Friday, April 19, 2013

WARNING: EXTREME CUTENESS

Well folks, we've had these two girls for almost two weeks now. I'll be honest and admit it's not been easy. We had no idea that parenting children took so much time & energy. These children, especially, are in need of lots of loving care since they've been frequently handed between caregivers and haven't had much consistency. Janet was sent to the Ik area when she was 3.5 years old and probably hasn't been held and kissed in the last year and a half. She is soaking up all our affection. And we're happy to give it. But man...does it take time! So we find ourselves exhausted at present...but we have no regrets. Each day finds us loving these girls a little more. I've started the paper work to make the foster care legal, so you can pray for me as I go to do some interviews tomorrow. We'd like to take these girls to Kampala with us for a month of 'maternity leave' so we can get to know them and immerse them in an English-speaking community. We'd like to spend the month of May in Kampala, but that would mean I'd need the proper paperwork in a few weeks. And, the man in charge of doing this (Kaabong probation officer) just so happens to be going on leave for two weeks. We're hoping to get everything done tomorrow and to be official. 

Below are some pictures from our first 10 days together. The girls are being exposed to new things and adjusting surprisingly well to our lifestyle. Terrill hung a swing for them in our compound and we find them on it every day. 
 They also still enjoy the hammock. Both girls are thumb-suckers but as the days go by, we see them doing it less and less.
 They LOVE brushing their teeth...or should I say...they LOVE eating toothpaste. Lemu vomited up her breakfast this morning after a glob of toothpaste got stuck in her throat. She kept gagging until it came up. I'll have to file that piece of info. away for future reference when giving her toothpaste. Small amounts are best.
 Both girls like to mix up anything that I put in front of them. Janet & I were making cookies. When the cookies went into the oven, both girls stood in front of the oven and watched until the cookies were done baking. They also liked the heat of the oven door. Reminded them of their village fires.

 They also LOVE taking baths in warm, soapy water. We count this a blessing....kids that love to brush teeth and bathe. ;) They make a game of blowing bubbles at each other. They'll both enjoy swimming lessons.
 This one came up from blowing bubbles with a bubble beard. Even when they splashed water all over the floor...one look at this face and I was putty.

 My good friend, Cassidy, got this little robe for Lemu and I thought she looked just like a little bear cub.
Lemu thought that by putting on my sunglasses that she could look as cool as Terrill. 
They are just starting to get into coloring. A new concept for village children. 
 Most of the time, they're hanging off of either Terrill or I. Happy after eating cookies.
 Janet found these goggles at a friend's house and wore them all day while playing.
 More cookies and affection.
 Lemu saw Terrill digging and wanted to give it a try. Can you tell she's a copy-cat?
Addendum: I wrote this blog several days ago but have been unable to publish it until today. I did go to Kaabong and over the course of two days, got the foster care paperwork completed. Thank God for His favor in this. Now we are free to travel with the girls. We were the first ever in Kaabong to do foster care without being a relative of the children. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Big Change

A Big Change has just taken place in our lives, and we want to share it with you. As of this past Sunday evening, we became the foster parents of two little girls, half Ik, half Karimojong.

The story goes like this. When we first came to Kaabong in March of 2008, we met an Ik man named Lochiyo Gabriel. He was the first Ik we met here and the first to start working on the language with me. He was also the first Ik ever to have a job in the district government. Lochiyo lived in town but would sometimes be able to come out to our house for a few hours of language work. After a month or two, I started working with different people and saw Lochiyo less and less. But whenever we did meet him, he was always kind, helpful, and friendly to us.

(Lochiyo and Amber in 2008)


In April 2010, Lochiyo had a motorcycle accident that injured his foot. It got infected, and he ended up in the hospital. Lochiyo had HIV-AIDS, and so the wound never healed. He soon passed away from complications. By then we already knew his extended family, and they asked us if we would pick up the body and bring it to the village for burial. We agreed and went to the hospital 'morgue', where we found him and wrapped him in a tarp. Then we drove him to Timu, took part in both traditional and Christian funeral rituals, and buried him in the village of his elder brother, Lojore Philips.

Lochiyo was married to a Dodoth (Karimojong) woman named Alice. They had two daughters, Janet (named after the Ugandan president's wife) and Lemu (pronounced lay-MOO). According to custom, Alice, the widow, had to spend a week in her late husband's village in mourning. While Alice was there (actually, just next door to us), she and her kids were not treated well by some of the relatives. We felt bad for her and the girls, so we visited them daily and brought them little treats.

After that week, we occasionally saw Alice in Kaabong, and she would always greet us warmly, with a big smile. We think she was touched by how we treated her and her kids in the village. She always kept the youngest girl with her but would send Janet up to stay with her relatives on an on-again, off-again basis. It was on those trips back and forth that we first got to know Janet a bit. At some point, not too long after the funeral, Alice asked us to 'take' Janet, by which we took her to mean that we raise her in our home. Though it was tempting, we dismissed the idea as impractical and culturally difficult. Plus, to be honest, my heart was not open to having children. So we said 'no'.

(Alice, Amber, and the two girls in 2010)


A year and a half passed, and we were ready to go back to America for a six-month stay. Just the week before we left, my eyes and heart were again opened to Janet and to the plight she was in. Passed around from relative to relative, she had no home. As a second-class citizen in the village, she was not treated as well as her full-blooded cousins. We had known this, but it wasn't until we were leaving that all of a sudden I wished we were taking her with us. I didn't tell Amber this until a month later, on a drive from Florida to Alabama. From that moment, we began praying and dreaming about the possibility of adopting Janet and Lemu in the future. We shared our hopes with many of you along the way. Our love for Alice, Janet, and Lemu grew in our absence from them.

When we got back to Uganda this past January, we were ready to move ahead with our plans. Since we had talked to many non-Africans about the idea, it was time to talk to some Ugandans. A major milestone was when we had a three-hour conversation in February with Luka Onek, a pastor and trusted friend who knows Karimojong culture. He encouraged us and suggested we approach one of the girls' Ik uncles with our idea. The result, he said, all depended on whether the late Lochiyo had paid brideprice for Alice or not. If he had, then the children belong to the Ik side of the family. If he had not, then they belong to the Karimojong side of the family. The answer to that question would largely determine how things might go.

That same weekend, we drove somewhere looking for Alice. She had 'married' a soldier and was staying at a barracks way out in the middle of nowhere. We stopped at barracks after barracks until we found her. When she saw our vehicle, she ran out to meet us. She must've been so surprised. We got to visit with her a bit and with Lemu, who took a liking to Amber.

Getting back to the village, the next step was to talk to Lojore, Lochiyo's older brother (and the uncle Janet was staying with). After committing my life to Jesus Christ and asking Amber to marry me, this was going to be the most audacious request I'd ever made. I psyched myself up, popped a few Tums, and walked over to their home one evening with fear and trembling. I told Lojore I had something to discuss with him and asked if we could go sit up on the rocks. In halting Swahili, I told him what we had been thinking. At first he said 'siyo mbaya', which in Swahili means 'not bad'. Not quite the exuberant response I might have hoped for. In fact, Lojore was practically inscrutable through the short conversation and two weeks to follow. For two weeks, our hearts hung by a thread on the reply that he wasn't giving us. Finally, one Sunday morning, I told him we were still waiting for a reply. He said that the family wanted to wait until June, when one of their brothers came back from university.

A few days later, one evening, we found Janet cowering behind a hut, filthy, and shivering in the cold. She was not in a good home situation. It was just too much to think that we couldn't take care of her then and wouldn't even find out about the future until two and half months down the road. I called a friend and asked him to pray for us because we felt helpless. He suggested we call the brother and offer to pay his transport if he came earlier. So that's what we did, and the brother, Lokwang Hillary, agreed to it! Moreover, his wife was due to deliver their second child that very weekend.

(Janet this past February)

(Janet after a bubble-bath this past March)


That weekend was this past weekend. Hillary got back from Kampala on Friday, and we took the other three brothers down with us to Kaabong. The Big Meeting was scheduled to take place Saturday morning. We spent Friday evening with American friends, Jeremy & Susan Taliaferro, contemplating the surreal adventure we were about to embark on. So Saturday morning, I drove into town to pick up all the brothers, Alice, and one of Alice's sisters, and bring them back to the Baptist mission, where it was quiet and undisturbed. It was raining that morning, and before taking them to the mission, I had to take Lilly, Hillary's wife, to the hospital because she was going into labor (she gave birth to a girl on Saturday evening).

Back at the mission, we sat down together, and I awkwardly but eagerly started the meeting by telling them some of what I've just written here. After I was done, they each took turns talking. They all thought us raising the kids was a good idea, but they had serious concerns about us taking them away forever, where they wouldn't get to see them again. From there, we discussed the difference between fostering and adopting. They agreed to us fostering the kids and decided we'll all discuss adoption in a few years. I could hardly believe we were hearing the words we only imagined were possible.

As it turned out, Lochiyo had paid brideprice for Alice, and so the children 'belonged' to the Ik brothers. That meant that both kids were supposed to be in Timu and stay with Ik relatives. The brothers had left Lemu with her mother and sister, more as a courtesy or kindness, but they were planning to get her at a point in the near future. As many as three years ago, about when we moved from Kaabong to the Ik area, I had been unofficially adopted into the Komukua clan, of which these Ik brothers are a part (Amber's in the Sigetia clan). This means that, with some imagination, I could be seen as Janet and Lemu's paternal uncle, which would make our raising them quite natural (especially since we haven't had our own children). But we could have never asked the family to see us in this light.

In God's providence, they came to see it this way all on their own. At the meeting on Saturday, they told us that this was God's blessing on their family for Lochiyo having been our friend, the first Ik we met, and the one who introduced us to many others. They also mentioned that since I was a member of their clan (and therefore their brother), it made sense to them that we would raise the children. That was a relief to us, especially since some strange behavior we got from them on Friday made us think they would approach our request like a marriage proposal (with all the requisite drama)!

To our shock, they said we could take the two girls right away. Gulp! By Sunday evening, we suddenly found ourselves with a family double the size it was Sunday morning. We are now living with Janet and Lemu as fostered children. Yes, we are crazy. Yes, we are in way over our heads. Yes, we lack sleep and are stressed out. But we were ready for this. We were ready for this Big Change. We believe God orchestrated it and that he is going to use this to refine us and shape them for his purposes. But we need your prayers.

Both girls came to us with bad respiratory infections. Janet has been neglected and abused and has deep emotional scars. She will have many issues we need to work on. Lemu is a cheerful little butter-bean, but she speaks only Karimojong, which we hardly know at all! Pray for God's grace and peace to cover all four of us. And praise God that this situation we find ourselves in is going to point to his loving character in this Ik community. That's what we want our lives to be for anyway, through the medical and translation work we have been doing. Pray that our caring for these children will prove to be powerful evidence of a loving Heavenly Father and his redemptive grace for the down-and-outers, which includes all of us.

(Terrill and Janet)

(Amber and Lemu)



Thursday, April 4, 2013

How the mighty have fallen

There are many beautiful, interesting plants and trees in Ikland. But my favorite tree is the African Pencil Cedar (Juniperus procera), which the Ik call asunán. These magnificent trees only grow in this area on mountain slopes and plateaus above six thousand feet in elevation. They give the otherwise typical East African landscape a strange alpine aura. This blog is a tribute to these wonderful trees whose very existence in this area is under serious threat. They have been sentinels overlooking these lonely hills for centuries, and now they are succumbing to man-made dangers.

Here is a picture of one asunán standing tall and proud not too far from our home:


And the tops of two others (bottom of the photo) in the valley east of our home (see the grass-thatched roofs):


Like other types of cedar, the wood of asunán is very strong and aromatic. It is so strong that you cannot put a nail in it, and because of its potent resins, the wood is impervious to both termites and water/soil damage. The Ik say a structure made of asunán wood will outlive its human inhabitants. Because of this, asunán wood is very valuable, not only to the Ik but also other neighboring tribes like the Dodoth. This means that asunán timber is being harvested at an unprecedented rate. Most of the living trees in the vicinity of human habitations show signs of being hacked and dismembered for their straight limbs:



The result is hundreds of beautiful, straight, sweet-smelling, and naturally 'treated' poles used for making houses, doors, fences, or whatever:


This (mostly illegal) harvesting of cedars is one major threat to their survival. The other is also mostly brought about by people: fire. Natural wild fires do occur during dry season, but usually they are set by people, either hunters wanting to burn off brush to make hunting easier, shepherds who want new grass for their herds, or villagers who want to reduce cover for snakes and other pests. The problem is, unlike many other trees in this area, the mighty asunán are susceptible to fire damage. The resins in their bark and wood readily burn and smolder. Even adult trees are nearly defenseless. When a brush fires rages through the grass and underbrush, it can reduce an adult asunán to charcoal:



When this happens to the bark of the tree, the tree might continue living for years, half dead, half alive, like the tree in this photo (I should also mention that lightning also tends to them):



Or, like the tree below, it might eventually die completely:


Then, year after year, and fire after fire, the remains of the dried out trees are gradually turned to dust and ash, living macabre monuments of time's destructive power across the landscape:



By this time, in the area where we live, there are far more asunán stumps than there are living trees. In dry season, if you talk a walk through the bush, you will see stump after stump, like these below:




How the mighty have fallen! When I reflect on how slowly these trees grow, and in what hard, rocky soil they put their roots down into, I have great respect for them. If only these old trees could talk, could tell us stories of the past. How the drought and floods ravaged the land. How generations of warriors spilt each other's blood over cattle. How many sunrises and sunsets marked the passage of years. But they cannot tell us, not directly at least, and now I fear their future is in jeopardy. These giants will continue to fall until there are no more of them. Unless, of course, we can figure out how to propagate them and learn how to grow and manage them as a renewable timber resource.

Asunáník, I salute you!