I credit my Global Literature professor, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and, as my mother would later point out, the Holy Spirit for the reason I ended up in Uganda in May of 2014.
In the Fall of 2013, I took a Global Literature class at Plymouth State University. We were assigned to read the Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a book I fell in love with). But prior to reading it, our professor showed us a TED Talk by Adichie: “The Danger of A Single Story” Perhaps it sounds ridiculous that an eighteen minute TED Talk could change my life, let alone prompt me to go to another continent, but that’s exactly what happened. In her talk, Chimamanda (who grew up in Nigeria) explains her initial interaction with her American college roommate:
She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. . . .
Towards the end of her talk, Adichie notes the danger in a single story and how it is created:
Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.
I spent the rest of that class wondering how many “single stories” I had of other people, of other places, of other cultures. This question did not end with that class period, or even that semester; instead, it continued to gnaw at me. My family had always taught me that you don’t need to leave your backyard to find people to serve. I greatly value this mentality. It is so true. We are called to serve everyone, especially those closest to us. But there is something unique about serving abroad. I had never left the United States, and had traveled very little beyond the East Coast. This, I decided, needed to change.
So, I spent my entire Christmas break researching Catholic mission trips to Africa. I think at the time my family thought this was just a “phase,” a lofty dream that would remain just that–a dream. But eventually I stumbled upon FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) Missions. They were offering a month long mission trip to two countries in Africa–Uganda and Togo. I applied and then I waited. In January 2014, I was accepted on the Uganda mission trip. I’m not sure who was more shocked, me or my parents, but suddenly my dream was becoming a reality.
The night before I was to leave, panic gripped my heart. I looked up from the misquote netting I was wrestling into my bag, biting my lip, trying not to cry–“Mom, what am I doing, what was I thinking?!…” [Here’s the thing, I am …or at least was…the definition of a homebody. I like predictable situations, I was adverse to change, and preferred spending time with people I knew. Yet, here I was about to board a plane and spend a month with 20+ people I’d never met, on a continent thousands of miles from home.] Mom didn’t even blink: “Honestly, honey, I’m not really sure what you were thinking. All I can say is that this was an act of the Holy Spirit.”
My time in Uganda was life changing and full of juxtapositions–it was heart wrenching and joy filled; I saw immense beauty and extreme poverty; I’ve never felt more homesick and yet I gained a family; I doubted God’s will for me on this trip but came to see him in the most profound ways. I could write countless stories about my time there, and perhaps I will over these next few months as I prepare to go back. But I want to talk about the title of this post…my promise to return.
I knew my time in Uganda would be life-changing, but I underestimated just how much the Ugandan people would impact me, etching their memories and love into my heart. Throughout my time there I would ask the people what I could do to help them when I returned to the United States, over and over again I heard the same response: “Just come back here one day.”
One day, when I was working with a Brother of the Missionaries of the Poor, I asked him if I could send him money or products. He looked me in the eyes and said, “So many people will send us money because they are unable, or too afraid, to come here and help us do this work. Look around. So many children need to be loved, so many need to be fed. We [the Brothers] do our best, but there is never enough hands. Promise to return to Uganda, promise to return. That is how you can help.”
So I promised. Someday, I will return.
Ever since I came back to the United States I have been unable to go more than a week without thinking of this beautiful country. Some days it is all I’ve been able to think about. Countless times, I’ve tried to find a time to return, but the timing was never right, or it would mean that traveling alone. But finally the time is right. In July of 2019 I will be returning to Uganda, I will fulfill my promise. This time, my sister, Bridget, will be by my side. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit will be guiding our journey, just as he did 4 years ago.