Tomali sits in the front row, the seat of honor at all the Institutes.

You may remember Tomali (Tom’-uh-lee) from previous posts. He is the forty-year old mentally challenged man from the village of Kitamiru on Buvuma Island. He is a complete innocent who greets us every time we come to lead the five day Bible Institute as if we have not been gone for the last four to six  months. He always just picks up where we left off. He likes especially to ride in the vehicle, though sometimes he is done after only about fifteen yards, and other times he rides all the way to his home down the road a ways. Often he rides the 3/4 miles to his home, then gets out and immediately walks back to the village. He rides just for the joy of the ride.

He also knows I am usually good for a chapatti and a soda. His teeth never grew in, or so I have been told, but he manages to gobble down lots of food with the rest of the crowd without a problem.

Tomali likes to sit in on the training sessions, at least for a while. We usually accord him a front row seat as a place of honor, and at times he will stand and copy the prayer style of the church leaders with strings of meaningless words that cause much amusement, and he also likes to help lead the music. After sitting in the teaching a while, he will get bored and will jump up and wave good-bye and run out, especially if it is near 3 pm which is his daily bath time. How he knows it is near 3 pm no one can figure out.

When we first met, he would string long sentences of complete gibberish together that baffled Alfred as we tried to understand what he wanted to say. Of course, I couldn’t tell it was gibberish – sounded normal to me. The last two trips have shown some remarkable shifts in Tomali’s speaking ability that are beyond my understanding. Alfred tells me he is beginning to make sense; that is, he is using actual Lusoga words and stringing sentences together. None of us can figure out how this is suddenly happening. In every other respect he remains the same guileless child he has always been.

Tomali helps with the teaching.

Tomali helps with the teaching.

One of Tomali’s favorite games is to borrow a cell phone. Then he mimics with uncanny  accuracy the phone-talking style of the different church leaders, especially the bishops, standing off to the side, talking loudly into the phone as if on some serious business. Fortunately, he has no idea how to dial a phone, and he must think that everyone else hears nothing at all on their phones just as he does.

On this trip I decided to surprise him with a cell phone of his own. I rummaged through a drawer in my desk at home and found on old Palm phone, which I took with me to Uganda and gave to Tomali at the first opportunity. He was thrilled to receive his own phone, and we were equally thrilled not to be pestered to loan him our phones for him to carry out his long conversations with. Alfred told me that, at least when on the phone, he’s still talking meaningless gibberish, but with occasional words like musungu thrown in.

To show what a fine heart Tomali has, let me tell you about an incident that happen

Tomali on the phone with Alfred, his close friend, encouraging him.

Tomali on the phone with Alfred, his close friend, encouraging him.

ed with his new phone. Tomali was sitting in the front row. I needed one of the bishops for something, and so I asked the students if someone could please find the bishops for me. No one made any move to go out and locate them. I was about to repeat my request when Tomali jumped up from his seat, pulled out his phone and dashed to the door of the building. There he stood, urgently calling the bishops on his phone, explaining in unknown tongues that the musungu needed them to come. At least this is my assumption from the timing and his urgent demeanor, and, of course, the generous sprinkling of “musungu” in among the rest of the words. When no one else made a move to help the musungu find the bishops, Tomali leapt forward to solve the problem.

And even stranger yet, one of the bishops soon walked through the door to help me.  And Tomali even managed this with a phone that had no battery.