First impressions from Mbale, Uganda

By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist

As I’m writing from Mbale, Uganda, my problem is not that I don’t have enough to write about; it’s much the opposite.
We’ve been in Africa for just three days. We’re barely out of the jet-lag doldrums, much less qualified to hold a serious opinion or draw any conclusions about many of the amazing things we’ve already seen. One of the most valuable things I’m beginning to learn is how little I know about this land and its people. To be much more than a journeyman in such knowledge must take years of living here.
This is not, I’m afraid, a focused bit of writing, but let me just throw out a few very early impressions.
Our sons were right when they recommended tranquilizers and/or blindfolds for us for the four-hour drive from the Entebbe airport to Mbale. Cars, trucks, taxis, motorcycles and bikes are everywhere, as are pedestrians running down, around, and along the road like suicidal ants.
It would be bad enough if the only problem was that all my “right side of the road” instincts are totally wrong.
But Uganda is left-sided vehicular chaos on the worst roads you can imagine with at least double the number of cars and pedestrians — all moving at twice, or more, anything you’d consider a safe speed.
Just on our trip to Mbale, we saw two guys on a motorcycle pushed into an intersection by another vehicle and into the path of a truck that crushed the bike. One ended up on the ground with his head inches away from the truck’s wheels.
I’ve long suspected that the most dangerous thing missionaries here do is travel. Now I know so. (A plane and a pilot to help them make the all too frequent four-hour trips to Kampala would be a huge blessing. Frequent prayer for safe travel is no luxury; it’s a need.)
My sons, who are here, are both closer to home and further away than I thought. Closer, in that the love and faith surrounding them here is even deeper than I realized. Further, in that what I’ve already seen here culturally, just the tip of the iceberg, is further away from my own experience than I dreamed possible. People breathe oxygen and drink Coke here; otherwise, it might as well be another planet. I don’t know why it should be odd for my sons to be the teachers and me to be the novice, but I’m more amazed, thankful, and respectful than ever of what it takes to live, work and minister in such a vastly different culture.
I’ve already seen great wisdom here in the way the missionaries live and minister. I’ve been awed by the prayer of a Kenyan missionary to Uganda. I’ve been honored to shake the hand of another Kenyan missionary to Sudan who, along with his colleague, has literally helped my youngest son stay alive in Sudan while he’s lived and built there.
To be able to be here is as awesome as it is humbling, and I’m deeply thankful.