Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.
My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.
I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.
The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”
I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.
I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.
Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.
I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.
But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.
I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.
When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”
I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.
“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”
I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.
We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.
Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.
We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.
I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.
I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.
I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.
For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.
We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.
The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.
The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.
So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.
Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.