Heights and depths of humanity

Mama Jude tells the story of an ordinary woman from Adelaide doing remarkable things.

  “Here, was a seemingly ordinary woman from Adelaide – a wife, mother and grandmother – spending her retirement years working tirelessly in the slums of Kampala.”   

Perhaps this is a reflection on the wretchedness of my character, but in all honesty, this blurb filled me with dread. I feared that reading Judy Steel’s autobiography, Mama Jude, would be a miserable and painful experience. I was sure that this “seemingly ordinary woman from Adelaide” would, in fact, be an impossibly saintly woman to whom I would not be able to relate and whose goodness would fill me with guilt, rather than inspire me to faithfulness. I also wondered how anyone who daily witnessed the suffering in the slums of Kampala managed to work there “tirelessly.” Surely, I thought, at some point they must grow weary, or angry, or disillusioned; and if this book told the story of the one person who never faltered, then could I sit through three hundred pages of it?

So I was relieved to discover as I read that while Judy Steel is an exceptional woman who does remarkable things, when the story begins she is very ordinary. In fact, she seems determined to be so. After working as a nurse for nearly forty years, she planned, like many other Australians, to fill her retirement years with leisure, hobbies and family. But declared that: “when I retired I was definitely not going to be a volunteer.”

Despite her resolve, there was an unconventional retirement plan in store for Steel that took her to Uganda. And instead of the easy, comfortable retirement that she imagined, her years as a retiree have been filled with disease, poverty and exhaustion; taxing demands, incredible people, the bright colours of Africa and worthwhile, important work.

Steel writes of how this change of plans coincided with and was largely caused by a shift in her spiritual journey. Throughout her life she was, in her own words, a person who was “not overly religious” but who had “never stopped loving God.” However, through a series of events Steel came to accept that God was real, personal and demanded something more from her than a vague sense of him and comfortable compassion towards others. So, at the age of 56, Steel arrived at a slum in Kampala, Uganda and put her nursing skills to work. Since then she has returned to the country seven times and eventually co-founded the Uganda Australia Christian Outreach (UACO), which has overseen the development of a primary health care clinic, youth group, widows’ support group, AIDS support group, adult literacy centre, micro-loan scheme and a centre for physiotherapy, counselling and family planning.

All of this work is inspiring, but Mama Jude is by no means a happy read. Some stories in this book, particularly the testimonies of the Congolese refugees, are harrowing reminders of the desperate evil humans are capable of committing against one another. Other stories are reminders of the magnitude of suffering in Uganda, most notably that of eighty-eight year-old Anthony who cares for his six great-grandchildren because the intervening generations of his family have been wiped out by AIDS. Mama Jude does not do the Ugandan people the disservice of ignoring their hardships and Steel gives herself and the reader the opportunity to feel the sorrow and injustice of the world without rushing to provide answers or to supply counter-balancing stories of hope. Steel writes at one point:

   “I felt such sadness. The people of Uganda were dying all around me and there was so little I could do. During the day I would steel myself for the sights and sounds of unstoppable suffering, and in the evenings I would pray but most often just felt powerless and sad.”  

As Steel recounts Uganda’s suffering she grieves, as she suggests we should too. But, this is a book for people who are overwhelmed by statistics and who despair of change ever coming. Mama Jude paints a picture of meaningful victories bringing real change. Steel tells of how UACO’s micro-loans are giving people dignity and hope for economic self-sustainability, and of the lives saved and improved by free health care and immunisations. Such stories of hope act as balm for the weary observers of the world and as encouragement to action for those who have become inert due to despondency or complacency.

Steel does not seem like she is made from holier stuff than the rest of us

Mama Jude is also uplifting in its reassurance that humans are capable of genuine goodness. Particularly inspiring is Edward Ssembatya – who almost deserves a mention in the title – a Ugandan doctor who co-founded UACO with Steel. There are also tales of wonderful generosity from Australians to UACO. Judy Steel writes that in her time in Uganda she saw “the heights and depths of humanity” and in this book the reader glimpses these too.

Judy Steel has a remarkable story, but this in no way guarantees that it will be well-told. Fortunately, Mama Jude is engaging and well-written and part of the credit for this must go to Michael Sexton, journalist of ABC’s 7:30 Report, who co-authored the book with Steel. But the book owes much of its readability to Steel’s honesty about her imperfections and struggles. She is refreshingly normal, a far cry from the inaccessible, ultra-holy narrator I dreaded. She gets frustrated, tired and disillusioned; she enjoys luxuries, misses her family, and questions God’s plans and purposes. In one beautifully human moment she discloses: “I still was unsure exactly what my path would be… To be honest, part of me yearned for an easier road to walk.” Steel does not seem like she is made from holier stuff than the rest of us, but rather that she has made a choice of reckless obedience to God, out of love for others. Her story is staggering precisely because she is so ordinary and because this story could, and perhaps should, be the story of more of our lives.

I approached Mama Jude with reluctance, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I still believe this is a book to be wary of. Not because it is poorly written or simplistic, as I feared, but because it demands to be taken seriously. Mama Jude tells of a world that is suffering. In doing so it presents the clamouring challenge that a “seemingly ordinary woman from Adelaide,” or any seemingly ordinary person from the First World, should not live an ordinary life.

Kate Wilcox is studying Communications at Sydney University and is an intern at CPX

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