The Prophet's Way: Uganda Sojurn

An excerpt from the book.


You can’t say, "Civilization don’t advance," however,
for in every war they kill you a new way.
—Will Rogers, Autobiography

I first traveled to Uganda in 1980 with Herr Müller, and then went back a year later with Horst Von Heyer to locate and negotiate the acquisition of land for a Salem village and hospital. My first trip there was both spiritually devastating and enlightening, and I carried along a small notebook and a pen; every night before I went to sleep I wrote down the day’s events. A few months after my return to the US, I published my notes in our newsletter, and one of the readers who was the editor of East/West Journal asked me if he could publish it in an edited form. I consented, and the publicity from that article appearing led to several appearances on NPR and gave a big boost to our efforts to raise money for Uganda.

From this experience, I saw firsthand the impact of Herr Müller’s prediction of the "curve of time," and how world events are accelerating. I also learned how the older tribal cultures of that part of the world view the future. And I saw Herr Müller putting into action, with no pomposity or high-sounding words, his philosophy of practicing acts of mercy as a spiritual work.

Here’s a copy of my original notes, along with some of EWJ’s editing:

Uganda Sojourn: Light in the Heart of Darkness

First published in edited form in East/West Journal, July 1981

Kampala, covering several square miles, is built on seven hilltops. Before its destruction, it must have been one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Now everywhere are burned-out buildings, broken glass, and tens of thousands of hungry, haunting faces.

Young boys urgently cry out "cigarettes" among the thick crowd. Burlap bags lay empty upon the ground with small piles of tobacco and salt upon them. They are part of sales in the vast, teeming black market. Corrugated metal and cardboard shacks house thousands of people in endless rows of fetid squalor. Urine and rotted waste clog the dirt paths of the market, as we gingerly navigate through the crowd, avoiding mud and pools of overwhelming stench. There has been no running water in this city for over two years. Young children everywhere stagger about in dazed desperation, their parents brought to death by famine, disease, war, and the insane, random murders by soldiers and associates of the former president Idi Amin.

Night is approaching. We must flee the market before the 8 p.m. curfew falls and an army of young Tanzanian soldiers, their rifles puncturing the night sky with staccato bursts of machine-gun fire, fans through the city. Two years ago, when Amin was overthrown and his brutal dictatorship ended, Ugandans welcomed the Tanzanian liberators from the south. But the combination of an unprecedented drought in this area as in other parts of East Africa, and an escalating civil war by factions still loyal to Amin and other dissidents have plunged this once peaceful and fertile land into another round of fear and chaos.

In the morning we find the bodies of those who could not find shelter before the night descended. During a short walk, Mr. Müller counts nine corpses, huddled in death next to buildings or sprawling naked in the streets.

Everywhere we come upon razed buildings, bullet holes, and the devastated ruins of a once-beautiful country. The first night we stay in a church dormitory with no water or electricity. The only food is white rice and stale white bread. Boiled rainwater is served on request, caught from the gutters, runoff from the roofs. We sleep on small steel cots in cement block rooms. There are half-inch steel bars on the windows, and the massive gray door in our cell has only a small glass-with-embedded-wire window. We are locked in for the night.

In the morning we rise early and leave by 8 a.m. for Mbale, a small town on the fringe of the famine district and the site of a large refugee camp. Our route will take us through miles of jungle and over the waterfall which is the source of the Nile.

We arrive at the Mbale camp just as the sun begins to set, a heavy grayness covering the jungle. Approaching the first cluster of mud huts, we are surrounded by perhaps a hundred people: children, adults, enfeebled elders at the end of their lives. Sweat, urine, and the smoke of hundreds of small twig fires make the air bite and cut into my nose and lungs. The Earth is hard as stone, a red clay, and all about us are littered small bodies—crying, moaning, yelling for food or water, staggering about or sitting, staring emptily. Hunger haunts us as we walk about, incessantly tapping us on the shoulder as everywhere we are brought face to face, hand to hand, skin to skin with the hollow pain of empty bodies and frightened souls.

A toothless, graying old woman makes her way slowly through the crowd toward us. Her shuffle is slow, and she seems to wince with every step. Her breasts lie flat and dry, hanging down to a wrinkled and shriveled stomach. She cries out softly to us in Swahili. Rev. James Mbunga, a government official who is accompanying us, interprets: "I am a widow with eight young children. As my husband is dead, no one will help or care for me and my children. We shall die. Will you please help us?" A lump fills my throat.

"Soon," says Mr. Müller gently. "Soon, I promise, we shall return with some food for you."

As we walk back to our car through the makeshift "village," night descends. The air becomes cold, and people retreat into their huts. Outside one deserted hut we find three young children lying on a mat, naked to the approaching evening chill. Two of them are nearly dead. Their bodies look like skeletons, swollen heads on shrunken skin, too weak to even lift up or to make a sound. The third, a bit older, lifts himself up with obvious pain and tells his story. Their father is dead, their mother has never returned from a trip looking for food. Tears choke my eyes as we turn and walk away from these dying children. Forcing down the trembling in my throat, I whisper a silent prayer. I recall that back home in the United States today is Thanksgiving.

Tonight Sanford Unger of National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" show has arranged a satellite call to us, routed to our hotel. He interviews me about the situation in the camps and the bush, and I later learned that the interview ran that night in the US as ATC’s Thanksgiving special. Twice while we’re talking to NPR we’re cut off by the military when Unger asks me questions about troops and the dangers of being shot.

The next morning we leave for the northern region of Karamoja where starvation and disease are reportedly at their worst. We load into an aging Mercedes and pull out of town. The sky is a vast expanse of blue, the sun burning down, scorching both earth and people alike. As we travel north on the dusty, broken road, the terrain gradually becomes more and more desert-like. We pass through expanses of scattered grass-covered plains dotted with occasional mesquite-like trees. A game preserve, this area was once home to herds of lion, buffalo, zebra, elephant, and other African mammals. Now all are gone, the victims of poachers and hungry, fleeing troops and refugees.

As noon approaches, the air becomes painfully hot and dry, the plains pregnant with death. Rev. Mbunga points out some skeletons by the side of the road, those who couldn’t make the eighty-one-mile march to Mbale. Their bones were picked clean by buzzards and ants. Empty eye sockets stare at us as we pass.

About one p.m., we come to a huge, barbed-wire-enclosed compound with cement and corrugated iron buildings: the Namalu prison Farm, scene of countless atrocities under the reign of Idi Amin, now a hospital and feeding station for the Karamoja refugees. As we pull into the compound, I see several hundred naked children huddled around one large building. From inside I can hear shouting and crying—this is the feeding center. The United Nations has been trucking in food recently, and each child is allotted one bowl of ground corn and powdered milk per day.

We stiffly climb out of the car and walk up to the building. Hundreds of sparkling, expectant eyes and outstretched hands greet us. My hands are grabbed and shaken over and over as we walk in. All around us, pressing against me, are huge bellies, festering sores, malaria, tuberculosis, yellow fever, worms, lice, cases of leprosy. At first I recoil, trying not to touch these sick and dying children. Then I remember Jesus’ words, "I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick . . ." Looking into these innocent, helpless faces, I lean forward and meet their handshakes and hugs. Is Jesus here? Truly these children are the least of the least. "As you did to the least of these, my brothers, you have done to me . . ."

Inside the feeding room we meet Ann, a thin Irish woman with brown hair, green eyes, and freckles who supervises the feeding. The floor of the large building is covered with tattered little bodies, some obviously near death. Ann directs us to the medical station next door. There we are met by hundreds of disfigured and nearly dead people. Dr. Jacques from the French Red Cross shows us around the TB wards, the malaria area, the "emergency" area. All are large empty cement rooms—no furniture, smashed out windows, with sleeping, unconscious, and moaning people lying on the hard dirt floors. The human suffering is more than I could have ever imagined.

We spend a few hours walking about and talking with the medical staff, all French nationals. We learn they are out of medicine, that nearly everyone has malaria, and that TB is rampant. Mr. Müller promises to send emergency medicine from Europe.

A mother carrying a baby approaches me. There are tears in her eyes, and her tone is pleading as she lifts her child to show me two large holes in the skin of his buttocks, areas about the size of quarters, where the skin and flesh have been eaten away revealing the muscle beneath. The child makes no sound or movement as the mother continues to stare hopefully into my eyes and cries to me in Swahili. He is the same age as my young son back in New Hampshire, and I wonder what I would be saying if I were her, what I would be thinking, if I would be able to endure the agony of watching my son die as I hold him in my arms.

"She is asking for food," Rev. Mbonga says. "And she wants you to heal her child."

My eyes fill with tears and I have to turn away. Herr Müller says, a crack in his voice, "Tell her we will send food and medication as soon as we can."

Rev. Mbonga translates, as I look back at the woman. When she hears his words she looks at me for a long moment, as if trying to decide if we are telling the truth, and then silently turns and shuffles away.

On the way back to town and our "hotel" we stop at another refugee camp in Sirocco. A native ceremony is going on, and I take out my pocket recorder to tape it. Children start clustering around, and I play back a bit of their own voices. Shrieking with delight, hundreds of them crowd about me. Meanwhile Rev. Mbonga and Herr Müller sneak back to the car to get out several hundred loaves of organic whole wheat and sesame flat-bread which we have brought from the bakery of the Salem Children’s Village in West Germany. The ruse works only for a moment. We had hoped to give the small amount of food we were able to "smuggle" into the country in our suitcases only to the most needy, those unable to come out and beg for it. But as soon as the food is out of the car, Rev. Mbonga and Mr. Müller are attacked by the mob of children and teenagers. A sea of screaming, hungry bodies descends on my friends, threatening to trample them. Within seconds all the food is devoured: we frantically pile into the car and drive off.

In a town between Sirocco and our hotel, we visit another refugee camp. They have some food, although there are hundreds of people on the edge of town who are starving. The village elders invite us to an evening ritual.

Twelve old African men sit around a fire, with Herr Müller, Rev. Mbonga, and me spaced at every fourth man. Near the fire is a brown clay pot about two feet in diameter: it’s filled with a frothy brown liquid, and the men each have a long straw made from a reed of some sort that goes from the pot to their mouths.

The man to my right, toothless and shriveled, clad only in a wraparound that was once half a bed-sheet, says something to me in Swahili and offers me his straw.

"What is it?" I ask Rev. Mbonga.

"It’s the local brew," he says with a faint smile. "The women chew up a few different roots and herbs, then spit it into the pot. Water is added, and it ferments for about a week. The herbs are supposed to connect you to their gods: they’re probably mild hallucinogens. It’s probably alcoholic enough that you won’t get sick from it, but you can refuse without hurting his feelings."

"Are you going to drink any?" I say.

He shakes his head. "I don’t drink alcohol."

The old man says something to me.

"He said that it will open a door to the future for you," Rev. Mbonga says.

I look at Herr Müller with a question in my eyes. The man next to him offers him his reed, and Herr Müller, without a moment’s hesitation, takes a long draw on the straw.

I turn to the man next to me and do the same. It tastes bitter and thick, like a milkshake with wormwood, and the bite of alcohol is unmistakable. The other men around the fire all murmur and drink from their straws.

The men begin to talk to us. Rev. Mbonga translates.

The oldest man of the group, long white hair, probably about 60 pounds, all skin and bones, wearing a cloth around his waist and sitting on the hard dirt cross-legged, says: "The world is fragile. Your American companies, sugar and coffee, they have raped our land. Now the Earth will no longer give us food because it is angry with what we have allowed you to do here."

He is starting to shimmer. His face looks younger, and his features are changing, becoming more clear. I can see the details of the wrinkles in the skin of his face although he is sitting six feet from me, and now the wrinkles are starting to go away. His skin is getting slightly lighter in color, and tightening.

"What can be done?" I say.

He shakes his head. There is a little visual echo left in the air by the motion. "It has gone too far," he says and now I can understand his Swahili even as Rev. Mbonga continues to translate. The men around the fire murmur their agreement. "The Earth cannot be saved by man: this is stupidity. The Earth will save itself, by killing off the men. Perhaps some of mankind can be saved, but the Earth will protect itself." It made me think of the vision I’d seen a decade earlier in my rented room in East Lansing.

Another man interjects. He is younger, perhaps in his sixties, and I can see through his skin. A moment earlier it was black and solid: now it’s transparent, and I can see his veins and arteries, red and blue, and his muscles, as if looking through a thin film of dark gauze. His face looks compassionate. "This is the future you are seeing," he says, waving his hand around him at the refugee camp, the bare ground, the dead trees, the big-bellied children squatting and watching us from a respectful distance. "One day it will be the white man’s future, too."

I shiver, believing his words.

We sit and talk for another hour about the spirit of the Earth, the future, and the role Americans and Europeans have played in the rape of the Third World. The drug wears off, and I’m left with a dull headache. We leave, and each man shakes my hand in a grave gesture, as if he knows we will never again meet.

Back at the hotel it’s a dark night, and sounds of the African wilds fill the air through the open window. We discuss ways to help and decide to begin a Salem "baby home" nearby and to try and start with the three starving children we saw the night before in Mbale.

The following morning, our fourth day in the country, we leave the hotel at 7 a.m. to visit the camp just about a mile outside of Mbale. The sun is just rising, the ground and grass are wet with dew, and the air has a penetrating chill. This is the camp where we found the starving widows and the three babies lying on the hard ground. We take with us special food as we had promised. Most of the people are still in their huts, although a few are wandering about when we arrive. Rev. Mbonga leads us through the maze of huts and stinking mud to where the two widows live. One has eight children, the other seven. We leave them all our flat-bread, about thirty pieces. The three children are nowhere to be found. It has been two days. They have probably died.

Driving back to Kampala in the afternoon we stop in Jinja to meet with Mother Jane, a remarkable African lady who has started a "baby home" for thirty-five to forty children in her own residence. About five years ago, she rescued the first one, a baby boy, whom she found on a folded up newspaper at the edge of the river. The baby’s fate reminded her of the story of the infant Moses in the Bible, and so her home became known as Center Moses. Since then she has rescued countless other babies and children from garbage cans, burned-out buildings, and parched fields. Those we meet this afternoon range in age from a tiny, fragile six-month old (whose twin sister and mother died when she was born) to a young teenager who appears to be about seven because of malnutrition. They have no toilet, no medicine, no water, and only two more days of food.

"Only God knows how much longer we shall survive," Mother Jane says. Despite the great anguish around her and in her eyes, she manages to smile and display a refreshing sense of humor. She tells us that her twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week work keeps her physically and spiritually strong. Her main concern, besides the omnipresent risk of disease and starvation, is people stealing her children for forced labor. We leave her six cans of powdered soy-milk for the infants, some whole wheat bread and sesame, and a little chamomile for tea to calm upset or ill children.

One little parentless boy, about three years old, his head barely reaching above my knees, runs up and warmly embraces my legs, holding me immobile. He looks up into my face and smiles angelically. "Will you be my daddy?" he seems to say. I reach down and rub his back and head, and we stand together like this for a minute or so. Then our party moves on, and I have to break his grip. I leave him sadly holding his face in his hands, and a lump forms in my throat.

It is about a two-hour drive from Jinja to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Having stared down the barrels of hundreds of machine guns this past week, the many roadblocks seem almost normal. We arrive in Kampala and are driven to the International Hotel, a modern high-rise in the center of town, where we are invited to a reception in our honor by the Commissioner of the Ministry of Rehabilitation. The building has obviously been the scene of fighting in the recent war.

I haven’t had a bath in four days nor changed my clothes which are now rank with body odor and red Karamoja dust. As we sit down to a lunch of white rice and potatoes, I apologize to the Commissioner for my condition. He says not to worry, he hasn’t had water, or, presumably, a bath for over two years, and that, in times like these, we needn’t stand on formality. I notice that the clothing of his staff is old and tattered and recall that the factories and local importers haven’t been open for over two years either.

The commissioner is excited about our plans to help the French medical team and to start a children’s village in Uganda. He comments several times about the problems of temporary relief programs and says he hopes we will become a permanent part of Uganda.

That night we leave for Entebbe and after a one-thousand shilling "payment" at gunpoint to a police officer to pass through customs, we depart for Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya. From there we will fly to London. I realize that I’ve contracted some sort of dysentery as I have awful diarrhea and every muscle in my body aches. Yet my discomfort is minuscule compared to those thousands of sick and dying people with whom we’ve spent the past week. My thoughts keep wandering back to Mother Jane in Jinja with her thirty or forty babies. With a cloth wrapped around her head and the copper gleam of her face in the hot Ugandan sun, she appears as firm as a rock. Her love and faith are as timeless as the bones of humanity’s earliest ancestors which have been found in East Africa not far from here. I am reminded of the words of the psalmist, "I have been young and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken."

East/West Journal Editor’s Note: In January Thom returned to Uganda with Dick Gregory and Horst Von Heyer and discovered that the situation had briefly improved following new elections. They negotiated with the government for land to begin a Salem refugee center and hospital near Mbale. However, by spring factionalism had broken out again and the situation has steadily deteriorated. Most international relief organizations, including Oxfam, have now left the country since they can no longer guarantee the safety of their staffs, and Ann, the Irish volunteer, was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet as she was feeding children. In April, Mother Jane and Rev. Mbonga visited Salem Children’s Villages in Germany and the United States to help set up a supply line of food and emergency medicine to Uganda.

As you can see, this experience was powerful evidence that when Herr Müller predicted an accelerating confluence of events and influences with disastrous consequences, he was right. But what to do in the face of such a situation? Do what’s right: acts of mercy, without regard for the seemingly overwhelming odds.

The odds only matter if you’re playing the odds.

The magnitude of the problem only matters if you’ll only accept a well-engineered response. What’s right is a different matter.

By that summer Von Heyer and Uli Bierbach had gone back into Uganda from Germany to start construction of the Salem facility on the land for which we’d negotiated with the government. The village that was started there is now run as both a village and a hospital. It’s still operating (1996) and one of the larger of the Salem programs around the world.

Mother Jane died of a heart attack in 1984, and Salem Uganda took in her children.

This experience was, for me, both shattering and strengthening. I’d been in the slums of America and much of the Third World, but had never experienced children dying in my arms or people starving to death as I watched. It tested my faith and caused me to remember Herr Müller’s comment that "There are many mysteries, and we cannot know them all," and to accept, simply, the reality of the here-and-now and to do the best I could to help solve the problems.

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