The first person to greet me on Bwama Island in February 1971 was Richard, who looked up from the ground and said with a beaming smile, “Welcome. We are so pleased that you have come to live and work with us”. He had been ferried by dug out canoe from his own village in Kigezi to acquire domestic farming skills at the UN Rural Rehabilitation Centre for Physically Disabled. Although I was there, aged 18, to ‘help’, the main outcome was that I learned far more about life and faith than I taught to my disabled, Ugandan, new-found friends.
First I had to have my world-conquering confidence tempered by a humbling inability to paddle a hollowed-out tree trunk in a straight line. Then I kept losing at football to a team captain who pivoted on the stick that kept him upright to score straight past me. Most importantly, I discovered that my paper thin Christianity could not compute the joy and hope that filled and poured out from people who had none of my material or physical advantages.
After a couple of months I was invited to address the monthly prayer gathering on a topic of Hosea. Thinking that this was in appreciation of my feeble attempts to install the first ever diesel pump and generator on the island, I prepared a short talk on engineering and plumbing. The day before, Dasani, a Rwandan exile on the staff, asked me whether I was ready. After seeing my notes he pointed out tactfully that they were expecting a Bible study and showed me the text from the Minor Prophets. On the night, seeing a great crowd of both disabled and able-bodied people, he offered to translate. I stumbled through the grim, ruthless parts of the story of Hosea and was astonished when testimony and praise broke out in charismatic fervour. Waking the next morning, assuming my Christian credentials were now firmly established, it dawned on me that I had no idea what my friend had told the audience in his translation. Of course Dasani had shared good news from the Bible, and wisely ignored my agnostic ramblings!
By the time I left Uganda, which was still suffering terribly under Idi Amin’s dictatorship, I had not only been called to and made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, but also in offering and receiving the daily greeting, "Balokele" ("Are you Saved?") understood that in Christ ‘all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:18-19). I left the 'Pearl of Africa' with a pearl of far greater price, and for that I have to thank those faithful, joyful, disabled friends who helped me more than I could have ever helped them.