Everyone is called to do something in this life – using their talents for others. Helping Africans in Uganda is not mine.
These are the words I wrote in my journal while I spent two weeks in Uganda in February visiting my friend Natalie Committee. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED the experience and am so glad I went; it just felt so weird that I actually missed Afghanistan. I was on vacation in a beautiful country, and I missed my warzone. I needed to rid myself of guilt and realize that discovering what I’m not meant to do is a vital step in figuring out what I am meant to do.
Natalie and I knew each other since she was about 3 because I grew up with her big sister, Christina. We were in her sister, Christina’s wedding in the summer of 2010. Natalie had just decided to move to Uganda for a year and I had just had my first interview for a position in Afghanistan. To most of our friends and family we were either mentally unstable or living a dream that they wished they could. We held strong to each other and supported one another in our “crazy” adventure. When Natalie first told me about her idea to volunteer in Uganda I promised her I would visit. At that point I was still working at Marshall and would need to save for years to afford that trip, but I knew somehow I would make it happen. After all, how often do you have a friend to show you around Africa? Thankfully fate stepped in and I got a job in Afghanistan and could save the money to see Natalie.
We met up in Kampala, the capital city. It is bustling and quite intimidating. We rode “boda bodas” everywhere. These are dilapidated motorcycles that you have to hold onto the back bar and balance on (you never hold the driver) while the driver weaves in and out of traffic so close to the other vehicles that your knees literally brush the sides of vans that are whizzing by. Natalie and Jess Blackwell (Natalie’s friend who was visiting and helping out for a month) greeted me with huge smiles. I brought them icing and hot sauce! (delicacies they couldn't find in Africa). We stayed at the Red Chili Hideaway. If you ever find yourself in Kampala, this is the place to stay. There were people there from all over the world. At night we each got a beer and just relaxed outside talking to Australians, Brits, Macedonians, Germans and whoever else waltzed by. We then took a 3 day safari around Murchison Falls.
|Jess, Me and Natalie in front of some murderous hippos|
The safari was absolutely incredible. We saw all the “biggies” elephants, lions, hippos, crocodiles, wildebeests, warthogs, and meerkats. The whole cast of The Lion King was there. At night we stayed in tents with warnings to not venture outside because you might get run over by a hippo. They kill more people than any other animal in Africa! After the safari was one of the most nervous times I have ever been in my entire life. We needed to go north to Gulu, but our safari was returning the 3 hours back south to Kampala. Natalie decided we could just hop out at the next big town and jump on the next bus that was going to Gulu. Fool proof plan. I wasn’t a big fan to begin with. It all sounded too up in the air. There might be a bus at this time, hopefully it’s not too full, we should be able to find a place to wait. Well then our safari van broke down, in front of a military compound so Ugandans came chasing after us with M4s to move. As we waited at a restaurant for the van to be fixed and the minutes ticked by, decreasing our chances of catching the last bus to Gulu which came some time in the afternoon, I went from being not a big fan, to downright obstinate about Natalie’s “plan.” But she was the Africa expert after all, so we went with it. At the stop, the van dropped us off and our only American friends – a 7 month pregnant woman and her husband, wished us well and gave us a look like "I really hope I’m not going to be interviewed by Nancy Grace about what happened to those cute American girls we went on safari with." We got to the stop where the busses fly by and there were Ugandans all around trying to sell us goods and shoving meat on sticks in our faces. We had no idea if a bus to Gulu had passed by or not, and there are no hotels or anywhere else to stay for literally hundreds of miles. Also of course we are the only, Mzungus – Whiteys, for hundreds of miles as well. Thankfully a bus pulled up marked Gulu and we hopped on. It was the most relieving feeling ever, until I smelled the live chicken in a cage next to me.
We arrived in Gulu and then took boda bodas back to Lukodi where Natalie lived. She worked for Child Voice International. They are an organization that rehabilitates women who were former child soldiers or ravaged by the war. The Lord’s Resistance Army ravaged northern Uganda for years raping women and killing men. Many of the women at the center were forced “into the bush” where they lived for years off the land in the forest to escape the murdering and raping that was occurring in their villages. They are the strongest women I have ever met. Through all this tragedy, watching their family be murdered in front of them, having children from rape, instead of wallowing, they want to make their life better. They came to the center to learn a trade, so they can provide for their children.
|Natalie's mud hut home|
|Our hammocks, bath tub, water jugs, dishes, and pee cups|
|One of the women braiding Jess' hair|
We lived in a mud hut with no running water and electricity for only a couple hours per night. It was February and sweltering hot. We slept in hammocks with mosquito nets to prevent disease. The first morning I awoke to Jess’ alarm clock tone which sounded eerily similar to the mass casualty alarm on KAF. I freaked out trying to get out of the net I was zipped in to jump to the floor, then I remembered I was in Africa. Natalie was incredibly proud of the fact that she managed to get me my very own…pee bucket! A lovely used butter container. For any other matters, there was literally a hole in the ground (no seat of any kind) with a wooden shed around it. When I first took a tour of the grounds I saw a cage of rabbits and thought they were adorable pets for the children, I was quickly corrected that they were delicious special holiday treats for the children.
The kids were my favorite part of the entire trip. They don’t understand a word I am saying but they laugh and play just the same. When we would go for our evening walk and come back they would all rush the gate screaming, “MZUNGUS!!!” and leap into our arms. We felt like rockstars. When we were on our walk, Ugandans would stop us and ask in their language that only Natalie understood, “What are you doing?!” It was such a foreign concept to them that someone would walk for no reason other than to walk. They get so much exercise from doing all their daily tasks of preparing meals by beating grain with a large bat, doing laundry by scrubbing clothes against a metal plate, fetching water in huge containers from the well that is far away, that one would never need to talk a “walk.”
They were all so sweet and so welcoming even after all they had endured. Natalie and I talked about how much guilt we felt. Guilt that we were born into a life of such luxury in West Virginia while these children in our eyes were born into despair. To them though, it's not despair. They thank God everyday in beautiful hymns that they were so blessed to be spared. They lived another day, and that was something to thank God for.
In Uganda to say Good Morning you say, Apwoyo Matek which literally translates as, “Thank you for waking.” I was dirty, stinky, without caffeine, hot and cranky, and yet every single Ugandan I pass is thanking me for being alive. What a simply beautiful way to live.