On the shores of the great lake

January 27, 2014
12:30 a.m. Ethiopia time
Ethiopian Airlines flight 500
36,000 feet over Egypt

To get to the source of the Nile, go south from Cairo, which is, of course, upstream. When you go far enough south, you are in Upper Egypt. Keep going south, and you will eventually come to Khartoum. At Khartoum, two great streams combine to form the Nile. Coming from the east, the greater volume of water flows down from the Ethiopian highlands. This is the Blue Nile, which empties a large lake near Gondar.

Coming from the south into Khartoum, the lesser volume of water is the White Nile. And if you keep going upstream, you come to the the great trackless swamp of South Sudan, the Sudd. Keep going further south, and you eventually come to Uganda, where this portion of the river is called the Albert Nile. And then you come to Lake Albert, one of the great lakes of the Rift Valley.

The inlet into Lake Albert is at its northeast corner, quite close to its outlet, and the name of the river that flows into it is the Victoria Nile. Keep ascending and you will pass the the eight-car ferry in Murchison Falls National Park, and then you’ll pass the spot where Hemingway once crashed a plane. And then, finally, the falls. Keep going on and on, and eventually you’ll arrive at Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world, after Superior. Victoria is so large that you can’t see the far shore. Three countries share its shoreline — Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. And the town where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria is Jinja. They say it’s four thousand miles by river from Jinja to Alexandria.

Six months ago, Kitty took a weeklong holiday in Jinja. She needed to have a break from South Sudan, where life is very bleak and hard. And Jinja is a pleasant place to pass some time. There’s a little guesthouse there, with decent food and a swimming pool and affordable rates for missionaries. It’s run by an Indian, Surjio, who’s married to a Brit. They have adorable little kids who run around the yard and play in the swimming pool under their parents’ watchful eyes.

Surjio has long roots in Jinja, I hear. In fact, long ago, Indians helped to build the railroad from Mombassa, on the Indian Ocean, to Nairobi and on to Kampala. Many of them stayed in Uganda and established businesses. But then, in 1971, Idi Amin decided to punish the Indians for their lack of support for his regime, and he gave all Indians 90 days to leave the country. They lost everything, from what I understand — businesses, homes, connections.

Surjio’s parents were among the exiles, but Surjio came back. And now he has this guesthouse, which seems to be doing very well. It’s like an oasis. Like all valuable property in Uganda, it’s surrounded by a high wall, and there are 24-hour guards. A German shepherd roams the grounds at night.

Coming into Jinja on Saturday, January 18, I had noticed a church just one block away from Surjio’s, and I had seen that its name was St. Matthew’s. The next morning, I was determined to find out more about this church, which I suspected was Anglican, and attend if possible. So, just before 8 a.m. I waved at the guard and slipped out the front door of Surjio’s, and walked over to the church. As I walked, I heard a congregation singing “Joy to the World.” Hmm.

I read the signboard, which indicated that Sunday services were in English and were held at the following times: 7 to 8:30, 8:30 to 10, and 10:15 to 11:45. I figured that Kitty and I would attend the 10:15.

After breakfast, at 10:05, Kitty and I were walking over to the church. I didn’t want to be late. But I shouldn’t have worried — time is pretty flexible in Africa, and the second service hadn’t finished yet. A group of children were sitting in plastic chairs on the lawn, their teacher instructing them in a Bible lesson. But people were driving into the parking area, and others were arriving on foot, and by 10:30, a couple hundred had gathered. The earlier service led out, and people strolled to their cars or out into the road on their way home. This being Africa, the women were dressed exquisitely — mostly in long, colorful dresses. Even little girls wore dresses — I don’t believe I ever saw a small girl in trousers the whole time I was in Africa. The men, both young and old, were mostly in dress slacks and dress shirts. A few of both sexes — mostly teens and young adults  — were more casual.

An older white man strolled over to us, and we chatted. HIs name was John, and he was British, the executive director of a charity that works with Ugandan orphans. He lived in JInja and was a member of the parish. I asked him what we could expect at Saint Matthew’s. “I don’t know why there was Christmas music today,” he said. “I told the vicar that at home in England, we sing Christmas carols on the Sunday afternoon before Christmas Day. And that’s it.”

The music had started, and we excused ourselves and walked into the church.

Like many churches in the tropics, Saint Matthew’s was ingeniously designed for cooling without air conditioning. It was whitewashed masonry, and the side walls of the church were entirely louvered glass doors that were left standing open throughout the service, allowing cross ventilation. As I sat in my pew, if I turned to the right, I could look through the open side wall, down the hillside, and out at the blue waters of Lake Victoria, perhaps a half mile away at most.

Saint Matthew’s is a parish of the Church of Uganda, which is part of the Anglican Communion, and two books were in the pews: The liturgical book of the Church of Uganda, which is called Common Worship (but which is not the same as the Common Worship used in England), and a standard English hymnal, printed in the British style with just lyrics and no musical notation.

We soon learned that this was a special Sunday. First, there was the baptism of a toddler, which was great fun. Relatives and friends of the family had come from out of town, and it was very festive — the baptism seemed to follow the rubric from the Common Worship book fairly closely. But other than that, this church was not following the parameters of liturgical worship. Instead, the whole service consisted of special Christmas music sung by congregation and choir.

We sang Christmas carols. The choir sang selections from Handel’s Messiah. We sang more Christmas carols. In fact, there were three sets of “special music” by the choir, consisting of three pieces in each section, for a total of nine choir anthems, in addition to congregational singing. There was no sermon.

Between these numbers, we did other things like intercessions and saying the Apostle’s Creed. And when it came time for the welcome of visitors, I knew we would be asked to stand. After all, there were literally no other white people present.

The vicar asked all visitors to stand, and someone brought a microphone and handed it to me. I had been thinking about what I would say. “My name is Jay Blossom, and I am from Philadelphia in the U.S.A.,” I started. “I bring you greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ from Saint Mark’s Church, where I am part of the lay leadership. I have come to Africa to visit my friend Kitty Moyer, who is a nurse at a clinic in South Sudan. Please pray for her as she returns to that war-torn country, as she is doing important work there.”

They applauded, and later the vicar prayed specifically for “our sister in South Sudan,” that she would be protected and blessed.

The service lasted an hour and a half, and if we had been smart, we would have slipped out as soon as the final hymn was sung. But the vicar announced that this was parish election Sunday, and they would be holding elections for the parochial church council as well as some other special offices. I thought, “OK, how long can this take? Fifteen minutes?”

What followed was, in my mind, completely chaotic. The vicar took nominations from the floor, and people started calling out names. For each name, there had to be a second, and if the vicar didn’t approve of the name, he simply didn’t recognize the second, saying, “That has not been seconded,” which he (and everyone) pronounced as “se-CON-ded.” In some cases, nominations were accompanied by cheering. A few nominees asked to have their names removed from consideration. The vicar kept the floor open for nominations as long as he cared to, saying, “Are there any more nominations?” I’m not sure if some people had been coached to nominate certain people, but it didn’t appear to be so.

Eventually, there seemed to be consensus around four names, and those four people were sent out of the church. Next, the vicar announced that they needed two people to count votes, and they would choose the tellers from anong the visitors. I was petrified that he planned to call on Kitty and me to count the votes! Fortunately, he chose the godmother of the child who had been baptized, plus another visitor from Kenya. Each name was called, and the members raised their hands to vote. Two nominees — one man, one woman — won by a landslide.

I thought that would be the end of the voting, but no. There were four or five other offices to fill, including assistant secretary of the council. There was animated discussion about whether the assistant secretary of the Mother’s Union could also be the parish assistant secretary. People shouted names, the vicar batted some of them down, and there was a lot of calling out, cheering, and even cries of “no, no.” The young man sitting in front of Kitty and me, whose wife was an officer of the Mothers’ Union, was having the time of his life — he laughed, he made snide comments to his buddy (sitting next to him), he rocked in his seat, and when his wife lost the vote for one parish-wide office, he smiled and laughed some more. His wife looked disgusted with the whole process. I thought to myself, “She’s the serious one in that family — the responsible one — but he’s the one you’d want to hang out with. He seems like a lot of fun.”

Honestly, I kept thinking that I wished my own rector had been present, and Judge Dalzell, our accounting warden, just so that they could see how parish elections are done in Uganda. Both of them would have been appalled.

It was almost 1:30 in the afternoon by the time Kitty and I walked out of Saint Matthew’s. I was starving, so we headed back to Surjio’s. Kitty ordered a calzone and I ordered a pizza. It was a lovely, warm afternoon, and soon I was ready for a nap. Kitty sat by the pool and swam a bit while Surjio’s son splashed in the pool. There was also a young American man with a red “soul patch” who was playing in the pool with his two little kids. When Kitty struck up a conversation with him, she learned that he and his family were also South Sudan missionaries who had departed when the fighting broke out in December. Their station was north of Juba, in the danger zone, so they were just waiting for everything to calm down so that they could return.

It was a pleasant, relaxing afternoon. After my nap, I sat on the verandah of the guest house, where I could get a halfway decent wifi signal. I chatted with an elderly Canadian couple who were in Jinja, resting, after having done mission work in northern Uganda. The wife, who was the chatty one, said, “My husband always accuses me of talking to strange young men!” And she laughed a twinkly laugh while her husband looked on, indulgently. I thought to myself, “This is my parents — the introverted husband, happy to have his wife make friends enough for both of them. And the wife who knows no strangers.” Kitty thought the husband might even have Parkinson’s.

Sunday night, Kitty and I decided to try a fancy restaurant that was in a western-style hotel near our guest house. The hotel was called “Gateley on the Lake,” and we had seen signs for it, but we didn’t know exactly where it was. We set out before dark, walking down the road toward the lakeshore, and soon we found it. The restaurant was in an outdoor garden setting, which was lost on us since it was dusk by the time we arrived. And we were the only people there!

The food at Gateley was delicious, and so expensive for Uganda — I think we paid more than 100,000 shillings for the two of us. When it was time for us to leave, the staff did NOT want us to walk back to Surjio’s. This was something I found throughout my time in Uganda. Africans have constantly been telling me that I must not walk here or there — I haven’t always been able to tell whether they are concerned for my stamina or my safety. But in any case, over the last couple of weeks I have found myself saying, over and over, “No, I am walking.” I brought two pairs of shoes and one pair of Crocs — all are now covered with red African dirt. Perhaps that is the best souvenir.

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