireland during the time Marika completes her education.

Dale is excited by one future possibility for service in Africa. Deforestation is a huge problem in Africa, a close second to lack of potable water.

“There is a chance I might pursue, at some point in the not-too-distant future, building and promoting ‘methane digesters’ in Uganda,” says Dale. “It’s a wide-open area.”

The concept of a “methane digester” or “aerobic digester” is simple: change animal and human waste to fuel. People are experimenting around the world with various designs and implementations.

“We are working on a simple design that uses local material—bricks, concrete and plumbing supplies,” he said. “Basically, manure and vegetable waste are put into dark, airtight containers where they are decomposed by bacteria found in manure. The methane is captured inside the digester, stored in something like a big inner tube, and piped to the kitchen for cooking with gas.”

About 90 percent of Uganda’s population uses trees and charcoal from trees for cooking fuel. This leads to massive deforestation. “If people changed to methane, there would be a huge positive ecological impact,” said Dale.

“Women often cook in poorly ventilated huts that fill with smoke when they use wood or charcoal. This leads to health issues. Also, women and children collect firewood every day, which is a huge time consumer, he said. “Methane digesters would relieve these problems.”

The challenge to develop an affordable device to ease the life of Ugandans will keep Dale going, and the prospect of further education in Ireland will help Marika move on. Yet surviving the stress of their tragedy remains a challenge. They plan on participating with the family of the deceased young girl in a one-year memorial dedicated to her short life. That will help, but the loop will close slowly.

“We are hopeful that God will eventually make all things good,” Marika said.

Irvin J. Kroeker is a Canadian journalist currently living in San Jose, Calif., where he attends Lincoln Glen Community Church. He is the author/editor of 15 books and is currently working on a 365-day meditation and “Grandma Angel” book he is writing as a legacy for his grandchildren in memory of the late Diane Kroeker.  
 

Learn more about…Uganda

Dale and Marika Christy, Mennonite Central Committee workers in Uganda, report to Anglican headquarters in Boroboro, run by The Right Reverend John Charles Odur Kami, Bishop of the Diocese of Lango. The diocese has 12 archdeaconries, 73 churches, 920 local congregations—and only 125 paid clergy. The town of Lira has a hospital and larger clinics, and Kampala, the country’s capitol in the South, has more hospitals and services because almost half of Uganda’s 31 million population lives in Kampala, population 14 million.

Uganda is 85 percent Christian, according to census figures. Of that total Christian population, 42 percent are Roman Catholic, 42 percent are Anglican, and 16 percent are Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist and a few other denominations with negligible numbers. There is virtually no Mennonite presence in Uganda, although missionaries from Kenya recently began one church in the South.

During the war, people were forced into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps under military protection, and the church moved with them, maintaining worship, social and health services as possible. The Anglican Church began and still operates in 28 IDP camps.

Life expectancy in the country is 52. Despite control efforts, the birth rate is still 6.81 children born to each Ugandan woman. By way of comparison, the rate in North America is less than 2.0 children born to each household, be it a single parent or two-parent home.

Half the country is 14 and younger, evenly divided between boys and girls. The 15 to 64-age range include 48 percent of the population, leaving only 2 percent in the 65-plus ranges.

Disease runs rampant. Close to one million people have AIDS, even though Uganda is considered a leading country in the fight against this disease. Deaths number close to 100,000 per year.

English is Uganda's official national language, taught in grade schools, used in courts of law and used by most newspapers and some radio stations. Luganda is the common language of the South, preferred by papers published in Kampala and is taught in many schools. Literacy, the ability to read and write, among people aged 15 and over is 68 percent. The difference between male and female is pronounced: 78 percent literacy for men and 58 percent for women (2002 census). School life expectancy (time spent in school) is 10 years. —IJK

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