Hello again from eastern Uganda! I hope that all is well with you? I am fine here and it seems like a good time to briefly update you on what I have been up to since the start of the year.
I am very pleased to tell you that the ground floor of the school building in the Namatala slum was finally finished at the beginning of February just in time for the children to start the new school year. All of us, not least the children, were so very excited on the first day of term and it is really wonderful to finally have purpose built and spacious classrooms for the children to learn in. One hundred and eighty very needy children from the slum are now receiving a good quality education at the school.
The last few weeks of the building work were quite pressured as we tried desperately to get everything completed on time. The finishing touches took a considerable amount of time and it was particularly difficult to find skilled workers with the necessary expertise who could do the work to the standard that we required. However, finally, all of the doors and windows were fitted, the bathrooms were tiled, the steps to the building were completed and the school grounds were landscaped.
Those of you who follow international news will know that we had presidential and parliamentary elections here in Uganda in February. A representative from the British High Commission came and visited us a week or so before the elections to advise us on what we should and shouldn’t do during the elections. Although things got a little bit heated and tense at times, the elections passed off relatively peacefully here and a whiff of tear gas at the end of our road was the closest that we came to being involved in any trouble. In the event, the incumbent was returned with an increased vote.
As the income generating project, working with some of the ladies living in the slum, continues to expand, I have had to employ a lady called Betty on a full-time basis to assist me with the work. She is already a great help to me and has a particularly good rapport with the ladies, perhaps unsurprisingly as she is also a resident of the Namatala slum. You will recall that an essential part of the project is ongoing business mentoring of the ladies and this has become increasingly time-consuming as the number of the ladies on the project is now well over forty. Things are now much more manageable with me being able to concentrate on the newer and/or struggling businesses whilst Betty can continue to check up on and report to me on the other ladies and their businesses.
The most pressing challenge for the ladies and, indeed, nearly all the residents of the slum have been the extremely high food prices. Many of the families living in the slum used to eat chenga, which is the part of the grain that is left after the rice has been sorted. This chenga (or half-rice) has now reached such a high price that it is just too expensive for the people in the slum to buy. Posho (maize flour) is now really the only alternative although it is also now very expensive.
The dry season here has been very severe and it is doubtful whether even the coming of the rains can significantly reverse the price increases in the short term. The closing of the national borders during election time also caused fuel prices to rise dramatically which only added to high cost of food.
Many of you will have heard of the Barnabus Fund that works with the persecuted church all around the world. One of their trustees, who also happens to be the father of the pastor of my church in England, was recently visiting Mbale on a brief fact finding mission. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to meet with him briefly over a working lunch that was hosted by the Bishop of Mbale and his team and to learn more about the current and prospective work of the Barnabus Fund in Uganda.
The persecution of Christians continues to be very much a live issue here in Mbale, particularly amongst converts from the Muslim community. You will recall that one of the churches that I work with is Pastor Philip’s church in Namabasa, a village just outside of Mbale. At a recent evangelistic event at his church, a number of people decided to confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
One of them was Mary, who is fourteen years old and who was born into a Muslim family. Some of her neighbours saw her making her commitment to follow Jesus and immediately ran to her home and told her father. When Mary got home, her father asked her if it was true. When she told him that she had become a Christian, the father told her that she was no longer his daughter and that she must leave the home. Mary had to leave her home and go and stay with her maternal grandfather. A few days later, she went home again to see whether her parents had forgiven her. However, when her father saw her, he told her that, if he saw her again, he would kill her. A week or so later, Mary heard that an older Muslim man has come to stay with her parents and that her father is planning to seize her and make her marry the man against her will. Despite everything, Mary is determined to continue to follow Jesus. Mary’s story is not uncommon here and it is just such a privilege for me to continue to stand with the church in Namabasa in prayer and with practical support. It is also very humbling to get to know young Christians like Mary who are so committed to their new faith.
Life here in Uganda is just so tough, particularly for children. For a little while now, I have been supporting a recently orphaned teenage girl from my local church here and have been helping her with her school fees. She has a younger half-brother and half-sister who were staying with distant relatives in their village. However, due to the high cost of feeding them, they were chased away from the village and came to stay in Mbale as street children where they were at extremely high risk of being taken advantage of and abused. Upon coming aware of the situation, I felt that I had to try and find some other relatives who would be prepared to look after them. This got horribly complicated and finally involved me in having to travel to Kenya for the first time. However, everything ended well and the children have now gone to live with their cousins near Nairobi.
There are just so many orphaned children here and, very sadly, one of the children at the school in Namatala has just lost her mother, the father having died some years ago. Being such a very poor family living in the slum, there was even nowhere for the mother to be buried and we ended up having to purchase a tiny piece of land where she could be properly laid to rest. A hundred or so people came to the funeral service, where I was asked to preach, my first time on such an occasion.
Although things often appear desperate here, it is impossible to be downcast for long when I continue to so clearly see the hand of God at work here, helping his people. Here, as everywhere else, it is always a battle but we know that, with Jesus, we are on the winning side.
Finally, we had a little bit of excitement at our compound here recently when we were invaded by a large swarm of very aggressive African bees. We were all forced to take shelter inside the house and call for assistance from the local beekeeping association. As it started to get dark, all the bees congregated in one tree and our local expert was able to come and start his work. After lighting a huge bonfire underneath, he swiftly chopped down the tree upon which the bees promptly moved to the next tree! Thankfully, the bees decided to leave us of their own accord on the following day.
God bless you,