Local trio share stories of mission trip to Uganda

While Julie Hartman was in Uganda, she kept a photo of her grandmother tucked in her Bible. The photo of the matriarch, dressed in her Sunday best purple dress, gave her comfort while she toiled in the foreign country.

When she left the United States in January, she and the two other local women who went with her didn’t know what to expect. They were leaving the comfort of home as part of a mission trip through ChildVoice, a non-profit that works to restore the war-torn East African country. Hartman had been on other mission trips, but never to Africa. She and her fellow missionaries, including co-workers Nina Cox, an OB nurse at Marshalltown Medical & Surgical Center and fellow paramedic Jody Shea, spent the next 26 hours on the plane. The trip took the trio half a world away to a country torn asunder by warlord Joseph Kony and his band of rebels.

But it wasn’t just the distance that separated the two countries. When they arrived in Kampala, the country’s capital, the divide hit home for Hartman. A man drove by on a motorcycle, shooting an assault rifle into the air.

“Oh. That is something you don’t see every day,” the group’s videographer told her.

Traffic signals were little more than suggestions, and while the chaos made sense to the inhabitants, it seemed like little more than bedlam to outsiders. The group of 14 missionaries, 13 of which were from Iowa, stayed the night in the capital before heading to Gulu, the group’s home for the next 10 days. In the morning, Hartman could smell people burning their trash.

Gulu however, was entirely different. It was lush and crisp. People line-dried their laundry.

ChildVoice, which was founded by former Marshalltown natives Neil and Conrad Mandsager, was in the process of building a new a new campus after the Ugandan government reassumed control of the school out of which ChildVoice had been operating. There, ChildVoice taught Ugandan girls marketable skills such as hair styling to help them be self-sufficient in a country that often marginalizes them based on their gender. The girls in the program were all between 13 and 16.

Cox said the missionaries were well-received.

“They were so welcoming and generous and open to us,” she said. “I felt very much appreciated and wanted over there.”

Despite the girls’ age, many of them seemed very mature. The local trio opted to bring a cordless digital printer with them. Harman said she was amazed when she realized that none of the girls had ever seen a photograph of themselves. The girls’ modesty showed when they hid their teeth while smiling, and their girlish laughs belied their otherwise adult demeanors.

In the four days the missionaries had to spend with the girls, what astonished Hartman more than anything, however, was the humble, forgiving culture.

“They would love Joseph Kony to come back and live with them,” she said. “They would rather have peace with forgiveness than peace with retribution.”

Kony has been on the run, hiding somewhere in the Congo, according to U.S. intelligence. He is wanted for war crimes, and the U.N. has issued a warrant for his immediate arrest.

Cox also said she noticed how resilient the girls, including one of Kony’s favorite wives and two of his children, were.

“Among all that pain and that hurt, there is still joy in those women,” she said.

While talking to the group’s guide, Deo, Hartman began showing him pictures of her mission trip to Haiti.

“They look like us,” he told her, clearly befuddled.

It got Julie thinking about how cultures transcend borders. During their conversation, Deo noticed the list that sat in Hartman’s Bible, next to the photo of her 91-year-old grandmother. He asked what it was. She told him that, despite Ugandans perception that all Americans are rich, the list of more than 100 names were the names of the people that gave her money to help bring her to Uganda. Without them, she wouldn’t be talking to him. She owed them everything. She kept the list as a reminder.

Hartman dug out a camera and stood with the photo of her grandmother. The photographer snapped a photo of her holding the photo. She mailed it home to America. The note attached read “look who I bought with me to Uganda.”