This Ugandan Adventure has brought a few surprises, not least the fact that I am in Uganda, as originally I was supposed to be in Nigeria. Although a few friends might not put it past me, I did not happen to get on the wrong plane at Birmingham Airport and, finding myself in the wrong country, hastily organised a new placement. No, instead, Nigeria proved itself to be too dangerous for the time being; plus, the Anglican Church of Nigeria was not currently happy with the Church of England, and so decided to cut off links with its English friends. So, instead, through chance, luck, or I as a Christian may put it, providential grace, I found myself in the flatlands of Soroti.
One surprise happened a little while ago. I was happily walking the grounds around the Guest House (commonly called ‘The White House’ by the locals, which I feel gives me a Presidential air that resonates with my experience of being given homage…), when I noticed my neighbour’s pigs happily grazing the ground. ‘Ah!’, thought I, ‘the rustic air! The simple life!’ Seeing as he was the Prison Chaplain, my neighbour’s rural idyll gave me notions of how I could be in my own ministry a few years hence. Suddenly, though, one of the pigs looked up at me. Whether it was from murderous instinct or fear of my overwhelming demeanour, the pig made a charge at me. ‘Ha!’ thought I, ‘You shall not touch me! Your leash, you see, binds you to your ground, whilst I am free to roam and wander!’ Unfortunately, however, murder/fear proved the better of the leash, and the pig pulled it up from its sticking place. But rather than attack, the pig rushed passed me, towards the road. I dashed after it, clutching its straggling lead before a motorbike came whizzing past. To be sure, the pig was strong. I had to drag it at first, before it finally attuned itself to me. And within a few moments, there I was, walking a pig down the road as if it were a dog. I finally managed to get hold of the Prison Chaplain, and together we tied the leash into its sticking place a little firmer, this time.
Another surprise happened this Sunday. After a very bad night’s sleep, I had to awake at 5am so as to arrive at the Cathedral in Soroti for its 6am Holy Communion Service. I had been told that I would have to arrive early, as it would be difficult to get a seat. ‘A slight exaggeration, methinks’ thought I, confident that no one in their right mind would want to be up so early, especially considering that most would have to walk a few hours to get to the Cathedral. ‘A few dedicated souls shall be there, and we shall sleepily share in the sacrament of Eucharist together, wearily sharing the peace, and quietly singing.’
I was wrong. Revd David, the Vicar of the Cathedral, picked me up on his motorbike at 5.50am. It’s the first time I have happened to travel to church via motorbike, though it was made very special by witnessing a ravishingly red-orange-purple sunrise. As we arrived at the Cathedral, the sun was still breaking its red streams through the windows. Inside, however, it was already bustling and crowded, distinguishing it from the sleepy serenity in the outside natural world. A seat had been reserved for me, though I noticed I would be having ushers sitting all around. Considering that the Cathedral can comfortably seat two-three thousand, the fact that people were standing in the aisles, at the sides and clogging the doorways is astonishing. Furthermore, that people had walked miles to get here in the early morning darkness puts shame to those (including occasionally myself) who in the UK complain that a 10am service is too early.
The service, furthermore, was lively and exciting. Even as people received the Eucharist, rather than English reflective (quasi-mournful) style, the music was dominated by energetic and joyful hymns of praise. I rather like the idea: instead of the manifestation of eternal mystery, it evokes an image of the raucous eschatological banquet. When I was asked to give the reading (Romans 12) I even got applause! The subsequent sermon was excellent. Revd Sam, who co-ordinates the diocesan Educational Policy, preached on Paul’s command to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds’, emphasising that school education must inculcate values rather than simply imparting knowledge. ‘All education without God produces is clever devils’ he wittily said (debate to your heart’s content…). When he directly criticised the government’s nonchalant approach towards the striking teachers, the massive congregation burst out in applause and shouts of agreement.
As it happens, I was sitting next to a man who I later discovered to be the Ugandan Minister of Government for disaster relief, Musa Ecweru. He himself got up to speak toward the end of the service, an heartily agreed with Revd Sam’s sermon, and distanced himself from his governmental colleagues. (Ah… politics…). Afterwards, I got chatting to him. Which produced another surprise: who would have thought, when I was a simple musical composer before I had had a calling to be an Anglican priest, that in a few years time I would be discussing economic policy and swapping contact details at 9am in the morning with a Ugandan Minister, in the heart of Africa? Life (or providential grace…) produces some fascinating surprises.