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Meditations from Uganda

by Aisha O'Neil, La Plata's Young Dem


“You are welcome here.” Those were nearly always the first words a stranger would utter to me in Uganda, whether a shopkeeper, a tour guide, or a student. If not that, then “welcome back”– as if I had already met them; as if I had found belonging in the foreignness of a country thousands of miles from home.


I traveled to Uganda this summer with the Global Livingston Institute (GLI), representing the Colorado Student Leadership Institute in a youth summit. The goal of the summit, among other things, was to reform Western ideology surrounding Africa. For centuries, America has preached the need to “teach” African people our ideals. GLI encouraged high school students to learn from Ugandans instead. Yet what is there to learn from a country that has lived under the same dictator for 37 years? Where more than one-third of young children are stunted by malnutrition and life expectancy is over 14 years less than it is in the United States?


So much.


In Uganda, I learned many of the lessons a middle-class white American girl usually avoids encountering: I learned that both shrunken and enlarged stomachs signify starvation; that working as a tour guide is a rather prestigious occupation; that resiliency is as much a symptom of poverty as hunger: each person I met dreamed of a brighter future. The man who sold woven hats and whose wife nursed her baby in his shop wanted to save enough money to travel to America. The teenager I played soccer with wanted to start an orphanage after he finished school, to aid children who had grown up as desolate as he had. My friend Yvette hoped to be a famous journalist; Lillian dreamed of becoming a farmer. And every story, always, was preceded by a wide smile and the phrase: “You are welcome here.”


I believe I learned from that expression more than anything else. No matter the despondency of the village I was visiting, no matter if its children wore ill-fitting winter coats in summer, no matter if they had shoes on their feet, my needs were always attended to. I was always welcomed, and my health was always inquired after. Strangers would wish me a good day and ask about school in America. Somehow I did find belonging in a country where most speak only in broken English, if at all. 


Yet perhaps I am no longer writing about East Africa– perhaps I am writing about home. In America, just as in Uganda, each person is a story, not only of desolation but also hope for the future. In America, just as in Uganda, the ranch hand with a “Trump won 2020!” sign hanging from the side of his truck and an absurdly long rifle visible through his windows will offer a beer and a ride if your car breaks down in front of his house. It may be the lessons from Uganda – albeit a country that prefers the stability of a dictatorship to democratic elections – that are missing in modern Democratic activism. Perhaps from that country, we can learn the merits of listening before forming judgments; of welcoming ideas and perspectives which differ from our own.


When I returned from Uganda, my family and friends expected me to be grateful. They articulated their beliefs before I left– “It is trips like that which reminds you how privileged you are,” my grandfather told me. “That will really make you think differently about what you have,” my mother said. But I was not grateful. I was infuriated. I saw no reason why – by mere privilege of birth – I should never know the pain of hunger or anguish of unfulfilled dreams. I have chosen to nourish that anger because it translates to my work in the US. Why should there be people experiencing homelessness when they live beside Durango’s many mansions? Why should 34% of teenagers not be able to afford college? Why should the United States not aid the development of nations like Uganda? Maybe, if we found a way to learn from a country we have so often taught, we would find ourselves incrementally closer to solving those questions.


Aisha is a senior at Durango High School.

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