Her hands felt rough and bumpy, covered with sores that were oozing some sort of infected discharge. As I reached out to shake her hand, she smiled weakly in hesitation, holding them both out for me to see that she was not well. I am ashamed at how repulsed I felt by the sight, and frequently feel conviction over how infected my heart was in that moment.
It was greeting time in the village church, a building the size of a large bedroom filled to overflowing with children, women, and a few rare elderly Ugandans. The boys on the drums pounded out a rhythm as we moved around the room to hug and greet our brothers and sisters in worship. In Uganda, the formal handshake is as we do it here. The friendly handshake, however, is where they grab hold of your hand, then slide your hand up so that you are palm to palm (grasping around the base of the thumb), then back to the regular handshake. The more familiar or cherished the relationship, the longer you hold hands. Another way to tell that two people are close is if they are using both hands, one over the other. It is an intimate process and a way that Ugandans demonstrate their love and affection for one another as well as honored visitors.
There were so many people in that tiny room shaking and holding hands and hugging and laughing. Uganda is not a perfect place but it is filled with such kind and beautifully spirited people. I noticed that one woman – I cannot recall her name and so to me she is Ms. Lady – was sitting on a bench and smiling off into the distance but not engaged with anyone else in the room. I thought it an opportunity to bless a lonely lady, so I reached down to take her hand.
Despite my horror at the state of her hands and some rapidly selfish projections at what I was about to contract, pride in my love for these people and fear over offending her drove me to take her hand in both of mine. They were so coarse, without even one square inch of smooth and healthy skin. There was a layer of pus oozing out, and she wouldn’t even look me in the eye as we shook.
It wasn’t until later that I considered whether she was trying to protect me from what she had or if handshakes caused her so much pain and discomfort that her church sisters and brethren respected her by avoiding contact during the greeting.
I found out that the sores were from jiggers, a parasite common to parts of Uganda but typically embed within a person’s feet. Ms. Lady had the worst case of jiggers in both her hands and her feet that the village pastors had ever seen, and at that time she was a frequent visitor to the church’s “Jigger Clinic” where day after day, she would sit and let someone dig out the parasites with a knife and then pour a bleach-like concoction over her hands and feet in hopes that this time they would get them all out. Patients with jiggers feel constant pain and irritation as the bugs burrow deeper and deeper into their tissue, too deep for them to scratch or pat or wash the pain away. There is no relief other than having the bugs carved out of their skin. For people like Ms. Lady, those bloody rounds with the knife are a horrific measure taken to bring some small measure of comfort.
Though I met Ms. Lady several months ago on my trip with Mercy for Mamas, God still brings her to mind so often. That few seconds we exchanged a handshake has had such a lasting impact on how God has continued to carve infection out of my own heart and life, and how blessedly painful that can be at times.