Bob Goff and John Niemeyer set off early in the morning for Mukono, a town nine miles outside of Kampala that is reputed to be the witch doctor capital of Uganda. Working with Margaret the Registrar/Pastor, Bob had called a meeting of “Traditional Healers” from around the country in an effort to educate them about (i) the human trafficking law that had been passed by the Ugandan Parliament two years ago, and (ii) the recent prosecution of the witch doctor who had carved up the 9 year-old boy I have been calling Hero.
Margaret reported to us the day before that thirty-five had indicated that they would be attending, but it was impossible to predict with any level of certainty as to who would show up, or when. Registration was at 7:45 a.m., with the gathering scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m. When Bob and John arrived at 8:00 a.m., no one was there yet. They had warned the rest of our group that everything starts late in Uganda, which is why they encouraged us to wait and come only after our other morning appointment was finished. By the time Bob and John left the gathering at 9:30, there were twelve who had showed up, but the official program had yet to begin.
I left my hotel at 9:45 a.m. and met up with the others at their hotel at 10:15. At about 10:30, Bob and John arrived back, and we all set out for The State House. Because of parking and security concerns, we all piled into one car – John, Bob, Darla (Pixar), Deborah (Restore), Hunter (Young Life), Greg (Kenmore Airlines), Hero, Scovia (Hero’s mom), and Simon (Greg’s driver). Needless to say, we were quite cozy in a car that is designed for six to sit comfortably.
Upon arrival at the State House (the Kampala version of the White House), we spent about twenty minutes getting through security, and then were led to a waiting area where we were served refreshments and chatted with Irene, the personal assistant to First Lady Janet Museveni. After a few more minutes, we were brought to a stand-alone reception house on the grounds where the First Lady was waiting for us. Mama Museveni, as she is fondly referred to by Ugandans, is a gentle, yet powerfully accomplished women who appeared to be in her late 50s or early 60s. For many years, she quietly worked behind the scenes promoting the rights of women and children. She developed a special place in her heart for the Karamojong tribe in Uganda. The Karamoja people have long been outcasts, both geographically and socially. They are located near the Kenya border and believe that God gave all the cows in the world to them. They also traditionally prefer not to be encumbered by things such as, well, clothing. Recently, her Excellency (as she is more properly called) has become a cabinet minister in charge of Karamoja affairs, which has brought her more into the political spotlight, but she is nonetheless loved and respected by most Ugandans.
She was kind and personable, and took an instant interest in, and liking to, Hero. Bob briefly told her the story about him, and she was greatly appreciative that Bob was taking him to the United States to get patched up. Her Excellency is a quite religious person and sprinkled her speech with many allusions to God’s will and God’s power. We also talked about her interest in visiting Pepperdine, which had been suggested to her by the Ugandan Ambassador to the United States. As our time was wrapping up, Bob spontaneously asked Darla to pray for the First Lady. I couldn’t help but feeling relieved to have dodged that bullet, and I could tell that Darla was wishing Bob had given her even one minute to think about it in advance. She nailed it, though. From there, we went outside and pretty much everyone but me snapped a bunch of pictures with her Excellency – my camera had been seized by security, but the others had their iPhone with its built-in camera.
We piled back into the car, went back to the hotel, and split back into two groups. John, Deborah, and I set out for the Family Court, while the others headed back to Mukono to join the witch doctor conference, which now (we hoped) was in full swing. At the Family Court, we secured the final sealed judgment declaring Bob to be the new legal guardian of Hero, which should allow them to get through security at the airport and back through immigration in the United States.
When John, Deborah, and I arrived at the hotel in Mukono where the gathering was taking place, the High Court Judge who had presided over the trial of the witch doctor who cut up Hero was speaking to the assembled audience of about forty. They were about ¾ men and ¼ women, and most were dressed in professional attire. The stereotype of bone-in-the-nose, painted face, bead and chicken-feet wearing witch doctor was quite inapt, at least in this setting. The judge was doing an excellent job of speaking to them in a way that got his point across without alienating them. He explained that he occasionally used traditional medicine (herbs and other natural plant mixtures) when he had a stomach ache, and it worked. But he cautioned them against invoking evil spirits and doing anything to children in their practice. After he concluded his remarks, Margaret opened the floor for comments and questions. While most of the questions and comments took place in Luganda, the local tribal language, there was some interpretation offered that gave us a flavor of their distaste for and distrust of the local police. When Margaret asked them to raise their hands if they were aware of the recent legislation and court decision in this matter, only one hand went up. Accordingly, it was quite clear that the main purpose of calling this conference – to educate them on the laws and penalties they potentially faced – was a resounding success. They were all provided a set of materials and promised to spread the word to the other witch doctors. Incidentally, there was a bit of discussion among the crowd about the label “witch doctor” – they all categorically denied they were witch doctors, preferring the “traditional healer” label instead. Fed up with this nonsense, I covered my mouth and let out a loud “witch doctor” cough. OK, maybe I didn’t do that, but I wanted to.
We broke for a traditional Ugandan lunch – matooke (green banana mush), sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, greens (very bitter), chicken, rice, goat, and (of course) the very traditional Uganda drink – Orange Fanta. Immediately following lunch, Bob was placed at the center table facing the horseshoe-shaped table configuration of the witch doctors, I mean traditional healers. I was seated next to Margaret on the end of the horseshoe to Bob’s right. As Margaret was introducing Bob, he looked over at me and whispered that I would be speaking after him. I shook my head vigorously. He smiled and nodded back at me. Crap, no way to dodge this bullet.
Bob spoke for about five minutes with the aid of an interpreter. They had clapped vigorously when Margaret told them that Bob paid for this gathering to be put on, including paying for their transportation to and from the gathering. Bob is so good at this stuff – his message was simply that he was with them and shared their goals: “Like you, I only want what is best for the children. Like you, I don’t want any child to be hurt by witch doctors. You can help by identifying and reporting the witch doctors who hurt children and the people who hire them to do so. Let’s work together on this.” He then turned to me and introduced me as a dean from one of the top universities in the country who had traveled all the way from America to greet them.
I stand with a huge (and nervous) smile on my face and greet them warmly. I tell them that I bring them greetings from Pepperdine University in Malibu. Blank stares. Um, which is in Los Angeles where movies are made. Big smiles and applause. I explain to them that like both them and God, I love Uganda’s children and that I will be moving to Uganda next year to work with the judiciary to help strengthen the laws protecting children. More smiles, and more applause. I have heard that scientific studies show that it takes about two minutes of looking at someone to memorize their face. I stopped at 1:58. During one of my earlier visits to Uganda, I was having dinner with four of my colleagues when the waitress asked us if we were all brothers. We looked at each other and grinned – we didn’t look alike at all, or so we thought. When we politely told her that we weren’t brothers, but friends, she muttered, “All mzungus look alike to me.” I hope the audience today suffered from the same facial recognition challenges.
After I spoke, we excused ourselves from the conference so we could get to the airport. One car took off, while Bob, John, and I waited for about twenty minutes as John was taking care of the payment arrangements. As we were leaving, Margaret came out to the car and excitedly told us that after initially denying having any knowledge of child sacrifice or mutilation, they were finally opening up and talking about people who had come to them asking them to sacrifice a child and bury the child on the construction site of a new building – an all-too-common practice, from what we have been told. There is a long way to go, but it appears that this conference has started a dialogue that could move things in the right direction.
It took us three hours to drive the 9 miles from Mukono back to Kampala. Traffic here is bad, Friday traffic is worse. Back at the hotel, I said goodbye to everyone else (I fly out a day later on Saturday), and promised Hero that I would see him in California. From there, I wandered through the mall trying to memorize all the different shops.
Tomorrow should be a slower-paced day. Please pray that there are no snags in getting Hero through the various airport check points along the way to the United States.