Uganda

She sat at her computer, hands poised on the keys, ready to tell them her story of Africa.

But what would she share? How could she ever paint the scene as it really was? What she heard? Smelled? Tasted? Felt? She couldn’t. So why try? Why bother? What good would it be in the end?

She should at least give it a shot.

The colors were vibrant. The people were friendly. The bananas were the best she’d tasted and the fires that burned all day and night left a slight tingle in her nose.

That’s boring. Uganda offered so much more than that. Of course it did.

Try.

Harder.

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The capital city, Kampala, seemed as if it may burst at the seams at any moment, with cars and scooters and bicycles and taxis and buses and people weaving in and around and amongst each other in some sort of drug-induced waltz, all going backwards, driving on the wrong side of the road and clearly the wrong way on roundabouts. Madness doesn’t begin to explain it. And yet, no one seemed mad at all. Add in to this the fact that many of the roads here are contained within a boundary of a sudden, unforgiving ditch, as tall as many full-grown adults in this part of the world. Not only the ditches on either side of the road, but also holes. Big holes. Roads go from some sort of pavement to complete dirt with no notice. But somehow, only once did we see a taxi in the ditch, sideways, all its contents and passengers gathered on the side of the road, surrounded by bags and children and red dirt. They say one of the most dangerous things you can do in Uganda is drive (or ride) on city roads, especially the road from the airport to the city. You’re in complete lack of control. Hold on. White knuckles. Pray even if you don’t know how. That kind of thing. It’s dangerous out there.

And then … then you get where you’re going.

The dirt roads here all seem to lead to smiling, happy children. They must grow them on trees. Yes. That’s it. Those aren’t mangoes. Those are pods with beautiful children inside. Must be. Has to be.

They’re everywhere.

Mzungu. Mzungu.

Come.

Watch us pose and dance and laugh. Let us touch your skin. Your hair. Your fancy cameras.

Take our photos.

We’ll pretend to take yours.

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Photo. Photo. Photo.

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Tattoo. Tattoo. Tattoo.

We interact. We laugh. We touch each other’s skin, hair. We pose for photos, some together, some alone.

I am but a bystander to what’s really happening here. An invader, of sorts. I watch from the shadows. Take notes in my head, on my phone and in a notebook I’ve tucked into my backpack. I snap away. Thousands of photos of smiling children. I watch as medical supplies are delivered, stuffed animal toys are distributed and fought over. I sneak photos of older children as they hunch over their final exams, and as they occasionally glance my way, wondering who I am. What I want. Why I’m taking photos of them as they take their important end-of-year exams.

When it’s over, I ask our driver an honest question: What do most people think of Americans and Europeans who come to Uganda for missionary work or to do some sort of service? Are we invasive? Do people here think it’s helping?

“They want to know what you want in return, because to us, Americans always want something in return,” he explained. He went on to say the help is usually appreciated, but not sustainable if the Ugandan government isn’t stepping up to help as well (which, he says, sadly isn’t happening.) So, yes. Appreciate the help. Wonder what “we” want in return.

The discussion got even more interesting from there.

NOTE: Yes, this is a discussion I had with one person, and it’s based on his views. He said “we” a lot when talking about these topics, meaning him and who? His family? Friends? I’m not sure. But it was still very eye-opening and somewhat disturbing.

A snapshot of what we talked about and what he said/felt:

* Most Americans don’t work hard, only working a few days a week and spending most of their time on holidays.

* Almost everyone in America is in the military.

* The American military seems to feel the need to be involved in everyone’s business.

* There is little or no crime in most American towns.

* To him, everything in the US looks like New York City or California.

* He didn’t quite grasp that Hollywood is in California. He thought it was its own place and that everyone who is there is famous. He couldn’t get over the idea of “towns” built in movie studios within Hollywood. This was too much for him, and made him stare at us in disbelief, shaking his head and laughing, repeating, “Really? REALLY?!”

* Everyone in America has guns.

* Nobody in Sweden has guns, not even police, who have their guns locked in their patrol cars. (He lived there for a little while to attend school.)

* Top Gun is an awesome movie.

* He loves King of Queens and Big Bang Theory. (“YOU watch Big Bang Theory, too?!”)

* He wanted to know all about Arnold and Sylvester, two “great” Hollywood actors.

It was absolutely eye-opening to have a conversation like this with someone outside the US, someone who could tell us his perception of us in a non-threatening, educational, conversational way. We tried our best to explain things, answer questions, dispel misconceptions … it was a wonderful talk to have and I’m glad we had it … it lasted over several days.

But since then, it’s been tough to get Uganda out of my mind. I’ve thought about our driver, the children, teachers, church members and community leaders we met, and wondered: Were we in the way? Was it wrong to come to their village and/or orphanage and stick a camera in their faces? Should the kids have gotten stuffed animals, when they seemed so very content playing with a bottle cap with some string attached? Do people really believe we want something in return for our service there?

And the biggest question:

How do we tell their story without being disruptive?

It’s hard not to think about it like, “Here come the rich, white people. They’re gonna want photos of us. Let’s stop what we are doing, no matter how important.”

There is a lot of negative publicity in the news about “voluntourism,” which is NOT what we were doing. Yes. We swooped in and out. But I like to think (hope) this was different.

We visited an orphanage in Uganda that has been receiving donations of all types for more than a decade from the same group of people in Montana (who also were visiting with us). We wanted to see the progress at the orphanage and school. Yes, we wanted to surround ourselves with the beautiful children. We wanted their photos. We posted the photos to Facebook (with permission) and we will publish their photos online and in the magazine as well in a few months. Hopefully more people will learn about these beautiful children and the kind-hearted people who they call their family. Many of the children were orphaned when their parents died of AIDS. Many are there because nobody can take care of them. They crave human interaction and attention. They love to have their photos taken. They love to hug and love on you. They surround your legs and hold on for dear life. No matter how much they need or want, they never begged for anything other than a smile and a little attention. They gave me more than I gave them. And for that, I am thankful and sorry.

Were we disruptive or helpful? I like to think we were helpful … no. I know we were. And is there really anything wrong with swooping in for less than two weeks, even if it was during finals week, making connections, dropping off a TON of medical supplies, checking up with the school to see what needs we can help with next? We made friends with people on the other side of the world. We attended their church. We danced with their children. We captured a way of life and a place not many people will ever be blessed to see, but should.

I feel like I’m talking myself into believing we did the right thing.

But while I know we did, there are still so many lingering emotions.

What I do know is this:

Everyone should travel.

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Everyone should expose themselves to things that are out of their own comfort zone. Out of their backyard.

Everyone should get a hug from a tiny, big-eyed baby who doesn’t want to let go.

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Everyone should learn about other cultures and people and stick themselves right in the middle of it all if they get a chance.

I am so happy to have had the chance, again, to do just that.

These children, though orphans, are happy. They are fed. They are well-educated. They are loved. They are safe.

And that is what we walked away knowing. It made it easier. It made it so extra special. Saying goodbye is easier when you know they are so happy.

And we are happier for it.

Travel. Open your eyes. Ask questions. Know what you are walking into and be careful not to leave a trace. Don’t be disruptive. Stay in the shadows until invited to enter the light.

Be smart.

Be safe.

Be one with the world.

Be aware.

Be open.

JUST BE.

And when you get the chance to talk to someone from another culture and place, and I mean really TALK, grab it. Run with it. Learn from others. Teach them a thing or two as well. Make friends. Break stereotypes. Dissolve theories and assumptions.

And by all means, make sure they know that Arnold and Sylvester are NOT all that popular anymore.

But Top Gun?

Top Gun is Top Gun. It’s awesome.

Oh … and of course.

No matter where your travels take you, cute kids always should be greeted with a smile and a hug.

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