Incidental to my living in Middle-of-Nowhere, Africa has been a fascination with the writings and records of early European explorers and colonialists. One common theme among a number of the earliest English explorers is that Africa is not fit for European habitation. One man, travelling along the Gold Coast, recounts the forbidding coastline—the wall of jungle running right down into the ocean—almost imploring the intrepid man to turn back lest he perish. The scourge of malaria and other tropical fevers is universally bemoaned. The word “pestilential” is peppered generously throughout their writings. A generation later, after the continent has been widely explored and colonised, the consensus seems to shift. There are, after all, places in the heart of Africa where Europeans can survive and even thrive. Teddy Roosevelt, recounting his hunting expedition on behalf of the National Museum, says of the Kenyan Highlands that Europeans should be encouraged to settle there in great numbers, that the area’s climate is conducive to the European constitution.
Certainly, in no one’s mind at the dawn of the twentieth century, was Karamoja one of those favourable regions where Europeans might flourish. It is telling that Karamoja was actually the last region of Uganda to be reached with the Gospel, a full fifty years after the first European missionaries settled in what would later become Kampala.
Some days, working at the clinic, I wonder whether the region is favourable for any human habitation. We’ve been treating somewhere near one thousand cases of malaria every month since July. I can barely keep enough amoxycillin on the shelf to care for all the pneumonia patients we are seeing, and I was recently confronted by officials from the Ministry of Health over the high number of dysentery cases we have been reporting.
Surrounded by such conditions, our family has developed an almost maniacal routine for staying healthy. We soak all of our produce in bleach (that’s not even the weird part). I wash my hands every time I come through the front door. I sleep with my feet under a heavy blanket year-round to keep off the mosquitos. The farm-to-table process for the lettuce we grow ten feet from our kitchen is like twelve steps. I have an unnatural dread of antibiotic soap (may promote fungal growth), and I lose my mind when my children want to dig in the dirt outside.
It is with all of this in the background that the Verdicks went out to live in the village with our dear friend Lomilo and his family.
Naturally, as a part of my psychological preparation, I have developed contingencies for every circumstance. I have hand sanitiser. I have malaria meds. I’m going wear a beekeeper’s suit and tie my children’s hands behind their backs for the week so that they don’t touch anything. But early in the journey, the wheels fall off, and I find myself squatting over the pit latrine, indisposed and helpless against the legion blue flies strafing me on all sides.
With no escape possible, my mind returned to the old colonial journals. How did all those explorers manage to survive? Or more particularly, how did the native populations survive from time immemorial up to the present? The answer that keeps coming to my mind is Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Where early visitors saw a pestilential wasteland, they failed to see the Lord’s providential hand. For all the fear that I have of dirt in Karamoja (and we had come to stay in a house literally made of the stuff), it really turns out to be an overwhelmingly clean substance. For all the mosquito bites we suffered during our stay in Apeitolim (and staying in close quarters with several sick people), we were not infected with malaria.
Not that a certain level of neurotic scrubbing in our everyday life is imprudent. But in Apeitolim, I was daily reminded that, in God’s providence, health has been our normal state. The bouts of giardiasis, the jiggers, or the occasional ringworm infection are the exception both for us and many of our neighbours. And this reminder—transient though it may have been, and necessarily repeated—proved a tremendous source of freedom every time we drank from the borehole or sat down to eat with our hands or stayed out late talking. Too often, in Karamoja, I have tended to think of nature as an adversary to be beaten back at least to the threshold, but as Chesterton says, nature is our sister. We are both fallen and cursed, but created good and together awaiting our redemption.
I wonder whether our Karimojong friends understand this better than we. On our last evening, some sort of squirrel or bushy-tailed rat crawled into the house and disappeared somewhere. My thoughts went immediately to rabies, but when I told Lomilo about it, he said, with mock seriousness in his eyes and a broad smile, “Yes, those animals are very dangerous; they can chew or steal your money,” and bit into a freshly cut slice of orange.