Ministry of Margaret Nelson
Uganda, Africa

April 24, 2010

Rats, Cats, and Bats

The rat was the size of a cat. I had heard of such huge rats but had never seen one until I found my dogs on my porch quarrelling over this one that they’d killed. The rats I’ve seen have always looked more like large mice, so I’d thought the cat-sized rats lived in places like Calcutta... or maybe downtown Kampala. But there it was, and my dogs were so proud. Since they had no intention of eating it, and were merely fighting over it, I got my courage up, found some newspaper to protect my hand, and I picked it up by its tail, and carried it out to the latrine where it found its grave.

Usually my dogs cannot catch a mouse or a rat, even though they enthusiastically try. The rat is too quick, darts into hidden, dark nooks and crannies, and the dogs, not having cat-claws, cannot hold on to them long enough to kill them. But this rat was so huge, he’d obviously been at a disadvantage, and the dogs were able to grab him.

I remember some years back reading of a missionary woman kneeling at the side of her bed, saying her evening prayers, when a rat ran across her feet. I shuddered at the thought, but having lived in Uganda 10 years now, such things no longer give me the willies. After having had a variety of poisonous snakes invade my home, and even my bed, a bat land on my bare arm, having eaten fried grasshoppers and ants, I’ve found a greatly increased tolerance for creepy things.

Our perspectives can greatly change along with our environment, our age, and our maturity. When I first came to Africa, I’d heard all the scare stories, especially about food and illnesses. So I came armed with all my vaccinations and arsenal of knowledge of what to eat and what not to eat. And as a public health nurse for many years, believe me, I had an arsenal. However, it began to quickly get dismantled when, on the way out to the village where I would be living, we stopped at a roadside market. All the literature on traveling in foreign countries advises you NOT to eat from street vendors… and for good reasons. But I was now being told by someone who’d lived in Africa for 10 years or more, as he handed me roasted meat on a stick and roasted bananas from people who came to our windows, “While living in Africa, you’ll eat everything, and you’ll GET everything. Sometimes you’ll wish you could die… but you probably won’t.”

Well, somehow that statement liberated me, and for 10 years now I’ve done just as he said. I’ve eaten everything, I’ve gotten everything, and there were times I’d swear death was preferable to what I got. But most of the time I don’t get sick. And so far I’ve not died from anything. Thankfully, I’ve not had to eat rats. They are eaten in some places, but not around where I live, although I’ve seen some people who eat bats. And now I tend to get sick on some foods when I go home, thanks to all the chemicals in American foods that I’m no longer used to!

In a cross-cultural context, it becomes much easier to observe one’s own customs, probably starting with diet. But it goes much deeper if you stay in the new culture long enough, digging down into core values. People here asked me why we don’t eat insects. Why don’t we? I eventually decided it was for several reasons: 1) we’re taught that insects are dirty and we do our best to rid our houses of them, 2) we probably eat more meat than some people do, and thus get protein in our diet that way, rather than the concentrated protein found in insects, and 3) insects are very available in tropical climes. And when I think of “disgusting” things to eat, such as insects or rats or bats, I have to take an honest look at the shell fish and such that we love to eat. Uganda is a landlocked country, so eating such creatures found in ocean waters is unknown, and would no doubt be repulsive to Ugandans if they were to be offered something like lobster, oysters or crab.

Spiritually too our values are challenged in different cultures. How do you define lies versus truth and what weight do you put on such “sins.” What if “saving face” (often defined as lying in my culture) is more important than offending someone, or embarrassing yourself, in a strongly relational culture?

So big rats and little rats can get switched around, and confused with mice. A cat can catch, kill and eat some of them. A dog might catch a few, but probably won’t eat them. People will kill and eat them in some places and consider them a feast. I might eat one and throw up.

I read once that as God created man in His own image, He also created the many varied races and cultures, because His image was so vast it could not be contained on one race or one culture. I find that living in another culture is one of the richest experiences in my life, teaching me much more patience, tolerance, and perspective. It has given me a depth in my spiritual life that might not have been possible otherwise. The longer I remain in Uganda, the more grateful I am to God for making it possible, and for teaching me all the wonderful and hard things He’s taught me here.

Last week a thunderstorm and wind severely damaged our pole church. The next day we found it to be leaning several feet but still standing thanks to some metal support poles we’d installed in it last year. So we had to hire a carpenter to come and dismantle it before another storm might come and demolish it beyond repair. About 30% of the building was still stable enough to be left standing, so we can continue to have worship and prayer services there. Meantime, we are going to use some of the metal roofing to finish the small house we’ve been slowly building on the church land so the pastor and his family can live on the church land. Once that’s completed, we will begin to rebuild the church building as we’ve been building the house, brick by brick, as God provides.

I had felt strongly that we could not allow this seeming disaster to interfere with building the pastor’s house. He needs to be closer to the church, he can save money by not having to pay rent, and his family needs to live in a better environment than where they are now. But just how we could manage it, I didn’t know. Using the metal roofing on the new house was something I would never have dreamed of, but in an African context, it made perfect sense. God is indicating a change of plans and providing for other things through it.

It’s something like learning to love fried grasshoppers. .

Margaret Nelson