This past November I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Uganda with four other individuals from work. I’ve debated over and over again whether or not to type out my experience – only because I don’t feel I could do it justice with words. It was truly an experience that you have to see and feel on your own to fully grasp. I’ve been back home for a few months and I still find myself at a loss for words that would adequately articulate how impactful my visit was. Here’s my attempt…
Scenes from our daily morning walks in Lira
Every year my employer sends a team of five individuals to Northern Uganda for 10 days to assist with a youth race in Otuke District, in partnership with the Achon Children’s Fund
(founded by Julius Achon). The Achon Children’s Fund is based here in Portland, Oregon and the funds raised through the organization go directly to Northern Uganda to assist the regions only healthcare clinic, promote youth sports and restore hope to a region that has been heavily impacted by decades of civil war. The Achon Children’s Fund works with Love Mercy
, which is based in Australia and those two organizations partner side by side. Love Mercy and the Fee family (that founded the Achon Children’s Fund with Julius) were in Uganda for this trip and it was incredible to get to know the amazing people that run these organizations.
This particular year was a little different than previous years because Love Mercy put on an additional race before the youth race in Otuke District – for a total of two completely different races this year!
Race One: A relay from Entebbe to Lira that was organized by Love Mercy that Julius took part in running in.
Race Two: The youth race in Otuke District for the primary school kids.
My team specifically was responsible for setting the race course for the youth race in Otuke District. On this particular year the race was held in Adwari, a sub-district of Otuke at the Ablionyero primary school. Each year the race takes place at a different primary school to give opportunities for each school district to host. The race had different heats, allowing a wide range of age groups to participate. The winners for each race received a mattress for their victory. In addition to setting the race course we were responsible for brining all the participant t-shirts, sorting/delivering them and helping with a wide range of logistical duties for the day. Our team of five basically stepped in to assist anywhere and everywhere that we could to make sure the day went off without a hitch.
Going into the trip I didn’t know a lot of information about the first race (the relay form Entebbe to Lira) as the main focus was to prepare with my team for the race at the primary school. I knew that Love Mercy had organized a relay from Entebbe to Lira and had a total of five runners. Four of those runners had fundraised for the the organization and the fifth runner was Julius Achon. Over the course of five days, the relay team made their way up north to end the relay at the sports stadium in Lira. Since it was the first year for the race, we had planned to meet the runners at the finish line to welcome them into Lira. We thought we’d be among a few people in attendance from Love Mercy and the Fee family standing on a street corner to cheer them across the finish line. Wow, were we completely wrong! Word got out about this relay and it was in the newspapers and broadcast on the radio. When our vans left the hotel to head to the stadium we encountered thousands of locals making their way to the sports stadium to cheer on Julius and the runners! It was total chaos and at one point we got separated from our van driver as he took off without us. He had dropped off some of our team to run in the race and a few of us failed to let him know that we were NOT running the race, haha. Lindsay and I tried to run after the van, which led to us accidentally participating in the race. It was clear we weren’t going to catch up so flagged down a boda boda from a local to transport us through the massive crowds to the stadium. That experience ended up being just incredible! There were vehicles equipped with sound systems, people that joined in to run the final miles with our runners, people on boda bodas, and crowds and crowds of people everywhere you looked. It was complete chaos and no one could have predicted how incredible of a finish the race ended up being! We all kept looking around in awe of the celebration that was unfolding – it was the best surprise and experience and we were all in it together. If only I could bottle up the joy we all felt in that moment.
Some of my teammates along with the Love Mercy folks and the Fee family running along in the first race behind Julius
photo credit for the top two photos: Karen Fee
Lindsay and I on the back of a boda boda
The relay runners at the Lira Stadium
With the first race down, we had our sights set on the youth race in Otuke District the next day. Unfortunately I was up all night the night before with severe acid reflux. It seriously came out of nowhere! I haven’t experienced acid reflux in about 10 years, but it decided to come back in Africa (go figure!). My body really struggled to pull it together on our big day which left me absolutely devastated. I didn’t want to let my team down but my body felt like it was falling apart inside. I took it slow and ended up taking a break at the beginning of the race day activities for a few hours to try and nap in the van. How I was able to do that with all the loud noises, marching bands and thousands of people surrounding me I don’t know, haha. It was a serious struggle but I ultimately decided I would rather work through the pain than sit in the van. I eventually started feeling better and made it through the rest of the day.
Even though I felt like the weakest link on this day I can hands-down tell you without any doubt that my team absolutely killed it! I was in awe of how everyone worked flawlessly together and how everyone pitched in to get the job done. If you saw an area to help out, you stepped in. There was no standing around wondering what to do. Lindsay (our incredible team leader) made an analogy that each team member played a different instrument – each one of us adding a different sound – and we came together to create a beautiful song. It’s highly possible that I completely butchered the analogy, but hopefully you get the gist of it. I couldn’t have asked for a better team. We were all so different, with different strengths, but we worked so well together. Being placed with such great people by my side made this experience even more amazing.
The kids about to start the race!
Julius presenting race winners with their prizes
Best. Team. Ever.
I can’t talk about this experience without mentioning how special the days were leading up to the second race because we got to spend time in the school yard setting the race course while all the kids were there. The kids were eager to help and followed us around every second of the day. You couldn’t even get a bathroom break in without a small pack of kids waiting right there for you. They were in awe of us, and I was in awe of them. Most if not all of these kids walk miles to school and miles home without shoes. They don’t have a lot but they are the happiest little things. We brought a lot of little stickers with us and had the kids line up one by one to “try” to evenly distribute them. After a few minutes some kids would come up to me with their faces covered in stickers. We shared so many laughs over this. I took hundreds of pictures and they always wanted to see what the picture looked like. You’d take their picture and then show them how it turned out. It almost always resulted in belly laughs when they saw their faces covered stickers. I taught them how to make funny faces for the camera and caught so many of them with their tongues out. The guys in our group joined in and our group of five had so much fun doing drills, dancing, singing, clapping and playing duck duck goose with the kiddos. At one point they even sang a song for us as we clapped to their rhythm. Those moments in the schoolyard with the kiddos will stick with me forever. It was such a simple way to connect through human interaction. Even now that I’ve been back home for a few months, I think about those kids every single day. Their genuine smiles and pure joy over the smallest things was a feeling I hope to never forget. Some of the locals told us that those kids were going to go home and dream about us at night. I can only hope that interacting with us was a happy moment for them – because it was the biggest highlight of the trip for me.
My teammate Kevin running through some drills with the kids
Singing and clapping along with the kids
There were conversations amongst our group and members from the other organizations around this feeling of guilt. Guilt when we went to take a drink of water or grab a snack, because we knew that these kids don’t have that luxury. Guilt when we arrive in our van with a driver and then return back to the hotel to eat dinner and sleep in an actual bed. Guilt that we are Westerners showing up for a brief moment and not doing more to help their community. I was a visitor in their community and I wanted to be sensitive to that. Someone said that you can’t control how you were brought into this world and how you were brought up – although you can control how you give back. That sentiment still sticks with me and is something that I never want to forget. That was my big takeaway from this experience and I’m using that mentality as I move forward.
It can feel overwhelming with so many people in this world that need help and so many organizations that need resources and money. I used to sit back and ask myself how do you even know where to start? I would wonder how can I even influence change, I’m just ONE person? I’m ashamed to say that I’ve let these feelings take over and paralyze me to the point where I didn’t take action. Sure I’ve donated to causes that I’m passionate about and still do – but I have the means to do more!
This experience in Uganda really opened my eyes and shifted my perspective. If we all do something, just something, it can add up. What if everyone that felt this same way just volunteered once a month, or donated a small amount to an organization they feel passionate about? Small things have the potential to add up to something big.
I could write a million more words about this experience, but I’ll end it here. I feel like I left out a million details, like how Matt ate fried grasshoppers, how we played a lot of bananagrams and card games every evening, that we ate A LOT of vegetable curry and how we each had our own favorite local African beer (Lindsay was Team Tusker, Matt and Kevin were Team Nile and Scott and I were Team Bell). Come find me and we can talk more about this incredible experience over a couple of beers! 🙂
Uganda will always hold a special place in my heart because of this experience. I can only hope that I’m able to return one day, or find a volunteer experience in another African country in the years to come because I don’t want this to be a one-time experience.
If you’re interested, John Bryant wrote a book about Julius’s life: The Boy Who Runs: The Odyssey of Julius Achon. It’s an incredible read!
And last but not least, I compiled most of the videos that I took on the trip!
My only regret is that I
A: Didn’t take more!
B: Didn’t record them all in the same format, haha!
I hope you enjoy! When you’re watching this video please play Toto’s “Africa”. Before we embarked on this trip I wondered if we’d hear that song along the way and the answer was YES, multiple times. Unfortunately due to copyright laws I couldn’t add it to the video.