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i recently had the amazing opportunity to visit Uganda for 2 weeks. it changed my life, forever. i will never look at the United States of America the same way again. also, upon posting this, i noticed i referenced MJ's Man in the Mirror in my last post too... and ever since i've been back, it has taken on a whole new meaning (for more than one reason.)

Well I've taken my last malaria pill; washed my clothes in hot water and dried them… in a dryer; had a beer and got hit on by a creepy old white dude downtown Friday night… so I guess that means, I’m officially home.

I've gotten a lot of questions about Uganda since I've been home, mainly did I ever not feel safe and how was the food… the answers are no, I never felt unsafe (it was the exact opposite actually, I always felt welcome) and the food was delicious. People had definitely told me some stories about getting sick when traveling to such destinations, but my body welcomed the matooke, rice and chapatti’s with open arms. Oh, chapatti’s, where have you been all my life? (They are basically big, thick, chewy crepes and are oh so delicious!) Think about the NYC street food vendors and multiple that by a 1,000, that’s Uganda… except without all the sanitation rules and regulations. Most were only lit by a candle at night. But I loved it and it wasn't until I started eating Western food again, that my body was not a happy camper. (I’m not considering this TMI (Too Much Information) since so many people asked about it and wanted to know if I would have a horror story about food, sorry folks, I do not have one.)

I’m having a hard time adjusting back, not just with the food, but with everything. Even going out to dinner with the Fruitcakes and having a glass of wine. Or being downtown and drinking a beer, listening to crappy music or even going to see a movie. Seems like normal things to do because I used to do it all the time and I enjoyed it, those are some of my favorite things to do (minus the crappy music part) but now it’s just… different. Everything here is so easy, so comfortable… so clean. Partly because this is my home, it should be easy and comfortable. I know where I’m going, I know how things work. So I guess the biggest part of me that has changed (and a lot of me has forever been changed) is perspective. I always knew of the abundance of the Western world, but now, it’s like I look at every single thing and think what a luxury this is or what a waste that is. I've found myself people watching (sorry, if you catch me staring at you, I’m not creepy, I’m just observing.) So I might be going blind from all the eye rolling I've been doing and decided rather than yell at people and slap them in the face for being selfish and taking things for granted (for many reasons, mostly lawsuits) that I will just kill them with kindness and show them how to be a decent human being
With that said, I already had a low tolerance but now I have exactly NO tolerance for laziness; whining for superficial things you don’t have; and selfish abundance. Do you have to walk down the street to fetch water and carry jerry can’s full of water back to your house every day? No? Then I don’t want to hear you complain about how it’s “super inconvenient” that your water is off for a few hours while repairs on being done to be sure this doesn't happen in the future. (You can tell I work in Property Management, people complain about everything… Every. Little. Thing.) “Deep breath, Allison. Kill them with kindness, kill them with kindness. Don’t get yourself fired.”

Although, there are more differences in the two countries, Uganda has a lot of similarities to the States. There are a lot of small businesses; they have extremely talented musicians; they have shopping malls (albeit not as grand and unnecessary as the ones here); banks and ATM's (spent a lot of time there); and everyone has a cell phone. But the differences are way different, not everyone has electricity and  the aforementioned running water, much less hot water; there are few paved roads and virtually no street signs (which kept me constantly lost the entire time); time is of no importance there (which was somewhat refreshing compared to the rat race that is this country operates on.) Another huge difference, was one of the most impressive things about the people of Uganda is that they know and speak so many languages. English, Luganda, Swahili, Arabic, German, other local African dialects… even the kids, especially the kids! I don’t think I met anyone that didn't at least speak 3 languages. I was amazed! Because here in the States, we speak English and tell everyone else they must too. People bitch about having to hear a Spanish option when calling a company. Duh! We are a nation of immigrants; we should know more than one language. When I was talking a friend about how many languages everyone speaks, he told me that they have to speak them, so they can communicate not only with other African, but the world. Wow! What a concept America… having communication with the outside world because News Flash, the world doesn't revolve around us.

Another amazing thing, the country is full of Christians and Muslims and you know what, they get along just fine. They are friends and I hung around both of them, together.  Everyone was respectful of their differences. There’s another one for you America… respecting others despite your differences. We should try it sometime. It actually makes life enjoyable. Just imagine liking (and disliking) people for who they are, for their personality or moral compass, not for who or what they choose to believe in. Now, I know a lot of people in this country have “issues” with Muslims (even the guy at US Customs when he asked if I was training at a terrorist camp while in Uganda) because of 9/11 and no matter what I say, I will not change their minds because they are so closed, but Muslims are not responsible for 9/11… terrorist extremists are.  And (this is probably going to upset a lot of people) but extremists of all kinds (yes, conservatives and liberals) are just as detrimental to this country as those terrorist extremists.

Anyone that knows anything about me, knows how I would feel about not only the Ugandan government, but all government’s, especially regarding women’s rights and gay rights, so I will not step on my soapbox (I hear your sighs of relief!) …except the next time you are bitching about the US government and what they do and mainly don’t do these days… just remember at least you have the freedom to. We have rules and regulations to protect us and keep us safe so that we may live long and prosper. They are there for a reason, but don’t think for one minute that we would be better off without them, we wouldn't be. That’s what makes this country, this country and not any other. That’s what made this country successful. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot, but it’s a whole helluva lot better than most. You should wake up every day thankful. We have government programs that support our poor and underprivileged and so that we don’t have hundreds of kids sleeping on the streets at night, hustling during the day, getting beat by the police and then imprisoned in a children’s jail. Because that is the reality in Kisenyi, Uganda.

I didn't mean for this to be a US bitch-fest, this is a great country, no doubt about that, I just wish we were as great as others except us to be. I wish it was as great as the kids in Uganda imagine it to be.  My life has been changed and my outlook on life is forever altered. I’m not going to pretend I’m not trying to change the world, but the world just changed me first.

And I’m also not going to lie that I had the hardest day in my whole life while I was there, being in such a different environment completely out of my comfort zone and around anything or anyone familiar, is a very humbling experience… and I recommend everyone doing it. The kids and the people welcomed me with open arms and trust, and I did the same. I met some amazing kids, and it breaks my heart that the world will not know of them or their talents and dreams due to their circumstances. It’s not like the Sally Struthers commercials to help the sad, sad children. These children were happy, happy with so little and so appreciative of every single thing I had brought for them. These kids don’t take anything for granted. I tried to hug them as much as possible, hugs go a long way. Especially to those who don’t get them every day. They taught me more than I taught them. I often felt like I need their hugs more than they needed mine. And as I was crying like a baby (as Umaru kept saying) as him, Dagalous, Kathy and Patricia were hugging  me and holding my hand as I was saying goodbye to them after the wedding, I think it was pretty obvious what the kids mean to me. In fact, that is one of the best times I had there, dancing and laughing with kids at the wedding. We had a great time!

The kids are in good hands, Patrick, who founded Raising Up Hope (www.raisinguphope.org), a street kid himself, along with his sister, Allen were to be adopted by an American lady after she had met him on the street… the very streets of Kisenyi.  So with passports in hand, ready to whisk them away to the glorious United States of America, Patrick decided to stay and help the other street kids. He said he just couldn't leave the other kids, they needed help. He was 12 when he made that decision. 12! He is an amazing man, always with a great attitude; his laughter and excitement are contagious. And spending just one minute with him, you can’t help but be inspired. He’s the hardest working man I have ever met… and all of that hard work is directly for these children (and for William and Esther’s wedding.) He gave up his dreams and a cushy American life; to be sure kids like him would have a chance too. If that doesn't tell you what kind of strength, courage and hope Uganda has, I don’t know what will.

A lot of the kids said it would be a dream come true to come to the States… and I wish I could have brought them all back with me. They would love it here, I know they would. But then again I think how in the land of abundance, that stuff doesn't make you happy; in fact, I think stuff makes us turn in a-holes. The more we have, the more we want because we see everyone else having it. That’s the stupidest thing I've ever heard. How does that make you happy? You know what makes you happy? The relationships you have with people, your family and friends. Laughing. Smiling. Hugs. Kisses. Unexpected warm, sunny days.  Thunderstorms. Those things make you happy and guess what; they don’t cost one cent… or shilling. Stuff only makes us think we are happy, because we are brain washed into thinking it does. If you believe in heaven and the pearly gates, when you get there, God is not going to ask you how much stuff you had… he’s going to ask (er, I guess he should already know) what kind of person were you? Were you kind? Were you generous? Were you selfless? Because it’s the type of person you are that matters… and all the stuff and all the money in all the world will not change you into a better person, only you can do that. I noticed a lot (okay, most everyone) getting by on so much less and being happier than most Americans and I’m convinced that it’s a better way of life… minus the whole running water, constant electricity thing. That does make everyday life much easier, but it can be lived without as I saw first hand.

Although, the kids are happy (or seemed happy to me – I don’t think they get depressed like American kids, because they don’t have much, never had much, so they don’t have much to miss – insert my comments about stuff again) it still takes a lot to take care of them. They get 2 meals a day for the most part, but there’s no variety; matooke (mashed green bananas), rice, poshe (which is just cornstarch and water) and occasionally some fish, meat or Irish potatoes. They loved candy! …I mean, who doesn't? Shoes had to be bought so that they all could attend the wedding… even shoes for them is a luxury.  They have a TV in the house, it’s fuzzy most of the time though. They are geniuses though. They make their own toys, well partly because if they want toys, they have to make them. My favorite was a little man out of tin foil (not sure if his name was Tim or related to Tina – sorry folks, only like 4 people are going to get that reference, but I had to say it) and attached a parachute (made from a plastic bag) to him with string and climbed up the tree and let them float to the ground. It was like something kids here would pay $20 bucks for and play with only once. But they had the best time, making it and playing with it… and I had the best time just being a small part of that enjoyment.

But Patrick is not the only one taking care of the kids, Thursday lunches, the purchase of the shoes, an entire house at the Village of Hope and thousands of other things (like paying for the kids to go swimming; a visit to the clinic for Mark who had malaria) was due to another amazing individual Kathy and her organization Desana (www.desanagiving.org) and I’m actually shocked this is the first time I've brought her up because I owe her everything as my trip to Uganda would not have been possible, enjoyable or memorable without her. I could write another novella on just her and how we became fast friends and how strong and amazing she is for overcoming great obstacles in her own life to now be living in Uganda, giving every day to these kids and being a beckon of light and hope for them. They absolutely love Auntie Kathy and so do I. She showed me the ropes, helped and guided me so much, I’m forever grateful for her kindness, friendship and strength… and for introducing to me too some pretty amazing new friends too!

I could write all day about what’s in my head about Uganda and how it changed me and all the fascinating things I saw, people I met, and how I miss it all, but it’s really not about me. In the Village of Hope (land that was just purchased to build 4 houses for the kids; 8 in each house with one house mother so that they can get the attention they need) they are about $1,000 short of being able to complete just the first house. The cost of one house is $16,000… they are so close, so I made a promise that when I got back, I would try to help them. When Patrick first told me that it was just $16,000 to build a house, I thought, whoa, that’s it? Then he said to me, “That’s a lot of money, right?” And then, I thought… well yes.  Yes it is. A little goes a long way there! So if you ever want to do some good and pay it forward, (maybe instead of buying more stuff that you really don’t need) please know if you donate to Raising Up Hope and Desana, that truly 100% of the funds you donate go directly to the kids and to the projects to better their lives. I've seen it first hand, people. These are amazing people doing extraordinary work for some pretty awesome kids.

One thing Kathy said she struggles with every day is not being able to help every child in need. And for every smiling face, there was a disappointed face… or two. But she and Patrick are making a huge difference in the kids’ lives that they can help.  And the more people that understand that the world doesn't begin and end in the US, the more kids that can be helped. There are enough resources in this world for poverty in Africa (and even here in the US) just not to be.  So upon my return, I’m back to hearing how we have a socialist society, where we want to “spread the wealth to people who don’t work for it,” I’m even more infuriated at the selfishness of some of the people in this country… and I’m reminded that I can’t change someone’s mind, whose mind doesn't want to be challenged. I'm reminded that people have to struggle in every country to provide for their families. But I’m also reminded of the good in this country and selfless people like Kathy who chose to live in a less comfortable place, so that she can help these kids. I’m reminded of the organizations like One.org, whose efforts are leading to ending extreme poverty. I’m reminded of my friends and family who no matter how small gave me something to give the kids, which bought them much happiness both for them and the kids… and I’m reminded of a belief held by Anne Frank;  that despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart. We all need to be the change we wish to see in the world... it’s the only hope we have.

"I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways and no meassge could have been any clearer. If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change." Man In The Mirror, MJ

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

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