Uganda: participation in JRS, the story of Eunice
USA: the meaning of participation in JRS
Connect with us
Uganda: participation in JRS, the story of Eunice
Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Any human face is a claim on you, because you can't help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of a child. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any. (Peter Balleis/JRS)
Rome, 14 August 2013 – It was a hot West Nile day at the Jesuit Refugee Service Rhino camp. Lots of dust! I was discussing some business with my logistics man, Atibuni, when two women, Regina and Lilian, from a nearby refugee village of Tika, came through our gate looking for me.

Good women, I knew them, wearing tattered clothes and prematurely aged faces. They were elders in the community and the unofficial midwives of the village. Both were widows, both had husbands killed in the Sudanese civil war, both had outlived their children. We greeted each other and they shared their problem with me.

One of the young women in the village, Mary, was in labour prematurely. There was not sufficient time for them to escort her by bike or on foot to the nearby clinic. Would I drive them to the local health clinic?

Yes, of course. We piled into my pickup and drove to their village, about a kilometre away. There we fetched Mary, a beautiful young woman and an orphan, someone I knew well. She was looking very ragged, a face full of anxiety and the pain of rapidly increasing contractions. I sat the three of them in the back seat and proceeded to the nearby clinic.

It was closed.

The next clinic was several kilometres away but I headed for it knowing that the bumpy bush road would only aggravate Mary's struggles. I had no choice and figured I use a couple of short cuts, cutting down the driving time.

Halfway to this second clinic one of the midwives tapped my shoulder and said calmly, "Father, she is not going to make it. We have to arrange for her to have the baby here".

"Here?" I said to myself, "in the middle of nowhere, on a hot day, without medical people?" Rhetorical questions.

I pulled over to the side of the road, finding shade under the ubiquitous Neem trees. Some curious children came over and were sent off by the midwives to collect water and cloth. I put a tarp down in the bed of the pickup, placed Mary down, using an old blanket I carried in the pickup as a head rest and the midwives went out about their comforting and knowledgeable ways.

The wisdom and suffering of many years took over. Mary, a first time mother, was amazingly calm and followed their instructions. I leaned over the side of the pickup looking upon the unfolding drama. When the children returned from the nearby village, some with their mothers, I directed them be available to Regina and Lilian.

And so, under the Neem trees, slightly stirring from a warm northern breeze, in the bed of a pickup, the child was born. A girl.

Everyone seemed like they knew what was happening except me, It wasn't that I was naïve; I had seen births before in the United States. But this was different obviously. All I could do, gazing at the people and sinking into the event here in the bush of northern Uganda, was stand in the West Nile breeze and stand in the mystery of it all.

I had talked about birth as a reality and as a metaphor, I had preached about it and talked about it all a kajillion times. But this moment took me to a deeper level of mystery. What was it? This: in the midst of so much death and disease and hardships and uncertainty that lived daily with the Sudanese refugees, a new life, a new start would not be denied.

But it wasn't over, this moment.

The midwives handed the baby to Mary. She held it to her breast, and then, suddenly, turned her head and looked at me, and simultaneously held the child out to me. The midwives took the baby, wrapped in part of an old dress the kids had brought and placed the girl in my hands. So tiny. So wrinkled.

So … alive. I flashed on something that Marylynne Robinson had written in her book Gilead:

Any human face is a claim on you, because you can't help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of a child. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.

Mary whispered, "Father, what is the name of your mother?"

In an instant I was connected to the tradition of a people who name their children after the occasion of the birth, and connected forever to a little girl and her mother, the midwives and the growing number of people surrounding my car.

"Eunice", I responded.

Mary: "She shall be called Eunice".

So there it was: The truth of the event. It fell upon me like a falcon: the union of humanity, the mystery of God bringing forth life, the simplicity and transparency of this young mother's gift to me, and permeating it all, the rush of my love for these refugees who had taken me into such a profound and intimate moment of their lives. Eunice. Had my mother been alive she would have cackled in joy at the occasion. Maybe she did.

Gary Smith SJ, former Jesuit Refugee Service staff member in Eastern Africa and Southern Africa