I was told my nose might not survive this place. That the odors themselves might send me running home. Thankfully, God let me breathe in grace. And it covered the biting smells near impossible to escape. The suffocating smoke of burning trash lingers down every road and travels through the open windows that invite the outdoors inside. And then there’s the unfamiliar body odor of a people with different customs and diet. And the periodic whiffs of urine from casual uses of the roadside as a lavatory. And the tangy scent of jack fruit that permeates the air when it’s being cut and served. And the stench from overflowing, picked through, animal invaded garbage bins and random piles scattered throughout town. And the strong odors of animals with few boundaries, which take great liberties in and around our living spaces. And the sweet and sour aroma of mashed matooke steaming in large pots covered with banana leaves. And mingled in between are pleasing aromas of fruit trees and flowers, curry and chai, mouth watering pineapple and freshly roasted coffee beans from a nearby mountain.
The thick moist air captures these odors uniquely, and sometimes you’re not quite sure when the stench becomes fragrant and the fragrant becomes stench. But they identify Uganda to me. And so I inhale with love…and occasionally I bury my head in a pillow to seek shelter for my nose.
But my nose didn’t struggle quite like my heart. It ached and delighted, shamed and expanded as I encountered brokenness and redemption like never before. Poverty induced abandonment. Homes made of shambles. Hospitals unfit and unclean to care for the sick and dying. Death of the much too young. HIV victims disgraced. Special needs children neglected. Unsanitary living without shame or awareness. Contaminated water as the only source of hydration. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, God exposes who he is among these realities. He is good. He is faithful. He is present.
And I witnessed him in the resurrection of life after death. In the hospitality offered by hands who have little. In the smiling faces of children who have no reason to be smiling. In the women who live strong and brave in this man’s world. In the development that brings wholeness to the truth we offer. In the coming together of different tribes. In the partnerships between two cultures. In fruit of collective faith. The visuals my heart was forced to embrace birthed for me the opportunity for God to make himself known more fully and more alive than I had ever experienced him.
When the smells are pungent and the brokenness too great to bear, I turn my eyes to the hills of green and the roads that cut through them with deep orange. And the baby blue that embraces from above, it is closer than the skies of home. When the sun shines, it’s comforting to be held by the heavens so near. But at night, it feels like the dark is crouching above just a little too close. My childhood pictures of a dry and weary Africa are shattered. I didn’t know this place, the pearl of Africa, would be so colorful. Vibrant contrasts of rich earthly hues, dotted with the bright pinks and reds and yellows of bougainvillea and other exotic beauties. The color pallet of a creative God redeems any beauty stolen by sights of poverty and the stench of life in the raw.
The terrible beauty this place beholds is etched into the redesign of my heart. It will always be a place I meet God. Where I hear and see him a little more clearly. Because it’s the environment that taught me to thirst for his grace.