In the prologue of Wait for God to Notice, memoirist Sari Fordham’s parents discover a trail of carnivorous African driver ants streaming in from a hole in their bedroom screen window. The ants march down the hallway into young Fordham’s room, where only a thin bedcovering separates the “churning mass of mouths” from her body. Inexplicably, she is unharmed, though the forewarning, at least for the reader, is clear. Fordham, who narrates her story two decades after leaving Africa, writes, “My parents do not try to make connections between what has happened and what could happen. They do not see the ants as a warning, that peril can slip in through the smallest of openings, that Uganda is too dangerous, that we should pack up and leave.” Led by father Gary and mother Kaarina, the Fordhams are Seventh-day Adventist missionaries who move from the United States to Uganda when Sari is two years old and sister Sonja five. Uganda is under the tyrannical reign of Idi Amin, and hundreds of thousands of people are being murdered. A palpable tension propels the narrative forward as the Fordhams decide to stay: How dangerous must things become before Sari’s parents will heed the warnings and flee with their children to safety?
The Fordham sisters grow up quickly in the “house on the hill” near the edge of the jungle, adapting to their new environment, which holds both threat and possibility. Against the backdrop of the Ugandan “drums reverberating in the distance” and the clever monkeys stealing tomatoes from the garden, they learn to differentiate sticks from deadly mambas and suffer from malaria—though Fordham is quick to point out that they, unlike many Ugandan families, have the money, transportation, and health care resources necessary to seek treatment. Kaarina, the children’s primary caregiver, is resourceful in her Ugandan life, boiling a nail for the needed iron in their diets and negotiating potentially dangerous situations at military checkpoints, notably once doing so with a bag of candy. In Kaarina, Fordham has written a fascinating and quietly formidable character, and Fordham wonders if she ever really knew her. Her longing to better understand and know her own mother sets up a second, equally compelling frame for the memoir. Was her mother really “overly fearful” as family members sometimes describe her, or was she courageous? Or perhaps the space between the two—and between mother and daughter—is not as vast as Fordham used to believe.
One of Fordham’s enviable writing gifts is producing page after page of cinematic prose, like this passage that describes a family trip to the Kazinga Channel:
The water stirred with hippos. They moved from the middle of the river to the edge, and while it appeared as if they were swimming, they weren’t. Adult hippos can’t swim. They walked along the river’s floor, occasionally propelling themselves to the surface. In the water, the hippos rose and dropped like ballerinas. Those already on the bank seemed to hitch their trousers and haul themselves up. In the distance, there was snorting and flashing of teeth. The river boiled around two or three angry hippos—it was hard to know—and then the water and vegetation settled as they resolved their differences. The hippos moved up the bank, a hippopotamus migration, and they stood, majestic, on the shore.
A month or so later, soldiers come to this same place hunting for meat and ivory and slaughter hundreds of hippos with machine guns. The human bodies start piling up, too, while, as Fordham writes, “the crocodiles grew fat and indifferent.” Fordham never witnesses the worst of the political strife and violence, yet she immerses the reader in vivid scenes that are by equal turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, judiciously balancing the joys of her childhood with the realities of Uganda in crisis. She writes, “Even after the devastation of colonialism, even after the harrowing echoes, even as Idi Amin was putting nails into the heads of his enemies and a single roll of toilet paper cost $1.50, Ugandans treated my family with more generosity than we merited.”
While danger is ever-present and affects many aspects of the family’s daily life, it comprises only a portion of the story Fordham tells. Heart and humor are intermixed throughout, with Fordham honoring the ingenuous child she once was, delighting in the land, the trees, wilderness, and wildlife. Her home is a “place of warmth and wonder” where young Fordham never questions the strength of her parents’ marriage, although it is tested by her father’s devotion to his Ugandan students and missionary work. Fordham, keenly aware of the complicated history of missionaries, writes:
We carried with us the historical baggage of missionaries: the colonialism, the racism, the imposition of one culture over another, of one religion over another. We also carried the idealism: the sacrifice, the good intentions, the hospitals that had been built, and the schools. For good or for ill, we had come to Uganda. One family can’t answer for all the evils that religion has wrought upon the world, nor can it take credit for any mercies. The only certainty about our arrival was its foolishness.
In the latter part of the book the Fordhams return to the United States after living in East Africa for eight and a half years, and the adolescent sisters adapt to another treacherous territory, this one an American high school. Fordham observes she and her sister “were the kind of missionary children that other missionary children found uncool.” Some of the moments in these later chapters are particularly funny and sweet, though a family tragedy occurs, which I won’t spoil.
A literary stylist at the sentence level, Fordham’s language is precise, lyrical, and richly detailed. At its center, Wait for God to Notice is less about the particulars of missionary work and the tenets and artifacts of faith—though these are affectionately explored—and more about the adventures (and missteps) of Fordham’s childhood and how her deep love for both place and family have shaped her into the compassionate, intelligent, socially aware woman she has become.