By Mommy Emily

It’s night when we finally arrive at the camps, the cicadas singing and the whites of the stars blinking brighter than they ever seem to at home. 

The quiet darkness is quite the contrast to the five-hour-long bus ride we took from Kampala to Gulu, with Rastafarian music videos blaring from an old tv strapped to the dashboard of the bus, and a street preacher rising to preach between stops while vendors crowd the outside of the bus holding up dried fish, cold sodas, fruits and even live chickens to our open windows. As soon as another bus pulls up they all rush off to try to sell their wares. One woman in front of us buys a chicken and it sits with her the rest of the trip, clucking quietly and occasionally flapping its wings. 

Pastor Taban Santos — a man who was literally born under a lulu (shea nut) tree in South Sudan — meets us at the bus stop in Gulu tonight, picking us up in a van that will eventually take us into South Sudan, but first we drive the two hours to Adjumani, to the refugee camps that have been his home since civil war first broke out in his home country in 2013.

Mud huts sit lumped together in the dark, like mounds of bread dough, many with dirt graves in front of them — mothers, brothers, sisters, who’ve died since coming to the camps, buried close to their families so their spirits don’t wander (according to ethnic beliefs).

Sixty-four tribes take refuge here in eighteen settlements — more than 200,000 refugees. This particular camp is called Pagirinya, with most of its residents being mothers and children, the majority of whom were separated from each other during the war, all of them escaping across the river Nile like the Israelites fleeing the ruthless Egyptians. And for many, in Pagirinya camp, their Moses has been Pastor Santos. 

He tells us again how he fled from the soldiers, alone, and how he came to the river and didn’t know how he would cross, but God created a way by forming footsteps on the water, like a divine bridge, for Pastor Santos to step across, away from the machetes and the angry faces of the soldiers.

Pastor Santos lives in a humble mud tukul with his wife and children. We walk there from the school compound in the morning, stepping past the locked gate, down a dirt path, past many tukuls until we reach his. We see the birds — chickens, pigeons, and ducks — fluttering around his house, purchased by his wife through the microloan program. His wife, tall and elegant, greets us and leads us to a table in the shade, where the children bring water in a pitcher and soap, kneeling to wash our hands. Then they bring breakfast — steamed African milk tea with ginger and sugar, crisp fried chapatis and oranges, hard boiled eggs and chicken. 

We take turns using the “shower” in the mud bath house behind their home. They bring us a bucket of warm water each morning, emptying and heating more water and refilling for each of us, so we can feel clean in the heat of the day. They’ll do that again in the evening, because it’s common to have two showers in a place where the heat drips down your neck hour after hour. 

The next two days will be spent back at the school compound, where Pastor Santos takes care of dozens of children from child-headed homes. Every morning we are awakened by their voices lifted in song as we sleep in rooms above them. They will laugh at me one night, as I slip out of the rooms to use the outhouse, my cell phone light to guide me, and immediately upon entering the small structure I utter a little scream and jump back out. The walls and floor are covered in cockroaches. “They won’t bite you,” the children laugh, and I smile timidly and pray furiously as I re-enter, trying to ignore the many insects surrounding the dirt hole.  

We gather in the morning for Bible study and singing, and then these precious children of all ages take grass brooms and begin to sweep the compound in preparation for the guests. Pastor Santos has invited churches from across the camps to come and participate in two days of training. Steve James from Burundi, who lives and works in India and has joined our Lulu team as Business Advisor, will offer a financial training course, and the next day, my Ugandan brothers Enock, Shaban, Daniel and I lead will lead a marriage training class (me being the “oldest” of the wedded ones, married 18 years!).

The church is packed each day with mostly women representing all the tribes, gathered as one to worship together in many different tongues. Each time one of us speaks, two different translators interpret — one into the more common South Sudanese Arabic, and the other into the tribal language of Madi. 

We pause each day to eat together, and I walk behind the church with my cell phone to photograph the food being prepared for us: fish with sauce, rice, beans, and greens. The women laugh and put their arms around me, wiping their faces with the edges of their aprons and proudly showing me what they’ve cooked. I ask if I can help them serve, and they kindly let me, even though I’m new to this and don’t know how much to put on each plate. Most people don’t even want beans, preferring the fish and greens, because the refugee camp provides beans and rice for each person each month, and they are, understandably, tired of them. “Shukran,” I thank them shyly in the little bit of Arabic that I remember from my days of living in Lebanon and Jordan before I was married. 

And then, at the end of two days of training and worshiping and eating together, the presents arrive. Ladies and more ladies from the different camps, all who’ve received some kind of small microloan gift through Lulu, come forward in groups, each having prepared a dance and a gift for us. So we stand at the front and clap, and they dance down the aisles, group after group, presenting boxes of sim sim, homemade dish soap, and many, many chickens wrapped in gold and silver and Christmas wrapping paper, their heads poking up with bewildered expressions. Some of the chickens have been put in boxes, and their heads pop up, surprising us every time. We will end up giving all of these gifts to Pastor Santos for his generous hosting, and some of the chickens to Pastor Francis in South Sudan. But the love of these ladies, the joy on their faces, the dancing and the hugging and the gratitude — for such a little loan — brings tears to my eyes. 

It makes all the hours of sitting at home behind my desk sending wires and communicating with pastors, all the hours of prayer and meeting with my board, all the hours of flying here and leaving family behind — all of it, worth it. Even the cockroaches.

Love begets love. When we lay down our lives for others, they too gain the strength to lay down theirs. And we love because He first loved us — the Jesus who walks amongst us, the God who became a baby, who became poor, whose first cries were heard in a humble stable, and whose own parents were refugees. He walks — no, dances — amongst His people, delighting in them, hugging them, rejoicing over them, weeping over the graves of their beloveds. And He brings us all, one by one, into His heavenly tukul, our forever home. 

There, the fruit of our lives — the little we’ve gained with the abundance He has given — all our small gifts will be laid with joyful gratitude at His feet. There, we will see Him face to face, and it will all finally make sense. Even the cockroaches. 

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Mommy Emily’s trip to Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan, October 2021