Nicola Tomlin (August 2018 – Februar 2019)

Uganda Blog 9. November 2018:

Initial Experiences and Impressions

My first time outside of Europe and already I’m straight in the middle of Africa, in the middle of Uganda and, for european standards, in the middle of nowhere.

First of all I would like to introduce myself: My Name is Nicola Sophia Tomlin, or as some people call me here “Atim” meaning “born from a foreign place”. I’m 20 years old and came here to volunteer as an English teacher after completing my Abitur at the Augustin-Wibbelt-Gymnasium in Warendorf. Which incidentally is the school that formed my connection to Uganda. For four years Sabine Schmitz-Hoevener was my English, Religion and class teacher. When she first told us about the project back in 2012 I immediately said: “That’s where I want to go!” So since then I have helped here and there with fundraising projects for St. Mauriz and got to meet Fr. Cyprian and other visitors from Uganda when they came to our school. Now, 6 years later I am here myself and can finally do my bit to help the project grow whilst at the same time growing myself as a person and as a global citizen.

Although when I glance over to the calendar, I know that I have been here for just under three months now, that time period just doesn’t seem right: it simultaneously is too little and too much. Too little to hold all the things that I have already experienced but too much to be the amount of time I’ve already spent here, everything still feels so new, so non-normal.

But before I get into how things are now, let me start at the beginning:
I arrived in Entebbe on Wednesday the 15. August after a tiresome 20 hour-long journey. Fr. Cyprian picked me up from the airport and we commenced our over 6-hours-long drive to Gulu. My first impression of Uganda was that it was hot and chaotic, to this remark Fr. Cyprian replied: “Welcome to Africa!” and I did in fact immediately feel very welcome. The following day, Cyprian showed me around the compound, which is a lot bigger than I had initially expected, introducing me to some of the people who work here as we went along. Everyone was very friendly and eager to tell me “you are welcome!” which in turn made me feel even more welcome.

One of the first things that struck me here, was the food. It’s so good! Most of it people grow themselves and the rest they buy from the local market. The food just tastes like “more”. The flavour is more intense, more potent, more real in a way. The pineapple, the watermelon, the passion fruit, especially the bananas, it all just tastes so much better when it hasn’t been shipped halfway across the world. And that’s just the natural taste of the food, the local dishes are another kind of joy entirely. Whilst in Europe we tend to have a whole organised dish. By that I mean we would have lasagna or pizza or schnitzel with potatoes and peas, hence dishes that are either cooked as one or are always served with the same companions. Here the individual components are ever reoccurring but in varying combinations. However, one part that always has to be present on Fr. Cyprian’s table is beans. Fr. Cyprian loves beans and celebrates this by having Pauline and Mercy, the ulternating housladies, cook them twice a day, every day.

Unfortunately, the Monday before I arrived here a close friend to the project, Vicky, died in an traffic accident. Overall she was simply beloved by everyone which was reflected in her funeral. The mass was two hours long and the huge church wasn’t able to hold all the mourners. When the coffin was buried the entire graveyard was filled with people, thousands of them.

I am told that when an old person dies here, it is not necessarily viewed as a mourning matter. Instead they celebrate the fact that the person was able to live a long and happy life. They laugh, sing, dance, crack jokes, a big celebration. But if a young person such as Vicky dies you can figuratively feel the weight of the sadness in the air. The fact that it was an easily avoidable motorcycle accident makes it even worse, a sickness could have been interpreted as the will of God. I didn’t know Vicky but nevertheless I’m certain that this is a funeral I will never forget.

A few weeks later I attended one of the other kinds of funerals, an old man in the nearby village had died. The experience truly was totally different and a sight I will never forget: sitting under a tree on a plastic chair, surrounded by hundreds of people dressed in bright, colourful clothing, watching a priest standing in front of a coffin, with dogs and chicken families running around beneath it. The priest was cracking jokes for over an hour to the point where everyone was laughing so hard they were crying, even the widow couldn’t hold herself together by the end of it.

Since then, I have been to multiple other big events, one bigger than the next. An Ordination, the St. Mauriz feast day and most recently the 100th Anniversary of the Uganda Martyrs in Paimol. This was by far the biggest of them all and quite possibly the biggest gathering of people I will  attend in my entire life.

As the legend goes Paimol is the place where two young, Acholi catechists were killed for their christian faith in 1918. They became Martyrs and their sacrifice helped spread Christianity in Uganda.

As Fr. Cyprian was rather busy I attended it with some of his friends. We arrived the night before, cooked and had a fun evening together. I was surprised to find that during the night a huge party was taking place around the altar in the very sport that the Archbishop would stand and hold a four-hour-long mass just a few hours later. That night it rained as I slept in a not-so-waterproof tent on a mattress that seemed determined to soak up all the liquid it could hold. Obviously, I hardly slept. But honestly that didn’t matter. Around me everyone was wet and muddy and tired but so happy and grateful to be there and that feeling was infective.

Going to these big events I always realise how different Ugandans can be from Europeans; content with the little things, faithful, helpful and community orientated. Not that these characteristics are not present in Europe, they are but usually it takes a lot longer to see them. You have to build up trust over time, whilst here I am quite often immediately invited into people’s homes and hearts.

However, recently traveling to other parts of Uganda, namely Jinja and Kampala, has showed me that these characteristics are not necessarily ubiquitous in Uganda. Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, for instance is very different, I would say: crazy. The amount of people, the traffic, the prices, the poverty clashing with the wealth, the sheer size of the city, it all seems very foreign to me. Coming back to my small, familiar Gulu, where I know the streets, the places I like to go, how to deal with boda drivers, how to phrase my sentences so that people can understand me and where I can greet in the local language felt like coming home.

That trip made me realise, despite all the ups and downs, how thankful I am to be here and to call this place a home after a mere three months.