(The Hamilton Spectator – Monday, January 4, 2016)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ It was evening and dark and dozens of voices, mostly African, by candlelight and under bright stars, were singing carols in front of our long-time East African home.
It was a moment to reflect on the days ending 2015, and a moment, also, when I was asked to say a word.
“So where does everyone go at Christmas?” I asked the kids more than anyone.
“Home!” they yelled into the night air.
Home, that place of refuge from the storms of life, a rooted place to put your feet up and your hair down, where in the holidays, that is the holy days, the fattened calf (certainly here) is slaughtered to celebrate it all.
The disturbing news, of course, is that plenty of people, some in rich Canada (some right in your neighbourhood) and certainly many others elsewhere, have homes nothing like this, if they have any home at all.
In 2015 the world witnessed the largest movement of refugees since the Second World War: people running from people, from the pain of everyday living, from wars and rumours of wars, this in a world where humanity itself has always seemed on the run, stalked by Thoreau’s crisp observation that each and any one of us lives in our own quiet desperation.
Then, the desperate children around here. Open the weekend papers here and be enlightened by the “Lost Children” page. There’s four-year-old Junior Kamili, found carrying his clothes and bedding near Uganda’s beachside town of Jinja. His parents haven’t yet responded to police pleas for contact – since May. There’s Stephen, another four-year-old, left at a restaurant; Albert, 2, left on a front porch; some unnamed baby left at a pit latrine.
Or consider Lydia, an 11-year-old who’s the sister of our own daughter’s Ugandan friend. Lydia went missing in October. For weeks my wife and I heard the anguished cries of Lydia’s mother desperately wanting her girl back after leaving her in the care of a so-called friend.
We feared the worst because the worst is what sometimes happens when the world’s poorest parents give up their children, feeling that they can’t care for them anymore. Then just days ago there were only cries of joy – “Thank you, thank you!” – from Lydia’s mother (not that we could do much to help) after police found this desperate girl on the streets of Kampala.
In my moment between these holiday carols in Africa, I shared none of this. Nor did I say anything about my own family’s new-year realities: our freshly-planned escape routes from our house or, at my kids’ Kampala international school, the new drills to hide behind this desk or that wall or up those stairs. Because in 2015 we were warned in several ways that it’s not if, but when, terror will hit us.
What did come to mind during this candlelit evening is another message, as true as it’s comforting, that in these year-ending and year-beginning days we are not alone and not left by ourselves, no, not even the most desperate of us – not where you are, not where I am – not any more than that First Family of Christmas was left alone, first on the hard road to Bethlehem, then eventually, running from the terror of Herod, on the long road to safety in Africa.
“Don’t be afraid,” was the message to young Mary by an angelic visitor at that story’s start. Then she probably did fear: the embarrassment and shame and humiltion that others would try to throw at her, the disbelief from loved ones, let alone the neighbours ready to stone her to death to preserve community honour – “You, a virgin (yeah, right) pregnant from on high?”
Then the road.
Like a compass through time, the road still carries that singular message, one written more than any other on the pages between Eden and the apocalypse, the simple and profound: “Don’t be afraid.”
So I shared that evening. And like any kids anywhere would, these young Africans looked into the still night air, thinking of all that may be in store for them. Which is to say, I didn’t say much to them at all. They spoke to me.