August was the best month we’ve experienced in Gulu, Uganda! We were blessed to have our family here from late July through the first two weeks of this month. The West family has settled into their house and the work at Abaana’s Hope. The Barbrey family arrived and both Chase and Kimmey have already made an impact on our mission here. If that were not enough, friends from Alabama made up the visiting August Mission Team. Three couples on this team are from our small group at The Church at Brook Hills—Marty and Joan Elder, Ben and Carole Smith and Chuck and Pat Wallis. We also had Natalie Kelly, Thor Burk and Sarah Skipper, the wife of Four Corners Ministries President, Tripp Skipper. Their 6-year old daughter, Anna, came with her Mom and our youngest grandson, Levi, and Anna hit it off. Tripp saw several pictures of them together and told Jim the bride price for Anna was a lifetime supply of Steel City Pops.
No trip to Uganda is complete unless you’ve had the opportunity to catch, kill and eat your own chicken. We could not deny this opportunity to our grandsons so here is living proof of their success at catching their dinner. Double-click link below for live action.
We had delayed installing our playground equipment for the men on this team. None of these guys shy away from hard work and with the help of an auger Jim brought over, some Acholi men mixing concrete, Ben, Chuck, Marty, Chase, Myron, Ryan, Jim, Fisher, Jude, Tripp and occasionally, Levi, when he was not playing with Anna, had a playground up and ready for children as soon as the concrete cured after four day’s work. They even planted seven umbrella trees at strategic places on the playground and planted thirty-six eucalyptus trees around the perimeter. I had anticipated this team getting about half of the playground completed and the next team finishing it. They were amazing at finishing this job in such a short time. I also want to thank both the small groups at The Church at Brook Hills who contributed to the purchase of the playground equipment. I have included some pictures that you may enjoy.
While the men were working on the playground, the ladies taught some of the community ladies to knit, worked with our jewelry-making ladies and led a back yard Bible school with about 150 kids from the community. Bible stories were told and games were played and children noticed the playground with anticipation.
The last few days we had with our family in Uganda was spent on a vacation together. We started our vacation with the Alabama Team bus going to Murchison Falls National Park. Everyone but Sandra and I (we’ve been on game drives here before and space was limited) went on an afternoon safari. They saw the usual elephants, giraffes, warthogs, hippos, baboons, hartebeests, impalas, waterbuck, monkeys, Ugandan kobs, African buffalo, gazelles, a wide variety of birds and the rare lions. We usually do not see lions so this was a special treat. From there, the Alabama Team (along with Myron) took the bus on down to Entebbe to catch their flight home while our family rode down to Queen Elizabeth National Park in two Premier Safari Land Cruisers. At Queen Elizabeth National Park, we stayed in the Queen’s Cottage (she stayed here in 1959 when she dedicated this National Park) and to say it was fit for a queen is an understatement. This was, by far, the nicest accommodations we’ve ever stayed in. We went on a game drive there and were also blessed to see a very large male lion. Our guide said when they have a dark mane; it indicates they are older and larger.
The next morning, we traveled on down to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is most famous for Mountain Gorilla trekking. Mountain Gorillas are an endangered species with only about 786 in the world. The minimum age for trekking gorillas is 16, so only Jim, Amy, Fisher and I could do this while Sandra took Jude, Tripp and Levi on a “River Walk” with a guide. We had a guide (pictured below) and other Ugandans who carried our backpacks of food and water. In fact, it was a lady that carried mine and I was thinking, “I’m stronger than she is. I can carry it myself.” WRONG! These guys do this several times a week and I can say with confidence that I would never have made it carrying my backpack. The guides are in constant radio contact with the trackers on the mountain who relay the exact location of the gorillas. Of course, they move. The previous day, they were on the side of the mountain that we climbed but they had moved to the top. I’m thinking, “Why couldn’t they make it a little easier on us and stay put on this side.” But no, the morning we go tracking, they had moved to the top.
Now, Fisher competes in triathlons and Amy walks and runs regularly. Neither has an ounce of fat on them. With Jim and me, it’s a different story. I’m worn slap out about one-third up this steep mountain. Of course, we stopped and rested periodically; but had I been in charge, we would have stopped much more often. As we near the top of the mountain, the guide gets a call from the trackers that the gorillas have moved down the other side and in the valley between two mountains. So now, when I’ve been thinking for the last hour, “Royce, you can do this! You will make it to the top of this mountain in spite of your burning thighs.” Now, with clothes totally soaked in sweat, near exhaustion, we learn that we must go down the other side of this mountain to find the gorillas. Going up a mountain puts stress on your thighs; going down a steep incline puts pressure on your knees. I have one total knee replacement on my right leg and have had anterior cruciate ligament surgery and three meniscus tears repaired on the “good” left knee. Do I need to just call it off and tell the guide to pick me up on the way back? That entered my mind but only for a second and I pushed that thought away. I see Jim is having a tough time, too, and I’m going to stick with him, Amy and Fisher to the finish. It is a good thing to push yourself beyond what you think you can do—if you survive; otherwise, it is probably a bad thing.
At the bottom of the mountain we meet up with the trackers. They tell us to put down our hiking sticks, water, food, backpacks, etc. and just bring our cameras. The trackers and backpack carriers stay with our stuff (like someone may happen to walk by and steal it) while we follow our guide into thick grass and brush. Finally, we come upon a huge silverback gorilla about 20 feet away. He is just sitting there eating on a green tubular plant of some kind. He is the one in charge of this family of gorillas. There are five Mountain Gorilla families that are trekked and the one we tracked is the oldest family on these mountains. In fact, this silverback was born here with people coming by him almost daily from the day he was born so he paid little attention to us. He took over when his father died. As his father became old and weak, other silverbacks would come and take some of his family members. When the son took over after his father died, there were only three family members remaining. He went after these former family members and got others because he is young and strong. Some Mountain Gorilla families have as many as 30-40 members. The silverbacks can reach a height of 6 ft. and weight of 350-500 lbs. Their life span is between 40-50 years and they cannot live in captivity. That is why you never see Mountain Gorillas in zoos.
Sandra planned this entire vacation for us and I was glad she was able to get us set up with the oldest gorilla family to trek. I’m not sure how excited we would have been to hear our guide tell us, “Now folks, this is the youngest family of gorillas on these mountains and you are privileged to be the first white people they’ve ever seen.”
We were amazed to be so close to this Mountain Gorilla family and though they would gaze at us occasionally, they mostly just went about their business of eating plants, leafs, roots and wood. It did surprise me to see them pulling dead pieces of wood off trees and eating it. I’m not sure if there were termites in this wood or what. There is an order to their eating. The silverback eats first, then the oldest female, the next oldest female and finally to the youngest. We saw this when the silverback went to the tree with the dead portion and ate it. When he left, a large female came there and ate from the same tree. One little guy kept watching and waiting on her to finish so he could have his turn but he finally got impatient and walked right by us (within 5-6 feet) to go for some other goodies in the forest.
We stayed and watched and took pictures for about 30 minutes. Then we turned back to pick up our hiking sticks, grab a drink of water and go back to where we began. We stopped after about 45 minutes and ate lunch. I think everyone was happy to sit down for a while. They actually had an easier trail to get back that I wondered why we didn’t take that up in the first place, but I suppose you must go directly toward the place the trackers have located the gorilla family.
Dian Fossey actually was against the idea of visiting Mountain Gorillas; however, it’s the money collected that provides for the survival of this endangered species, and their numbers have increased over recent years. According to the travel guides advertising Mountain Gorilla trekking, “it can take anywhere from 1 hour to 8 hours and can be quite strenuous, so a reasonable level of fitness is required.” Jim and I should have paid a little more attention to that statement. You better be in great shape if you want to enjoy this to the fullest; and when you see your first Mountain Gorilla close up and personal, it will be worth the effort.
It takes over two years for the Ugandan Wildlife people to get a gorilla family accustomed to people coming up close to them so they can guide groups. We were given a few rules such as do not make eye contact with the silverback. If he looks at you, turn your eyes away from him. To stare at him is threatening and not very smart. We were also told to stay 7 meters back but we got much closer than that with the guide. At one time a young gorilla came within about 5-6 feet of us. This was an amazing experience! I can say without question that when we first saw the silverback just 20 feet away, it was worth the difficult hike. All things considered, this was one of the greatest family vacations we’ve ever had. We ministered together, we worked together, we played and prayed together and we saw some of God’s most beautiful creations of land, plants, birds and animals.
A tired, but happy group of Mountain Gorilla trekkers. An experience of a lifetime!
When we left on vacation with Jim, Amy and the boys, Chase and Kimmey Barbrey, along with Taylor Henderson, an intern who stayed an additional month, moved into our house. It has been such a blessing to have them with us these last few weeks. Both Kimmey and Taylor have been helping Sandra with the jewelry making and knitting ladies ministries and they organized and categorized all the eyeglasses for our next Medical Team visit. Of course, we knew Chase and Kimmey before they came to Gulu, but we realize even more what an asset they are to this ministry and how much God blessed us with their coming to be a part of our Ugandan Team. Taylor is from California and she left us on the last day of August. She is such a wonderful young lady and we already miss her. While Sandra worked on Quick Books some evenings, we played games such as spades and Yamslam. I will have to say Chase and I have dominated Kimmey and Taylor at spades.
We have really started seeing growth in our Sunday afternoon worship services. Last Sunday afternoon, there were near 400 people, including children. We have a wonderful Acholi lady named Jennifer who leads the children in their Bible stories and they meet outside. We have no covered place to hold all the adults if rain comes so we are talking with our Board about a Chapel building being a priority in early 2014. Roy and Sabrina Durham started this Sunday afternoon worship service/small group/Bible study over a year ago with a handful of people, and God has blessed it in many ways as only He can. The community people attending have started giving toward a building and have said they want to volunteer their time to help us build it. All glory to God!
There have been many adults that have become Christ-followers through this Sunday afternoon service, the jewelry-making ladies ministry and the knitting ladies ministry. Myron West, one of our team members who has a passion for disciple-making, along with Santo, began a basic Discipleship Class for these new Christians on Saturday afternoons at 2:00. Yesterday, there were 22 men and women attending. This is what we are here for! “From the beginning of Christianity, the natural overflow of being a disciple of Jesus has always been to make disciples of Jesus. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:19). This was a promise: Jesus would take His disciples and turn them into disciple makers. And this was a command: He called each of us His disciples to go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey Him (Matthew 28: 19-20). From the start, God’s design has been for every single disciple of Jesus to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples until the gospel spreads to all people.” (Foreword by David Platt in the book, “Multiply” by Francis Chan with Mark Beuving)
It is so easy here to get caught up in constructing buildings, growing crops, maintaining vehicles, communicating with donors, bookkeeping, addressing personnel issues, looking for ways to provide increased income, dealing with Ugandan governmental issues and hosting mission teams and interns. These are good things and necessary things. But as a team of full-time missionaries, we cannot allow ourselves to do all these good and necessary things to a point of neglecting our time in the Word and losing sight of what we are here for. I am so grateful for people like Roy and Sabrina, Santo and Myron who have been and are making disciples of all nations—at Abaana’s Hope.
Thank you so much for your prayers and support of this ministry. We truly could not do what we do without you.
All glory to Him,
Royce & Sandra