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 try it anyway. Growing up in a family where God was never mentioned, in a country where God belongs mostly to the older generations and spending a lot of time with someone who made me think that God destroyed much of his life, it feels like I am dancing with the devil when I write about God. (What a weird sentence this must be for the people who have actually been with God their entire lives). It feels like a sin to write about God. At least for me, as if I 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 God.
As a child, I felt a certain loyalty towards the 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. We lived next to a church that rang its bells twice a day on a Sunday and where people took their religion very seriously. It was especially this seriousness that made me feel like religious people were 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. Luckily it was never something that bothered me too much but in my mind, I think I thought 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 much 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. Singing and dancing in church allowed me to release some of my emotions that I had no words for. Religion didn't seem so serious anymore. Listening to people pray before eating, made me more grateful of my food and the people who had worked hard to cultivate it. Moreover, Ugandan Muslim families had invited us to celebrate their Eids and I had never felt so welcome anywhere. Ugandan Muslims and Christians seemed to live in harmony, which was another beautiful thing to see with the growing criticism on Islam in the western world. Maybe there was more to religion than I had thought before.
Funnily enough, I never really talked about this with anyone. I think I was a little scared. My non-religious family and friends might judge me for becoming interested in religion and religious people might want to start converting me to their faith. The worlds just seemed too different. The people around me did want to hear a bit about religion in India after I had traveled there, probably because it felt further away and less in conflict with their beliefs - but generally the conversations I had about religion were never very deep. When I got into a relationship with a Ugandan man from a Catholic family, religion still didn't really become a big topic. For him it wasn't a big topic. I just went with the flow. Whenever we went to church with his family members, I accepted things as they were. Whenever we were surrounded by people for whom religion did not play a role in their lives, I also didn't miss it. I realised religion was slowly getting a different role in my life but that was my personal journey - and as I had no close friends or family members who were falling in love with a Ugandan man too (and got a large Catholic extended family with it) I felt like my journey was pretty different from 'the rest' and kept a lot of things to myself. Above all, it was my love story. And for me it was just the way it was. I tried to not judge anyone or anything but our worlds were far different from each other at times. People seemed to want to be able to understand things from the outside and form an opinion of it. I decided that if sharing my road with others would give me more problems then peace, I'd better just leave it. Rather alone (with my love) and in peace than with others but with drama.
Religion suddenly became a painful thing when my (now ex) boyfriend became mentally ill. 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. 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 also doing something about the situation for the people who believed in it. I saw how letting someone be could be a better approach than to try and 'fix' someone. But I couldn't help but feel that the people who believed that 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 more judgemental than the non-religious people around us. 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 and 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 that 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 much harder for him to recover and understand himself. It took away his power to get better and the power of the people around him to support him get better. Having said that, I am aware that there are other sides to the story. Mental illness is an extremely complex topic and (because there is no real medical cure for certain mental illnesses) spiritual cures surely are part of 'the answer' too. Being a religious person is not the same as being someone who doesn't believe in taking action in the case of mental illness. People who aren't religious surely don't necessarily know better what to do in the case of mental illness. And I should not forget the role poverty played in our story. That is a whole different topic but definitely something to write about too.
Because I don't ever want 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), I guess something inside of me doesn't want to be associated with religious people too much. 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 too. So I guess I simply don't want to be put in boxes. A part of me will always be that girl from a non-religious family. Another part of me is a woman who spent a lot of time in Uganda and around Ugandans who are mostly Christian and some Muslim. I am influenced by different worlds and feel like I understand a bit of all of them. The problem is that I also need to feel that I belong. Where do I belong when I don't belong to that Ugandan Catholic family anymore? Where do I belong when I also don't belong to the Netherlands anymore?
Where do I belong when I also don't want to belong to any of them - because I feel they both let me down in a way?
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 my own Dutch family members might show that they 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 left work and was looking for a boda to take me home 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 her know where we live and started with telling her about the area. She was alone in her car and 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 politely respond to her question 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 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 then 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. 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 at work 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 a pause 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, gave me a strength I wouldn't have realised I had in me if it wasn't for the rain making me wait the whole day. I had wanted to look for new video clients but taking a break from work gave me much clearer view about where to look again. I should first write and think about the direction in which I should actually go instead of just following the direction a client wants me to go into and think about money only. 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 stiff or fixed as in the Netherlands. 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 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 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. I guess that's been my biggest lesson of all today.