It’s 3:00 AM and I’m wide awake sitting in my hotel room in Gulu, Uganda. Part of the insomnia is adjusting to the time change, and the other part is that I’m feeling anxious about giving a speech at the dedication of the new sport court for Ocer Campion on Friday. I don’t love speaking in front of large groups. “Don’t love” is significant progress from how I used to feel about it. I hated it, and when I say hated that means I was deathly afraid. I would avoid it at all costs. In fact, I wouldn’t go on stage at our annual event for the first 6 years. For the 7th and 8th year, I agreed to have a very small part with someone else on the stage with me. It wasn’t until two years ago when my board finally convinced (maybe slightly harassed 🙂 ) me that I had to share my story. I also had an experience in Uganda that continued to nudge me along and gave me a motive for taking the leap.
It was June 2014 and it was my last day in Uganda. We were going to a very rural village to meet with the leaders of the community where we just completed drilling a borehole (water well) for clean drinking water. This community was identified through the local Rotary as having the most dire need so this project was going to have significant impact. Our plan was to make the 3 hour drive, meet with 3-4 local leaders and then depart for the airport.
I began to feel suspicious when we were about 30 minutes from the site. We were driving on a very narrow and bumpy road. There were many people all walking in the same direction and dressed up like they were going to church. I remember asking my friend, Ben, where they were all going. He just looked at me with a big smile. I remember my heart started to race. When we finally arrived to the site, there were hundreds of people there. My stomach was in knots so Ben had this kind lady show me to her bathroom. To make matters worse, it was a long drop (hole in the floor)! This added to my anxiety and any slight confidence I was hoping to muster had officially left my body.
Plastic chairs were arranged in the front facing all the anxious visitors. The seat right in the middle was empty and saved for me. I sat down next to Ben and quickly whispered that I didn’t want to say anything. He told me that I had to because that is why they all came. Many had never seen a mzungu (white person) before and they learned that I was a woman too. This made it an even bigger deal. No pressure!
I don’t remember everything I said. I know that I stumbled through much of it, but I tried to speak from the heart. I didn’t feel very good about how I did but was relieved it was over. The rest of the ceremony was beautiful. Both the imam and pastor prayed for the borehole, the community, and Pipeline Worldwide and friends of Pipeline Worldwide. They sang, danced and served food. We ended the ceremony by gathering around the borehole. I shook hands with one of the leaders and then started to pump the handle until the water started flowing. I then allowed the leader to replace my hand with his as he continued to pump the water. This gesture was to signify the handing over of the borehole to the community. We said our goodbyes and as we were driving away, Ben patted my arm. He said, “You may have a small voice, but you have a big message.”
If Ben would have told me before our meeting that I was going to have to deliver a speech to hundreds of people, I would have come up with an excuse not to go. I would have missed seeing this Muslim and Christian community holding hands and sharing love and gratitude. It is one of my favorite life experiences.
I’m still not a very good speaker and probably never will be, but I’ve learned to focus on my message and to continue to speak from the heart. It is a privilege to be the small voice that is lifted up by those who can’t be heard and knowing my occasional discomfort can lead to unforeseen beauty and growth is worth it.