Marian, 77, spent 15 years working as a missionary at a children’s centre with New Hope Uganda. She now lives at Pilgrim Gardens, our housing scheme in Leicester
Friday night at Marian’s house was always a busy time. A group of older girls would arrive early to prepare a batch of cookies ready for the Cookies and Juice Night she’d set up for children from the Kasana Children’s Centre, located just outside the village of Kasana, north-west of Kampala, in the Luweero Triangle. ‘No-bake’ cookies went down well, made by boiling butter and sugar together, then adding peanut butter, cocoa and oats. The mixture was dropped in heaps onto a cookie sheet and left to harden, often with the help of a refrigerator. It was a delicate art, if the butter/ sugar mix was not boiled for the correct length of time, the cookies would either remain runny or set rock hard.
As well as enjoying cookies and juice, the children had a chance to play and relax. Eager hands dived for Lego or K’nex. Some children might gather round a board game, others would read. “I wanted to give them a time in the week they could have to themselves,” says Marian. “The children’s lives were generally hard. When they were not at school, they were doing homework, or fetching water, or building an open fire to cook over. Every single hour of their day was accounted for.”
Marian first went to Uganda in January 1998 on a three-month mission trip, after hearing about the centre through the King’s Bible College (now King’s School of Theology), Whitchester House, Duns in Scotland. Originally from Stockton-on-Tees, Marian had applied to study at the Bible college at the age of 50, after her three children (twins Sharon and Peter, and David) had all left home.
“Life was not always easy when the children were growing up, especially after my husband left,” says Marian. “However, I always had the sense that the Lord held me and kept me. Deuteronomy 1:31 is precious to me, it contains these words, ‘the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.’ I felt that over the years He had been carrying me and preparing me for this time in my life. In my heart, I felt drawn to Uganda.”
The Kasana Children’s Centre was set up by New Hope Uganda, led by an American couple Jay and Vicki Dangers, to look after children who were orphaned during the Ugandan Civil War (1980-1986). By the time Marian went, early 1998, the centre had also started caring for children who had lost one or both parents to AIDS or other illnesses.
“Often children came to the centre if they had lost their father to AIDS,” says Marian. “Their mother might be at home and struggling to look after several children, or she might be unwell herself. The people were desperately poor, living from subsistence farming. Education was meant to be free but in reality there were often charges. There was a huge list of children waiting to come to us where they would receive food, a place to live, an education and learn about a Father God who loves them, thanks to the organisation’s sponsorship programme, whose mission statement was, ‘Bringing the Fatherhood of God to the Fatherless.”
Marian vividly remembers her arrival in Uganda and the drive through the countryside to the village. It had just rained heavily and the people were hard at work, brushing water out of their homes and shops, putting everything back to normal.
In some places, the elephant grass towered so high either side of the car that it almost covered it. This initial trip affirmed Marian’s sense that Uganda was a place where she should be, and she returned in October 1998 on a more long-term basis, supported by her church. “I felt the call to go and be a mother to the motherless,” says Marian. “It was a very special time in my life when I felt the assurance that God had put me exactly where I was supposed to be.”
One of Marian’s first jobs was to supervise the building of her own house. Another was to sort out the child-care filing system, which was a little chaotic. She was eventually given the responsibility of heading up the Kasana Children’s Centre sponsorship programme. This included making sure the children wrote regular monthly letters to their sponsors.
“When I started, children were writing letters that went something like, ‘Dear My Sponsor, How are you? I am fine. Your loving son/daughter’," she recalls. “It was understandable – they didn’t have any experience of letters and letter-writing. But some of the sponsors were complaining that they weren’t getting any news. So I came up with some bullet points and wrote them up on the blackboard as a guide:
1) Greet your sponsor by name,
2) Tell them one piece of news from school,
3) Tell them one piece of news from home,
4) Tell them about something you have learnt in church,
Things went better after I introduced that!”
As part of their education, some of the girls learnt vocational skills like tailoring. Marian was a keen cross-stitcher and when they found themselves with a gap in the timetable she ended up teaching the girls how to cross-stitch.
She also started a Bible study group with this group of cross-stitchers and got to know some of the girls very well.
There was one girl in particular, Namatah, who she got to know over a number of years. After finishing at the school, Namatah went to study at teacher training college and led the Christian Union. “She came and told me she had been very blessed by me. The things she’d learnt from Bible study she was able to pass on to others at the college. She then came back and taught in the Kasana Children’s Centre school herself,” says Marian.
As part of her role, Marian also worked at Hope House, also known as ‘the baby house’. Here were very young children who had lost theirmothers. “Those were good months,” says Marian. “The idea was we’d care for them until they were old enough to go back to their biological families.”
Initially, Marian had planned to stay for six years. But six years came and went. She wondered if she might stay for ten years, but when that came and went too she had a sense that she wasn’t done yet. After 15 years, she finally felt it was time to return home.
At her farewell party, some of the children whom she had looked after came to say goodbye. Many of them mentioned how much the Cookies and Juice Night had meant to them. It’s an idea that caught on, and to this day Friday night is Cookies and Juice Night at the homes of missionaries across the Kasana Children’s Centre.
On her return, Marian came to live at Redbourn Missionary Trust, part of Pilgrims’ Friend Society’s housing. When that closed in early 2021, she found a place at Pilgrim Gardens in Leicester. “Moving was tiring but everyone has been very friendly and helpful,” she says.
In more recent months, as lockdown has eased, community life has got going again. The devotional times have started taking place every week and so has the tea and coffee time on Wednesday afternoons.
“It’s another big adjustment for me but I’m getting there,” says Marian. “It’s starting to feel like home.”
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