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  • nikkiywema

God's wish

After not having written for months, I have been feeling the urge to write again. And funnily enough, I want to write about a topic that feels like it is not mine to write about - but I am going to give it a try nevertheless.

Growing up in a family where God was never mentioned and in a country where God belongs mostly to the older generations, it feels like I am dancing with the devil when I write about God. (What a weird sentence). Almost like a sin. At least, it feels as if I personally am not allowed to write about God because I was not raised religiously. So let me start with writing that I am not claiming to really know much about Him (or Her).

As a child, I felt a certain affinity with people who didn't go to church like us. People who went to the public schools, like my brothers and me. Who did whatever they wanted on a Sunday. We grew up in an area where the majority of people were Reformed and 'us non-believers' were a minority. We lived next to a church that rang its bells twice on a Sunday and where people took their religion very seriously. It was especially this seriousness that made me feel like religious people were of a different breed. They seemed to judge our family at times, as if we weren't good enough because we did not go to church. (Or maybe my family was judging them! It's hard to tell now). Luckily it was never something that bothered me much but in my mind there was a voice who told me I would never 'fit in' with religious people.

When I came to Uganda for the first time in my life, all I saw when it came to religion was a white Jesus in black churches. It felt wrong. The friend who I was with and I were sceptical of Christianity in Africa. We romanticised the 'traditional African beliefs' (without really knowing about them). We believed that Christian missionaries had 'brainwashed' Africa and that this was one of the reasons for the underdevelopment of the continent.

Then something strange happened to me. After having spent two months in Uganda, I couldn't help but admit that I had started to see a certain beauty in the way religion played a role in this country. Singing and dancing in church allowed me to release some of the emotions that I had no words for. Religion didn't seem so serious anymore and suddenly it was the non-religious people who seemed too serious and arrogant at times. Listening to people pray before eating, made me more grateful of my food and the people who had worked hard to cultivate it. Ugandan Muslim families invited us to celebrate their Eids and I had never felt so welcome anywhere. Moreover, Ugandan Muslims and Christians seemed to live in harmony, while criticism on Islam just seemed to grow in the western world. Maybe there was more to religion than I had thought before.

Funnily enough, I never really talked about my new encounters with religion with anyone. Maybe it was fear. My stories about Uganda already seemed too strange for people in the Netherlands. And I did not constantly want to feel as if I was weird. I was scared that my non-religious family and friends might judge me for becoming interested in religion. And I was equally as scared that religious people might judge me for being so ignorant about their worlds - or that they would want to start converting me to their faith.

When I got into a relationship with a Ugandan man from a Catholic family, religion still didn't become a big topic though. For him it wasn't a big thing. I just went with the flow. Whenever we went to church with his family members, I accepted things as they were. I could sit in church and listen to a pastor preach in Luganda for three hours straight and enjoy it just because it was so different from the life I was used to. Of course I did not understand a word and felt shy to really speak to people about religion when they turned to English but it was an adventure and therefore worth it. When we'd come home afterwards, I didn't give it much thought. My boyfriend and I had a lot of other things on our minds.

But without me being very aware of it, religion slowly got a different role in my life. Now that I got a certain emotion with it, it could also hurt me more. Still, I didn't attach myself to church or talks I had with people about religion in Uganda. I thought the experiences were just part of my personal journey and not something I should really talk about. I had no close Dutch friends or family members who were in love with an Ugandan man too (and got a large Catholic extended family with it). And so I felt like my journey was pretty different from 'the rest'. (The rest being: the way in which friends from my past were shaping their lives). Because I struggled a lot with that feeling of being 'different', I kept a lot of things to myself. I had always been a quiet person anyway. Above all, this story was my love story and not about religion really.

Though I could be critical of 'white people in Africa', I tried to not have strong opinions or judge. But when Davids worlds met my worlds, it was as if too many worlds came together and it was insane to manage them all. We met so many people together who were far different from each other and forming an opinion seemed necessary sometimes. Other people seemed to have opinions too so I needed to create my own in order to stand up against that. I had once read the quote 'if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything'. And that suddenly seemed to start making sense. I felt rich to have such diversity in my life but I also felt weak because I didn't know how to handle it all. Whenever I could keep quiet and just observe, I would choose that route - as I had done most of my life.

Religion suddenly became a painful thing when my (now ex) boyfriend became mentally ill. Now people were really forced to have an opinion or at least vision on where it came from, how to go about it, how to set boundaries... But on both the religious and non-religious side, people seemed to not really want to talk about mental illness. On both sides, people also seemed to not really know what to do about it. But on the religious side, people seemed to not really want to do much either. Prayers were the only answer. God would take care of the problem. Which I tried to accept but I think it was there that something in my already vulnerable spiritual journey cracked.

I felt abandoned by the people I had tried to let into my life and see as equally good as the non-religious people I had spent my early years with. I tried to see how praying was doing something about the situation for the people who believed in it too. I saw how letting someone be could be a better approach than to try and 'fix' someone with medicine.

But I couldn't help feeling that the people who believed prayers would make my boyfriend better, were taking a distance from him too while in my eyes they should be getting closer to him and have a 'real' talk. On top of that, they seemed the most judgemental. As if it was his own mistake that he had gotten mentally ill, without looking at the bigger picture. In my eyes, in that bigger picture it was almost logical that he'd become sick. Especially in the beginning, it just seemed to make sense that someone with such different worlds around him would just break at some point. So I thought it was extremely important for his recovery that people looked at that bigger picture together with him instead of turn away.

I realise it is because of the outcome that I still struggle with my beliefs and religion. Had my ex become 'better' and our relationship been 'saved', I might have started believing that the prayers had worked. Or at least, I might have felt milder about it all. But that wasn't the case. Even worse: I think the mentality of it being God's wish that he got sick and in God's hands to decide whether he'd get better or not made it harder for him to recover and understand himself.

In my eyes, the religious people around my ex took away his power to get better. And religion even took away the power of the religious people themselves to support him to get better. All in all, it weakened not only himself but his potential support system too.

Having said that, I am aware that there are other sides to the story. There's so much I still don't understand. Mental illness is one of the most complex things in the world. Mental illness in Africa is different from mental illness in the west. And mental illness in Uganda, in a pretty traditional baganda family is even more specific.

One thing I do know is that mental illness is actually closely related to identity issues and the religious people around my ex were part of his identity too. They raised him, he grew up with them. Especially in a culture that values family so much, taking those people away would surely not be the cure either. We had experienced that in The Netherlands, where he'd had many episodes and we'd gotten frustrated with Dutch doctors not understanding his background and who were therefore unable to provide the right treatment too.

I do believe spiritual cures are part of 'the answer' to mental illness too. If everywhere around the world, in different tribes and cultures totally unrelated to each other, there are spiritual doctors who help cure their patients, who am I to say that is not real?

Also: being a religious person is not the same as being someone who doesn't believe in taking medication in the case of mental illness. People who aren't religious surely don't necessarily know better what to do.

And: I should not forget the role poverty played in our story. That is a whole different topic but definitely something to think about. How can you really think thoroughly about what to do with someone's mental illness when you spend most of your time thinking about how to survive?

So dealing with a mentally ill person who was also the person I was closest to while we had had totally different backgrounds and support systems, caused me to deeply examine myself. One thing I learned about myself is that I never wanted to be associated with the people who didn't act when they had to (in this case: act when someone was mentally ill - but, for example, also in the case of climate change and not trying to change our lifestyle).

Then something inside of me doesn't want to be associated with religious people. But having said that, I also don't want to be associated with the people who don't look at spirituality at all. I can really be annoyed by people who think they can change just anything without being aware of forces outside of themselves.

So I simply don't want to be put in boxes. Surely it wasn't possible to put my ex in a box. That was one of the things I loved about him. But I learned how it could be harmful too. The problem is that we also need to feel that we belong. Where do I belong when I don't belong to the Netherlands anymore but also no longer to that Ugandan Catholic family?

Now that is where the drama sits for me. I feel that I should chose. After having experienced so little 'help' from the so called spiritual people, shouldn't I put my focus on western medicine much more? But although I have clearly seen effects of western medicine, I don't know whether I can say that these effects were always good. Then if I don't want to choose, spirituality may still seem to be more of a solution. If we feel like we don't belong anywhere, we always still belong to God. The fact that some of the people (mainly women) in my ex's family might repeat 'I told you so' when I speak of how these days I let things to be God's wish or how I feel that my own Dutch family members don't understand me, doesn't change anything about me. My experiences are my experiences and my beliefs are my beliefs. I don't think that makes me better or worse than anyone, it just is what it is. I want to keep trying and find connections with both sides, with all the different kinds of people around me, as much as it's hard and I should watch out to not become sceptical.

Nowadays, I hear myself saying things like 'it was God's wish' and I realise how strange it is that I, once an atheist girl, say things like this. It is even stranger that it feels very natural to say it. But I really only say it when I mean it. That means, when I feel it. And it's maybe just my language that has changed because I have always paid attention to things like serendipity. The little signs of the universe.

Last week, I was looking for a boda to take me home after work when a car stopped next to me. A lady opened the passenger window and I wondered whether I knew her. She asked me where I needed to go. I tried hiding my hesitation to let a stranger know where we live and started with telling her about the area. She was alone in her car. Which made me more confident she probably just wanted to be kind and give me a ride. She asked me how my daughter was doing and I felt bad that she knew my daughter while I still had no idea who she was. I am getting used to people knowing Nyla while I don't know them so again I tried to respond politely without showing her that I felt a little lost. She told me she lived around the same area, opened the door of her car and gave me a ride back home. It made my day.

When I walked to our gate, still a little surprised about what had happened, a boy started talking to me. He looked lost. He told me that he worked as a cleaner for an Eritrean family (he himself seemed Ugandan) but that they got into an argument. The family always gave him money for transport home after his work day but because of the argument, they had not given him any. He needed to go to Mukono. Something about the story didn't feel right to me but I tried talking to the boy before deciding to either leave him or help him.

Mukono was far - why would he work all the way here? Someone might want to travel all the way from Mukono to Kampala for a well paid office job but not to work as a cleaner. You'd be spending more money than you'd be making. The boy started taking his ID out of his wallet to show me that it had written Mukono on it as his area as if that would really tell me anything. Then he asked me for 5000 Ugandan shillings. It was then that something inside of me whispered it was God's wish to give him that money. It was exactly the money I had saved while getting a ride from the lady instead of using a boda. Whether his story was honest or not, the boy seemed pretty desperate and I could miss those 5000 shillings. After a lot of "God bless you's", I entered the gate to our home.

Yesterday, I found myself in another situation in which I felt it was God's wish. I took my car to the mechanic and just when the mechanic had left on his boda to buy some spare parts, it started raining. I knew that would mean he wouldn't be back anytime soon. When it rains in Uganda life is often put on hold and this time the rain was particularly bad. I was hungry, tired and broke and felt like it was the worst day to sit at a petrol station the whole day. The only good thing was that I had brought a novel with me and I could read while waiting.

Ignoring my stomach, tired eyes and stress about whether I will have enough work next month, I surrender and started reading. It gave me a strength I wouldn't have realised I had in me if it wasn't for the rain. I had wanted to look for new video clients but taking a break from work gave me much clearer view about where to look. I should first write and think about the direction in which I need to go instead of just think about money only and follow the direction a client wants me to go into. For my own spiritual well-being! I needed to rest more and the world around me had forced me to rest. It was God's wish I had gotten stuck in the rain.

One of the things I love about Uganda is that things here aren't as fixed as in the Netherlands. Religion isn't either. It makes people more fixed in their hearts but less fixed in their actions. People have weeks in which they go to church at least four times and people stop going to church for months. One day, people identify as Catholics, the next day they are Born Again. Muslim children go to Christian schools. People can really joke about each other, sometimes in a way that feels discriminating to me but it's often just a certain directness that the Dutch don't have (oh yes, the Dutch are much more direct about other things).

In the end, people also really let each other be and respect each other. And maybe, probably, it's partly because of God that Ugandans are so good at letting each other be. Because the mentality is that in the end we may have different religions but still have the same God. Living life and paying attention to God's wishes lately, made me feel so much more at peace. I try to control what I can but I obviously don't want to control everything. Listening to God, helps me understand what I can and cannot (need not!) control. It doesn't mean I am not Dutch anymore, it does not mean I believe I can become Ugandan, I doesn't mean I am a Christian or a Muslim now... But leave alone what exactly I believe (I might change my mind anyway) - as long as the moments in which I see God's wishes playing out give me direction and bring me peace and happiness.

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