Ministry of Margaret Nelson
Uganda, Africa

March 31, 2005

Know Jesus, know peace

In my last newsletter I wrote about some of my village friends who live in the lower financial strata in Uganda. Through some of my other life experiences here, God has given me other friends in higher places, and just this past weekend we had an experience related to one of them.

In late 2004, thanks to the theft of my truck and other things, I had occasion to get to know some of the legal and political people in my community. One of them is the Deputy Resident District Commissioner (RDC), who is one of our national Presidential advisors. This man, Jackson, is also a born again Christian, and has preached in Pastor David's church. He also did the opening of our SEVO seminar when Greg Matthews, EMT, was here in early November. His mother and other family attended David's church on a regular basis. And through some of his own personal problems, and the isolation that sometimes attends men of his stature, particularly Christian men, he has become personal friends with Pastor David, and often calls him into his office to talk and to pray together.

Jackson's 79 year old mother had been suffering for a couple of years with what I suspect was an untreated breast cancer, which had apparently metastasized to the liver and lungs. Many times David and his church prayed for her when she was feeling badly, and she'd get better again for awhile. The past few weeks she was pretty sick and in the hospital, and over Easter weekend, she passed away.

The burial tradition in Uganda is that a person is buried on the family property, no matter where that is in the country. So it can involve great expense and travel for family and friends because the body must be buried within a day or two in our hot climate. But Jackson, being a political figure, was able to have a government vehicle to transport his mother's body to the family graveyard in eastern Uganda. Luweero, where we all live, is in central Uganda, so it's about a 5 or 6 hour drive in a car (longer by public means) to get to Mbale, a town close to the border with Kenya, where Jackson's family is from. Burials are very important for neighbors and friends to attend, and in many areas there is a tradition prohibiting people from doing work that day, in honor of the dead. And a burial for a political figure is even more important. But this funeral was very far away and it was also a holiday weekend, so when Jackson called Pastor David and invited him to preach his mother's funeral, we knew we had to go. Another friend, Wilson, who's one of our saved policemen, also came with us.

Well, I didn't know it, but on Easter Monday I was off to another "African experience!" People here don't give detailed information about locations or distances, so many times such a journey starts off with only a vague notion of your destination. You ask for information along the way, and everyone knows where a burial is taking place, so it's usually not too difficult to find the place. But I innocently climbed in my truck at 6 AM Monday morning, wearing a nice dress that would travel well, and slip-on, dressy, matching sandals, as we headed out for Mbale… or so I thought! We stopped at the end of my driveway and said a prayer for safety for our trip, and that we'd get there on time, and headed down the dark road as the sun began to rise.

We got to Kampala about an hour later and stopped for breakfast and coffee, not knowing how long it would be til we'd be able to eat again, and needing the coffee to help our eyes stay open after a night of little sleep. On our way, about an hour out of Kampala, Jackson called David on his cell phone, the first of many such calls on our way, asking where we were and when we would arrive, because people were worried that it was going to rain…

On our way, we began to learn more about where we were actually going, which turned out to NOT be Mbale, although it was in the general vicinity. A person riding with us turned out to not be much help with directions, because when you use only public transportation, you don't have any reason to learn the routes! After about 6 hours of travel, we found ourselves on a long dirt road with rain sprinkling intermittently, and a very threatening sky. To top it off, my 4 wheel drive is not working, and the tires I have on my truck, while suitable for tarmac roads, are not good enough for slogging around on muddy roads. So we also were praying for the rain to hold off, for reasons of our own!

The dirt road began climbing as we approached the huge Mt. Elgon on the Kenyan border with Uganda. A beautiful, rocky, volcanic 15,000 foot flat-topped mountain, Mt. Elgon stretches north and south, and we found ourselves driving into the central foothills, climbing higher and higher, and turning south into the mountain. Suddenly, we crested over a summit and I gasped as we looked down into an African version of the Swiss Alps! Steep, plunging mountainsides dropped away into canyons, with nearly vertical banana and other vegetable farms stacked on top of each other, reaching up towards the sky. Still we kept climbing. We lost cell phone reception, and kept stopping and asking directions; the person we would talk to would inevitably look thoughtfully off into the distance, point the direction we were already going, and telling me it was probably about 2 kilometers more that way… and we took well over an hour driving that "2 kilometers"! But the scenery was so beautiful we decided even if we couldn't find the funeral, we were having a great, worthwhile trip!

Finally we found the village where the burial was being held, but there was no burial crowd… only the government vehicle that we learned later had brought the body. They said we had to turn there and go down, pointing off the edge of one of these rather vertical hills we'd been so admiring of…

So we gaily headed down this trail (no road!) in the direction we thought we should go; indeed, it was the only direction we could go! After awhile, we reached the place of no return, and knew we had to leave the truck there and continue walking down this very steep hillside. I almost got cold feet at that point, because I'm not a hiker by the farthest stretch of imagination, but I know that if I go down, that means I have to come back up… and I'm not a fast walker even on the level! Plus I had my cute little heelless sandals on my feet, not hiking boots!

We could faintly hear some people wailing, so we knew then it couldn't be too much farther, so David talked me into tackling it. This hill (mountainside, actually!) was so steep they had carved steps into the dirt, which was now mud from the spring rains, and it was sprinkling now. And believe me, it was very, very slick! So with David hanging onto me from in front and below me, and a local lady hanging onto my other side, we struggled down this steep, muddy trail. Had they not been helping me, I would have ended up on my rear more than once, as my smooth-soled sandals slid out from under me. But finally, just as the rain began in earnest, we arrived at the funeral site, right as it was beginning. I now understood why the people had been concerned about waiting for us with rain threatening!

I was called Pastor (which I'm not, I'm a nurse!) and asked to speak at the funeral as well as, and before, Pastor David was to speak. So my knees were shaking with more than the stress of sliding down that hill and wondering how on earth I was ever going to get back up it! But my talk was actually the easiest part of the whole thing, and because of the rain, the funeral was blessedly short when all was said and done, and the casket lowered into the ground. Both David, I and Jackson, all spoke of the blessed hope we have in Jesus, that even though the body was in the casket, and we all will also enter the ground one day, that we need not fear death if we have Jesus in our hearts. That we grieve our losses, but we do not grieve as those do who do not have this hope!

Meantime I was looking behind me, up the hill we'd come down, strategizing how I could get back up. I saw at least one person slip and fall on it, others were struggling. I looked at what they were wearing or not wearing on their feet, and decided my best chance was to take my sandals off and hike up that hill barefooted in the mud, staying on the grass as much as possible. Of course I was the only white person at the funeral (and probably for miles and miles and miles!), so I was already an attraction, but boy, when I took my shoes off…

I did much better without my sandals, hitching my skirt up and digging my toes into the mud. An old man who didn't speak a word of English, but had arms like bands of steel, held my left arm much of the way, helping me to not slip or fall, and waiting patiently for me when I had to stop and fill my heaving lungs (I suspect we were at least 8,000 feet elevation or more). To my embarrassment, when I'd stop, a whole line of people behind me would also stop, smiling, laughing and talking, as I tried to breathe, and wait for me, even though I tried to get them to go on ahead of us.

Finally we reached my truck, only to find that it could not get up the hill either, thanks to the slippery mud and wet grass. So we loaded kids in the bed of the truck and got as many men as possible behind and alongside it, and we pushed and heaved and sweated that truck inch by inch back up the mountain side. When we finally got to the top, we stopped on the road and stood around and visited and talked for awhile, me still barefooted, with mud between my toes, feeling like a kid again!

When we left there, we headed back down the beautiful mountain to Mbale town, which we finally found about 1 ½ hours later, and we got some food we could eat along the way, our first since our early breakfast. We drove another hour from Mbale to Soroti, a town in northeastern Uganda which was ravaged by rebel warfare nearly 2 years ago. The beautiful flat land stretched out in every direction from us as we drove northwest, away from Mt. Elgon and Mbale. It was hard to picture the rebels sneaking and attacking people viciously in the area until we saw a twisted, burned out wreckage of a vehicle alongside the road. We spent the night in Soroti at a missionary friend's house, Ann Travis, from Tennessee, who serves internally displaced refugees outside of Soroti with her church and her love of Jesus. It was a different world from where we live in the Luweero/central area of Uganda. The terrain was different, the people looked and acted differently, the language was different. And we had a wonderful, but too brief, time with Ann and her friends, before having to head back home the next day.

Only a few people traveled from Luweero to the funeral, so our friend Jackson was so happy we came. I believe our friendship was cemented even stronger, as we played our small part in supporting him in his loss, and in his faith. As we fought to get my truck off that mountain side, a man pushing it read my bumper sticker: "No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace." He got real thoughtful and mused, "I think I need to get saved."

I think the angels rejoiced that day for more than one reason!

Margaret Nelson

An interesting postscript to this story… Sometimes we say a simple prayer for safety, or we grace our food, and we never know what we may have been protected from. But the day after we got home from Soroti/Mbale, four of us were driving into Kampala on business when suddenly the steering failed in my truck. We left the road at probably 65 to 70 mph, climbed an embankment, and rolled over, landing on the top of the cab.

Miraculously, all 4 of us walked away from that accident with no injuries worse than bumps and one minor cut. As we looked at that truck, we wondered how we managed to survive the damage, knowing that other than by the grace of God, we would not have. We also thought of those mountainous roads we had just driven, and the miles of bad road, and other miles where we were speeding right along, and how God had spared us also from death or destruction in remote or more dangerous areas.

Thank you for praying…

Margaret Nelson