Back in college I took an African history course to fill an elective liberal arts requirement. I ended up writing my final paper, a 25-page exposé, on the rise and fall of Idi Amin in Uganda. Little did I know that I would be traveling to Uganda to work with AIDS orphans some five years later. And that takes me to today, having returned from my African adventure just a few days ago. As I thought about how I would share my experiences in a blog post, I quickly realized that there were so many nuances I could talk about that could turn in to a hundred different posts. I also realized that I’m not very good at recapping things in a simple and straight forward way, so simply recounting what happened to me would pose a challenge as well. Nevertheless, here it is. Part one of my African adventure story.
Our flight on Ethiopian Airlines took us from the Dulles airport in DC all the way to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and then on to Entebbe, Uganda. The trans-Atlantic flight was by far the longest and most taxing flight I had ever been on, but the incredible blue sky over the Sahara Desert (to the left) made it tolerable. We arrived to our destination without a hitch and with that our missions trip began. The first week in Uganda was spent in a small mountain city called Fort Portal in the western part of the country. High up into the Rwenzori mountains, this lush, green town was an incredible place to experience rural Uganda. We awoke every morning to a scenic vista of the mountains and symphony of exotic birds greeting the day.
The mountains themselves reminded me a bit of Vermont. When they weren’t shrouded in the morning mists, they had deep green hues from the tree coverage. Instead of pine and spruce trees, banana, avocado, jackfruit, and mango trees covered the rolling peaks. I immediately fell in love with their beauty and was grateful that I’d see them every day for the next week.
Many of the Uganda people in Fort Portal greeted our arrival as if we were some sort of professional sports team arriving to a fan gathering to hang out and interact. We weren’t mobbed by any means, but the receptions we received every where we went that had a large amount of people, particularly children, was incredible. At one stop, the children put on an hour-long performance just to welcome the Americans to their rural Ugandan home. They were decked out in bright orange and yellow t-shirts and purple shorts and skirts and sang about a dozen songs that they had been rehearsing for who knows how long. While the fanfare wasn’t anything of importance to me, I was touched by the time and effort many people put in to welcome us. I thought, what if we greeted our guests like that? What if we celebrated their arrival instead of treating it as an obligation or inconvenience? There was no doubt that hospitality would be a recurring theme throughout the trip.
We visited several more schools and children’s homes our first few days in Uganda. The positive reception held consistent throughout. Each time, I found my heart melting a bit more for the struggle and daily grind that each of these Ugandans had to face. While it was easy to go from place to place shaking hands and snapping photos, the reality is that there was very little permanent effect that I, or any of my teammates would have on the people with these interactions. Truth be told, when the bus left, it was back to reality for every single one of them. Nevertheless, the small blessings that came from a brief few minutes of quality time still had meaning. To me, they reflected the lasting joy that we as believers, Ugandan and American, would all one day experience together in the presence of God in heaven.
The week continued with a student retreat our team put on for about 40 local teenagers. The main objective of the retreat was help the students learn more about the biblical story of Moses and apply critical thinking skills to their study. I didn’t know this prior to visiting Uganda, but the vast majority of schools do not emphasize critical thinking as a part of the educational process. Instead, most students learn in a memorization-recitation format. In other words, they memorize facts and figures so that they can repeat them at a later time. Obviously that doesn’t lend itself well to really understanding concepts at a deeper level. Consequently helping these students articulate how a story made them feel or what they thought were its most important parts, was a challenge. Nevertheless, their ability to do that drastically improved as the week went on.
The retreat was not without its fill of highlights either. Although we spent a lot of time studying the story of Moses, we did have time for plenty of fútbol (soccer to us Americans) as well as arts & crafts, games, and music. Every time I visit a 3rd world country, I’m always impressed with how much kids can make of so little. One soccer ball is enough to keep 20 kids occupied for hours. Whereas in America, kids have dozens of toys sitting idle in their garages and still complain of being bored. We have so much in the way of resources at our disposal that could be leveraged in much better ways, but that’s a blog post for another time.
At one point during the retreat, everyone was out on the main lawn of the compound enjoying some games and waiting for dinner to be prepared. Suddenly, we all heard a loud crash out on the road in front of the compound. Two motorcycle taxis (called botas) had collided and spilled all of their contents, passengers included, onto the road. An argument ensued between the two drivers over the cause of the accident. Apparently, one of the riders was drunk and eventually fled the scene of the accident. Both motorcycles were damaged and the drivers were both cut up badly. The drunk one who caused the accident had deep cuts on his face and clearly needed to go to a hospital. The other, had cuts on his hands and head that needed to be patched up. Being the only one around with any kind of emergency management skills, I found myself throwing on gloves and tending to this man’s wounds. Knowing full well that the likelihood that this man carried HIV or AIDS was high, I was a little nervous about working on him. Nevertheless, I got him cleaned up and patched up and then I sent him on his way with instructions on how to avoid infection. It was a wild chain of events to say the least.
As you might imagine, by the end of the student retreat all of us were ready to relax and kick back. I had a great group of young men who had been eager to learn and had put forth their best effort to make the most of their time at the retreat. As orphans, it would be easy for them to just give up on their lives and not care about anything, but their determination to make their lives better was truly inspiring. So while I felt exhausted from all the interaction, fútbol, and more, I had a full heart and an inspiration to do a better job of leveraging the resources I had at my disposal.
With that key lesson in mind, I was ready for the next part of my African adventure. I found myself wondering what I’d see and do next, what I would feel, and how much more I would learn. That’s the incredible thing about a missions trip, there’s always something that’s incredibly easy to pick up and learn. Whatever it might be, I thought, the probability that I would fall more in love with this place called Africa was high. I couldn’t wait for what came next. To be continued…
To learn more about Horizon International, please visit www.horizoninternationalinc.com.