Uganda Be Kidding Me: Part 1
Many people have asked about the whole story from my volunteer water safety outreach trip to Uganda. I haven’t shared it because I don’t want to take away from the beautiful people and overall awesome experience I had. I don’t want to deter anyone from volunteering in Africa. It has been over two months since I returned, ahead of schedule, from Uganda. Now that I have shared all of the positive outcomes from the 10-day Water Safety Outreach, it’s time to share the rest of the story…*Names have been changed*
“It’s time to take my skills to other countries where they need me. I’m ready. Bring it on.”
Be careful how you offer ideas up to the universe. Although I should have been more specific in my request, I knew that I really was ready for anything. I was craving an international trip and was excited to start weaving my passions for travel and swimming together. Something big was on the horizon and I didn’t want to limit the possibilities by detailing when and where I wanted to go. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been a bit more specific with words like “funded program,” “appreciative organization,” or “risk-free adventure.” Now I know.
The standard response I give when asked about Uganda is, “Absolutely incredible. Life-changing.” Because it was. And depending on the person, I end with, “…Until we had to flee the country.” The ‘Africa Incident,’ as I refer to it, started in late August. The end of the summer is always bittersweet for me. As kids go back to school and swimming lesson chaos settles down, I transition into fall with a fresh perspective, in search of a new challenge. What’s next? Who needs my skills? What new project can I work on? I get bored doing the same thing and like to mix it up a bit, pushing myself to new extremes.
So there I am- contemplating the next step, when Abraham*, a pastor in Uganda and founder of a non-profit organization that promotes water safety, reaches out for help. He is running a Water Safety Outreach on Lake Victoria and needs professionals to provide water safety and swimming training and help reduce their drowning statistics. Feeling at least a little useful, I tell him I can send my swimming and water safety curriculum featuring Life with Lou: A Swimming Adventure to the Island of Taboo. He thanks me and goes into detail about the event.
Abraham shares that an estimated 95% of children fetch water for their home from dams, open wells, rivers, lakes and other open water sources. 97% of the children cross rivers and other bodies of water on their way to school. They are exposed to drowning risks every day. His organization is reaching out to the community with water safety education through schools and village council meetings.
Amazing. This man is a saint! He needs my help. I know the World Health Organization Drowning Statistics. They break my heart. As I drink my purified spring water, I read that…
– 9 African countries are attending the outreach
– 300 children will learn how to swim
– 50 adults will learn how to swim and be trained as swim instructors
That’s basically my dream! I am familiar with Pastor Abraham through social media. Our purpose connects us with many water safety organizations and individuals with one thing in common- We all want to prevent drowning. Worldwide. And we all need to work together to attain this goal. So Abraham asks me the perfect question at the perfect time…
“Can you or a member of your organization travel to Africa to help?”
Uhhhhh…no! Yes? Yes! How can I say no? Here I am looking for purpose and it comes right to me. In the form of Pastor Abraham. If there is one thing I can help with, it is teaching anyone and everyone how to swim. It is my purpose and I am clearly being called.
I think of the sweet children, making their way to Lake Victoria so they can provide water for the family. I think of the kids walking and canoeing miles to school because their desire to learn is strong enough to cross rivers. Because education is valued.
I ask about funding for the long trip to Africa. Abraham explains that I will need to be a volunteer, as they are fundraising to provide accommodations for the 50 Instructor Trainees so they don’t have to canoe 30+ miles daily for the training. I laugh to myself about my first-world problems and assure him that I will be there. Especially if someone is willing to canoe 30 miles a day to learn from me! I commit myself as a volunteer for the Africa Water Safety Outreach: An initiative aimed at sharing water safety education and drowning prevention in Africa.
It is the next logical step. I can change drowning statistics. I can make a difference in Uganda. I only have a month to prepare, but I know I can make it happen with some help. So, I start a GoFundMe page to see if anyone else thinks that Africa is a good idea. I fund through my 501c3, Face in Water, so all donations are tax-deductible. Money raised helps with my vaccinations, travel, accommodation and food expenses, as all volunteers must pay their own way. Additional funds raised go toward providing learn-to-swim books and curriculum. As soon as my page goes up, the support comes in! I know I am on the right path as friends and family open their hearts and wallets, sending donations, prayers and messages of encouragement. I feel so much love as people tell me I need to go to Africa. I need to help the people of Uganda.
Making it Happen
I got to work on plane tickets, vaccinations, visas, etc. Pastor Abraham and I Skype quite a bit to get to know each other, plan the program and figure out logistics. When I ask about pool availability, he tells me the training will be in Lake Victoria. I’m sorry- what?! He says it is fine to swim there because there are no dangerous animals near the outreach. I am not comfortable with this, as I picture locals using the lake as a source of drinking water, a bath, a laundry mat and a toilet. Obviously Abraham knows because he is there and surely he won’t take his international volunteers/ guests to any unsafe places.
I begin googling Uganda. It doesn’t sound like an ideal place for a blonde, single woman, but I put it out there and Uganda was the first country to respond. It’s interesting when you tell people you’re going to Uganda. The first question is always, “Why?” And it’s not like, “Oh awesome! Why?! You’re so lucky!” It’s more like, “Why the hell would you ever want to go there?”
When I tell my accountant where I am going he says, “I’m not putting up money for your ransom and neither is your family.” Ha! Ransom! Yea right. I speak to friends that have done missionary work in Africa and they assure me that yes, it can be dangerous, but so can many places. I’ve traveled the world and have always enjoyed experiencing new countries, discovering new cultures and getting to know new friends. My excitement far outweighs any concerns I have. I’m excited!
In retrospect, it’s better that I only had a month to prepare for the trip, because there was so much to do and it came up so fast. There wasn’t enough time to truly do deep research into what I was getting myself into…
I find out that there are eight trainers total- from the United States, New Zealand and The Gambia- that will be attending the outreach in Uganda. I message online with an American woman (We will call her *Polly) that has been planning the trip for over a year. She assures me that Pastor Abraham had done his due diligence researching the outreach location and that surely there will be signs and ropes alerting people if any danger exists. Ummm…Hello!?!?!?! This is Africa we are talking about. This worries me, but I trust the process. If Polly has been planning this for a year, I’m sure she has addressed all of the concerns that instantly flew into my brain when I agreed to fly to Africa.
While researching Lake Victoria, and more specifically the Ssese Islands, I discover that there is bilharzia in the lake. You don’t want to know. It’s a parasite carried by water snails. You can’t see it, but it gets into your skin and later you poop out worms. Yep. Worms. Ugh- that’s all I need. I don’t want to be the downer of the group, but I’m certainly not willing to risk my long-term health for this mission work. I mention it to Abraham in our next chat and he tells me they have a vaccine for us upon arrival. Okay, phew!
I research the bilharzia vaccine and find there is none. Hmmmm… There must be a communication breakdown. Abraham must not realize what I’m asking about. I bring it up again and he tells me there are pills to take for it after exposure. No big deal. Well, it is to me. I’m so torn. Polly is planning on teaching in Lake Victoria. I contact another instructor from the United States that has been planning on attending the outreach for six months. She really wants to go but is thinking of cancelling because she does not want to go in Lake Victoria. I tell her I’m not going in the lake. I’m glad someone else wants to take precautions with their health.
During my next conversation with Abraham, I tell him that I will not purchase my plane ticket until he assures me that we will be teaching in a pool. I make sure he understands that I will not go in Lake Victoria. He promises me a pool. It’s expensive to rent, but we will rent it. Thank goodness.
A week before departure, I speak to the instructor that is thinking about canceling. She is devastated. She tells me that Abraham is extremely upset with her for telling the other instructors lies about bilharzia. Lies? What? Although she has been planning for half a year, she cancels the trip. She isn’t comfortable with Abraham and his lack of concern for the health of the instructors. Now we are down to seven instructors. I personally feel like she is over-reacting. It was just a communication/ cultural breakdown. The first of many I’m sure!
This is how I see a trip to Africa…Expect the worst and hope for the best. Assume there is cold water, possibly running, but maybe not. Bring flashlights because who knows about electricity. Plan on getting sick. It’s Africa. There are so many factors that separate our cultures. While one may enter a situation with the best of intentions, in the end you are still an impostor. Your values are not their own. What we think of as ‘civilized’ may not be embraced. As a former ESL teacher, I find all of my skills coming together to prepare for this life-changing venture. I attempt to put any assumptions aside and enter with an open heart and an open mind.
The Adventure Begins…
Before I know it, the three-flight, 39 hour trip is upon me. I am the first to arrive at Entebbe Airport Saturday morning and I am greeted by three men from the outreach- two incredible gentlemen that I am grateful for and will appreciate for the rest of my life and one that I will never talk to again.
I learn a lot the first few hours in Uganda…
- Uganda is #6 in countries with the most drownings, at 5,000+ a year.
- Men matter. Women don’t and children most definitely do not.
- Human life is not a priority, so drowning is not seen as a problem. Basically, it is God’s will, the birds will get the body and it’s one less mouth to feed.
- If you report a drowning, you will be arrested for having something to do with it.
- The Ssese Islands are made up of 84 islands, 64 of which are inhabited. The outreach is in the Kalangal district on Bugala, the main island.
At the end of Day #1, Pastor Abraham presents me with a problem…
“We are $2500 short of budget- What should we do?”
We had this conversation via Skype a week ago and I told him to reduce the number of trainees from 50 to 30 to save money. I repeated the same recommendation. Pastor Abraham is clearly worried about finances, but I’m sure it will all work out. This outreach has been planned for over a year and from what it sounds like, he has been working tirelessly to make sure everything runs smoothly. As I turn in for the evening, Abraham puts his hands together and lifts them above his head. “God will provide!”
*This is Part 1 of what I’m guessing will be a 3 or 4 Part series of posts. Tune in next week for Part 2.