Tessa Laing

An Unexpected Birth

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I walked armed with huge sketched maps of the area marking all the water sources in the area, a Google maps aerial view for good measure, and blank paper for an action plan. As I walked, the rain started to pitter. Then flow more steadily, accompanied by doom-like thunder rolls. I kept walking, but silently wrote off the meeting. People just don’t move in the rain here. I unlocked the door, and waited, expecting nobody.

Miracles happen – look at the image above!

Members of our church had spent several months asking questions in the community: What issues do you care about? What needs change? The most pressing answer was water. Over a thousand people rely on one water source that becomes contaminated in the rainy season from groundwater flows, and dries up and flows slow in the ‘summer’ season. We invited community members we met along the way who were interested in action to come to this meeting, including local leaders. They came. There was a good buzz. I proposed we become a ‘community water committee’ to tackle the issue. The consensus was no. We need to be an organization! We need to elect a full executive committee, a chairperson, a vice, a secretary, a treasurer! We need a constitution!

In a groundswell of the positive energy triggered by new beginnings and a new gathering of people unexpectedly unhindered by rain and thunder, we rolled with it. I swallowed my skepticism about the restrictive bureaucracy involved in constitutions and executive committees and declared, “yes, and when we have new clean water sources, we can move on to tackle the next issue!” We will not be an NGO, we won’t have salaries, we don’t’ do handouts, or ‘income generating activities,’ but we will grow our collective power to create or demand solutions to local problems.

And that’s how Wakonye Kenwa Lacor was unexpectedly born. (Rough translation: “we help you amongst us.”)

 

For more from Nick and Tessa in Uganda visit ugandapanda.com

Rain Dances in Uganda

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Sad, wilted, short, tiny-eared maize. I see them everywhere- when I walk to Church, ride my bike to a meeting, when I go for a run out in the villages. Every where you go, you hear the farmers complaining, ‘a whole month without rain! The sun has destroyed everything!’

Its true there is often a dry patch around this time of year, but usually nothing like this. The clouds of dust on the road churned up by the trucks on their way to Sudan is extreme. If we go to town on the back of a motorbike, we arrive with a new fake tan and freshly dyed orange hair.

But yesterday, it rained. The rain hammered our tin-roofed church so hard we had to pause our meeting because no one could hear a thing. I poked my head out the church door and see..

Seven naked little bodies sprinting and jumping amongst the huts and along the road. At the first drop of rain, the kids stripped and ran outside. Convenient way to wash and not waste water? Triumphant joy nude rain dance? Next I saw them dive and belly slide along their neighbors now-muddy veranda. Definitely a triumphant rain dance. I restrained myself from joining them….just! Obviously taking a photo would have been a tad inappropriate, but this picture I stole from google captures the vibe nicely.

In a couple of weeks, our new farmers group will be planting our new maize. Pray the rain stays, and the dancing continues!

Tessa the Farmer?

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We fling open the metal shutters of our church to let the light stream in and arrange the wooden pews in an makeshift-square. A cook with a roadside foodstall, a highschool office assistant, a young song recorder, a nursing school teacher, a tailor, a brick maker, a laboratory researcher, several housewives, and multiple farmers arrive, one by one. Just twelve of us. First things first. It’s time to sing. While this could make for an awkward meeting NZ, you are guaranteed to set the right tone here. Next, our bible study. Today, its the parable of the 10 bridesmaids. For the meantime, stories and parables are easier on my Acoli, and easier for the members in our group that can’t read. To my surprise I discover that traditional Acoli and Jewish wedding customs have a lot in common. Bridesmaids take lighted torches to guide the groom to the bride? Same, check. When then groom arrives, a big feast ensues? Boom! Understanding the parable’s cultural context is suddenly easy – onto discussing the deeper meaning.

Now the meeting. I’m suddenly a bit more nervous – its been a big build up to this meeting since we started this group over 2 months ago. Our name is “Wakonye kenwa.” Its hard to translate, but broadly means – we find our help/strength amongst us, or we share our burdens. Today we will decide our projects- what change do we want to bring in Lacor?

We’ve spent the last few months talking with different groups in the community to identify what issues they would work on with us. Communication with these groups hasn’t always easy. Our first communication with the local football club was a classic example. Opiyo from our group presented them with the vision of uniting Lacor community groups to solve a common community problem. Two days later, they presented us with a letter entitled “request for assistance” which listed their priorities: new football boots, a new ball, and uniforms- not the community wide focus we imagined. Challenges aside, it happened. We made contact with all the groups, and had lots of conversations, found out about issues and priorities we never thought of by ourselves.

What issue is the group really about to choose? We’ve done the analysis, weighed up the pros and cons of tackling each issue, and now its time to hear from our core group members – what do they have the energy, the motivation to go ahead with? They have identified two.

First, there is a population right beside our church with a very stretched water situation. There is a pipe water source half a km away, but it is extremely congested.  Our mission? Create a committee representing multiple Lacor community groups to work together to campaign the town council to give the community a new water source.

Second, we (predictably) found that many hard working people in Lacor still struggle to pay their children’s school fees. While there are many different ways to try and tackle the roots of this problem, as a group we identified that one of our strengths is farming. So our plan: the farmers amongst us will initiate a production group for Lacor farmers. We will start small with 15 farmers from our church, and invite 15 more farmers from the community. We can buy seeds in bulk at discounted prices, plan crop planting together, share expertise, and then pool the produce, selling it in bulk to a good market thereby earning more for each farmer than they could achieve by themselves. If it goes well, we will consider developing the group into a proper cooperative, and invite more to join.

To hear more from Nick and Tessa visit ugandapanda.com

Mission and Ego (Issue 19)

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By Tessa Laing

“Aber, I have good news, and bad news… .” I’m walking down the abandoned railway with Opiyo, the most active member of the new community action group I have started at our little local church. Aber is my local name – almost no one here knows me as Tessa since it’s too hard for Acoli people to pronounce. We are on our way to a meeting with the local Primary School Teachers Association to discuss local issues that they are concerned about and whether they would consider joining an alliance of other community groups coordinated by our church to work together to bring good changes in the community. We walk the railway tracks to avoid the clouds of orange dust on the main road, sent billowing by big trading trucks on their way to South Sudan. It’s hot, and I’m feeling anxious. The last few weeks have felt like we’ve got nowhere. If we keep moving so slowly, our fledgling new group will lose interest and numbers.

“Tell me, tell me” I reply in Acoli.

“Well, I got a job! After three years of searching… But… it’s in Lira.”

Lira is in another District. I try and disguise this quickly. I want to be purely happy that after so long, and so much struggle, he finally has work. It’s a gift, a big breakthrough. But little voices start whispering, “You are losing your best member. Others may leave too… What are you achieving here? Will this group succeed, bring real change in Lacor, and bring new people to Jesus as they join in the work with us? Or will you fail?”

Eventually, we arrive at the meeting location, hot and dusty (despite our rail-route). No one’s there. We wait. Turns out the leader got the meeting time wrong. We’ll have to wait yet another week for the meeting.

Of course, in the greater scheme of things, these kinds of set backs are pretty minor. But in my experience, the very feeling of ineffectiveness, or doubt that results will flow, can be quite overwhelming. All Christians are sent out into the world with a mission, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere. We are sent out to be disciples of Jesus, and we are sent to make disciples. We are sent to reach out to those on the bottom, to act justly – to live the radical way he did – and we are sent to help others to know and follow him. But what about when it’s just not working? Or when you feel ineffective? We arrived here seven months ago, and even though things are going well, these devious worries keep creeping in. On the one hand, its right to long for the things God wants, and it’s natural to want to be an effective worker. On the other, it’s easy to mix in your ego, your worth, and your hope.

I struggled with this in New Zealand, not just over here in Uganda. There are a couple of basic things I keep needing to remind myself.

1. Self Worth. Yesterday I read a little book by Tim Keller called The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. He points out the world tells us that our performance leads to how we are judged, who we are, what we are worth. If you meet the standard, if you are good enough, or productive enough, successful enough, then you’ve earned your self worth. The gospel turns this upside down. Performance doesn’t give us self worth. The source of our self worth leads to performance. We are forgiven, loved, called children of God. We are even called his co-workers! We are freed from tying our worth to what we achieve. Knowing we are loved, we are freed to act out of love, not out of the need to prove or validate ourselves. Boom. Don’t you forget it.

2. Control. Simply put, I need to remember I can’t control other people’s actions or responses. When Jesus sent out his disciples he told them “when you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23). The book of Acts is full of tales of the disciples doing just that. They had some epic fails – people mistook them for gods, their message was rejected, they were stoned and imprisoned. They couldn’t control people or their response to the news they carried. But they kept going, and despite the odds, despite the failures, God did his thing through them.

3. Hope. Things might seem hopeless, and our efforts might seem to be going nowhere. Don’t get me wrong. In the above scenario I’m all for reassessing the strategy, changing tack, and seeking wise ways to be effective. But I also need to remember the bigger picture. We know how the story ends. The kingdom comes, the King rules with justice and righteousness, we will be his people, he will be our God, and the old order of things will pass away. So there’s always hope.

I need to remember these things every single day. Forget them, and I am all too easily trapped by fear and futility. Embrace them, and I’m set free. I can say wholeheartedly to Opiyo: “That’s awesome news. What a break through. We’ll miss you here, but God is going to do great things with you in Lira. Go well.”

Tessa and Nick Laing are NZCMS Mission Partners in Lacor, Gulu Town, Diocese of Northern Uganda. Nick serves as a volunteer doctor while Tessa has been finding ways of equipping and encouraging locals to engage in the area of social justice.

For more from the Laings visit ugandapanda.com

Kot tyeka bino

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“Kot tyeka bino” (The rain is coming) says Prossy, our language helper. We’ve now been in Uganda for 9 months and the rain is back. Out the window we watch a panoramic 180 degree fork lightning display as our buckets fill with gushing water from the roof. It disturbs me how giddy this makes Tessa, but I suppose it makes sense given how much time and effort this easy water saves. Now that ‘winter’ is here, our trips to the borehole will be few and far between. I never really realised how glorious seasons were before living here. They bring a rhythm and dependability to life and to time, which allows the heart to inhale and exhale. Summer had its advantages. Large bags of peanuts gifted by visitors, good roads, no rain to get in the way of movements and meetings. Although Tessa loved crisp frosts, the cold New Zealand winter mainly annoyed me. This winter is very welcome. Winter brings perfect temperatures, easy water (from the roof) and mangoes.

The rain reflects refreshing changes in our lives. In the last 3 months there’s been some exciting developments in our work and living situation. One of the biggest boosts has been moving out of the hospital and back to the community again. In a stroke of good luck/blessing, our old home was available so we’ve moved out of the hospital and back ‘home’ again. I say home because it feels like it, more than the hospital ever did. Our neighbours are really happy to have us back. Leaving running water and consistent power behind is a bit hard, but we’ve made some wonderful additions to our home, which with remarkable small amounts of money and effort, have made life a lot easier than when we were hear 4 months ago.

A big bucket with a tap for easy flowing water. An “Agulu Pi” for drinking water storage and cooling. This glorious urn cost NZ $2.50, but will keep water cool and fresh all day long. Using roof water for all non-drinking purposes. Today Tessa filled four 20 litre Jerry cans from the roof – enough to last us 2-3 days. Shelves. Why did we not get shelves before?! A paraffin stove to go next to supplement our charcoal wonder. Having two elements is great.

Our involvement in St. Catherine’s church is ever increasing, and is made ever easier by Tessa’s outstanding Acoli. Her language nearly reached the point where people don’t make a big deal about it anymore, which has to be good right? We’ve been really encouraged by the English bible study on Wednesday which we are helping to lead. Our experience from New Zealand has come in handy. Our friend James has started coming to the study, and is really loving it. He’s good friends with our next door neighbour Alice, and his sharp and versatile mind helps the group delve deeper. Last week we struggled with a notoriously difficult passage where Jesus talks about how putting New Wines in Old Wineskins. Alice wasn’t there though, and this week cheeky James gave her a hard time with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

“Alice, you weren’t here last week to help us, it was terrible. We struggled too much and my brain was not big enough!” – That kind of banter has to be a good sign.

 

For more from Nick and Tessa visit ugandapanda.com