The Fig Tree

A Tree in Bwindi

I found a beautiful sacred space yesterday.  It has been in use for over 100 years.  It has no walls and yet it still shelters life. The giant fig tree (Ekitoma in the local Rukiga language , stands next to the playing field of the primary school. It has been a shrine, a school, a hospital, and a meeting place.  The giant fig towers nearly 50 feet. Its trunk, a tangled swirl of vine and roots is 15 feet at its base.

Until 1935, when Christianity had a stronger presence, the villages would bring offerings of honey and meat to wait the arrival of the great snake.  They would gather around its base, leave offereings and dance waiting for its arrival. As Christianity made its creep along the continent eventually reaching this isolated village in the mountains of a deep rainforest, the villages stopped bring the offerings to the trees.  A small church now stands 50 yards from the tree.  Interestingly, at chapel this Sunday, someone brought an offering of millet along with the paper and metal offerings of Ugandan Shillings.  In a farming and subsistence culture, offering some of your bounty will always continue.

The tree became a school where children would meet with their teachers, learning english, history, and math.  A school building was built in the same clearing.

In 2003 a medical missionary named Scott Kellerman from Texas, came and held clinics under the giant fig tree. The clinics were to treat the Batwa (a pygme tribe ousted from the forest when it became a World Heritage site), eventually treating all the people from the village and surrounding community.  Cases range from the simple and complex to the joyful and the tragic. They all came.

The villagers eventually approached Kellerman about establishing a hospital.  Kellerman asked the villagers to work together with all the leaders of the community and to gain wider community support. He partnered with Ugandan doctors and the Church of Uganda to help the community establish the Bwindi Community Hospital and the Kellerman Foundation.  They now serve the entire community at the hospital, at 2 satellite sites, and by village health teams who travel to the villages 7 days a week.  Now a nursing school is being built just a few minutes walk from the giant fig.

The fig tree is again a gathering place for villagers. The Batwa gather here with tourists as they begin the ascent up the hill to the Batwa Cultural Center and living museum. A project of the Batwa Development Program, the cultural center is a series of tiny grass dwellings where the elders demonstrate for toursits their forest life, enabling them to also pass on the traditions to their youth. They gather in the waning light of day to share stories and teach.

Much that sustains this community is within walking distance to this tree. The cry of new born babies, the voice of a teacher, the splashing of a creek, the rustle of banana leaves, the singing of hymns, can all be heard here. All that is essential to life is here within 10 minutes walk to this tree.


To be of use

Greek Amphora's at the Ringling Museum of Art

Greek Amphora’s at the Ringling Museum of Art

This poem was given to me by my 9th grade english teacher, Ms Gardner.  What I remember about her classes was being amazed by the works of literature and captivated by the creativity of people. I was unaware then just how many lessons I would learn for my life in those readings.  To be of Use has been my creed since perhaps that day. I found the copy she gave me hidden away in some book a few years ago. I read over the words as if visiting an old home again.  Familiar and yet shaded by the distant years.

To be of use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I like the poem even more as I embark on this new adventure. Though every beginning seems like an adventure, the one I started just 9 months ago is one I never thought I would be called upon to take.  I left my home and my job that I loved to move into a great unknown.  As my friend said, I was given an book with a beautiful cover, but no words inside.  Its funny how easily I talk about embracing the mystery of God, of life, and when I actually try to live that way, how much harder it all seems.   These months have been full of sadness, great joy, and change, so much change.

The following posts will be a mixture of self reflection, travel log, research report, and amazement reports.  I hope to add to this journal pictures and videos.

I will be searching for experiences of the sacred in Uganda and Tanzania.  Specifically I will travel to Gulu (the area where the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) operated) to talk to leaders about how they use sacred narrative to reclaim space that has been violated by violence and tragedy.

I will also go to Bwindi and visit the Batwa tribe, who were forced out of the impenterable forest, when it became a World Heritage Site, to protect the mountain gorillas.

I will end my time visiting two volunteers in Tanzania who are working with the orphans of Angel House Orphanage in Tarime.