Uganda & The Circle Of Peace

When I was twenty-nine, in December of 2015, I journeyed to Uganda. I use the word “journey” because that is what it felt like: I did not know anyone there, I had never been to Africa, I had a vague idea of with whom and where I would be staying, but that was about it.

     The only other vision I have ever had – aside from the vision of the light and the layers in the sky in Austin, TX when I was twenty – occurred on this journey, and, I believe it changed me, dramatically.

     I was working two jobs at the time. I was a night manager at The Roslyn Retreat Center (where I lived) and an On-Site Events Manager at The University of Richmond. Both jobs closed down in the winter for about three weeks. I usually would take a road trip during these weeks (see “THE ANIMAL JOURNAL – Album Notes” for more on this), but, that particular year, I had saved enough money, and I wanted to have a real adventure. I had noticed that the lady who worked the desk at Roslyn on weekends during the daytime (Joanita Senoga) was originally from Africa. I would see her briefly when I would come in at 5pm to relieve her. We became friendly, and then I started to feel a real connection with her. She told me of her family back in Uganda, and how her mother and brothers and sisters had started a school on their doorstep, primarily for HIV/AIDS orphans who could not afford schooling. Joanita was sending money back there and had started a non-profit organization called Circle of Peace International (COPI) to support the Circle of Peace School (COPS).

     I felt something I can only describe as a light becoming unblocked inside me. I shyly asked her if I would be able to go visit the school and her family and volunteer whatever skills I had developed over my years of employment (music, construction, writing/translating/reporting, etc). Joanita became excited at the idea – and that is how I found myself en route to Uganda.

     I was not using a cell phone at the time, and the Bbaales (Joanita’s family) did not have phones (only one local landline phone for the school) or internet, etc. It was going to be a true journey just getting there.

     I had a very long layover in Istanbul. Finally, as we loaded onto the plain for Entebbe (where the only international airport in Uganda is located), a Turkish Airlines attendant tried to tell me that the plane would also have passengers for Rwanda on it, and, due to the increase in carry-on luggage, all passengers could only bring one carry-on item on-board. I say they “tried” to tell me because the man explaining this to me was doing so outside, in pouring rain, through broken English, just as I was climbing up onto the plane. He did not mention Rwanda. All I gleaned, as I was hustled onto the plane, was that one of my items would have to go in the hold: my guitar or my duffle bag. I didn’t want my guitar (the Sigma – the same one my brother had given me when I was thirteen… more on its destiny later in this entry) to get damaged, so I handed over my duffle, which had all of my money, my wallet, clothes, and pretty much everything I needed. I had my passport in my pocket, and I watched them load my duffle into the hold, so... I felt okay about letting it go.

     I boarded the plane.

     It was a long, long journey from Istanbul to Entebbe. It seemed we were flying in endless night. Africa lay below, beneath the blanket of night. No lights down there, for hours and hours. As I had been up for about two days at that point, I passed out hard.

     I woke up as we were beginning to land in Entebbe. After we'd landed, I got my guitar down and went to exit the plane. Ugandan soldiers with AK-47s and berets were standing there, waiting for us. It was still the middle of the night (whatever time zone we had flown into) and it was again raining.

     We moved toward the back of the airport. The soldiers followed us with frighteningly cold-eyed stares. The intimidation factor was massive.

     Inside the airport, we lined up to pay our visas and show our passports. Joanita had told me I would need at least $50 if not $100 for the entrance visa – but, my cash was in my duffle bag, and I hadn’t expected the baggage claim to be located beyond the visa checkpoint. But I wasn’t worried, I had my passport in my pocket, I would just explain everything. I had watched them load my duffle into the hold, so I knew I would get it, eventually.

     I got to the man whom everyone was paying. He asked me for my passport and payment. I gave him my passport and began to explain my situation. He stared at me. Then he put my passport aside, called over a guard (in the tribal language - Luganda), and told the guard to escort me to the baggage claim and wait with me for my bag. The guard took hold of my arm and muscled me over, past the visa checkpoint, and stood guarding me with his AK while we waited for my bag.

     It didn’t come. My heart sank. It was like a nightmare.

     I asked where the rest of the bags were. The guard didn’t speak English. He held the AK on me.

     I called over to the visa checkpoint clerk. I said there was some mistake. He told the guard to bring me over. The guard took hold of me again and muscled me back to the checkpoint. I explained myself. I didn’t know what had happened. Then, my heart sank even lower as I watched him slide my passport into his pocket, get up, and walk away – down a hallway that had a huge sign, underneath which the English translated words read DO NOT ENTER. I figured that in Uganda – a military government – this meant I could be shot if I went down there after him. I simply watched him disappear.

     The guard took hold of me again and walked me over to an area of the airport (which was empty now, except for soldiers) and told a pack of soldiers to watch me (I assume). They nodded and brought their AKs up on their straps and gave me the “not fucking around” cold-eyed death stare. The other guard left me there with them. I sat down on the floor. I realized that this very well might be the end of my life. I had no money, no phone, no means of contact with anyone, I knew no one, the soldiers didn’t speak English, and the only guy that did had walked off with my passport… all I had was my guitar and the clothes on my back.

     This was when I had my vision. And I swear this is true. My life flashed before my eyes. All of it. Like a film reel – very fast, but definitely all of it. It was like a review. I felt a deciding point had been reached, in my soul: like I could decide at this moment whether to continue living or not. I knew, without doubt, that I wanted to live. But I also experienced this clarity of understanding – that I hadn’t been uncovering the light in my life as I could have. And I wanted to. I wanted to live and radiate that light, if I could, if I could be given that chance. So, I did something that I have rarely – though occasionally – done… I wholeheartedly, from the depths of my soul, prayed. I asked to be saved from this situation. I knew there was a potential, a destiny I hadn’t lived up to yet… and I had so much more love to give to my friends, family, and the world…

     And then, the soldiers walked away. I am not kidding. The sun was starting to come out. We had landed at around 4 or 5am Ugandan time, and now dawn was breaking. I watched them walking away from me, and they walked outside and started smoking. I sat there, alone, on the floor of the Entebbe airport, with no one guarding me.

     At this moment, I felt what I can only describe as a spark of confidence and creative power within me. I felt possessed by something. I got up and walked straight for that DO NOT ENTER hallway. I knew, mentally, I could be arrested or shot. But I inexplicably had lost any actual fear. I would find that guy and make him give me my passport back.  

     The first office I came to was on my left. I walked right in – and it was a woman sitting there at the desk. She saw me and stood up, immediately, in shock and outrage: “Sir! What are you doing in here?”

     I told her what had happened. I told her I was desperate. She watched me and listened, and then she said: “I need to know what you are doing in my country.”

     I held up my guitar case. I said, “I’m a musician. See this guitar? I’m taking it to a school in Kampala to play and teach music, to play for children.”

     She took out a blank sheet of paper and hand-wrote a note on it. She said, “Come with me.”

     I followed her. She led me through the airport to the exit and showed the paper to the soldier guarding the exit. Then, she explained to me, “This is a temporary release form. It will let you out of the airport on my authority. But, once you are outside the airport, it is useless. So, if you get caught by the government or asked by police for ID, and you don’t have any, you could be arrested.”

     “Okay,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you.” I couldn’t believe it.

     She told me then that she had been working the all-night shift, and was just about to leave when I walked into her office. She said I was very lucky. I came to understand, through Farook explaining it to me, that, because women were considered second-class citizens in Uganda, it was extremely rare for a woman to be holding a position such as hers in the only international airport in the country. Because of the cultural dynamics, she was able to bend the rules to allow me to leave, and the guards let her – because she was a woman, and they looked upon her showing me sympathy as “natural” for a woman to do so. If it had been a man in that office, I would have certainly been arrested and thrown in immigration jail (where I was probably going anyway… the soldiers guarding me most likely figured I had some rich friends in Uganda who would show up and buy me out… so they were just waiting for that to happen). The fact that this woman was just about to end her shift just adds to the mindblowingness of the scenario. If I had walked into that office twenty minutes later, it would have been a man sitting there.

     The guard glanced at the handwritten sheet of paper for a second and then just stepped aside. And I walked out into the morning sunlight.

     There was a crowd of Africans milling around outside the airport exit. Farook stepped out of the crowd and said, “Connor?”

     “Farook?” I said (Joanita had told me he spoke the best English, was near my age, and would be my primary contact to meet me outside the airport).

     “We (he and his uncle Abraham) have been waiting for hours,” he said.

     I told him what had happened. I was a shell of a human. I didn’t know what was what. Would I have to live secretly in Uganda for the rest of my life? I couldn’t think straight.

     Farook rubbed his chin like a wise man and uttered the first of what I would come so dearly to know are his inimitable utterances of sagacity: “That is crazy, man,” he said. “You must sleep.”

     Sometimes, you lay eyes on people in life, and it’s almost like you’re remembering them from somewhere, rather than meeting them for the first time… like they are meant to come into your life, and you theirs. It was like that when I first saw my wife, Lucie. And it was like that at this first meeting with Farook, outside the Entebbe airport. I just knew things would be okay, somehow, because he and I had finally made contact in this life.

     Uncle Abraham drove us in the COPS van back to Kampala, and I met MaryLove (Joanita’s eldest sister and headmistress of the school), Uncle Charles (Joanita’s eldest brother), and various children, students, teachers, and family members who all lived on the school grounds. They showed me to my room. And I fell into a deep, deep sleep… but not before thanking, with my whole heart, the Spirit that had heard my prayer and saved me.

     I awoke to knocking at the door. It was MaryLove. The airport had called. They had received my luggage, and I had written the phone number of the school under my name on the luggage tag (per Joanita’s suggestion). This is what happened…

     While I had been asleep on the flight from Istanbul to Entebbe, the plane had landed on an airstrip in Rwanda to let out the extra passengers. The attendants had unloaded a fair amount of the wrong luggage from the hold onto the airstrip… including my duffle. When I got to Entebbe, my duffle was sitting unclaimed on an airstrip in Rwanda.  

     Incredibly, there was a wealthy and somewhat powerful group of Ugandans on that flight, who were returning to Uganda following a wedding somewhere in Europe. Several pieces of their luggage had been mistakenly unloaded, as well. They had made a fuss about it to Turkish Airlines, and the airline had told the next plane from Istanbul to Entebbe to stop in Rwanda, pick up the unclaimed bags, and take them to Entebbe. They read my luggage tag and called the school… all while I had been sleeping.

     Ultimately, Uncle Abraham drove Farook and me back to the airport. I was able to enter without ID by showing the handwritten release-paper again (which I was scared wouldn’t work, but thankfully did) to a soldier at the entrance. He took hold of me and muscled me over to the luggage. I got my duffle and opened it – wondering if my wallet and all of my cash would still be in there… it was all there. All of it. Everything – untouched.

     I went to the visa checkpoint clerk (a different guy now) and showed him my driver’s license and cash, and asked him to help me find my passport. He escorted me to a security office and said, “It may be gone forever, but there’s a chance it could be in here.” He opened a desk drawer, and I looked down on at least twenty passports in there, from all sorts of countries…

     Again, with a heavy heart, I looked through them, figuring mine had been stolen or sold. But then – I found an American one… and then… it was mine. I showed it to him. He told me it would be $100 for the visa, $100 to buy it back. I paid him the $200 from my cash. Then, he let me go.

     I came out of the airport, back to Farook and Abraham, with my duffle containing all of my belongings and my passport.

     From that moment on, my time in Uganda with the Circle of Peace was like a rebirth. Not since childhood have I felt so completely true and in alignment with who and what I really am. It was one of the greatest times of my life. And they – everyone at COPS, all of the Bbaales, all of the students and kids, the teachers – are the most beautiful people in the world to me. The spiritual light radiating from that place is miraculous. I loved being there.

     I wrote up construction and agriculture reports for COPI, figuring costs and materials needed. I began to teach Farook guitar – so that he could become the COPS music teacher, and I was so moved by his sincerity and devotion and love for the instrument and for music, in general, I decided to just give him Sigma – as my brother had given it to me, when it was my time to learn. It is still – at the time of this writing – his guitar and the guitar for the school. Sigma has led a storied and blessed life, indeed.

     I could write a book on my time in Kampala, but, for purposes of this entry, I will say that it was very much a divine and holy crossing-point in my life… one where I glimpsed a higher world, right here, right now, within and beneath the surface of everyday life. Farook is one of my brothers in this life. And the Bbaales will always feel like family. The Ugandans that I met outside of the COPS family were a beautiful people – physically and spiritually and psychologically and mentally. They were like any other people, but with a certain clarity, directness, sincerity, soulfulness, and incredible humor.

     When I go through hard periods of my life, I often think of Uganda – specifically, of COPS and the magical humans there, and of my time there, and what I learned, so deeply in my soul, about what it means to live. And I am comforted.

 

Connor Charlton

 

May, 2020