Well, here we are. Four weeks in Uganda and I guess it’s time for an update for you, our friends and mission partners.
How this started
This all started two and a half years ago when Michelle responded to what she thought was a job opening in Africa — it wasn’t. Rather, it was a missionary opportunity to help run Christian classical schools in Africa with the Rafiki Foundation. So, essentially, it’s a job for which you go out and raise the support that pays your way.
After a month in Kenya in the summer of 2019 as short-term missionaries, Michelle and I felt that God was calling us to come to Africa long term. So we began a two-year process of training and support raising.
Covid-19 has made that process even more interesting than it otherwise would have been. We were supposed to attend a week of training in Florida in the summer of 2020, but that turned into two weeks of online training and interviews with three other classical Christian educators followed by nine months of weekly readings and online discussions.
In the meantime, we began writing newsletters about our call — and praying — seeking financial and prayer support for our mission. By May, through God’s grace and your generosity, our partners had contributed enough that we were able to purchase tickets for Uganda, our assigned destination. (We’re not at 100% yet for our first two-year term, so if you feel called to financially partner with us, we’d appreciate it, just click here: Graves – Rafiki (rafikifoundation.org))
Wrapping up in Houston
Things started to heat up for us in May. My yearbook staff worked long hours finishing St. Thomas’ 2021 book, despite the many technical and coverage challenges we faced due to Covid protocols and having a staff that was part in person and part virtual. They even showed up for our drive-through distribution in torrential rains after school was out.
Nathan delivered his senior thesis, graduated from Trinity Classical School (giving the senior speech at the ceremony), and accepted a four-year ROTC scholarship to Virginia Tech.
Mid-May we switched to frantic preparation mode. Starting at the top floor and working down, we began boxing things up, making regular trips to Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity ReStore, selling things on Facebook Marketplace, and searching for pallets on which to pack boxes for Africa.
By the beginning of June, the house was empty, except for three pallets of books, kitchen equipment, coffee makers, rugs, and Aeron chairs. Those were quickly dispatched to Florida by UPS to be loaded on a container which (God willing) will ship to us in September — and arrive November, December, January…?
Our friends, Bill and Lisa Schwartz, kindly allowed the four of us to take over their second floor for the next three weeks as we continued to sort through, pack, and dispose of stuff.
Training and surviving in Florida
Finally, on June 20, Miranda and Nathan dropped us and our five suitcases off at Hobby Airport to fly to Florida for Survivor Camp at the Rafiki Headquarters in Eustis.
Part of that Camp was a crash course in our various jobs with our fellow trainees, Jay and Maureen Richards and Anna Liebing (with whom we’ve been in Zoom and internet training for a year now, but were meeting in person for the first time), Gwen and John Cicone and Catherine Upton. The “survival” part was the Rafiki version of “Chopped”. We were supplied a shelf in the pantry and a shelf in the refrigerator with all of the food items we were allowed to use and got to practice team work by figuring out what to do with it for our lunches and dinners — as well as feeding Rafiki staff who dropped by to visit with us. And we got to practice commercial kitchen skills such as using the sanitizer — leaving it on overnight only once.
By the weekend we were pretty tired, but went up to the Rafiki headquarters on Saturday and worked all day helping with various chores before getting trained as kitchen help for the three-day Enrichment Session for serving missionaries and Rafiki supporters. There were some great speakers, but we spent most of our time in the kitchen prepping food and washing dishes. By Wednesday night, we were pretty tired.
Meanwhile, COVID was wreaking havoc with airline schedules. Our Emirates flight through Dubai changed to a different day and time. Then, on the Wednesday before our Saturday departure, it was cancelled. We were able to switch to KLM through New York, Amsterdam, Kigali and, finally, Entebbe, Uganda. This was a fortunate change: it allowed us to add two additional suitcases which we managed to fill to the limit.
On Thursday morning, we held a brief and moving commissioning service, bade farewell to our fellow trainees who were all returning home for a few weeks or months, and spit into cups for our preflight COVID tests. That afternoon, we drove the test packages to the FedEx office, shopped, dropped off laundry and tried repacking to keep the bags at the proper weights.
Friday was more of the same, interrupted by two very pleasant dinners — and games — with our friends and retired missionaries Paul and Elin Klauke.
Off to Africa
Finally, on Saturday, July 3, Rafiki’s Executive Director Karen Elliott and a van with room for our six suitcases showed up at the hotel. Karen kindly prayed us onto the van, and we were off.
We managed to get our suitcases checked in and through security for our full flight to JFK — each of us in one of the elegant middle seats. We survived, searched for an open restaurant at JFK, and finally boarded the KLM flight to Amsterdam, in the very last seats, right by the bathrooms.
Not surprisingly we did not sleep very well, but we got to Amsterdam on time, and stretched out for naps while waiting for our next flight. Thankfully, this was not full. Michelle was able to stretch out on four empty seats and I relaxed at a window seat with more legroom.
Clouds parted as we flew over Greece, the very blue Mediterranean, and then Africa in eastern Egypt. After a stop in Kigali, Rwanda, we finally arrived at the airport in Entebbe, breezed through customs, and were able to avoid the COVID test with our vaccine certificates.
Home At Last
Due to a large uptick in COVID cases in Uganda’s third wave and the unavailability of vaccines, schools and churches are closed, there is a 7pm to 5:30am curfew and traveling was subject to pretty severe limitations. So we spent our first night in the charming Hotel Boma near the airport. We awoke to a beautiful cool morning, walked through the lush grounds for breakfast by their beautiful swimming pool, and realized we were finally here.
Soon we were met by Chriz — Rafiki teacher, dorm parent and wonderful person — and an airport taxi. We stopped at a mall, open, but not busy due to the lockdown, to buy sim cards for our phones. Then we headed for the village. We drove up the bypass from the airport to Hoima Road. Despite the lockdown, traffic was not moving quickly particularly because there were several police checkpoints to enforce the transportation restrictions. The road is lined with small shops and outdoor vendors and hundreds of people (masked, of course). Finally, we reached the town of Wakiso, and turned off towards the Rafiki Village. The road is not paved, it’s dusty, and full of potholes and ruts. But after ten minutes or so we topped a rise and saw the village on the side of the next hill, lush and green.
The guards opened up for us and greeted us warmly. We then drove about a quarter of a mile to our new home.
Since the beginning of this year, Kent and Peggy Martin, a retiring missionary couple, have been filling in for us. They had the house ready for us, with food in the refrigerator, sheets on the bed, and the pick of the village furniture. We spent a few hours unpacking and then walked down to the Martins for dinner. And that’s when our education began.
We talked about the history of the village, about the jobs they had been doing, about Ugandan customs, and about the realities of living in Africa. And they warned us that on our second night in Africa (eight hours ahead of Houston time) we would not sleep well. They were right.
That made it easier to get up in the morning and start our training. Michelle headed for the Rafiki Institute of Classical Education (RICE) building to meet her assistant Marion and have Kent fill her in on her new job as Dean. The lockdown has complicated things — particularly for the current classes who were not quite finished with their coursework when the lockdown resumed.
Meanwhile Peggy was giving me a crash course in handling the village finances, disbursing money, paying bills, converting dollars to Uganda Shillings (current exchange rate is 3510 shillings to the dollar, the largest denomination is 50,000 shillings, and cash is widely used here so there is a lot of cash counting).
That day pretty much set the pattern for the next two weeks. Each day we learned about something new we would be doing, overseeing the child care program for the 75 or so resident children, managing property, grounds, security and more.
Fortunately, Kent spent a lot of his time here taking care of overdue maintenance — and organizing and labeling the hundreds of keys. That makes my job easier.
Since schools are closed, we do not have day students coming to campus, but we do have the orphans. They’re all in sixth grade or above, so problems tend to be of the teenage variety. However, there have been very few of those so far, largely because the national staff has been running five week enrichment sessions for them that they seem to be really enjoying. We arrived in the middle of session 2 — and discovered that the residents were divided into four teams, amassing points towards a grand prize to be awarded at the end of the session.
On Thursday, I accompanied our chief cook, Jackson, on his monthly bulk shopping trip. Pickup trucks were allowed to move freely with a maximum of two people — and we have a pickup. Jackson is organized and efficient: we wound up with six shopping carts full of cooking oil, margarine, spaghetti, maize flour and other stuff I did not recognize. It’s hard to describe Kampala: huge contrasts between slum areas next to walled compounds, narrow twisting streets — many not paved — as well as broad beautiful avenues like the Royal Mile leading from the Buganda Parliament to the Kabaka’s Palace.
And boda bodas (motorcycles) darting in and out everywhere. African traffic is not for the faint of heart.
Our other permanent missionary, Kelly Fore, had been in Florida while we were there. She arrived back in Uganda toward the end of our first week. Waiting at the airport, she met a young man who was also a tourist guide. Because Uganda really needs the tourist income, registered tourist vehicles were allowed to move freely. So on our first Saturday, we hired Twaha to drive us all into Kampala.
Michelle and I thought the traffic was heavy. Our more experienced Africa hands were delighted with how light it was due to the lockdown. Our first stop was St. Pauls Anglican Cathedral at the top of Namirembe Hill, a beautiful brick building finished about a century ago. The views from the top of the hill were stunning. Thanks to the good offices of Paul Kakooza, who is in charge of education for the Anglican Church in Uganda, we managed to get a tour of the building despite a series of “scientific” weddings (they are limited to 20 people because of covid).
Afterwards, we drove past various sites, visited a mall, had lunch, went grocery shopping, and returned to the Village.
Because churches are closed, the residents put together a worship service each Sunday in the gym, with scripture readings, prayers, hymns accompanied by guitar, piano, and clarinet as well as a sermon preached by one of the faculty members. So our first week came to a close.
The original plan was that the Martins would stay until the end of July. However, they pronounced that Michelle and I were learning our jobs so quickly that they didn’t need to stay that long. There was also a lot of uncertainty about whether COVID might cause the closure of airports — and they were eager to shop in person for a retirement home in the mountains of North Carolina. The upshot was that we put them on a plane back to the states at the end of the week and poor Kelly was left with two neophytes to help run the village.
By the time they left, we’d pretty much begun to settle into a routine. Each weekday morning, I lead a 30 minute Bible study at 7:30am for the security guards, cooks, property maintenance crew, and other support personnel. I spend a lot of the day in the office working on finances (I managed to get all of the employees paid on time!), consulting on maintenance issues, and being sure our village is secure.
Michelle has spent much of her time preparing for the resumption of the RICE program and working with the child care workers on training and Bible study. We’ve done a couple of more forays into Kampala to shop for furniture and food — Kelly has now shown us all of the prime spots.
Last week, session two of enrichment came to an end with the teams competing on making political speeches, writing and performing short plays, and singing. The grand prize was a goat. What, I asked, were they going to do with the goat? They looked at me like the ignorant American I am and said “Slaughter it and cook it, of course.” I have been imagining the reaction if I had offered this as a prize for a yearbook competition. Nevertheless, the winning team was overjoyed and made pretty quick work of transforming the goat into a meal that they shared with all the teams. And that is a skill they need to know when they return on visits to their extended families.
On August 1, the President eased some of the lockdown restrictions, particularly on transportation, but schools and churches are still closed. We’re praying that cases will continue to decline and that we can have all the student back on campus.
In the meantime, I’m teaching a journalism class four times a week as part of enrichment session three and Michelle is directing a play: A.A. Milnes’ “The Ugly Duckling.” We’re slowly beginning to master putting the hundred or so names with faces and teaching these classes really helps.
I’ve gotten to drive the standard-shift, right-hand drive pickup into Wakiso a couple of times without totally embarrassing myself. Michelle — who has always wanted to live on a farm — got to act like she knew what she was talking about as she discussed the necessity of castrating our new-born male goats.
We had a chance to meet last week with the leaders of Westminster Christian Institute Uganda, the university we are partnering with to grant accredited degrees through our teacher training program. Michelle will be working to harmonize our curriculum with theirs. We’re praying that one of the benefits of the lockdown will be time to make some real progress on this.
So that’s it for the moment. If you made it this far, I’m hoping to do entries a little more frequently now that we have a vague idea of what we’re doing. In the meantime, we’re enjoying living with our windows open: lows in the mid 60s, highs in the upper 70s, as well as the beautiful, peaceful setting here. We don’t always enjoy the loudspeakers blasting music and diatribes from across the valley at 5:30 in the morning, but I guess we’re getting used to it.