Bedford girl has Africa in her heart

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By John Barnhart

A mission trip to Africa may be turning into something more that short-term for a Bedford County teen.

Renee Bach was two months past her 18th birthday when she landed at Entebbe Airport, outside Kampala, Uganda, on Sept. 18, 2007. She came as a short-term missionary to work in an orphanage. The experience she got was more than a culture shock.

"I was supposed to be picked up by the orphanage I was going to," she said. "When I arrived, there was no driver."

It gets dark early when you're near the equator, around 7 p.m., and it was little after 9 p.m. when she got her luggage, 250 pounds of it. She was alone.

"Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?" she recalled thinking.

Everything worked out. A driver working with another orphanage spotted her, found out where she was going and took her to her destination, a town called Jinja. It was a three hour ride over gravel and plain dirt roads.

Thus began her time at Amani Baby Cottage.

Amani Baby Cottage cared for 60 children, 6 years old and under. The staff consisted of 30 African ladies plus one or two foreign volunteers. Bach said that there are more volunteers in the summer, but she was volunteering for a term that would take her through winter into spring.

Bach said that the official language of the country is Luganda, but so many speak English that there is a 50/50 chance of encountering an English speaking person. She learned Luganda, although she claims to be far from fluent.

"I can completely converse with a child," she said.

The job consisted of a little of everything cooking, caring for children and playing with them, doing laundry. When she went to town on an errand, she would take a child with her.

"They really enjoyed that," she said.

If she took an infant, or a small child such as a 3-year-old, she carried the child strapped to her back. Ugandan ladies taught her how to do it. Bach said the women at the market got a kick out of seeing her in town with an African baby strapped to her.

Bach said that this was actually quite comfortable after she got used to it. Ugandan women routinely carry infants and small children like that when working or walking.

Doing this was also a good way to comfort a crying small child. Bach said it makes them feel safe. They know they won't be abandoned.

The market was large and "kind of gross" with many small vendors. It was muddy and people just dumped stuff on the ground.

"They have a meat market where you can get pig intestines," Bach commented.

And then there were the crickets and a type of worm.

Bach got herself into an additional job two months later. Another American girl at Amani got the idea of organizing local women who make necklaces. She figured that, if they could be sold in the U. S., the ladies could make three times what they do selling them in the local marketplace. This project, called Suubi, which means "hope" in Swahili, got off the ground when an American couple, in the process of adopting a baby, came to Amani. These folks head a non-profit organization called Light Gives Heat, and were able to make the idea a reality.

Originally expecting to fill in until somebody was found to permanently run the local end of the program, she ended up being that somebody. She had three employees, and 62 ladies making beads. She also ended up overseeing the construction of a building to house the project.

Did she realize what she was getting into when she agreed to handle the project?

"No, not really," Bach said.

Bach was home schooled and she believes that homeschoolers have more opportunities to do volunteer work. This helped her learn more life skills, which in turn helped her handle situations that she encountered in Africa, she said.

The 62 ladies meant 500 children. Bach ended up running a literacy and English program for them, along with a Bible study. And, she still had her Amani duties.

Getting involved with these ladies led her to visit them at home. Most of the women lived in cinderblock houses with unglazed holes for windows. Some lived in mud huts. A high death rate meant that many were caring for a relative's child, which meant a woman could be serving as mom for up to 12 children.

Bach said, in reality, most children had 50 moms. Everybody looks out for children and a woman would be parenting whatever children happened to be in her yard.

She also helped out with ladies in the hospital. Hospitals don't provide food and patients sometimes have to bring their own mattress for their bed. Bach helped with food. She and an American girl from Knoxville ended up feeding 150 people in the maternity and accident wards every week. The Americans purchased the food, prepared it and delivered it.

Bach recalls the time, in December, when quintuplets were born. They were tiny, weighing only two pounds each and the preemie ward was only a heated room with metal crates on the floor where the babies slept. One died after a month, a baby that Bach believes would have survived in the U. S.

"She died while I was holding her," Bach recalled. "That was really hard."

Some women gave birth in the village.

"I delivered seven babies," Bach commented.

Bach and two American girls started a weekly feeding program for children in a village called Mesese, an idea that came to them after giving away shoes there and noting that the children were malnourished. Some hadn't eaten a good meal in two days.

They started with 15 kilograms of beans and 20 gallons of hand-squeezed fruit juice, using whatever fresh fruit was available. They also brought chapitti, a type of Ugandan fried flat bread.

The trio ended up feeding 450 children each Friday, and the 15 kilograms of beans turned into 40. The children would stand in line for lunch, sometimes up to two hours, and she saw children bringing children. It wasn't unusual to see an 8-year-old with an 18-month-old strapped to her back, holding a 3-year-old by the hand.

The young women never knew how many children they would be feeding each week, but everybody got to eat.

"The Lord provided," she said.

Controlling the children wasn't a problem. They quickly learned that fighting in line would get them sent to the end, and they learned that everybody would get to eat. It also helped that the children were accustomed to having adult women, who were not their mothers, telling them what to do.

It was a lot of work, but it wasn't expensive.

"It costs about $80 per week to feed 400 children," Bach said.

People from the U. S. sponsored half the meals.

Radford Baptist Church, Bach's home church, sponsored a well.

"Dirty water there is a big problem, " Bach said. "It they had clean water, not so many people would die."

The church raised $8,000 and work on the well was in progress when Bach returned to Virginia. The project was delayed because of a mechanical malfunction. Replacement parts for the well drilling equipment had to be shipped from the U.S.

Bach doesn't feel like special.

"So many think , 'I'm not qualified,' or, 'I'm too young,'" Bach said. "I was probably the most unqualified to go."

Bach said that she simply answered God's call to go and show Christ's unconditional love.

After returning to the U. S. at the end of spring, Bach knows what she's going to do. She's headed back to Uganda on a full-time basis. She plans to go there in February for a month to acquire a house. Then, she will return to Uganda with plans to run a twice weekly feeding program in Mesesi as well as start a community garden to improve nutrition. She also wants to drill a well for that village.

"I love those people and the culture," Bach said.