I hungrily took my plate of posho, rice, and ground nut sauce and found a place on the only remaining bench in the mess hall. I was having a pleasant conversation with a man about his village and the intrigues and dramas of rural life in Uganda when another man sat down and began talking.
‘M’ is a student from South Sudan. His clothes were poor and he was obviously in distress. I asked him to share what was troubling him. He replied by speaking about a couple of mutual friends who work in the refugee camps and I assumed he was going to give me an update on how life was in the camps.
I was wrong. M began a rambling telling of his story. I am recounting it as closely as I can as it was related to me.
M began sharing the troubles he had coming to Jinja from his country. He had to be careful to avoid certain roads in order to keep from being picked up or killed by either rebel or government military. Then he spoke of his mother and sister and his concern as to their whereabouts. Right after he left to attend his classes in Uganda, his mother and sister had to run from their village into the mountains. M knows where they are hiding at present, but is fearful they will have to move again and then he won’t know where to look. The rebels came to his hometown and conscripted men for their militias. M’s brother joined out of a combination of fear and desperation. M’s younger brother had previously encountered the rebels when they were seeking new soldiers. Something went wrong and M’s brother was killed.
M said everything is changed in the city where he used to live and work as a youth minister. He said the population was once near one million, but now most have run away. There is no work, no services, food is scarce and the church he served no longer meets together. His pastor left to join the rebel forces. M said over and again that he did not understand why his pastor would do such a thing. He said other church members asked why and he could not answer. He tried to suggest to me some possible explanations of why, but in the end just put his face in his hands and repeated I just don’t know. He said that he did know that even though the rebels are trying to address some gross injustices done by his government, that the way of war was not the way of Christ, nor the way to a lasting peace in his (still very new) country.
I asked M if he could phone his mother to check on her well-being. The question may seem a bit ridiculous, but the cell service in this part of Africa is excellent. M said, ‘No they have shut all the cell services down and I don’t know when they will be functioning again.’
M then started talking about his childhood and young adulthood. He spoke about how his father left the family after he lost work in the city and had to move to the village. His father was not the farming type, so he abandoned his family. His mother remarried after about three years and his step father was cruel and beat him and his siblings. M’s mother became pregnant but the pregnancy did not go well and she ended up abandoned and ill.
M became a follower of Jesus in his early twenties. His life continued to be complicated. After M’s conversion, he was able to patch together an education and even enter the university to study economics with the sponsorship of his uncle. Again something went wrong. I didn’t quite catch the detail, but either the university or his uncle had M put in prison, under a sentence of two years. It had something to do with his university fees, that I do know. I am sure my fuzziness about the details comes in part from the great rift in experience. How many university students go to prison over tuition arrears in the US?
M was able to get out of prison after some time by negotiating some agreement with his uncle, but still had the debt hanging over his head. He was encouraged to disappear, but his faith wouldn’t allow such dishonesty so he remained and put things as right as possible. It was at this time he thought to pursue finding his father, perhaps the man would have compassion on his son and help him even though he had not seen or contacted him in 18 years. This also did not go well.
I asked many questions about his plans to retrieve his family, whether or not he would try to enter the refugee camps I plan on visiting in October. M had more questions than answers.
One of the difficulties of being in Uganda is people are regularly asking me either to sponsor them or to find people in the US to sponsor them. Unless you have had the experience of visiting, it is a hard to imagine these ‘ask’ conversations. Often people are desperate for less than $200. There was no ‘ask’ in M’s conversation. Perhaps he trusted me with his story because I knew some people he knew. Throughout the recounting of his life, he repeatedly stressed his trust in God and in God’s authority over even the life he is living. As I watched the language of his body; I could tell he was also clearly communicating that a living, sovereign and loving God was his only hope.
M came to sit on my bench. I knew there was really nothing I could say in reply to such a story, so I offered to pray with him, which he allowed. Before we prayed together he shared two more things. He wanted me to pray for him as he is ill and suffers from Hepatitis B. He said he does not yet know if God will allow this disease to end his life. He also wanted me to pray for his new wife, who is with his mother and sister in hiding. I don’t know if I missed this earlier in his story, lost to me as I tried to keep up with him or if he just waited until the end to divulge. He shared a bit of his marriage story. In sub-Saharan Africa, marriage often is subject to the interference of relatives (particularly uncles, but not just uncles) who wish to profit in some way from the union. M’s marriage suffered from this kind of interference, so M had to fight for his wife, who is now separated from him and in peril.
And so we prayed, asking for God’s intervention, protection, and healing. M cried. Not the sobs commensurate with such a burden, but three or four tears quietly and slowly drifting down his cheeks.
I am sharing this story for reasons I hope are evident.
M’s life situation is repeated in this area by the hundred thousand. There are multiple other areas of the world where M’s story could be repeated with his name exchanged for another. Refugees are not news stories, they are people.
M trusts God in ways I find astounding and in which I wish to follow. M desires a deeper knowledge of God so much that he literally risked his life to come to learn. This is a hunger every Christian should posses.
M needs continued prayers for not only him and his family, but for his people who want the same things most of the rest of us want: the simplicity of food, water, shelter, love and peace.
It is highly unlikely my recounting of M’s story will be read by anyone who would use it to do him harm, but since I related several identifying details happening in a war zone, I chose to change his name to a random consonant. M’s refusal to join either the government or the rebel military forces is enough for his end to be the same as his younger brother’s.