Alyssa Stephens
Alyssa Stephens
Uganda, 2022-2023
Grace and peace to you! My name is Alyssa, and I am spending a year in Jinja, Uganda working with HEAL Ministries. HEAL is an organization that offers wrap-around services to champion sustainability and family preservation. I graduated from Belmont in May 2022 and feel abundantly blessed to embark on this new journey. Read More About Alyssa →

settling in and stepping out

Now about a month into my time here in Jinja, the juxtaposition between feeling settled in and like a little lost and perplexed puppy is very evident. Today, as I write this, I am feeling thankful for routines and rhythms…and for the moments without them that inspire us to be brave and to grow.

Over the past couple of weeks, my fellow intern pals and I have gotten into a pretty solid groove of:

  • Waking up between 6:30 and 7:00
  • Eating breakfast at around 7:30 and then heading out for the day
  • Working from 8:00-4:00
  • And then coming home and doing some combination of reading, watching movies, going into town for random errands, making + eating dinner, and going to bed

We do have a cat named Ellie, who keeps us on our toes a bit by randomly getting the zoomies, scaling walls, and nipping at our legs when we least expect it. Also, the two adorable kids who live on the property with us keep things interesting by spontaneously inviting us to swing with them, pick mangos on high branches in the sprawling mango trees outside, and kick soccer balls around the yard. There are two precious women—J and J—that are often at the property, along with the three boys one of them has, and they fill the place with motherly care and joy. Also, Mr. B, Mr. F, and Mr. P, who take turns serving as groundskeepers and guards throughout the week, are kindhearted men to talk to. It is interesting that “little” moments and things—a playful cat, energetic kids, talking with sweet people on the property—have actually been some of the biggest reasons why this place is feeling more like home. Perhaps the seemingly small, everyday moments really aren’t all that small.

While having some knowns amidst a lot of newness has been a wonderful salve in settling in well, this past week has been fraught with changes too. By Wednesday, all three of the summer interns left Jinja in order to finish college and continue working back in the States. Brette is authentic and brave, Isabella is joyful and friendly, and Tanna is compassionate and wise. Though there is sadness in seeing them go, the overwhelmingly strong emotion I feel is gratitude that we got to spend quality time together here in this beautiful country. I look forward to developing deeper relationships with the HEAL staff during this time of living on my own.

With the knowledge that I am going to have to be more independent in order to make the most of my time here, this morning, I did something brave—I rode on a boda (motorcycle) into town, walked around Main Street by myself, and then found a little café to read at for a few hours.

Haha sidenote: I remember seeing my grandpa, Pa, buy and ride a motorcycle several years ago and thinking, “Golly, how his doing that? As brave as he is, I don’t eeeever want to ride one of those myself…” Here I am, eating those words a bit, doing what I couldn’t have imagined those years ago..AND it’s actually quite nice! (though if at any point you happen to have a motorcycle, please don’t ask me to ride it with you)

God is ever kind, and God was kind to me today. As much as I would prefer to walk around town with another person, His presence was there in the many unique people I exchanged greetings and smiles with along the journey. In the café, He reminded me what a gift it is to be here and what a faithful friend He has always been. As nervous as I was to ride a boda for the first time, I felt an underlying sense of ease in knowing God holds me and my fears. AND the fellow I rode with showed me the correct boda-riding etiquette, drove at more of a “scenic” than “hurried” speed, and talked the whole time about his journey of becoming a boda driver. What a sweet, hospitable man to have this first experience with! Thank you, Lord, for Your goodness that keeps us grounded and invites us into community.

For those of you who tend to be a bit more timid and fearful like me, be encouraged that A) it is okay to be that way! and B) taking small, bold steps can lead to moments that are sweeter than sitting in the safety of not moving forward at all. And for those who tend to be more adventurous, hehe use that courage to experience how exciting this world is!

And for all: is there any way that you have experienced goodness this week? A moment in which you felt glad or at ease in a situation that could have been different?

Thank you once more for following along on this journey of settling in and stepping out. I look forward to updating you very soon Many blessings to you.

With love,

Alyssa

 

High: Hearing some of the preschool teachers’ stories while doing trust-based relational intervention training. Their stories are hard, and the women are resilient. This week, I was touched by their vulnerability and commitment to forging better futures for their children.

Low: Missing out on having quality conversations with people because I was too busy thinking about what they were thinking about me.

Buffalo: As work was closed on Tuesday, Tanna and I were just hanging out at home when we saw the kiddos having a picnic and decided to join. Part of the way through the meal, the kids said, “Guess what is coming this afternoon? A bouncy castle!” Sure enough, their mom coordinated with someone to set up an entire bouncy castle in the backyard…and then of course we had to add the hose to it so that the experience was escalated all the more. It was SO much fun—everyone, even Uncle Fred the groundskeeper, joined in on the action!

Words of Wisdom: Brette recommended that I read The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun. Wow, is it any interesting read on the development of the non-profit Pencils of Promise. In the book, this quote stood out to me:

“You have to find a mantra and live it fully. The one I’d adopt right now if I were you is something I found on the inside of a friend’s journal last year: ‘You may be safe, but I am free.’”

a happy afternoon spent at little shops in town so the girls could pick out some souvenirs before heading home

walking to work one morning with to the a-MOO-sing greetings of many, many friends

two of the boys maximizing on the chance to spray their momma as she slides in the bouncy castle

trying to manifest excitement over nervousness in my trusty helmet on the walk to the boda stage

a glorious introduction to bodas and HEAL

Wow! Has it really just been two weeks or an entire lifetime since I left America? There are so many things that I cannot believe—that I really made it here to Jinja, that the past fourteen days have been full of soaking up new experiences and cultural expression, that this will be the place I call home for the next year. What is abundantly clear and resoundingly steady is that God is present and so good all across the world.

After arriving in Entebbe, Uganda at about 1:00 a.m. on the first Saturday in July, I spent the night at a local hotel before traveling from Entebbe to Jinja. Haha unexpected note—driving in Uganda is quite different than in the U.S.! Not only do people drive on the left side of the road but there are many more motorcycles (known as boda bodas by locals) than cars on the streets, many bumps on roads, and no lines between lanes so that cars and bodas will move around one another as they please. Boy was I thankful to have a sweet driver, A, to help navigate the streets. Amidst the 4.5 hour commute, A and I talked about his family, gardening and buying food here in Uganda, the impact of COVID-19 on Ugandan economics and livelihood amongst other topics. Talking to him on the drive was a sweet introduction into life in Uganda, and seeing so much of the country as we made the journey helped bring the place to life. He is a nice man, and it was a good day!

Once I made it to Jinja, I began settling into the little house I will be staying at for my time in Uganda. When I arrived, there were four other interns who helped introduce me to important things to know about daily living here—purifying water, buying groceries in town, how to use the shower, etc. Though two of them left to return home earlier this week and the other two will be leaving next week, I am very thankful for their outpouring of kindness and knowledge. God has been kind in allowing our paths to cross during this time of settling in.

Bright and early on the first Monday I was in Jinja, I began work at the James Place (this is the name of the compound that HEAL Ministries operates at). What an extraordinary place it is! The organization, HEAL Ministries, seeks to show the compassion of God to vulnerable women and children in Jinja through family preservation, economic empowerment, and sustainable living. Practically, this looks like employing the women in departments such as childcare, preschool, pottery and leather working, laundry, and food service and providing programming for children. Hehe to honor your time as you read this post, I will keep you curious about the exact parameters of what I am doing and instead tell you a little story about one of the women I met:

About three days into my time working at the James Place, I met a lady named G. Soft-spoken and well-tempered, she is a soul filled with kindness and faith. Though she just met me and had only met the other interns a couple of weeks before, she invited us into her home for a weekend visit.

When we arrived at her house, we were first introduced to several of her precious children and to the plump pig she has been raising in order to help pay for her children’s education. It was sweet to see the people—and animals—that she and others in her village interact with on an everyday basis.

She then so kindly invited us into her home, a space in which all seven of us present for the afternoon together sat side by side and very close together so that everyone could be inside. Her radical hospitality in inviting us into all that she physically has was touching. In that moment, being in one another’s presence was a gift, a picture of the compassion and acceptance that God extends towards us. Though we did eventually have to part ways that afternoon, I am thankful for the lasting memory of our time together that day and for the many more weekends I have here to soak in time with the beautiful people of HEAL and Jinja.

From those first moments in Entebbe to this very moment that I write this post, the past two weeks have been filled with so many more new, unexpected, and special things than I could have envisioned. In the spaces you have found yourself in over the past two weeks, I hope that this has been true for you too—that life has given you little moments to be taken aback by and excited about.

Thank you for reading this post. I think of you with care and pray that you are well today, tomorrow, and the next.

With love,

Alyssa

 

High: Going on a spontaneous walk to the Nile River with a few staff members and their children one day after work. We happened to go right around sunset, so the sky mixed with the view of the river was absolutely breathtaking!

Low: I am finding it a little harder than expected to navigate language differences here. While some speak English to varying extents, a lot of people in Jinja speak Luganda, a local tribal language. Trying to build relationships with locals while not being able to converse very easily has reminded me of the power of simply being present with one another…but also just feels hard sometimes.

Buffalo: For Fourth of July (the first Monday I was here), the other interns and I celebrated by decking out! We put face paint on our faces and arms and tied ribbons in our hair. When we went to the James Place like this, the children and staff alike laughed and celebrated with us. Hehe I’m not sure I have ever dressed up this much in the U.S. for the Fourth but was so glad to have done so here.

Words of Wisdom: This is a quote by Frederick Buechner that I received in my email inbox earlier this week. I have been meditating on the contrast between the notions that “the more you get, the more you have” and “the more you give away in love, the more you are.”

“Avarice, greed, concupiscence, and so forth are all based on the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The remark of Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) is based on the human truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are. It is not just for the sake of other people that Jesus tells us to give rather than get, but for our own sakes too.”

cheesin’ for the camera after making it to the Nile River (hehe the kids were on the side picking flowers and throwing rocks)

our happy Fourth of July outfits

one of the adorable lion masks the preschoolers made this week to celebrate learning letter L

 

Mom, me, and tasty chapati

Mom and I attempted to make chapati earlier this week 🙂

Chapati is a flatbread of sorts that is commonly eaten in Eastern African countries amongst other parts of the world, like Central America as well as India and other parts of Central and Southeast Asia. Alongside rice and beans, it is a food item that has come up time after time as a simple yet delicious staple in the Ugandan diet. Calling for just flour, water, and a dash of salt, chapati’s subtle yet tasty flavor makes it a splendid addition to one’s meal.

Given the delightful talk of chapati by girls from HEAL that I’ve talked to, when the opportunity arose for Mom and I to make some for a family going-away party this week, we just had to maximize on the opportunity! We added the ingredients together in a big bowl, kneaded the dough, let it rest for a time, and the rolled pieces of dough into thin circular sheets. After this, the dough was ready to be put in the frying pan to cook.

Hehe at least for Mom and I, this was the step that brought about a few…challenges. While the dough was very easy to flip, Mom and I realized we weren’t exactly sure what to look for to know the dough was ready to be flipped. In turn, our first few pieces of chapati were a bit underdone followed by a couple of pieces that were a bit…smokier…than those in the recipe’s example photos. With flour all over the counters, a bit of a scorched metal pan, and a pile of assortedly-cooked chapati, we finished! Though we took things in stride, the experience remained lighthearted the whole way through, and the family enjoyed sampling the food at the party, Mom and I definitely did not imagine that making the flatbread would be such an adventure.

My mom and I could not help but tease that by this time next year, I may look back on this first chapati experience and laugh, having been taught by locals in Uganda the proper way to knead, roll, and fry to chapati perfection. Hehe if that is the case, I look forward to it with joy! Right now though, without skills or experience, making the chapati threw us for a loop. It was a trickster of a time.

In reflection, I cannot help but think about how this reflects my transition to Uganda as a whole. There are so many things I do not know and questions I do not even know I should ask. There are countless ways in which, over the next week and months to come, I will be asked to let go of my need for control in order to be flexible and adaptable. I will be dependent on others and on God in a way that is nerve-wracking yet creates extraordinary opportunities for humility, experiencing the graciousness that is woven into the fabric of vulnerability, and forming connections with others. In the strangeness and mystery of it all, somehow I may be able to support and care for others in spite of (perhaps within) this frail space of unknowingness.

Now, as I write this, I am on a plane heading to Uganda and rejoice in what is to come! May this year be unique and precious and hard and good. May both the underdone and overbaked moments be welcomed and the perseverance beyond them fill us with hope. I hope that this can be true for you too, in all that you are walking through during this summertime.

What a joy, what a change! Uganda and the people of Jinja, I am blessed to spend time with you.

With love,

Alyssa

 

High: The outpouring of kindness and support from loved ones on this first day of travel. I am weepy and feel so blessed.

Low: Seeing Mom, Dad, Christian, and Logan walking away from the TSA security checkpoint after we gave final hugs and said goodbye. Goodbyes are hard. Perhaps they help us remember how dear the person we’re saying goodbye to is.

Buffalo (random): As I was looking for insect repellant at Walmart, I noticed that a little bird friend had flown inside the store and was fluttering up and down the aisles. It was a happy moment!

Words: This is a veryy long one but one that resonated deeply with me. Brought to us by Rachel Held Evans:

“It seems that in the kingdom of Heaven, the cosmic lottery works in reverse; in the kingdom of Heaven, all of our notions of the lucky and the unlucky, the blessed and the cursed, the haves and the have-nots, are turned upside down. In the kingdom of Heaven, the last will be first and the first will be last. In India, I realized that while the poor and oppressed certainly deserve my compassion and help, they do not need my pity. Widows and orphans and lepers and untouchables enjoy special access to the Gospel that I do not have. They benefit immediately from the Good News that freedom is found not in retribution but in forgiveness, that real power belongs not to the strong but to the merciful, that joy comes not from wealth but from generosity. The rest of us have to get used to the idea that we cannot purchase love or fight for peace or find happiness in high positions. Those of us who have never suffered are at a disadvantage because Jesus invites His followers to fellowship in His suffering. In fact, the first thing Jesus did in His Sermon on the Mount was to mess with our assumptions about the cosmic lottery. In Luke’s account, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:20-21; 24-25) It seems that the Kingdom of God is made up of the least of these. To be present among them is to encounter what the Celtic saints called “thin spaces,” places or moments in time in which the veil separating heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material, becomes almost transparent. I’d like to think that I’m a part of this kingdom, even though my stuff and my comforts sometimes thicken the veil. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – these are God things, and they are available to all, regardless of status or standing. Everything else is just extra, and extra can be a distraction. Extra lulls us into the complacency and tricks us into believing that we need more than we need. Extra makes it harder to distinguish between God things and just things.”

Mom valiantly flipping chapati in the frying pan

 

freshly cut hair just in time for the trip!

a sweet family photo just before parting ways

a new summertime groove in preparation to move

Hello there!

Thank you for joining me in this little virtual space as I embark on such a unique experience. I am so excited for the world to feel a little cozier as loved ones at home meet loved ones in Jinja through this online platform.

As a self-identified people-pleaser, I want these blogs to be exactly what YOU want them to be. The only trouble is that with an assortment of people from a variety of space reading the posts, there is not a legitimate way to pinpoint what this ideal post may be. Because of this, I am going to frame these as writing to a friend, perhaps the friend we have in Jesus. May that be enough. And may, in some strange way, these musings speak to you in your particular personhood and context too.
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Growing up the summer months had a sort of timeless quality to them. Sleeping in a bit more, playing for hours on end with my brothers outside, coming in for lunch or popsicles (or maybe even an outfit change so that we could enjoy the sprinkler), and then dinner and a bath before a movie and bedtime. Even as I transitioned into my teenage years, the lack of a stringent school or college schedule during the summer provided a level of freedom and room for spontaneity that was refreshing and fun.

This year, the weeks following my last day of college courses have brought a new posture towards summertime—an almost hyperawareness of the passage of time and what the future may bring. In early May, the long-anticipated day of graduation arrived, and I have spent the following weeks reading, baking, volunteering, babysitting, and visiting a couple of friends. The days remaining until my move to Uganda are now swiftly dwindling, and the once more abstract dream of this transition is now met with the tangible reality of packing lists, vaccinations, and a visa application. Here we are—a mere two weeks from traveling—and I am bubbling with a whole spectrum of emotions that come with making a longer-term move, with going on this new adventure.

For whatever reason, the first thing that comes to mind for me as I ponder this notion of “going on a new adventure” is the little boy (aka wilderness explorer) from Up, Russell. With a bunch of badges, a pack strapped on his back, and a hopeful outlook of what’s to come, Russell presses towards whatever the future may bring.

Hehe in my better moments, I may resemble Russell’s approachable spirit, hope for the future, and endearing physique. In full transparency, in other moments, I feel the weight of loss, of starting to say goodbye. Cycles of feeling exceeding joy and gratitude for the opportunity to be among God’s precious people in a new cultural context to being hit with a wave of tears over the difficult inevitability of change have been my rhythm over the past few weeks.

In consideration of Russell’s words and deeds in Up even throughout difficult moments within my own anticipatory and emotional space, I am filled with remembrance of a few key things. Russell reminds me that:

— I do have a level of control over my reactions.
— I have a sweet collection of stories, relationships, and memories that I am carrying into the trip.
— There truly is so much goodness and hope wrapped up the change that is going to Uganda.

Like for Russell and the rest of the Up characters, there will be inevitable highs and lows in the coming months. At the end of the day, I choose to believe that it will be meaningful and good. The people of Jinja are each special and unique, and I am blessed that our stories are going to intertwine.

God bless you as you walk along the path you find yourself on today. May we both learn to make peace with change...and perhaps watch Up sometime soon if the opportunity arises.

With love,

Alyssa
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*Note: Because my posts themselves may be a bit introspective or story-like, I think I will have a little section at the end in which I post a few memories from the time since the last post.

High: Soaking in quality time together by going on walks to Sonic with my brother Logan and evening neighborhood walks with Dad (and the birds as happy company!)

Low: Getting an email stating that my visa application was deferred (update: it has since been approved!)

Buffalo (what the cool kids say instead of “random moment” hehe): I went to volunteer at the nursing home this week, and a local church came to put on a little service for the residents. Usually, most of the residents are fairly mellow and quiet, and that was true of today—until someone suggested we sing “Victory in Jesus.” Voices that I have never heard before arose in glorious chorus to proclaim, “He loved me ‘ere I knew Him and all my love is due Him…” It was an unexpected, beautiful moment, one in which an array of people found commonality in singing a song reminiscent of their younger years.

Words of Wisdom: From a poignant work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone, that I recently finished reading:

““And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.” It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, “building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.” The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

maximizing on time with neighborhood birds, trees, and streets these last few weeks at home

happy memories made traveling across the sea with Lora and Elizabeth

spending quality time in Wisconsin with Megan and Elizabeth (hehe and with Jes, Alex, Murphy, and Dewey toooo!)

snagging a family photo after graduation 🙂