My sister and I went to Uganda hoping for some personal, spiritual benefits. We’d abandoned the numbing American culture of consumption, and we hoped for a pure experience of important and passionate service. Instead we found a bewildering maze of questions. Why do poor people spend so much money on clothing and hairstyle? A lesson about priorities. Why do we feel like we’re in England every day at tea-time? A lesson about postcolonial culture. Why are there no jobs for talented young graduates? A lesson about global economics.
SFTS helped me sort through many of the big questions. Later I ran a summer program for volunteers in Uganda, guided by Dr. Phil Wickeri’s mission class. I also participated in the Muilenberg-Koenig History of Religion Seminar run by Dr. Chris Ocker on the topic of poverty. I was able to learn more about historical approaches to poverty relief, some of which we will try to use in Children of Uganda (I now serve on the Board of Directors).
Children of Uganda (COU) has cared for thousands of children since 1995. All have been affected in some way by the dual scourges of AIDS and poverty that have nearly destroyed Uganda. The adult generation has virtually disappeared; today, half of Uganda’s population is under the age of fifteen. There are 8 million children identified as “orphans and vulnerable children,” and only 11% of them are receiving any outside aid. About 500 are currently in the care of COU. It’s a fragment of the total need, but every tiny bit counts.
COU’s public face is our dancers. From kindergarten on, all COU children receive training in the Ugandan traditions of music and dance. With the adult generation decimated, many of these traditions were nearly lost. But we know and value the power of music to transform suffering, to encourage and uplift, and to maintain a sense of cultural pride. Every few years COU brings the most talented dancers to the US as ambassadors for Uganda’s orphan population. I saw the Tour of Light as a teenager, and the children’s infectious joy was life-changing. I look forward to assisting with the next tour in January 2012. I lie awake at night dreaming of this tour and the lives it may change.
I often am told “you’re so passionate.” I am quick to repeat the lesson I learned: Passion is not something you can choose - not a value add-on to your otherwise lovely life. Passion is something that gets inflicted on you. An orphan child asks “can I call you mum?” and suddenly you no longer have the privilege of ignoring global injustice. The price of food in East Africa is suddenly a live and pressing issue. And so you find yourself setting up a table somewhere, holding out your hands, saying “can I tell you about Uganda?” and asking otherwise comfortable people to sponsor children in need. No matter what else I may do in my life, I can never leave this work behind.