Being ssenga

I bear several titles in Uganda; Reverend, Archdeacon, Auntie, and sometimes Mama. The latter two sometimes come from my students, who sometimes see me as a parent (and it’s an incredible honor, though I feel my age!).

Over the last few years, I’ve grown closer with a couple of the women students, and at different times, two have stayed with me. We’ve had many long conversations and shared several times in prayer, all of which have been precious to me.

Last year, Esther became engaged to one of her classmates, David. I was thrilled for both of them, and hoped to be invited to the introduction and wedding. Esther did me one better: she asked me to be a ssenga, or auntie, for the introduction. The ssenga is the paternal aunt, and since I’m certain that Esther has paternal aunts, I’m not quite sure how she was able to bestow this honor on me. The ssenga has a number of responsibilities culturally, and I think I fulfilled none of them.

In Uganda, there are two ceremonies. First is the introduction, which also doubles as the cultural marriage when it is registered with the government. The introduction is when the bride introduces her groom to the community, and the groom brings the dowry and other gifts for the family. While this is enough for a legal marriage, Christians then go to be wedded in church. Esther and David had their introduction on a Saturday, and the wedding on a Sunday. Though exhausting, I think that’s the way I’d do it; I’m not sure I could handle being married yet not being able to live as though I’m married.

I love the concept of the introduction and how the whole community is involved. Of course, it’s a very long day: both the bride and groom have emcees to carry the day along. The bride’s side sends out several iterations of ladies (often beginning with young girls) from which the groom’s side is to “find” the bride. She is not among them, obviously, and they are given gifts as they go back.

I think this was the third set of ladies who went out, and this was their second costume change. The gomesi were gorgeous, and velvet. I’m not sure how they survived in the heat. The men are very smart in their kanzu. The groom’s emcee is in the blue blazer, and he did a fabulous job of keeping the function moving along.

Finally, the bride comes with much pomp and circumstance with her aunties. She walks around the venue a couple times to much ululating from the crowd. When I asked Esther how many people would attend, she casually replied, “About a thousand.” As near as I could tell, that’s nearly how many people were there.

Here comes the bride! Isn’t she stunning? With all the embellishments, that gomesi had to weigh nearly ten pounds, and the sash was another two or three.

Then the bride and aunties kneel for some of the speeches and prayers. When the groom’s emcee asked the bride’s emcee to ask the priest to bless the lunch, he asked, “Which one? There are like a thousand here.” And it was true.

FYI: the bottom of that gazebo was glass. It was hot, and I was sweating. It’s a miracle I didn’t slip right off there, especially since I’m not sure the woman to my left was supposed to be there.

This is when the groom’s entourage brought the gifts for the dowry, and had he not brought all that the families had agreed to, there would have been trouble in paradise. Thankfully, that was not the case.

One of the things the ssenga is to do is to “find” the groom (he had been sitting in the back) and present him to the bride. I didn’t fully realize that this was my duty, and when another woman came and took the little basket I was holding, I chose to not make a scene.

I wish I had. When it came time to pin the corsage on David, since I didn’t have it, Esther took it and pinned it on David herself. The emcee was quite surprised, and recovered nicely by exclaiming, “Esther! You have taught us something new today!” David said to me a bit later, “Reverend, I thought it would be you [to pin the corsage].” I am utterly heartbroken about that.

They have been found! The best man, Saul, is one of David and Esther’s classmates.

We had another gomesi change, but I don’t have pictures of that because the person who had my phone completely depleted the battery taking many photos. Since the function was running late, we opted to remove one gomesi change and moved to the last costume change for the presentation of other gifts. For this, we were seated on a mat in front of the gazebo, and as people brought gifts, we’d rise to our knees to greet and shake hands.

Esther’s cousin Rose and I in our last costume change for the receiving of the non-dowry gifts. I would completely misspell the name of the outfit (mushanana?), but it comes from Western Uganda.

The church wedding was the next day, and I was honored to serve as part of the officiating team. My role was quite small, but clergy have the best seat in the house.

And they’re wedded!

In addition to having the privilege of serving as ssenga and an officiant, most of the groomsmen were David and Esther’s classmates, so I rather felt that my children had come home from university.

Since this is the dot-com generation, photos of the functions were flying around WhatsApp, and I received several photos of myself from students who were in Mukono, as they were unable to attend. That was a riot. Yet the fact that they wanted to show me that they had seen me blessed me tremendously.

Grace upon grace

So, while my Sunday started off like a normal day, it certainly did not end like one. I supervised a student at his church. I came home, had breakfast, then rested a bit before our evening Eucharist.

About five minutes before my alarm sounded to remind me to go to chapel, a student knocked at the door. He was out of breath, and informed me that everyone was fine, but there had been an accident. It took my mind a few minutes to catch up. I had lent my car to a friend to go down into Mukono town to go to the supermarket. The student indicated that the accident was just down on the road. I surmised that he had run up the hill to tell me to come.

When I went down to investigate, the car had indeed jumped the curb and gone down an embankment, resting on its side next to the Noll block.

That’s my car, just taking a nap next to the Noll block. The splatter on the inside of the windshield is yogurt.
I’m assuming that the passengers got out by climbing out the window.

Despite the car being injured (and the handrails), I see so much grace in this. Thank God that no one was hurt: there had been four people in the car. Thank God that neither the building, nor the retaining wall, was damaged. Thank God that the askaris (security) were super helpful. Thank God that the traffic police officer was willing to come to campus to take the statement and start the report so that we didn’t have to find our way there. Thank God that the crane operator was close, and came in about 20 minutes. Thank God that the UCU mechanic and the askaris insisted that the car sleep (stay) at UCU at Tech Park; who knows what would have happened to the car if it left campus.

It was quite fascinating to watch the crane lift the car out of the embankment. They started to secure the car, then waited for the traffic officer to grant permission. Then when he was ready, he was complaining that the crane operators were delaying. It was actually somewhat comical.

Thank God that it was a Sunday afternoon, and there wasn’t much traffic on campus, either vehicle or pedestrian. Naturally, the students who were around were posting about the accident on social media. #whatevs. #nothelpful

Naturally, this happened right around the time of our Eucharist, so I kept sending my students to the chapel. We were nearly finished when they were done, so the wave of students on their way to the dining hall stopped to check on the progress and express their condolences. I felt obligated repeatedly point out that 1. no one died, and in fact, no one was injured, and 2. I was not driving. #Ihavetoomuchpride

I’ve inferred that the accident was mentioned during the announcements in the service for the few souls who were unaware, and I have also inferred that we were included in the intercessions during the service. The students’ condolence messages have been pouring in. I’m immensely touched by that: they’ve been very concerned for me, my car, and that I’m enduring this trying moment. The askari were so helpful: I thanked them profusely, and pointed out that in times like this, the bureaucracy can be painful, but their help brought healing. I sent an email to my insurance agent, and she replied.

I’m so grateful that we have a way forward. I don’t really know all that it entails: I think there have to be two or three estimates for the insurance company to choose from. I don’t know how long repairs take. I don’t know if they provide a rental car. But we have a way forward, and I have a number of people to consult when my myriad of questions grow.

But most of all, I’m thankful for God’s grace upon grace. If something like this had to happen, this was the best possible outcome. No one was hurt. That astounds me. My friend has a small, superficial scratch on one arm, and a bunch of yogurt on his clothes. That’s all. Aside from the handrails, there was no structural damage. The car landed in the best possible position. Everyone was amazingly helpful and supportive.

Please join me in praying that this grace continues, and that the integrity and helpfulness of the people involved will also continue. The semester is nearly over, for which I’m grateful, as I don’t know what it will take to bring all this to a conclusion. I really don’t know the steps ahead, and this is one part of living in Uganda that I never wanted to experience. And yet, God’s grace abounds.

Retreat, retreat

At the end of February, SAMS hosted a regional retreat for the missionaries serving in Africa at a conference center in Cape Town. Not only was the setting gorgeous, it was a wonderful time of rest, relaxation, and fellowship with members of my tribe, and it was deeply restorative.

My soul breathes easier just looking at these pictures and remembering the tranquility that we found. Such a gift!

It was a joy to meet missionaries I’d only heard about, and to spend time worshipping, praying, sharing, and just having fun.

Our sessions were the perfect balance of teaching and contemplation, and the Lord showed me several things that continue to ponder and process with Him.

Some of the book recommendations for you to add to your To Be Read pile are Sealed Orders, Healing the Purpose of Your Life, One Minute Wisdom, and The Cloud of Unknowing (Amazon affiliate links for SAMS).

Since I was in South Africa, I decided to pop over to Pietermaritzburg to meet my online Bible study leader, Kelly, and her mum, Karren. When I first joined that study, I feared that I would be the outlier member in Africa, and lo and behold, the Lord gave me an African for a study leader! Over the years that I’ve participated in the studies, Kelly has become a dear and precious friend and sister in the Lord, so there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to meet her in person.

Kelly and Karren were fabulous hosts, and in my too-short visit, we found time to enjoy a great deal of fabulous coffee and time with Kelly’s very cuddly horses.

Kelly and Karren live near Indlovu, which is were Nelson Manela was captured and arrested. There is a small museum and a sculpture at the site, as well as a Long Walk to Freedom, which notes the highlights of Mandela’s life as you walk towards the sculpture.

The sculpture is best seen from one certain vantage point; otherwise, it is difficult to see what it is portraying. It was unveiled in 2012, exactly 50 years after Mandela’s arrest.

I am so grateful for this time to retreat and relax. It came halfway through the semester, and became the perfect spring break. In college, I never took a spring break, as I always had work to do, so this trip helped to right that imbalance. This semester is rather hectic, so this retreat gave me much needed breathing space so that I can try to finish the semester well. Thanks be to God.

Sermon fun

I’m Jessica Hughes, an Anglican priest serving at Uganda Christian University through the Society of Anglican Missionaries and Senders (SAMS). “Here I am” is both an answer to the geographical question “WHERE are you?” and a nod to my favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 6:8.

read more about me

Supervision surprises

This morning I went to supervise Geoffrey, a student who saw that a large school in Mukono lacked a formal chaplain, and asked the school if he could come on Sunday mornings. There are two services: one for the Catholics, and one for the Protestants. I haven’t been to this school in a while, and as I climbed the hill, I wondered which building it was in. I asked one of the elementary students where the Anglican service was, and she wrinkled her nose at me and reframed, “Do you mean the Protestant service? I’m a Protestant.” I estimated that there were around 600 students in the Protestant service; there were at least as many in the Catholic mass in the next building.

We do not tell students that we are coming to check on them, so Geoffrey was pleasantly surprised to see me. I was pleasantly surprised to see Rev. James, his parish supervisor, with him; as it turned out, this was a Holy Communion service.

Geoffrey asked me to read the Gospel, which was Matthew 5:43-48, about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. With at least 600 students from the entire education spectrum with very few adults, you can imagine that the service was a bit hectic. I was certain that no one was paying attention.

However, I was very wrong. As we were preparing for the Eucharist, the warden [usher] handed me a note from a student. She asked me how to love and forgive someone who had hurt her. She included her phone number, but the students are not allowed to have phones, so I wouldn’t be able to call her until she gets home in early May.

I asked the warden if it was possible that the student could meet me after the service, and she said she would try. Happily, she succeeded, and the student was waiting for me after many of the students dispersed.

This precious and delightful child of God shared her story with me, and it broke my heart. I wanted to bring her home and protect her. I wanted to pray so many healing prayers with her. I wanted to right all the wrongs that have been perpetrated against her. But I only had a few minutes after church to talk with her.

So I did pray with her, and talk with her. She now has my contact, and has said she will check in with me when she gets her phone back. She’s also going to send me the first 25 (!) chapters of a book she’s written. I’m hoping this is a productive way of her to process all that’s happened to her.

Please pray for this precious gem: that the Lord continue to heal her heart. I’m so grateful that she chose to seek help, and humbled that she chose me.