Uganda: A Lesson in Humility and Community

Kenna, Volunteer with Oysters & PearlsI went to Uganda because I didn’t know what else to do. I had just left college halfway through my junior year, and I was doing that millennial floundering that so many of us are familiarizing ourselves with. I have the excellent privilege of having Sandra as a mother, and so I was invited to join her on the 2011 trip, despite not having all that much to offer (at least compared to the others). We had spent time in Africa before- a trip to Tanzania in 2006 had cemented my love of international travel- but I knew that this time would be different. Before we left, I remember meeting some other people involved with the program at a Starbucks in North Dallas. It was a really hot day and I didn’t know what was being spoken about, but I still had a hard time containing my excitement. My idea of what my six weeks would look like was ambiguous at best, but I knew that Sandra’s endless capability for networking and planning would assuage my intangible fear. The plane ride was incredible and long- I spent hours looking out the window and remember seeing an ocean of sand swallowed by lush green mountains, which I took to be Ethiopia. I fell asleep and drifted through the Entebbe Airport, snapping back into consciousness in a hot parking lot.

The first few weeks flew by. I acted as the trip photographer, logging at least 10,000 photos. We saw a cloud of bats being smoked out of their trees in Kampala, the capital city. We visited schools and offices and I leaned out of the window, snapping, counting the village dogs. I was captivated by Uganda’s ethics and pace. Everything moved at what seemed like its intended speed. Interactions were deep and genuine. We were invited into people’s homes and I thought “This is the definition of hospitality.” For the first time in years, I felt layers of myself fall away- the over complicatedness of our tech addiction, our duplicitous undercurrents of daily life, the value of breakneck speed. Sure, in the US we have steady electricity and ice cubes, maybe the drivers are more cautious and the food is instant, but Uganda is genuine and oriented. People marveled that I lived across the thousands of miles away from Sandra, and I felt that emptiness for a moment, and the things I take for granted.

Often Westerners think of Africa as a place of “have-nots,” but that’s so nearsighted, possibly elitist. My time in Uganda was a lesson in humility and community. It was important to not just travel, but stay for a while and learn not just about myself within the environment, but the environment itself- the clinics, markets, and schools- how they function when we are and aren’t around. I turned 21 in Murchison Falls National Park, to the west. My birthday cake was decorated with leaves and the evenings were punctuated by laughter and frog calls. Whoever decided to call Uganda “the Pearl of Africa” made a great call. Uganda’s schoolchildren are amazing. Their drive and sheer enthusiasm for learning is unmatched at all age levels. I was an assistant teacher in our wildlife and geography course at Gulu High, and though some might say that the kids were lucky to have us, it was of course the opposite. On that 2011 trip, I may have been more of a cheerleader than an educational asset, but for those six weeks I was the luckiest cheerleader in the world.