Since we are serving in Uganda for one year, we decided not to hop in and out of the country just to extend our visas. Instead, we decided to go with an agency to help obtain a work visa for Wai Jia and a dependent pass for me. Doing things the right way is sometimes long and expensive. It took five months here and nine months in Singapore beforehand to compile all the necessary documents. I won’t even talk about the fee they charged us for us to volunteer here.
Yesterday I went to the agency to pick up my passport. Here in Uganda, before you enter a mall or a plaza, it is common for guards to search you and your vehicle to make sure you don’t have a bomb or firearms. I’ve been there so many times the security guards recognized who I was and let me in. As I pulled my car into the parking lot, one of the security guards came up to me and told me he reserved this spot for me and he would look after my car for ‘soda money’.
The term ‘soda money’ is a nice way of asking for a bribe. As Mzungus (foreigners), we are stopped frequently by the traffic police and other guards asking us to get them a soda. We talked to the locals about these. They don’t like it as well. Part of the reasons is that their salary is extremely low (or so we are told) thus they look for a way to make an extra buck.
For this security guard, ‘soda money’ was 3,000 Shillings. That’s equivalent to about a dollar. In Uganda, a bottle of soda costs 1,000 Shillings. With this knowledge, I asked him why he needed so much just for a soda. He replied, ‘you get me a big soda.’ That’s true, bigger bottles do cost more.
For Wai Jia and me, we don’t pay bribes. Yes, life can be much easier and faster if we give ‘soda money’ to get things done. And it is really a small amount. A dollar is not much. But the principle still stands. We don’t pay bribes.
I offered I would go buy a soda for him and for me. It was a hot day and a long drive and I wanted one as well. I didn’t want to give him money but I could get him a soda to make his day a bit better.
He said, ‘No. If they see me with food, they will fire me.’
After collecting my passport and before I left, I asked him for his name. Emmanuel. I explained to him it means “God is with us” and that’s the name they gave to Jesus. He looked surprised.
As I walked back to the parking lot after taking my passport, I wondered what I should say to Emmanuel regarding his ‘soda money’. I couldn’t tell him I have no money because that would make me a liar. I also didn’t want to give him money. If I gave him ‘soda money’, that would reinforce the system of corruption.
As I walked back to my car, I told Emmanuel I couldn’t give him ‘soda money’. But I told him that I came here to Uganda to serve as a minister. Since I couldn’t give him soda money, I suggested I could pray and asked God to bless him instead.
He looked at me with a shocked look and was quiet. He probably didn’t expect that answer.
“Emmanuel. I can only give you one soda. But God, He can give you 10,000 sodas.”
He smiled a bit. I asked him if he was a believer and if he would be offended if I prayed with him. He returned my keys and said ‘I believe in God, too.’
“Great, let us pray.”
So in this busy parking lot, both Emmanuel and I bowed our heads and I said a quick prayer. I gave thanks to God for Emmanuel’s work and prayed for God to bless him and his family so they would not lack anything.
Then I left.
As I looked back at the decisions we made in coming to Uganda, especially with regards to getting the work permit, I felt we did the right thing. When God looks at our works, He doesn’t merely look at just the works but also considers how we do our work. If we do it in such a way that doesn’t glorify Him, there will be consequences. There are many times when Wai Jia and I are tempted to take the easy (and less righteous) way to get things done. We had many talks and had to take time to discern whether we were doing things rightly in His eyes.
We always concluded: The work doesn’t justify the means. Both the work and the means are important in His Kingdom.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16 (KJV)