The African sense of distance is always educational to a musungu (white person). When they say, “just there – it’s only a little way…,” it means you will still be looking for your destination fifteen kilometers further down the road.

It is tempting to try to fix this at first. You can emphasize the actual distance, point to the length of the journey, even show them on a map. However, this behavior cannot be evaluated from a Western perspective and changed “for the better.” It is already better to the African perspective, and it is the way of things in most of the Middle Eastern and African world. Their perspective seems to be: we will get there when we get there, so the actual distance is irrelevant, and even more so if the journey is a very necessary one to make.

This was demonstrated to me once again on the day that we lost our meeting hall to the prime minister of the local king of Buganda who was visiting Buvuma Island (even though we had paid the full rent in advance). We were scurrying around all morning trying to find an alternative meeting place so we could continue our interrupted training.

Someone suggested that there was a church we might use “next to the road just there a little way up out of the village.” So we decided to check it out. Indeed, surprisingly, just a little way up the road, maybe 400 yards, a man stood on a trail by the side waiting for us. We parked the car and climbed out into the drizzling rain. I could see buildings in the trees past a line of banana trees 100 yards up the trail, so I fired up my brain and set it to the task of how to move 100 students in the rain across the village to this place and up to these buildings – what I supposed to be a church building – in a minimum amount of time.

We asked the man if this was the church, indicating the trail, and he said “Yes, it is just a little way up there,” and he gestured vaguely toward the buildings. So we set off up the trail after him – myself, Alfred (my assistant), the bishop and a pastor. As we came to the buildings that I had seen from the road, I fully expected to turn in, foolish musungu that I am, but noticed several telltale signs – two pigs, a group of chickens, a woman seated by the door preparing some food, a naked child playing in a nearby puddle – that this was not a church building at all, but someone’s home.

Telltale signs...woman preparing food not visible on the left...Probably NOT a church building

Telltale signs…woman preparing food not visible on the left…Probably NOT a church building

I looked around and saw the man disappearing into the trees on the trail ahead of us.

So we followed him into the forest, which if you had become lost in it would qualify more as a tropical jungle than a forest. The trail wound around a bit and then climbed up a steep, muddy bank. As we topped the bank, we were looking into a large open field in the forest, dominated by a huge old grandfather tree. I thought, “What a beautiful place for a church,” but when I looked for the man, I saw he was almost out of sight, disappearing along the trail into the foliage at the other end of the large meadow. I said to the bishop, “Just where is this church?” It was apparent that he had never been here either, but he gamely said, “It’s just there, a little way up this trail.” That’s when I began to worry.

So we advanced up this narrow trail, pushing through the bushes and trees that crowded in on all sides. We came to another meadow, smaller than the first, and I thought, “Yes”‘…but no, the man was continuing on and…now he was again out of view. It was beginning to rain harder now. My logistical plan for moving all these students to this location was in complete disarray.

We wound through the forest for what seemed to be a interminable amount of time, but was surely only about four hours (maybe ten minutes by Western reckoning). Finally, after uncountable meadows where the church was not located, we broke out of the dense thickets and found ourselves standing on a sort of old roadway. We could see up

Gnarled grandfather tree guarding the first of several meadows

Gnarled grandfather tree guarding the first of several meadows

ahead of us, another hundred yards, on top of a little hill, a wooden building with a tin roof. The man beckoned us forward, and we trudged in that direction, slipped and slid up the now rain-slick slope, and stood in front of a small and humble church building. I looked around, and it was the only building in sight. We were standing in the middle of the jungle, high up toward the crest of the ridge that forms the spine of Buvuma Island. I could see that if we continued to climb, we would enter truly dense jungle, covered with vines, monkeys, tropical birds, and deep shadows. By this time, I was thinking uncharitable thoughts about the marketing director of this church who seemed to think that potential new church members who would be able to find this place.

Now the rain became a torrential downpour, and we took refuge for almost an hour inside the church building while the rain beat so loudly on the tin roof that we could hardly carry on a conversation, and I wondered a little frantically what our students were doing as thunder shook the ground. What conversation we were able

The dense jungle just beyond the church building

The dense jungle just beyond the church building

to have mostly concerned the utter impossibility of using such a place for our students – it would take hours even to lead them up the path.

When we finally embarked on the long return trail with banana leaves for umbrellas, I had time to ponder this experience as I carefully chose my steps back down the hillside. All morning I had been a little “out of sorts,” frankly, that the class had been cancelled out from under us, even though we had paid our rent in advance (there, I‘ve said it twice now, so you know just how piqued I was about it, since I was the one paying the rent!).

The Lord is ever patient with me when I get this way. As I walked down

Banana Leaf Umbrellas

Banana Leaf Umbrellas

what was an apparently ridiculously long “little way,” I could hear Him chuckling at my mood in the sound of the raindrops, and saying peace, peace with every drip. As I walked, I began to chuckle too, the situation being so bizarre that anyone could think this tiny structure would hold 100 students, or this little way, just there next to the road was in any way even possible to move such a group, a heavy generator, our white board and other teaching equipment, etc. By the time we reached the car, having slid down the hill a good portion of our walk, I was covered in mud, sopping wet and in a hilarious state of mind. Once again, the Lord had shown me eloquently how to rest in Him and how to walk in Him when faced by circumstances which I couldn’t control. I had ceased my striving as He quoted back to me my own morning meditation: “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”

As it happened, the rain had completely shut down any meeting the prime minister might have had at the hall, so when his caravan pulled up, they only stayed there long enough to determine that no one was coming in the rain to celebrate his visit and listen to his speeches. By the time we returned to the hall, he had already departed and the hall was ours again.

So I am adjusting my view of the African sense distance to realize that when an African says “Just there, a little way,”

Entertaining ourselves during the thhunderstorm

Entertaining ourselves during the thhunderstorm

he has the destination in view, and the journey to get there is just part of his daily routine and figures very little in his perception. Africans seem to live as if facing a bridge over a river – it is necessary now to cross the bridge; what lies on the other side will be dealt with when the bridge is crossed, so it is not important to think about until then. This is so opposite to the Western perspective, which plans so carefully for how long the bridge is, what may be at the other end of the bridge, and how to anticipate every surprise along the way.

My evolving conclusion is that one perspective is not better than the other. In a world where we cannot control the circumstances, which one works best? I would be tempted to say that the Western view of past-present-and-future-think is better. But then I remember that I still can’t control the circumstances, regardless of how I perceive them, so maybe there is no better – it really is just different. I am fairly certain that striving against the circumstances does not in any way improve them, and may in fact add unnecessary stress to them. And maybe, allowing the journey just to be, without striving against its difficulties, will allow me to enjoy it a little bit more. And when I get to the destination finally, I will be there instead of already planning for my next journey.

Advertisements