December 18, 2007
Biseny Akena harvested her sweet potatoes this morning, the first time she has done so in 20 years. I photographed her here in northern Uganda just after sunrise as she dug them out of the ground, her harvest marking the beginning of an end to one of Africa’s longest wars, and an end to Akena’s long wait for peace.
Akena fled her village of Amuca in 1987 because of attacks by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. She and her family sought safety in Sudan, but her husband was killed there the following year when they were caught in combat between government and rebel forces in the southern part of the country. When the security situation for refugees there deteriorated even further, Akena returned to Uganda in 1993, joining almost two million others in one of the crowded camps for the internally displaced. Since then she’s been waiting. It hasn’t been easy. One of her four children died of malaria. Another was abducted by the LRA, which regularly kidnaped children, turning the boys into soldiers and the girls into sex slaves. Akena kept waiting, longing for the village where she grew up. When peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government began slowly last year, her hope of returning home quickened.
In April, with a few other families from her village, she returned to where Amuca once existed. She hacked away at the brush that had taken over her fields. She gathered the branches and grass to make a thatched hut. She planted some crops. This morning, in these last days of Advent, she cried as she harvested her sweet potatoes.
Advent is about waiting, and Biseny Akena knows better than most of us what it means to wait in a world full of violence and suffering–just like the context into which Jesus was born. And her story reminds us that such waiting isn’t always in vain, that peace can come to the world, that the poor can plant their fields and eat the harvest. You have accompanied Akena in her time of waiting. Action by Churches Together (ACT) has worked for years among the displaced in northern Uganda, and when Akena went home to Amuca this year, the Lutheran World Federation–one of two implementing ACT members in Uganda–drilled a well and provided other critical support for her community. United Methodist support for ACT has fed Akena’s hope and accompanies her today as she begins to enjoy the taste of peace.
I’ve come to Uganda for a couple of weeks to report on the humanitarian situation for ACT, and to write for Response magazine about a UMW-supported women’s organization here that helps freed girls recover their dignity, and advocates for genuine peace as the country wrestles with difficult issues of forgiveness and reconciliation. Because of your support for me as a missionary, I’ve witnessed Akena and her neighbors celebrate the end to two decades of waiting. Thanks for that privilege. Earlier this fall, I spent two months speaking in churches around the country, sharing some of my adventures over the last three years. I enjoyed that time. The conversation with your congregations helped to focus the questions I continue to probe as a journalist, and I came away with a renewed appreciation for the many forms of critical mission in which you’re involved in your own communities.
My website (www.kairosphotos.com/pauljeffrey) has an online version of the “slide show” that I used during itineration, as well as one version of the sermon that I shared in several of your churches.
In November, I traveled to Sri Lanka to prepare material about ACT’s work over the three years since the 2004 tsunami. You can see a short online slide show about that work on my website.
God willing, I’ll be home in Eugene before Christmas in order to celebrate with my family the coming of the one we name the Prince of Peace. I’ll remember Biseny Akena and her sweet potatoes, and pray for peace in Uganda and in so many other lands where people wait.