Park student reflects on life-changing experience

14 Aug

Andi Enns makes friends in the tiny village of Kolo, in the Gulu district of northern Uganda.

Some people go the movies or read novels to discover a different world. I used to be one of those people, staring in wide-eyed wonder through 3D glasses and longing to experience something new. Then I discovered something so much better: travel.

Zoom over a few bumpy dirt streets in Kampala, Uganda and you’ll find an urban neighborhood made of sheet metal lean-tos and plywood shacks. Kids run everywhere, and women prepare meals in groups. Religious messages are scratched into the side of every structure. And while perhaps the most striking thing at first for a naïve American is the grime and the poverty, that’s not the image that stays.

After visiting a family in a Ugandan slum, the torn ill-fitting clothing almost seems like an afterthought to the vibrancy of the smiles. The people had so much hope and faith. They trusted that tomorrow would be just a little bit better than today.

They stay smiling day after day, even when they eat the same boiled mashed matooke (like plantains) day in and day out.

It made me painfully cognizant of American arrogance. In a land of extreme luxury, we still act ungrateful. I am ashamed to admit that I’m the same way. How dare any public place be without wi-fi? What excuse is there for a lack of hot water? Why does service take so dang long?

I was always conscious of what I was “doing without”. I took provisions to ensure I lived the same padded American life I have always lived – snacks, travel-sized beauty products, video games on my iPod to stave off boredom. I may have taken a cold shower, but I dried off to go use my shiny new laptop while watching CNN on television and munching fancy trail mix.

It really made me question the American way of life, and I began to really consciously compare the differences. The best way to compare is how Americans and Ugandans answer their doors. A Ugandan warmly welcomes you and invites you into their home for tea even if they’ve never see you before in their life. An American stands blocking the entrance and asks what you want, with the implication that you should go away. Suddenly, the American way seemed barbaric and isolated.

At one point, bouncing along a rutted dirt road with a team of local journalists, on our way to report about the water crisis in the area, one woman leaned over to me and whispered, “Welcome to Africa.”

In the moment, I thought she was just being friendly. I didn’t know it was a warning.

Our trip into a village of mud-huts inhabited by peanut farmers started out decently enough. We reporters got our quotes and we were packing up. I noticed a muddy preschool-aged boy watching us, so I squatted down to say hello. His belly protruded far beyond his toes – a sign that his family doesn’t have enough to eat. As I looked at him, I came to a sudden idiotic realization – Africa is real.

I had been in country for nearly two weeks. I had seen poverty-stricken neighborhoods and people injured in the recent war. But as I looked into the deep brown eyes of this child, it was actualized for me. When my grandmother told me to eat my dreaded carrots because there are starving children in Africa, she meant this little boy. It really touched me in a way that is hard to describe. I felt like something clicked into place at the same as being jarred violently.

Even as different as everything seemed, one thing apparently crosses all cultures and country boundaries. As a man bicycled by, blaring shrill electronic tunes from a boom box as he passed, the kids’ eyes lit up. In every part of the world, ice cream men are the most annoying people in the neighborhood. –Andria Enns, Park Univ.

Published in The Parkville Luminary, August 2010

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