It’s the custom here in Uganda that when a person performs well in church, they are rewarded by the people coming forward one by one with a small bit of money. So if the youth choir sings a song, a woman will rise and approach them, pressing a coin into one of their hands. If a sermon is particularly stirring or funny, someone may approach and press a thousand shilling note (currently about thirty cents) into the speaker’s hand. Good singers may have up to five people giving them small amounts. This is a way of saying, “Weybaley!” (“Well done”), or “Jeybaley” (“You have done a good job”). It is giving honor and encouragement to the person on the stage.

I was teaching church-planting at a place called Kaliro. The people seemed exceptionally sharp and were asking good questions, giving accurate and thoughtful answers. I was talking about the Hindu practice of wearing a colored dot of paint on their forehead and was explaining that the different colors represented different gods that they worshiped, and that they have many, many gods in India. A man raised his hand with a question and asked me, “Does the wearing of make-up by our women, coloring their lips and eyes and such and wearing earrings and other jewelry then indicate that they are worshiping false gods?”

Now this was not an example of the smart questions they had been asking. Even his somewhat smug “A-ha, I’ve finally got you!” expression toward the women around him told me that this pastor was asking his question with a clear agenda. He was not asking for information but rather making a point to all the women present, as if he had been warning them for years about the evils of make-up, and now finally, he had a musungu from the west to back him up.

I try not to fall into these little traps when they occur. This question pointed to the age-old struggle of women everywhere to rise to some measure of equality and respect in their cultures. Africa is no different in this respect that many other third world areas – the men are large and in charge and they intend to keep it that way. In the villages everywhere I go, the women still kneel in greeting to pastors, fathers, leaders, and well, me, to admit it uncomfortably. In fairness, they also will kneel to honor their mothers, though this is more rare.

Uganda though is making a great effort in this regard, requiring female members of parliament from every district, posting public awareness campaigns about educating girls as well as boys (“Educate the Girl Child”), and I see the beginnings of an organized effort to stop domestic abuse in the rise of various women’s rights and women’s ministry organizations.

I briefly spoke to the biblical passage in 1 Peter 3 that he was referencing. I talked about spirituality and not being overly caught up in outward adornment, but to concentrate on developing spiritual qualities. But then, I said that I was sure the make-up he was referring to did not worship false gods, at which he was visibly deflated. I said in most cultures the men and women attempt to make themselves attractive for the opposite sex so that they can attract a mate. I noted how young men and women will choose certain clothes and even haircuts that will make them attractive, and how even in the animal world, the males of many species are especially garish with bright feathers, eye-catching colors, etc. I said I thought the make-up was more about sex than it was about worship, and that even the muslim women, who are supposed to be modest, make sure that their face and head coverings are bright, many-colored, and often arrayed with shiny beads or spangles that glint in the sun. They don’t do this for worship, but for sexual attraction, for beauty. I complimented the women on their beauty, their wonderfully creative hairdos that are popular in Africa, and their pretty clothing. And I encouraged them to be beautiful also for the Lord by strengthening their spirits toward Him, for He is the true Husband. I said it is a matter of what you concentrate on in your life.

Now at first when a musungu talks frankly about sex and romance, Ugandans are surprised and their eyes get big. But then they laugh, just like in the U.S. I talked about how we want to make ourselves attractive for our spouses or our fiances, or prospective suiters, and so we use these things to accent our good qualities. I was not particularly favoring make-up in my explanation, but merely pointing out its purpose.

Now something happened that has not ever happened to me before. As I talked, women began to come forward and place small amounts of money on the table in front of me where my Bible and teaching notebook rested. I was at first surprised, but then realized the significance of their actions. I began to laugh and they laughed with me, even most of the men. I finally pointed to my small pile of cash and quipped that perhaps if I kept talking on this subject, I would be able to purchase enough petrol (gas) to drive back to Jinja after the conference. Now everyone was laughing.

I laughed, but it was a gripping moment for me. It tells me that women here in Uganda desperately need encouragement, and they need real men who will love them with the love of Christ. Many have been physically abused, many have even been cast away as young children just because they are not boys and have been raised as orphans. I know women here who have been stabbed by raging step-fathers who tried to kill them when they were children, knowing that they would not be punished – women who bear these spiritual and emotional scars and who even suffer physically from such injuries many years later.

Many are continually downcast, afraid to look up except to steal a glance when I am not looking directly at them. Many of them do not believe they have stature or gifts or even value. I am broken when I see such a person. I am broken when I see Christian pastors and men perpetuate these systems. I know these abusive customs are slowly changing, but I yearn for Christ to come and restore us all to what we can be, and to heal us from what we are and from what others have made us to be.