By: April Zimmerman
This past October, ten of us gathered at our friend’s house in Adams Run, South Carolina for reunion and reflection. It had been a little over two months since we boarded a KLM Airlines flight from Detroit to Amsterdam to Kampala to spend ten days in Uganda as part of a medical mission team with the Charleston-based Palmetto Medical Initiative, now known as OneWorld Health in order to reflect its goal of closing the gap between first and third world access to quality healthcare. We reminisced over barbeque and sweet tea, and flipped through trip pictures on a wall-sized projector screen in the wood-paneled living room of Cody’s childhood home. I held the hand of my former Uganda roommate, now friend, and hugged her tightly as she shared hard news about her health. I stood with our teammates as our brother, Cody, took the next step in his relationship with Christ and was baptized in the backyard where he grew up, surrounded by thick woods and a throng of dive-bombing mosquitos.
This trip marked my third to Uganda with OneWorld Health and, despite my previous experience, I was more vulnerable and terrified than I’d ever been. I was newly single after a sudden, broken engagement. Heartsick, insecure, unsure of myself and my future, and completely absorbed in my perceived failure to succeed in relationship or marriage, I knew of nothing else to do but flee. I needed separation from the familiar faces and Charleston streets that embodied the last three years of my life, and told the painful end of that love story. My heartache felt like a death, and I wanted nothing more than to lodge oceans and countries between myself and my grief. I knew from previous experience that Africa was a place of life for me, so I packed a carry-on and set out toward life.
I don’t recommend running from your baggage, but if you’re going to, Africa is the best place I can think of to abdicate. I promised God I would let go that week. I boarded a tiny Delta plane at CHS with no expectations and fully committed to any and all things in store. In my marred heart, I admitted that I needed to let Uganda be whatever it was and whatever it wanted to be. I burned with exhaustion from the future I couldn’t control, and so I surrendered. I surrendered for lack of any other option.
Over those ten days, with my team of twenty-something, I found myself enveloped once again, tucked into the safety of new friends who accepted me right where I was and gratefully busied with a mission outside of myself. I woke up with my sweet roommate, Carrie, every morning in our hotel room with our four-poster, mosquito-netted beds. I stuffed myself into 10-passenger vans for always-bumpy, sometimes-harrowing drives to remote villages outside of Masindi for mobile clinics. I learned how to fill prescriptions and entertain a swarm of eager, curious Ugandan children – a feat if you understand my lack of natural maternal instincts. I held the fingers of a beaming babe in a collared dress as she took brave, joyful steps. I marveled on the edge of the Great Rift Valley for the third time as clouds dusted her trench with mid-morning shadows and the distant waters of Lake Albert marked the border between Uganda and the Congo. I stood in front of my teammates during breakfast and, over black coffee and scrambled eggs and toast, surrounded by love and jackfruit trees, I cried out my brokenness and shame and loss.
And on our last night in Uganda, after a dip in the Paraa Lodge pool and a sunset safari through Murchison Falls, I sat in the back of a Land Rover with the roof open and the stars burning fiercely through a carbon sky. I came to Africa to run away. Instead, she cracked me open, revealing both the pain and the desires I shoved so deeply into my wounded, aching gut. The Motherland covered me with her lush, abundant arms and with merciful tenderness and resolution said, “You are ready.” Ready for curiosity and movement and exploration and dreaming. Ready to tell a story, my story, in all of its grit and mess.
Later that October night, after our reunion had somewhat disbanded, the remainder of us caravanned downtown for ice cream on King Street. Hovering above the evening seemed to be a shared homesickness for Africa and the family we’d built during those ten days. We were all a little different that night, as if Africa set upon the stage and pulled back the curtain on the stories we piled in the corner, the basins in our hearts that we tried to fill with empty things, the journeys we avoided starting out of fear.
I left for Uganda shrouded in a barricade of shame and fear, anger and anguish. I arrived home to my breezy island in Charleston to find my barricade weakened, and enough curiosity in my veins to stand on my toes and peer over in search of whatever lay ahead.
The Motherland reminded me that I have a Father who loves me, whose truth is bigger than the untruth I write about myself. She reminded me that He is not finished with me yet.
April Zimmerman is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina, and a recent guest blogger at http://oneworldhealth.com/blog/
Follow her on Instagram @ape_zim