Threads of Blessing, Uganda 2016

The team, led by Helen and Garry Schnelzer, included Connie Bye (Cypress Mill, Texas), John and Cherie Kittle (New Braunfels, Texas), and Beryl Wright (Beaver, Pennsylvania).

Our flight to Uganda was easy though long, but our faithful driver, Fred, was waiting at Entebbe airport, and the staff at Silverton Gardens, our "home" in Kampala, were awake and ready to settle us in and feed us at 10:30 PM.

After a day of visiting friends in Kampala  - Godfrey and Prossie Uromcamu and their children, plus the family our driver, Fred – we drove south to Kabale in time for lunch. Our host, Ivan Mbabazi, the father of a student friend at Trinity University, invited us to stay at two of his resorts, one being near the Bwindi Forest where we could visit the mountain gorillas.

Our “cabins”at the Rushaga Mountain Resort clung to the edge of the mountain with glass on three sides, a balcony with some very comfortable chairs, overlooking the pygmy settlement in the valley below.  

We had an amazing day tracking these creatures straight up a dense mountain with guides, good walking sticks and VERY helpful porters who climbed like mountain goats pulling and pushing as necessary. Climbed to approximately 10,000 feet.

Our reward at the top was a family of 12 gorillas, from newborns to silverbacks (old men and dominant males).  We were able to observe them from as close as a few feet for one hour.  This timing is gently, but firmly enforced. There are approximately 880 mountain gorillas in the world. Thanks to careful conservation this number is increasing. It was an experience we'll never forget.

We spent the next two days resting beside a lake at the other resort. This part of the country is aptly named "the Switzerland of Uganda" –mountains and rolling hills that are terraced to the top with crops at every level.  Breathtakingly beautiful.

On our return to Kampala, we visited more friends- the Reverend Canon Hellen Oneka and her daughter, Alice, plus Janepher (Jennifer) Ssegujja and her children.  Janepher is the widow of our former driver, Robert, who died from pancreatic cancer some years ago.  She has three young children and is supporting them well through the sale of used shoes.  

We celebrated Thanksgiving with our dear friend and long-term missionary, Alison Barfoot.  It was a most memorable feast … a salad of fresh vegetables from Alison’s garden, a loaf of bread she had baked that day, cheese we brought from Brussels airport, Beryl’s apple chutney, homemade hummus, chicken quarters cooked for us at Silverton Gardens, and we ended with Alison’s delicious “fake” pumpkin pie.  All complemented with Garry’s wine contribution.  We talked and gave thanks for a long time.

Our journey north to Nebbi surprised us with a good road and few potholes all the way.  At Karuma Falls we were amazed when a baboon jumped on the front of our van. He wanted food but we had none to offer.

Once we reached Nebbi Town we stopped for tea (g-nuts [peanuts] and tiny finger bananas that are so very sweet), with friends, Peace and Betty Uromcamu.  They had just finished harvesting their rice and coffee, and were pleased, relieved and thankful to God for an excellent harvest for both.  

They’d had heavy rain all morning, this being rainy season, and there was mud everywhere.  We were headed for Erussi – a small town high in the mountains on the Congo border above Nebbi Town – to spend two nights with Peace’s mother, Anna.  Thankfully, he offered to go ahead of us on his motorcycle, to be sure the road was passable.  The “road” is a pot-holed path, with more rocks that dirt as we reached the higher elevation.  

Soon after leaving Nebbi Town, Peace stopped before a very muddy patch of “road” questioning whether we could get through.  We proceeded but weren’t far along before we were stuck – really stuck!  However, the villagers were there waiting, and all gathered to push and pull.  We (the team) were told to stay in the van, but it was too much for Garry who removed his shoes and socks, rolled his pants to his knees and stepped out of the car to help.

Their efforts paid off and Fred guided us as we slipped and slid our way to firmer ground.  Then we waited for Garry (who thanked the villages with a financial offering) to catch up to us.  He was escorted by the men of the village who declared him a “Ugandan” at the end…albeit one with very white legs over feet and toes as brown as theirs. Mama Phoebe, Esther, Anna

Anna’s house is on the top of a ridge with a 360-degree view into Uganda and the Congo.  This home and the land where it stands has become “holy ground” to us, as have Anna and her family.  There is peace, joy, laughter and good deep discussion, always, in the home of this spirit-filled woman.  

Each year, Anna, fills the role of  “Conference President” for Threads of Blessing.  Along with her daughter, Sunday, who is the Principal of the Women’s Center, they are assisted by an impressive committee that covers every aspect of need from greeting, accommodation, meal preparation, transportation, helping those who become ill receive treatment, etc.  

We had lunch the next day at St. Peter’s Church, Owilo with the women of Threads of Blessing – listening to testimonies, sharing stories and enjoying the great sisterhood this ministry has created.  On Sunday we went to church with the whole village, and then drove to Goli to prepare for the Threads of Blessing conference at the Women’s Center, to begin on Tuesday.

The brass band and the women, singing and waving bougainvillea branches, greeted us as we drove up to the gates of the Center.  They looked so colorful with flowers in their hair.   It’s always a joy to scramble out of the van and dance our way to the auditorium with them – amidst greeting of warmth and love.

Our accommodations were in one of the missionary houses near the Diocesan offices.  The bathroom this year had a shower, albeit with only cold water.  We bathe using hot water from a jerry can that we pour into a pan and use a plastic cup to “shower.”  However, the cold shower was good for some who chose to use it, and it is definitely “progress.”  The Diocesan Secretary, Alex, challenged us to learn a new phrase in the local language, Alur, each day; this was daunting, but we are improving!

Monday rained much of the day – more mud.  We were pleased we had plenty to do getting supplies ready for the women, and that our food was brought to us in our house. The women arrived in vans, buses, pick-ups, on boda-bodas (motor cycle taxis) throughout the day and evening.

God smiled and heard our prayers for no rain for the next few days and we had beautiful sunshine throughout.  Goli is about 3,500 feet above sea level and the temperature was most comfortable.  

This year, through the generosity of our donors, we provided scholarships ($75 each) for 228 women.  Accommodation for 150 was in the dormitories and guest wing, with the rest coming from the local area.  We ask the women to bring food from their gardens as their “registration fee.”  They arrived bringing sacks of potatoes (Irish), sweet potatoes, greens, rice, beans, maize, and huge bunches of bananas.  In addition this year we had lots of eggplant, which we enjoyed in many variations.  Pineapples were plentiful and very sweet, it being the end of their season – mangoes were just beginning.

Our days began at 8:00 AM with a joyful time of praise and worship to our Lord God offering thanks to Him for bringing all of us together once again … from all corners of the country and across tribal boundaries.  There is always dancing, but because there are so many, it becomes a “Congo line” around the room.  

Mama Phoebe Orombi, (wife of retired Archbishop Henry Orombi) lead the Bible Study.  Our theme, this year, was “Who will roll the stone away for us?” (Mark 16: v 3-8).  The study focused on the women who went to Jesus’ tomb and who had supported him throughout his ministry.   It was an inspired teaching.   The Reverend Canon Hellen Oneka followed with an exposition on the Bible Study that led each morning to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  There was healing, deliverance, release from burdens and so much love.

Each year we give the women blank note cards that include a small piece of fabric.  We encourage them to write a note of thanks to the donors, if they are able, and/or embroider a small design on the fabric.   When these are completed they are placed in bins at the front of the stage.  By Thursday morning the bins are overflowing with love and gestures of grateful hearts.   

We listened to many testimonies from the women concerning the impact of Threads of Blessing on their lives and those of their families.   Very often, God provided funds exactly at the right time and in exactly the exact amount, i.e., when a child was being sent home from school for non-payment of school fees; or having the necessary funds to bury a parent.   There was joy and encouragement in the auditorium both from those telling their stories and from those hearing them.

The format for the workshop is standard.  Following Praise and Worship, Bible Study and the sermon, the first day is filled with introductions from the team, distribution of supplies, and discussion about the sales, quality of the work, where improvements can be made, etc.  

The second day includes a segment on Women’s Health and those knowledgeable in this area are invited from the local community to share.  In past years this has included such topics as malaria - its causes, treatment and prevention; diabetes; and HIV-AIDS. This year the presentation was given by a physical therapist who spoke on the anatomy of a woman’s body and how it is affected by all the lifting - jerry cans full of water on their heads; digging in the garden with babies strapped to their backs – and bending over basins of water to do the laundry, etc.  He followed his talk by offering exercises to strengthen their backs and alleviate pain.  It was a highly successful presentation.

Thursday included presentations by each of the groups – some came with songs, others performed traditional tribal dances or skits – a joyful afternoon that went into the evening hours. Certificates of Attendance for each woman were presented, and the envelopes for those who had sales were given to the group leaders for distribution.  The envelopes include photographs of the embroidery sold and the funds in Uganda currency.  

This year we returned over $35,000 in sales to approximately 350 women.

Early Friday morning, after we had bidden farewell to the women traveling in their various forms of transportation, we packed 750 of their embroideries into 6 duffle bags. We had viewed over 3,000!   This has become an enormous and impossible task for the team, so we have made modifications.  Some women were sending 16-20 pieces – they are all now limited to 4 pieces each year with the encouragement to make these fine works of art. They accepted this well and we are optimistic about next year’s offerings.

We left Goli and traveled to Hoima stopping by Esther’s home. Esther is a longtime friend and one of the matriarchs of Threads of Blessing.

Near Hoima we visited Bishop Nathan and Mama Peace Kyamanywa, the retiring bishop of Bunyoro-Kitara diocese.  They have built a beautiful home for their retirement on approximately 50 acres that they have purchased in bits and pieces over the past 10 years.  Bishop Nathan was proud to take us on a tour of “the farm” and the forest of pine trees that he and his family planted ten years ago as seedlings.  As he will receive no Church income for the rest of his life, his resourceful thoughtfulness with goats, pigs, cows, chickens, crops and the forest are impressive.  He expects they will be completely self-sustaining.

On Saturday, Bishop David Reed, Marthe Curry and Kaitlin Reed-Rogers arrived and we enjoyed happy hours together.  In the afternoon we visited Canon Njangali Girls Secondary School with Head Mistress, Beatrice Baguma.  Grace, Beatrice’s daughter, presented a bouquet of flowers to Bishop Reed. Following the tour, and over a glass of passion fruit juice and chapatti, we were shown examples of examination papers at both O and A Levels (10th and 12th grade).  Not sure that any of us would have passed.

Sunday dawned clear and cool, which was a blessing for the consecration of Canon Samuel Kahuma as the new Bishop of Bunyoro-Kitara. It’s difficult to guess how many people were present for the seven-hour consecration, but the estimate was for 10,000 attendees.  Tents were set up around the perimeter of a field opposite the cathedral.

A white carpet ran down the middle adorned with flowerpots along the way for the procession of bishops, including our Bishop David Reed, and other dignitaries.  Because of the heavy rain the previous night, the ground was soggy and muddy, making walking to our seats a careful exercise.  Thankfully, we were amongst the “VIPs” and were ushered to seats under the tents that had kept the ground reasonably dry. 

From our vantage point it was difficult to get many pictures, but we managed to get one of our Bishop in procession, and cheered when he was introduced as the only bishop from the United States.  Our seats were close to the brass band and the choir – both were impressive.  The service was followed by speeches from various dignitaries from the government, the Bunyoro Kingdom, and the local community.  Bishop Nathan was presented with a new car from the diocese, and Bishop Sam received one from the President of Uganda.

At the close of the service we were ushered to a building near the Cathedral for lunch, and where we were reunited with so many of our friends from all parts of the country and overseas.  Returning to our hotel we enjoyed the evening with our Threads of Blessing team and Bishop Reed, Kaitlin and Marthe.

Monday morning we began the drive back to Kampala and on to Entebbe for our flight to Brussels.  This year we chose to spend two nights in Brussels, with a day in Bruges – a charming city with canals and cobblestoned streets and Christmas everywhere.  It was magical – and a relaxing end to this year’s Threads of Blessing visit to Uganda.

Each year we take Threads of Blessing to Uganda trusting that what we are doing is pleasing to God and that the women will be blessed and will be drawn closer to Him and His Kingdom.  However, it is we who find ourselves receiving the greater blessing from these humble gracious women as they share their testimonies and God showers his grace and love on all of us.  To Him Be the Glory!

Left to Right:
John Kittle, Beryl Wright, Denis Ndyabawe (hidden – owner of our transportation company, Navigator’s missionary in Rwanda and a close friend), Helen Schnelzer, Cherie Kittle, Garry Schnelzer, Connie Bye, Bishop David Reed, Marthe Curry, Kaitlin Reed-Rogers, Fred Kabuye (our driver)