For three weeks in July of 2018, I traveled to Uganda on a cultural immersion trip with the nonprofit, Far Away Friends. We spent 8 of those days in a small fishing village of rural northern Uganda called Namasale. Here, Far Away Friends partners with the community and local schools to help alleviate generational poverty through education and cross-cultural connection. Part of that partnership includes Global Leaders Primary School, which Far Away Friends helped fund the building of from the ground up.
At any event of significance in my lifetime I find myself counting the ways in which my decisions precisely led me to this point of being, and had I walked any other path, would never have taken me to the moments I hold as the ones that define me entirely.
Think about it. I don’t subscribe to the “this is your destiny” and “everything happens for a reason” worldview, but I totally see why someone would. If these things hadn’t happened, if I hadn’t say, begrudgingly gone to a film screening about child soldiers in central Africa so that I could receive easy credit for a non-major class in the fall of 2011, well, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be where I am mentally and I definitely would not have just spent the three weeks in Uganda after facing my greatest fear for 19 hours and then again for 22 hours on the way back.
On July 10th, 2018, I left on my very first trip out of the country. Destination: Namasale, Uganda. 19 hours of flying, 7+ hours at airports, one night at a hotel, 3+ hours of driving, and a 45 minute ferry ride later, I arrived. This is in spite of the fact that I once had a very long and serious conversation with myself on whether I could lead a happy life if I never stepped on an airplane again. I think I decided yes. But people change. And now, having gone, having experienced discomforts I didn’t know existed, I wouldn’t trade it for certainty.
This trip will be one of those moments I look back on and say, “That moment. That’s where I changed. Things are different now.” The people I traveled with are now my brothers and sisters. Namasale, my second home. But such feelings are not to overlook the discomforts I faced. That would be a disservice to you and I both. As one of my newfound brothers wrote, “There is something extraordinary about traveling to other cultures, knowing other humans, eating their food and being in their homes. The further from your current comfort zone, the larger the effects.” I was well outside my comfort zone. I needed to be.
Things work differently in Namasale. And in Uganda. Time moves at a different pace. I love that I got to observe that. And I hope I can bring some of that back to the US.
In Namasale we made several visits to other local schools, local health facilities, and some of our students’ homes. Every single time, without fail, chairs and makeshift seats would be pulled from all locations to make sure everyone was able to sit down and be comfortable as we talked. People were so accommodating I felt guilty. Who am I to deserve this respect from a stranger? We were often given gifts for no other reason than showing up. Cold water and soda. Snacks. A portion of the family’s harvest. A rooster. What is this place where total strangers can stop by out of the blue and be treated as honored guests?
Driving from Kampala to Namasale to Lira to Chobe to Gulu in two packed sweaty vans was a test of patience and self control. To the towns we passed, we were a spectacle. But those long drives gave me time to reflect and observe. And one thing that I observed is that car signals are used differently here in Uganda. Horns aren’t used aggressively. They aren’t laid on for 30 seconds straight to show the guy in front of us just how much we hate him for cutting us off. Instead, they’re used to simply say, “hey I’m here” so bodas, humans, cars, and livestock can coexist on the same road in impressively close quarters. Impressively close. Blinkers are used just as much (if not more) for letting cars behind us know whether it’s okay to pass or if someone’s coming the opposite direction as they are for signaling a turn. What is this world in which transportation is a team activity? Where the goal is not to beat the car next to us, but to work in a way that most benefits all?
The students and teachers at Global Leaders Primary School have impressed me beyond anything. It is so clear how much each teacher cares for his or her children and for seeing the school grow into one of the best in the district. I learned the long hours every student spends at school every day, particularly the older students who are studying for the exam that will get them into secondary school. Some of our team had the honor of staying with these girls in their dorm overnight to get to know them better without the pressures of a teacher or principal hearing. We asked if they were tired because of all the work, and they were. We asked if it was hard, and it was. But then we asked if they thought the school day should be shorter, and allow more time for rest. To that they said no. Their education is so important to them that waking up well before sunrise every day to study before class even starts was not a question to even be considered. I respect these students so much. When education is a privilege and not something taken for granted, respect for that education, for teachers, and for community is a beautiful and invaluable byproduct.
It’s amazing how such small moments can mean everything. The respect of a stranger. The team mentality of getting from one place to another. The dedication of a child. Nothing miraculous in its own right (although sometimes I think it is) but these weren’t one-off instances. It was everywhere. Baked into the culture in a way I haven’t seen before. It was refreshing. And real.
I find myself in awe of new places, new experiences because they give me a perspective on life that I was previously blind to. How lucky are we as humans to have that? The ability to see and experience and be completely different when we come out the other side? That’s what I find myself chasing after again and again, even if it’s just in my head. I want to learn and change and come out the other side closer to this thing that connects us all: Earth, humanity, life, what have you. That thing that makes us desire to do better. To care. To help. To empathize. To protest. To speak up. To speak out. To fight. To love. It’s the thing that makes me confront my phobias and embarrass myself in front of strangers. It’s the thing I’ll be willingly vulnerable for.
“I remember the moment I first realized I’ve been living my whole life in black and white. It was like discovering a color I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colors, that was it for me. From then on, there was no putting the pieces back together. No going home. Things were different now.” – Anthony Bourdain
Things are different now.
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To learn more about the work of Far Away Friends or donate to important projects at Global Leaders Primary School and within the Namasale community, go to www.farawayfriendsglobal.com