"One who sees something good must narrate it." Ugandan proverb.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A seemingly insignificant scoop of ice cream.

Throughout my twelve year relationship with Uganda seemingly insignificant events often have remarkable consequences.  Not so surprising as I look back, but at the moment each one unfolds I am amazed. Apparently it's not just me with these types of experiences. It runs in the family. Last night I read my seventeen year old daughter Carolynne's college essay, the one she wrote to go along with her Skidmore College application for the early decision process. I was surprised to learn that a seemingly insignificant scoop of ice scream in Uganda changed her life. One never knows what supposedly trivial every day thing will transform your life forever.

About eight years ago Jjajja Nanjego gave me the first material gift in our relationship. And yes, it was something simple. And a bigger yes, it changed my life. Forever.

Jjajja Nanjego gave me 'the old property'; a hand embroidered table cloth. She also gave me a bag of simsim (roasted sesame seeds), and a crinkled carefully crafted letter.   In it she called me ‘Grand Daughter’.  At the time I received the gifts I thanked her and matched her big smile, but noticed there was an uneasiness in the hollow of my stomach.

Before I left Uganda a few days later, I found myself wishing Jjajja hadn't given me these gifts. I understood why she wanted to thank me. Her orphaned grandchildren attend Brain Tree for free and the school has uplifted her village, her family, her life. It all made sense and yet the uneasiness followed me home

At home I have several table cloths. Seven of them at least. And lots of food in a well stocked pantry. I  like using a table cloth on my kitchen table but rarely do. Our old cat Rusty likes table cloths too and figures when I use one it is for him; to give him a soft place to sleep. Any table cloth on the kitchen table is instantly turned into a fabric of feline fluffy fur, an unwanted addition to any and every meal. These days, table cloths usually stay in a drawer and Rusty stays off the table.

Now I had another table cloth and I didn't want it. 

I suffered for weeks over that table cloth. It had nothing to do with Rusty.

How could Jjajja Nanjego have given me one of her only material possessions and food? I thought my heavy feelings had to do with Jjajja and the poverty she lived in. She has nothing, few possessions if any, no money in the dilapidated brick hut with the rusting metal roof and earthen floor she lives in with her orphaned grandchildren. She could have sold the table cloth for much needed income but instead she gave it to me. She could have fed the nutritious simsim to her grandchildren but instead she gave it to me. She could have simply said 'weebale nyo' but instead she honored culture and tradition and shared what little she had with me.

The honor felt a like a burden. 

Here in my well furnished solid stone house with updated roof, beautiful hardwood floors decorated with Persian carpets, Jjajja's table cloth haunted me. While I suffered in comfort I am certain that at the same time, thousands of miles and an ocean away, on top of the hill in Kyanja Village in the bare and broken brick hut where Jjajja lives, when she sat on the damp earthen floor inside, and thought about her gift to me, the memory warmed her heart and made her smile. As the weeks passed I lived through dark nights of the soul. For Jjajja, her days were made brighter.

Ironic isn't it. 

And then one day that table covering uncovered something long hidden in my life. I understood the stuff that didn't feel good to me turned out to be my stuff. It had nothing to do with Jjajja. Or her table cloth. Not the simsim either. Amidst all the stuff on the outside of me, I discovered something about the inside of me.

I had poverty in self worth. 

What had haunted me all those weeks was a belief that I didn't deserve Jjajja's gift! Material abundance was all around me and yet I took one of the only things she owned. Heavy with guilt I believed that I didn't deserve the honor she bestowed on me. I was so unknowingly caught up in my own lack that I could not appreciate the beauty of her gift, her culture, her tradition, and how it made her feel to give me a gift. I couldn’t even appreciate the greatness of my work at Brain Tree. 

As the awareness about my lack of self-worth grew, my perception of a seemingly insignificant table cloth changed. 

Finally I could see how beautiful the table cloth was! Two rows of white yarn loops trimmed the edge of a white square of cotton. Forming an inner square were four groups of pink and red flowers that grew among stems and leaves of yellow and green made from thousands of stitches.  

Finally I was curious. How had it remained so pure white while being the ‘old property’ in a land where red dust is everywhere? Who made it? and when? How long did it take to be made in a life that was over burdened with duty? What is its story?

Finally I was awed by the beauty of a generous culture, a culture that exists in an ever present material poverty. A generous culture that includes graciousness and the sharing of what you have even if it is not much. A generous culture that acknowledges an individual who has given of herself for you, your family, your community. Finally I understood Jjajja’s generosity, her gift and the honor.

And all of a sudden, it felt good. 

A month of uneasiness was replaced by peace. Gratitude. Acknowledgement. The hollow of my stomach did not feel so hollow any more because I had a growing sense of self worth.  Jjajja’s gift was good medicine. It was healing me.

While I read my daughter’s essay last night, the memory of Jjajja’s Nanjego’s first gift came rushing back. How pleased I am that Carolynne’s experience at Brain Tree  was memorable too, but unlike her mother, her sense of self worth allowed her to have an immediate awareness and appreciation without weeks of suffering! With her essay, my daughter gave the college a more in depth knowing of who she is; a knowing that could not be expressed in transcripts or an interview. Reading it, even I learned more about my daughter! The college must have liked what they read too because I am happy to announce that Carolynne was accepted to her first college of choice! Skidmore College. Congratulations Carolynne!

From Carolynne, November 2011      

     The sun beats down on my shoulders; dust swirls around in the air, casting an orange hue on everything. Children’s laughter echoes throughout the buildings; adults chatter animatedly, excited about the day’s happenings. The queen of Buganda, the largest tribe in Uganda, had visited Brain Tree Primary School and opened its cultural center just an hour ago. Everyone had been preparing for this opening for two weeks non-stop. 

     The jingle of the ice cream man’s radio burst through my thoughts as I watch a group of orphans scamper over to him. Plunging into their pockets, the children excitedly exchanged their last 20 shillings for a small portion of the neon sweet. I had never seen so many smiles, all for melted ice cream wrapped in old newspaper.

     As I stand with my mom and brother, children shyly begin to venture over, and ask to play with my skin and hair. Mouths gaping, the children listen intently as we explain snow and sleet. I begin describing my pets when I feel three gentle taps on my shoulder and a voice whisper “Madame Caroline”? Startled, I turned around and see Emily Tumuhairwe, an orphan who has been boarding at Brain Tree. She gently extends her arm to me, holding a scoop of bright orange ice cream. Colorful, melted drops run down her hand as she smiles and nods at me, signaling me to take the ice cream.

     Seemingly insignificant, this scoop of ice cream is what I remember and cherish the most from my time in Africa. I have been given ice cream before, but never from someone to whom one scoop could mean so much. Emily’s actions still resonate with me today. I try to appreciate the smaller things in life, and savor the knowledge of how insignificant an action of mine may change someone else’s perspective on life. Emily had very little, and yet she had spent it on me. I had never seen anyone so generous. Because of her, no matter what I am doing, whether it is going through the hallways at school, eating dinner at home or walking around town, I stop to do little things to help someone or make their day. I pick up pieces of trash, offer a smile to a stranger and give my friends the advice they may be looking for. I aim to be Emily in my community: generous, friendly, and thoughtful. It is through this that I maintain my connection with Uganda, and honor the gift she gave to me, despite my very different life and the very different culture in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

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