Monday, December 1, 2008

Praying in the Devil’s House

The transatlantic slave trade went on legally for over 300 years, half again as long as the United States has been a nation. Somewhere between 12 and 20 million of Africa’s strongest were shipped as slaves to South America, the Caribbean and the US. There were other long lasting slave trades: from East Africa to the Arab world and from Southeast Africa, India and as far away as Indonesia, to South Africa. We encountered this last when we visited the Slave Lodge in Cape Town where the enslaved peoples were imprisoned and forced to build that Dutch colony.

But some of my ancestors survived the transatlantic slave trade and the most emotionally and spiritually important part of our pilgrimage for me was to confront that cruelty, that brutality, that failure of the human spirit. Goree Island, off the coast of modern Senegal, was one of the most important transit points in this trade in human life. It is quite possible that some of my ancestors passed through Goree before the Middle Passage to the US.

I think all four of us had been preparing ourselves for the visit to the island, not knowing what we would find or what our reactions would be. I thought I was ready to be in the place where so much violence had been done. We certainly found evidence of that violence preserved in the renovated Slave House, one of many on the island. The house was surprisingly small, perhaps the size of a middle class suburban home in the US. Upstairs had been the spacious quarters for the buyers, with a veranda looking out to sea and twin staircases leading down to the small courtyard, open to the sun. It was in this courtyard that the Africans were inspected like livestock before being purchased.

Surrounding the courtyard were the airless cells, most 8’X 10’, where dozens of Africans were held for up to three months. The 2 tiny cells, no more than three feet high, under the staircases where the “recalcitrant” slaves, those who resisted, were crammed, often packed so tight that it was difficult to close and lock the doors. The special cell for virgin girls, kept separate so that the buyers could have sex with them. Often the girls offered themselves willingly; if one conceived, she and her child were spared the Middle Passage and were allowed to live on Goree as free persons. The special cell where underweight Africans (less than about 140 lbs) were force fed black eyed peas to increase their weight so that they could be sold. The “renovation” of this house included removing some two feet of compacted human excrement from the floor of the cells.

And the “door of no return” through which the Africans were forced on ships for the Middle Passage. It was the only exit for them, either onto the ships or simply thrown into the sea if they became ill or resisted too much. During the slave trade the waters around the island were perpetually inhabited by sharks.

I had prepared myself to hear the story of the complicity of religion. The missionaries were the Europeans who received the captured Africans on the coast and held them for transit to Goree. The missionaries, among others, supplied the African tribes with guns and alcohol to encourage them to continue making war and taking the prisoners who were then enslaved. They traded one gun for one slave.

I had not, however, prepared myself for commercialism. Goree has become a tourist attraction. The ferry leaves the mainland on the hour, filled not only with pilgrim/tourists, but with shop keepers insistent on selling jewelry and trinkets. “What is your name? Come visit my shop.” It was hard to find a moments peace. At first, I resented their intrusion on my spiritual space. But then I realized that they were simply doing what they could to survive, no less than the Africans who were brought to the island in chains.

Nor had I prepared myself to imagine standing in the courtyard of that Slave House, cut off from my people, enslaved and being inspected for sale. I had not prepared myself to wonder whether I would have survived, nor for the raw anger that welled up. But, most, I was unprepared for the admiration I felt. Admiration for the courage, the strength, the perseverance of those who survived this violence and lived to father and mother a people in a distant land. Since that visit to Goree, I have felt so proud and so thankful for the gift of life and the legacy I have been given.

As we began our visit to Goree, the four pilgrims stopped at the church which had been built by the Dutch when they controlled the island and the salve trade. (At various times the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British controlled the island). Inside were images of the Black Madonna and a Black Jesus, obviously new additions. This was the church where the slavers went on Sunday to confess their sins, I wonder whether they even knew they needed forgiveness. Did their prayers even mention slavery? From the moment I saw it, I thought of the church as the Devil’s House.

As we sat in the cool interior, I found words of prayer.

Spirit of Life and of Love, Dear God,

We have come as pilgrims to this site of almost unbelievable brutality and violence. This place is a testament to the capacity for human cruelty. Sadly there are so many other places where that capacity has been unleashed. Our history as a species is replete with examples of our willingness to inflict suffering and death on other human beings.

We have come as pilgrims also to remember the incredible courage, strength and faith that allowed some who passed through this island to survive, to endure, to keep the spirit of life alive.

Both the capacity for brutality and the capacity for love exist in all of our hearts. A belief in our innocence is not an option. We must find a place that can know the reality of both.

As religious people, confronted by the reality of human cruelty, we are called to avoid despair. We are called, always, to search for the path which points toward compassion, respect and love. May we find the strength, the courage and the faith to match those who survived this place.

As Dr. King said, “Out of the mountain of despair, we will hue a stone of hope.”


Photos and videos from Goree Island

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Final Webcast - from Lagos

Unitarian worship in Lagos

Here are a few video clips that provide a taste of the wonderful worship service at Unitarian Brotherhood Church in Lagos, Nigeria on Sunday, November 23, 2008.

The Children we have seen on our journey

Today we attended church at the Brotherhood Unitarian Church in Lagos, Nigeria. This is a Unitarian church that was started in 1918 on an island in Lagos, which is the oldest part of the city. This was our first opportunity to closely observe children with their parents. On other occasions we have seen children in different schools in Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana and once in Uganda we saw children in an orphanage. I was happy to see that today the children we saw were a bit more like children in the U.S. Although they were very well behaved, sitting through the whole church service which was twice as long as a typical UU service in America, they were occasionally "figgety" and even feisty with each other and the parents were sometimes a bit fussy with them as well.

I had no idea what the children we would meet on our trip would be like. We have all seen those television ads for organizations who are trying to "save the chilren" of Africa. But, I didn't know what to expect. I have been pleasantly surprised to find the children we have seen to be much healther than any children depicted on television. They have looked healthy and well cared for. Maybe a few had running noses, but those were the exception. For the most part the children we saw at each of the schools were wearing uniforms. Almost all the children we have seen at various schools, as we have driven through their villages, were wearing uniforms and the uniforms were all different colors, not the navy jumpers and shorts with white shirts I have seen in other places.

It has been quite something to see the level of education these children have demonstrated, singing to us in their own language and then switching easily to English. Today, while driving to the church, 'Femi Matimoju's 7-year old son, read us a short book in English. His mother said that both he and his 5-year old sister are learning English and French in school, as well as Yoruba their native language.

I don't know what their school looks like, but the ones we have seen on our trip have been very, very bare by U.S. standards. They have had narrow benches to sit on and if they were really lucky they had a bench to use as a desk. Only one school we saw had desks for the students and even those were used by two children at a time.

We, Americans, have so much. And UU's in particular have so much and care so much about educating our children. All of us on this pilgrimage are committed to inspiring support for the schools we've visited and the children we've met. In fact, our hearts go out to them. Opportunities to provide support are in development. Let's all be as generous as possible.

Friday, November 21, 2008

African tips

South African Rands, Ugandan and Kenyan Shillings (different from each other), Senegalese Francs, Ghanaian Cedis, and Nigerian Nairas--In 20 days we will have managed six different African currencies and exchange rates. How much and whom do you tip?

How many times have you asked yourself, “How much tip should I give?” Whether at home in the states or traveling abroad, tipping people for their services is sometimes the completion of the transaction. And whom should you tip? For example, do you tip everyone who touches your bags? I do feel bad for the porters and others who are used to making money carrying bags for travelers. The brilliant invention of the suitcase with wheels has practically put them out of business. And, airlines that charge passengers for curbside check-in have further cut into the money that porters make. Who pays the airline fee and then tips the porter too? But now-a-days having wheels simplifies the matter: it’s easy to avoid offers to help with our bags altogether and so the question of the tip doesn’t come up.

How about restaurants and room service? Are service charges included on the bill and does that suffice for the tip or do you give a tip to the person who waits on you in addition to the fees presented on the bill?

And chamber maids or housekeepers? Do you leave a tip for them? If so, how much? Taquiena Boston, Director of Identity-based Ministries, and I have an agreement (one that I think she and Meg Riley, Director of Advocacy and Witness, share) for tipping the people-usually women- who clean our rooms. In the spirit of social and economic justice, we leave a tip and we do so each day rather than waiting until check-out. It seems to make sense and it is fair to the staff in that it takes into consideration that there may be different people cleaning the room each day.

Tipping daily becomes a practice of mindfulness. It means remembering and having the right bills each day for leaving at least three dollars per hotel registrant each morning before heading out for the day’s activities.

When our scuba diving club travels annually on a two week trip to somewhere where the weather is warm, my husband always suggests that travelers prepare by going to the bank and getting $100 one-dollar bills. Club members are happy to tip knowing that our travel business enhances the local economy and usually the people who work in these service jobs are people of color. We also see ourselves as ambassadors and the impressions we leave influence the way local people remember our club, African Americans in the states, and Americans in general.

My conscious has grown over the question of tipping. One day while working in downtown Washington, DC, standing in my business suit with briefcase in hand, I hailed a taxi. An elderly African American man stopped his cab and drove me to my destination. I asked how much I owed, calculated 15% exactly for the tip and handed him the money. I heard him say as I was leaving the cab, “It figures.” A sense of regret followed me out of the cab and hung around for a long time dissolving some of my business naïveté. I started using 15% as my minimum tip rather than “the tip.”

Since then, my daughter has been employed in the service industry. Waitressing and bartending have been decent paying jobs with flexible hours allowing her to earn money while she is in college. She has taught me well when it comes to tips. Some wait staff only get paid a few dollars per hour because they make their money on our tips. They also have to “tip out”—share percentages of their money—with other staff members. In some cases all of the money is put in the pot and divided at the end of the shift. ; If not for her, I would have never known all of this.

When she and I go out for a meal, I often pass her the bill and let her decide how much we will pay for the tip. We never disagree. At the end of her work day when I ask if she had a good day, we understand that part of the question is: “Did you make good tips?” Even when the work is not so enjoyable, good tips can make it more bearable. Now she works in a place that she loves and even if the tips are not great, there are other things that keep her committed to her place of employment.

On this journey with many stops, it has been challenging to be mindful enough to exchange money before going to my room. That means I have not been very good at my practice of l eaving daily tips. In Soweto after two nights at the Holiday Inn, I left a good tip in the room on check-out day. After our morning site visit, we returned to the hotel to get our luggage before going to the airport. A front desk employee called me over to tell me I had left my money in the room. I smiled and told her that it was a tip for the staff. She thanked me with a smile.

It is possible that for people who work directly with customers in the service industry, our tips might help them to get ahead in life. At the end of this writing I am going down to the hotel desk to exchange some US dollars for francs so that I will have money to leave when we check out in the morning.

Every Child is Our Child

Since 2004 the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) has had a partnership with the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association of the Eastern Region of Ghana to support the education of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. In 2008, 160 children ranging from primary through junior high school in three schools near Odumase, Ghana are benefitting from this support.

President Sinkford and his companions were joined by UU-UNO Executive Director, Bruce Knotts, as we visited the Queen Mothers, the traditional Chief of the Manya Krobo, and the three schools involved in the project. It was an amazing blessing to meet the children involved in the "Every Child is Our Child" program.

Below are a few video clips from our visits:

Meeting with the Manya Krobo chief

At a primary school in Okwenya

Meeting with Teachers and Queen Mothers

a presentation by Fasu Grace

a presentation by Ruth Knwornu

a presentation by Dapa'ah Susuana

The Queen Mothers lead dancing

A final word from Rev. Sinkford

HIV/AIDS contexts during the Pilgimage

One of the major issues that President Sinkford and his companions have been in dialogue about during the Pilgrimage is the various responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the countries we’ve visited. This morning we are on our way to Odumase in the Eastern Region of Ghana where the Manya Krobo people live. Since 2005 the UU United Nations Office has had a partnership with one of the schools for children who have been orphaned by the death of their parents from AIDS. While the transmission rates of HIV in Ghana are generally quite low as compared to other African countries (less than 2%) the rates in the Eastern region are considerably higher (9% down from a high of 19%), leading to a larger number of orphaned children in this area.

Millenium Development Goals Posters at UNICEF in Accra

Driving around Accra and towards Odumase the advertising campaigns are commonly along the roadside. The most frequent themes are “AIDS is Real and Kills” and “Use condoms to protect yourself and prevent transmission”, as well as the frequent abstinence messages

Examples of advertisements

Yesterday we met with leaders of 3 organizations involved in HIV/AIDS work in Ghana: the UN Development Program (UNDP), UNICEF, and the Ghana AIDS Commission – which is the central governmental agency responding to the epidemic in Ghana. During these meetings we learned a great deal about prevention strategies and the context in which strategies are implemented.

HIV/AIDS discussion at UNICEF in Accra

For example, while the official Ghanaian operating philosophy is ABC (Abstinence, Being Faithful, and Condomizing), the school system (which approximately 70% of children participate in) teaches abstinence-only as a prevention strategy. However transmission and other information about HIV/AIDS is integrated into all aspects of the Curriculum (Mathematics, Science, etc.) through the ALERT program – which is organized by UNICEF. The decision to only include Abstinence as a preventive strategy in the school curriculum is due to cultural and religious constraints – not unlike those experienced in the United States. The Ghana AIDS Commission assured us that the “Being Faithful” and “Comdomizing” pieces of the philosophy are taught through community outreach, and particularly through peer education programs – realizing that young people listen to young people more effectively than to adults.

Discussion with Ghana AIDS Commission

Discussion with Ghana AIDS Commission

We recall that the HIV/AIDS work led by leaders of The Triangle Project in Cape Town was often constrained to the ABC philosophy by donors, though they sought to assist school teachers with additional fact-based HIV information/strategies and are grateful for donors who don’t place constraints. In Uganda, Rev. Mark Kiyimba is planning to build the capacity of an HIV/AIDS education strategy that is not limited by either Abstinence-only or the ABC philosophy. Please contact the UUA's International Resources Office for additional information. The UU-UNO’s partner in Odumase – the Queen Mother’s Association – helps to assure that HIV/AIDS orphans are cared for by families in the community. We were told that this is a deeply traditional practice.

The Ghana AIDS commission described the importance of the school in Odumase – which certainly applies to similar schools in countries throughout Africa – as a way to prevent HIV/AIDS from creating a generation of children who haven’t been socialized and are not integrated into the community. This key aspect of this HIV/AIDS response is over and above the central importance of providing children with an education – which is a basic human right as well as a key strategy for personal development and the general alleviation of poverty.

The UU-UNO’s “Every Child is Our Child” partnership offers a straightforward way for American UUs to do something effective in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Brothers and Sisters

In the past 5 days we've visited the UU's of Kampala (Uganda) and the UU's of Kenya. At the soul satisfying worship service in Nairobi, I found myself speaking to "my fellow UU's" and to "my brothers and sisters."

I always try to speak from the heart, and there is no doubt that I was feeling fellowship with thosde good people. But what does it mean to claim a common faith identity across the lines of race and culture, education and income?

Let me describe the "congregation" that was in church last Sunday morning. UUism is new to Kenya, arriving in 2001 (link to history article), but today there are some 3-4000 Kenyans who calim a UU identity. That is more UU's that exist in all but a few of the United States. 100 or so of them showed up at the worship service last Sunday.

Not only were 25-30 congregations represented (nearly as many as some of our districts), but 10-12 of Kenya's 43 tribes were in the room. Tribal conflict has been the defining tension in Kenya's internal life since independence. Remember that it was the European powers who drew the national boundaries in Africa. Africans had no voice.

At church were college professors from Nairobi and very poor women and men from rural areas who work in the "informal economy."

And each and every one, aside from two of my fellow pilgrims, was Black.

Brothers and Sisters.

Few of you would have recognized the singing, all in Swahili, the common language of the many tribes. All the songs were "lined", with the female song leader singing the first line and the congregations responding. When the spirit moved, everyone was up out of their seats moving and dancing as we sang.

Each congregation, or group of congregations, brought a song or a dance or a poem. I remember the young woman who spoke of Unitarian Universalism as the faith of open minds, loving hearts and helping hands.

There was no recognizable "sermon". but a short reading and reflection from the Bible. We said the Lord's prayer in unison at the close of the service.

For Kenyan UU's, our faith is about action. They cannot imagine a faith which proclaims our principles that does not work to alleviate poverty, provide education, care for the orphans...and neither can I.

They know the Universalist message that no one should be left behind. They affirm the presence of the one God in their lives.

Brothers and Sisters.

We, in the US, have known for some time that the theology, the liturgy...what UUism looks and feels like in other cultures is often very differenet from the expression of our faith in our congregations. We can be and are becoming a "faith without borders."

My prayer is that we will be able to know these differences as blessings which can enrich us all, rather than curses. I pray that we will refrain from the creation of orthodoxies and live into the world communmity of Unitarian Universalism which is already being born.

Brothers and Sisters.

Video of Opening Songs and Chalice Lighting

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Meeting with two UUSC partners

While President Sinkford was in Soweto, South Africa and more recently while visiting Nairobi, meetings were held with two of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's partners: The Coalition Against Water Privatization (CAWP) and the Kenyan Association of Street Vendors and Informal Traders (KENASVIT). Each of these partners are doing amazing, inspiring and effect work.

We spent an evening and then half a day with the leaders of CAWP who exemplify the best of grass-roots, people-powered, social change work. Their organization was founded in 2003 in response to a decision by the Johannesburg City Council to begin installing pre-paid water meters at the residences of tens of thousands of Soweto citizens. Not only was this policy contrary to the South African Constition's guarantee of clean drinking water for its citizens, but the fees established were impossibly high. CAWP has organized both local and national community coalitions opposing this policy, and in April 2008 won a major legal victory which determined that the pre-paid water meters are illlegal. The City of Johannesburg has appealed the decision, and in the mean-time continues to enforce its policy.

The coalition has developed a variety of constructive tactics which include openly assisting residents of Soweto to by-pass the water meters, and civic actions such as returning thousands of water meters to the city officials, and organizing mass demonstrations - the latest of which attracted 2000 demonstrators and received powerful media attention.

In the community where CAWP began:

And then yesterday, while visiting Nairobi, President Sinkford met with leaders of KENASVIT to hear about the social-change work they are doing on behalf of street vendors and informal traders - a segment of society that makes up more than 20% of the Kenyan economy. While KENASVIT is involved in a variety of important advocacy efforts, including preventing harrasment of their constituents by police, we talked mostly about two programs that the UUSC helped KENASVIT develop following the post-election violence in Kenya early in 2008: a Peacebuilding campaign, and a revolving loan fund to help venders recover from damages caused by the violence. In the following videos you'll hear from leaders of these programs and of local KENASVIT affiliates:

A meeting was also held with a third UUSC partner, Rock Woman Group, which we'll report on shortly.

Arriving in Kenya

Saturday, November 15th, after taking a 3 a.m. shuttle to the airport, we arrived tired in Nairobi, Kenya at 7 a.m. We met in the lobby at 9 a.m. to begin our day. The agenda was full: a tour of several social entrepreneur (Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus’ concept of investing not to make a profit but to do good, while still recouping your principal) projects established by Kenyan UU leaders in outlying villages and regions. Here, "Faith in Action" is visible comm unity development work. I rode up front and since I wasn’t able to hear the conversation in the rows behind me, the driver, Michael Kamau, and I talked. Michael is not a UU, but his mother is. He works as a safari tour guide. Business is slow as a result of the conflict following the elections, but Michael feels that tourism will pick up again.

I asked him if he had ever been to a UU worship service and he had not, but last February he drove some UUs to the leadership training held in Nairobi and was amazed they were from all over Africa: Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Uganda, South Africa, Burundi and more. We talked about what Unitarianism is. Michael told me he would be attending his first UU service with us the next day.

As our Kenyan guests repeatedly acknowledged, American UU Janice Brunson has been a key participant in the development of many Kenyan UU projects.

Project #1
Our first stop was a school. Part of the vision of Kenyan UU leadership is to establish schools wherever there are congregations. Children greeted us with a song and a large sign welcoming UUA President Sinkford. After we took photos, the children returned to their classrooms. Lunch was being prepared in a room at the end of the school building. President Sinkford, Maria and I joined with the other leaders in serving healthy portions of steaming rice and red beans to the children. Every child got a plate. Popcorn and sweets that looked like bags of Trix cereal were passed out to eager little hands. The public schools in Kenya were established by the British system and we were told that the curriculum at the UU school meets the requirements set by the government.

Project #2
Our next stop was an environmental operation run by a UU congregation in another region. Rows of small trees and shrubs lined a sidewalk that led to a small building where the congregation meets for church. They sell the trees to people in the community in an effort to address the desertification that threatens local villages and wildlife. John Mbuguan, the regional director, has been involved in this operation for about four years, although, in this location for only a year. He said they sell 500 to 1,000 trees a month. Right now, in the period of the short rains, trees sell slower than during the rainy season.

Project #3
We drove then to a more densely populated township. Michael lives here and his mother, Nancy Kamau, was waiting for us in her shop. Inside we were surrounded by women's colorful suits and dresses hanging from floor to ceiling on every wall. Nancy, Jackline Wanjku and the other women in the room wore beautiful, handmade outfits. Most of the garments were women’s two piece tailored suits. A young woman walked around still doing her work--opening a seam--while we greeted each other and lined up for photos. When we were done, two women returned to their sewing machines. The machines were beautiful. I had never seen sewing machines decorated with butterfly and flower designs like these were.

Nancy, the director of her region, joined us in the van to lead us to the next project. We pulled up to a grassy area filled with young children, women and men and blankets spread out displaying their work. Once again, children and adults welcomed us with songs and applause. This is a micro-enterprise project where women make beaded jewelry, woven bags and baskets, crocheted mats, decorated gourds, and other things which they sell. The proceeds from the sales are shared among the women and help support their families. Bill Sinkford and Eric Cherry spoke with the regional administrator, while Maria and I picked out things that we could fit into our suitcases, which by now are pretty full. We all socialized and took photos, then piled back into the van.

Project #4
Our last stop was in the Rift Valley region. Justine Magara told me would see Maasai people here. We had a long, bumpy ride over heavily traveled dirt roads with jagged edges and rills carved by the rains. For weary travelers with little sleep thinking about the evening appointment back at the hotel, we questioned how far we were traveling. Every now and then, either Eric or I would doze off. But our patience paid off. Afternoon rain had come and was almost gone when we arrived in a small village. A few Maasai people dressed in beautiful purple and red garments passed by the van as we drove. Michael pulled up next to a small crowd surrounding a doorway with so much water running on the side of the road that he had to maneuver the van so that we could avoid getting our feet wet.

We were led inside a small building housing two large, blue metal machines. Once everyone was assembled, President Sinkford and his companions were introduced. We greeted one another with the African handshake-- repeating twice the grasping of hand then thumb, or a double hug, left side first-- then the presentation began.

The Poshomill, a grain grinding machine, is another UU micro-enterprise project here. It grinds corn into meal or flour or treats the corn into a mash. Corn is a staple in this part of Africa. The meal is used for porridge, much like cream of wheat, cream of rice, or hominy in the U.S. The mash is a favorite of older people. They explained how it works and cautioned us that the machine made a lot of noise. Dried kernels of corn were poured into a shoot. Everyone stood back and waited for the large, green button to be pushed. The machine revved up, got loud, and, on the other end, white-powdered grain poured out through a cloth into a bucket. It was a quick operation. The ground meal is sold to members of the local community. They showed us a van across the street that is used for distribution. I was struck by the anticipation and sense of pride among the assembled village leaders in showing us the Poshomill.

Nothing in our US experience can be compared to the economic development situation in Kenya. Since arriving in South Africa and encountering one community or organization after another, I have been mindful that nationally we in the U.S. are worlds apart when it comes to organized systems and the human rights of citizens. But face to face presence, conversation and caring bring us together in a global community. Meeting people in their homeland, listening to their stories, witnessing the life and structure of communities expanded my view in ways I never imagined. The journey toward wholeness has many more people traveling with us now.

Passport to African Community

We always want to know how things are going when the entire country has been rivetted on a presidential campaign. Each day I quietly say to myself, “What better time to travel to Africa.” We have been here to witness the tremendous hope that President-elect Barack Obama has inspired in everyone!

There is not a place that we have gone where people have not engaged us in celebratory comments about Barack Obama. Although people often speak in their native and national languages, Obama’s name is one word we can understand. Sitting in a restaurant you can hear Obama’s name slip above the mummer of conversation. Sometimes just driving down the street, someone will look into our van, recognizing us as Americans and shout Obama. This is happening in each country we have traveled.
In Uganda a man saw Bill Sinkford in the passenger seat and he raised his hand saying Obama Man! We have been wondering what are the dead give-aways letting folks know that we are American before we open our mouths and actually reveal our accents. Yes, here we are the ones with foreign accents.

People want to connect with us around the election. We were told that voter registration has increased significantly in South Africa as they prepare to elect their next leaders. Maria commented on a female hotel employee that asked if South Africa could borrow Obama for a few months. In Soweto one pereson said the U.S. is doing what they had one 14 years ago. “Obama is your Nelson Mandela!” It was in Uganda that Bill was called Obama Man. And here in Kenya people are very excited. You can buy Obama posters from your car window. It is clear that the Kenyans’ casted their votes, even if they didn’t count.

On the serious side, a Kenyan said to me Saturday, “Obama has given us hope and vision. America has shown us t hat anything is possible. This is good for our people. America does democracy well. Maybe some of our leaders will learn from your experience.”
We have been hungry for news and we try to see how local media are covering U.S. news. I have collected several front pages featuring the next U.S. President. Now that the story is not splashed across the front page, we open up the paper and see that the world’s anticipation of the next chapter of US international relations is still their news.

Scott Kraft, a writer for UU World and the LA Times, arrived in Nairobi and shared with us a special issue of the LA Times filled with stories and beautiful color pictures of the next first family. This is our first American newspaper since November 4th. We devoured it at the dinner table.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Webcast today with President Sinkford from Nairobi

A full moon was visible as the plane made its descent into Entebbe. Mark Kiyimba, Pastor of the Unitarian church in Kampola, the capitol of Uganda, greeted us warmly in the airport lobby. Our drive to the hotel was about an hour. It was nine at night. Uganda is eight hours ahead of Eastern Time in the U.S. Moonlight shimmered on Lake Victoria. The streets, lined with rows of small trading stands, were filled with pedestrians and traffic that would rival rush hour in any U.S. city. The air was thick with charcoal and exhaust fumes all along the way to the hotel.

Over a delicious dinner we met with six members of the Unitarian church. Pastor Mark and two other men asked about Rev. Rosemary Bray-McNatt, whom they had met earlier this year at leadership training for African congregations which was held in Kenya. Eric, Bill and I were excited to be with indigenous Africans who had chosen Unitarianism. The conversation turned to theology. One member said he was Muslim and Unitarian. Mark, previously a Pentecostal minister, said he left the church because Pentecostal theology in his culture relegated women to a minimal role in the church, including sitting in the balcony apart from the men. We all agreed that Unitarian theology was different; was open and that one did not have to disown their earlier faith communities to be Unitarian.

Bill Sinkford said, “All that we require of you is that you be on your journey seeking your spiritual truth; that you bring all of yourself as you travel on your faith journey; and that you agree to be in community with other people whose journey may be different from yours.” The listening was intense as though everyone was on the edge of their seats. My eyes watered and I felt a sacred connection around the table beneath the spoken words.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Uganda Part 2 - The Orphanage

On a Pilgrimage every moment is unique and every foot step is the first. This has been my mantra and saying it silently awakens my senses to the rhythms of the world around me.

The Countryside

Rev. Mark Kiyimba, founder of the Unitarian Church of Kampala, arrives in the Sheraton lobby at 7 a.m. wearing a dark sport jacket and white shirt. The day’s agenda includes visiting an orphanage for children left alone because their parents died from AIDS and also a Unitarian school. . We travel south stopping on the “equator line” to take the typical tourist photos. Mark wants to make sure we know that we are going south of the equator.

Speaking of the equator, it is a surprise to all of us that the temperature here is very comfortable and there are few insects. Since “Letting Go” has become one of my themes for this Pilgrimage, I add one more false perception to be squashed: the myth of the hot, blazing equatorial sun. That one must have been picked up in science or geography class.

Once freed of the chaotic, heavy, city traffic of Kampala, Mark drives for over two hours past hilly tropical landscape. This is the rainy season and everything is lush and green. We pass trucks loaded with bananas, bundled leaves and steer. The countryside is dotted with long-horn cows and giant anthills sculpted out of Uganda’s deep red soil . I am fascinated that these anthills stand 4 feet high. In some places, there are more anthills than cows. The people, animals and ant colonies share a respectful co-existence.

Lots of children in different colored cotton uniforms walk in small groups along the dusty roads. Mark says that some of the children walk as many as six miles a day to school and back home. Trucks loaded with bananas and bundled banana leaves pass by. Adults are out too, walking children to school, carrying water from the public well, or selling their goods.

Mark turns right onto a bumpy, dirt road and we are in Masaka, the rural village where he was born. He knows everyone here and greets people while driving along, pointing out trade stands and other features of his community before taking us to our first destination.

The Juja Orphanage

Mark stops the car on a strip of grass near a small yard where children in blue uniforms play. They turn their attention to us. Rev. Eric Cherry gets out with his video camera. He squats down and, then, disappears as he is surrounded by children accepting colorful seven principle stickers he is happily passing out. But this is the wrong school. We follow Mark across the road, step into a dark entrance, and emerge into a sunlit courtyard. The bare earth floor is surrounded by small concrete walls and a narrow concrete walkway. Small children sit quietly, lined around the wall, awaiting our arrival. Two young women from the Netherlands sit between them. The children are clustered close, finding security in their caregivers. Two more young women enter into the space behind us. Mark makes some comments and everyone is introduced.

We are strangers. While the children warm up to us, the caregivers answer our questions. The four of them found out about the orphanage on the Internet. They were looking to volunteer for social service in an un-ordinary location. Mark hopes to entice volunteers by offering time in safari at the end of volunteering for six weeks to six months. The orphanage has only been operating for nine months and his strategy is working.

He speaks to us as he moves from one room to another. We stand along the wall in an office too small for us to sit and four children enter bringing us a breakfast of hot porridge in bright colored plastic c ups on plates and, then, quickly leave. Mark shows us around. The fifteen children, two to a room, each have their own beds that the volunteers have helped to build.

Everything is sparse. No running water. No tables, chairs or dresser drawers. The kitchen is just a room with a very large pot for the porridge. Mark talks to us quietly in an adjacent room out of earshot of the children telling us that these children are abandoned because other family members cannot afford to care for them. The center can only afford for three of the orphans to go to school. The name of the school is Ugandan for ‘grandparent,’ because when parents die, the children are taken in by the grandparents. But these children had no one to take them in. He is known as “pastor” by the community. The orphans are referred to him because people believe that he will know what to do. I was glad that we were away from the group because I couldn’t hold back the tears.

In the courtyard, everyone has a colorful cup of porridge and the mood is light. We merge into conversations in twos and threes. Before leaving, Rev. Eric, who by now was being dubbed “the sticker guy,” once again had a crowd of happy children surrounding him. One of the older boys was called to the center of the yard and was receiving praise for cooking the porridge breakfast for everyone. Eric reached into his magic backpack and extended our appreciation as he handed Robert a book of Unitarian prayers. President Sinkford was asked to give closing words. He read an opening prayer written by Rev. Rebecca Parker and ended with, “There is love all around you.”

Making our way to the next site, Mark comments that if the orphanage was a denomination other than Unitarian, it would not have survived in this location. He believes the community accepted the facility because the Unitarian message was inclusive of everyone.

Visiting Kampala Unitarian Universalists

It's Friday evening and we have had a very full and inspiring two days with the Unitarian Universalists of Kampala, Uganda. Rev. Mark Kiyimba and 6 leaders of the Kampala congregation joined us for dinner on Thursday evening, and on Friday we visited an orphanage for 15 HIV-AIDS orphans sponsored by the congregation, as well as a UU school for more than 200 HIV-AIDS orphans in a nearby village. The ministry that Rev. Mark and his congregation are providing is amazing and we'll tell a more complete story about it shortly. But, below are a few photos and videos from our visits.

At the Orphange

At the Unitarian School

After arriving back in Kampala this evening we shared dinner with Rev. Mark and three of the LGBT members of his congregation. They shared heart-wrenching stories about their experiences, and confirmed the incredible welcome and sense of being "at home" that they found at the UU congregation.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Getting ready to leave Cape Town

Why Should We Care?

There is a recurring story of “race-ism” here in South Africa. Why should Americans care? Is it important for successive generations to understand this story? Is “race-ism” in South Africa mostly a concern people of African descent in the U.S.?

I assume that anyone who travels to Africa has "race" and slavery on their mind at some time as they contemplate or make a trip to African countries. Being here in Cape Town, South Africa is to be immersed in a story about race that is old, complex and disturbing. We came here to learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation process that addressed some of the worse racism under Apartheid, but I don't think any of us expected the haunting stories of horror, survival, and victory to envelop us as they have almost every moment of our first five days in this country.

It is always a relief for me when traveling and the plane lands in a city where I see significant numbers of people of color as I enter the airport or step out into the streets. In Africa one can depend on being in proximity to many people of color. Bill Sinkford and I both talk about how comfortable it is for us as African Americans to be here and feel welcome, feel at home, and to blend into the crowd. At times we may look like tourists, but we feel like we belong. Walking behind Bill today as we entered a building, I detected a look of respect towards him from the male security guard. Our connections and conversations with the people here have been easy.

On our first day in Cape Town, we walked a few blocks to see St. George's Cathedral and passed by a sign that read "Slave Lodge" just yards away from the church. We decided to return after attending morning mass with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The “lodge,” with an ugly history, not like lodges we think of today, has been converted into a museum to "remember slavery". The building was built as a holding facility for thousands of people enslaved in South Africa, which began in the 1630s and lasted for 180 years. A wall panel in the lobby said "Slavery ended, but they were not free." Perhaps our biggest surprise was learning that the enslaved people brought to South Africa came from African countries, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. I thought about the ongoing work of building people of color community and solidarity in the UUA and the U.S. I imagined that if people at home were standing in the Slave Lodge with us they too would be surprised at this diverse slave narrative and our solidarity would strengthen. The story of slavery as it is framed in the U.S. is one of brutality and exploitation of Africans.

We had a serendipitous opportunity to attend a lecture/critical discussion with the new Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. That lecture was in the Natural History Museum, which was had just opened a new exhibit to remember the Khoi San people. We returned the next day and were captivated by the earliest story of race in South Africa. The Khoi San are believe to be the oldest population of modern humans. They are often referred to as “Bushmen,” but they call themselves Khoi San. The exhibit featured rock art which was done to express their way of life, day-to-day events, as well as spiritual and healing practices. In the mid-1990's scientists dated Khoi San rock art in South Africa to be 77,000 - 80,000 years old. Before confirming the age of the Khoi San rock art, it was believed that the oldest rock art existed in Europe dated 32,000 years old.

From listening to Afro-centric scholars I had learned that "Bushmen" migrated from the southern tip of Africa into Europe. This information challenged other depictions of human evolution. The rock art exhibits in South Africa show that the patterns can be traced from the Khoi-San to the rock art found in Europe. The Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC Yellow Pages, and a phone company’s TV commercial, each showed pictures of humans evolving from apes to white-skinned men walking on two legs. It frustrates me to see how, through simple omission, truth becomes obscure and also, through repeated visuals, information gets imprinted on our minds below our level of awareness. Until recently there was an ongoing intellectual struggle to see whether Europe, Africa, or Asia was the basin of civilization. I think by now most people accept that human beings evolved on the African continent, but I imagine that there are lots of distortions and distancing from African connections. The creationist theory always struck me as a way to deny that human beings originated in Africa.

These two museum visits grounded this Pilgrimage to Africa in proudly affirming Africa as the birth place of human beings and sharing slavery to be a multiracial, multi-continental crime against people of color.

Imagine being on a journey and arrows point you in directions that are not on your map? Neither of these two exhibits was on our itinerary, yet both of them were placed in front of us, seemingly by chance. But I don't believe it was by chance that our journey started this way. We are collecting precious stones and stringing memory beads to hold close to our hearts, and these two stories predate, and are connceted to our quest to understand what Truth and Reconciliation is about in South Africa. It became very clear while walking through these exhibits that telling the truth about history and people telling their story publicly is part of the process. South African has been bringing peoples voices and stories into the public culture, never to be forgotten again.

Remember the Khoi San People...
Remember Slavery...

There are many more stories to tell...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Worshipping in Cape Town

On Sunday morning I had the honor of worshiping with the members of the Cape Town Unitarian Church. They welcomed me with wide open arms and warm hearts to their peaceful chapel in a lovely section of this beautiful city.

This congregation has existed in Cape Town since the late 19th century, emerging out of the Dutch Reformed tradition. In addition to the Cape Town church there are three Unitarian fellowships in South Africa: in Johannesburg, Durban and Somerset West. Rev. Roux Malan, the minister of the congregation, and Rev Gordon Oliver (Rev. Malan's predecessor) are the only two Unitarian ministers in the country. But, aside from some significant demographic differences, there is a great deal that Unitarianism in S. Africa shares with UUism in the United States.

Their worship services, for example, follow a nearly identical liturgy as we do: with hymns, a chalice lighting, the sharing of joys and sorrows, a sermon and a benediction. The theological outlook of the congregation mirrors the diversity in UUA congregations as well. But, more striking similarities emerged during a conversation with members of the church's Council. This congregation, like so many of ours, is trying to develop a strategy for growth. They, like many of us, are seeking a course for creating a successful religious education program for children. They, like so many of us, are figuring out how to offer a strong and reliable social justice witness in their community. They, like our congregations, are in deep consideration about issues of Race and Reconciliation. We share a great deal, indeed.

In our conversations it also became clear that the development of a relationship between the Cape Town church and a similar church in the United States is very desirable. If you are a member of a UU church in a down-town urban setting that would enjoy a partnership of mutual support with the Cape Town Church, please contact the UUA's International Resources Office. And, remember our brothers and sisters in faith here in Cape Town and through-out S. Africa. I will never forget their generous hospitality and love.

Please enjoy these videos:


Video Excerpts from the Worship Service: