I reach to my collarbone and touch the small gold coin hanging on a worn leather strap. I look at the crested crane and the words “Bank of Uganda” and memories flood my mind. I hear their voices ring in my ears. I see their smiling faces. I feel the touch of our hands intertwined as we walk down the dirt path. After a month of living in the orphanage, I see the tears that spill from their eyes and mine as the bus pulls away from the small village. The small shilling I wear around my neck reminds me of the two month long trips that I spent in the small village of Kaihura, Uganda with other volunteers from the organization Embrace Uganda (www.embraceuganda.org).
â–º honorable mention 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
Every morning when I woke up in the small house without doors or ceilings, I heard the most beautiful thing imaginable. I heard singing. The children in the home woke up before sunrise and sang in beautiful harmonies and in a language that I could never completely understand. During my time there, I saw the poverty on every street corner and yet I never saw anyone treat another person with disrespect. All they had was each other and they knew this bond should be cherished. No one selfishly kept the few belongings they had, but shared with anyone who needed it. Older children took care of the younger children because no one else could. There was a sense of humility in most of the people I encountered and even in the most destitute of areas, there was happiness and contentment.
Coming back to the United States, I experienced an extreme case of culture shock. I saw paved highways instead of one-lane dirt roads. I saw malls and enormous shopping centers instead of small markets on the side of the road. I saw sleek SUV’s instead of decaying fifteen passenger vans. I continually think of the sunrise I watched every morning, the boda boda rides we took down the red dirt roads, the baboons we threw bananas to out of our windows, and most of the all, the people I encountered. I tell people of the poverty everyone is living in, the AIDs epidemic that wiped out an entire generation, and all of the orphaned children. The response is, “That’s horrible. I wish it wasn’t like that.” Then they go on with their lives as if nothing was different because nothing is different for them. Mere statistics cannot make people understand. In Uganda, 2,300,000 children are orphaned. That number means nothing until you realize that this number covers James, Victor, Stella, Allen, children that I lived with, children that I know. These statistics of death rates, disease, and poverty are no longer just numbers. What I realize beyond the average person, because I have been to a country like this, is that these numbers have names and faces.
Those people taught me to be happy. They taught me not to take things for granted. I have not been the same since returning from Uganda. I have changed. To this day, two years later, people who know me very well tell me that the turning point in my life was when I took that first trip to Uganda. Those children, whose faces so vividly remain in my mind, rewrote my life’s story. It fills me with an unmitigated sadness that I cannot be with them. They inspire me everyday to live a life of joy and gratitude. Because of my trips to Uganda, I have a handprint on my heart that has changed me for the better.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.