I’m in a transition. I quit my full-time, good paying job. I don’t have another job yet, but I think it will all work out. My husband is being supportive although I’m sure he secretly wants to kill me. We’re different. He likes security and predictability. Those things motivate him. Not me. I need purpose and want to be passionate about my work. I want to make an impact. I didn’t feel passionate at my last job, so I resigned. It’s a risk and there are a lot of unknowns, but I’m fortunate I’m in a position where I have a choice. In a way, it feels selfish. Many people have to work really hard jobs that they hate just to survive and some people can’t even find work. My experiences in Uganda often remind me of how lucky I am.
Uganda has the world’s youngest population with over 78 percent of its population below the age of 30. With just under eight million youth aged 15-30, the country also has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Getting an education is difficult because it is not free. Not only is there tuition, but students have to pay for their own uniforms, books and supplies. In many rural areas, poverty is so extreme that the people don’t make an income and live off their land. When you don’t have access to clean water and are trying to figure out how to feed your kids, paying for school fees isn’t a priority. Even if you get an education, a job is not guaranteed. This is a real struggle.
This past year I visited a few refugee settlements for the first time. I was nervous because I didn’t know what I’d see or what to expect. I was surprised. I expected to see extreme poverty, but I didn’t expect to see a community. Rather than rows of white tents and other temporary-looking structures there were thousands of small, round mud huts surrounded by individual gardens. People were walking along the side of the road coming from church or mosque carrying jerry cans for fetching water. Others were working in their garden, burning trash, or cooking on outdoor makeshift stoves. Kids were kicking a ball made out of dried banana leaves or rolling an old bike tire down the road with a stick. The people didn’t seem in transition at all. They seem settled. That’s because Uganda has relatively ‘friendly’ policies that provide rights to the refugees, such as rights to education, work, private property, healthcare and other basic social services. Even though these services are helpful and the community seemed settled, people still struggle with significant uncertainty. They don’t know if their homeland will ever be stable enough to return, they don’t know if they’ll ever get to work in the profession they practiced before fleeing from violence, they don’t know if illness will take their children from this world, and they don’t know what their future holds.
Despite uncertainty and significant challenges, I’ve witnessed many victorious stories. I recently met Martin Muganzi from Uganda. He grew up in a poor, rural area and was raised by his single mother. His desire to go to school was so great that he found every possible odd job to raise the money for his school fees. He also researched every opportunity for scholarships and filled out every application even when the odds seemed impossible. Martin not only went to school, but he went all the way to get his MBA and was selected as a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow. Martin was so grateful for his own opportunity that he wanted to create economic opportunities for other young people. He founded Youth Rising, a community center in Kawempe, Uganda that employs a 360-degree youth development approach designed to empower youth, aged 14-30, holistically and economically. In the first year alone, Youth Rising directly trained 170 youth in baking and culinary arts, digital literacy, fashion and design, business development and urban farming.
Opi Richard was born without arms, but he has a gift. This gift might have never been revealed if wasn’t for my friend, Fr Robert, who like Opi needed someone to lift him up during a turbulent time in his life. Fr. Robert became an orphan by the time he was 6 and survived the violence that plagued Northern Uganda for decades. Several people along the way, provided him freedom to choose a better life. Those gifts led Fr Robert to founding E3 Africa which provides education opportunities for the most vulnerable youth in Uganda. Opi was one of the youths that received support from E3 Africa. He already has one college diploma and is pursuing his second degree in Industrial Art from Michelangelo College of Creative Arts and Design in Kisubi. I have a beautiful painting from Opi that he made with his feet. Opi defied all odds and proved that his disability is not an inability.
My last story still chokes me up every time I tell it. It’s about Dr. Thaddee from Rwanda. Dr. Thaddee is an orphan. He lost all his family during the genocide. Somehow, he made it through school and was accepted into medical school. He met my friend Jeanne online. He was impressed with all the African students she mentors. He asked Jeanne if she would be his adopted mom. Jeanne thought that was so sweet but felt a little skeptical. She wondered if he would start asking her for money. So she asked Dr. Thadee what being his mom meant to him. He said, “When I take a test in school and get a good grade, I want to be able to send it to you and then you would say, Good job!” He just wanted encouragement and affirmation. Sometimes that’s all we need.
I’m grateful I’ve always had support and encouragement to pursue my dreams. There have been times when my dreams have felt unattainable, but the people who have come beside me along the way have made the difference. I have confidence knowing that if I fail or make the wrong choice that I will still be loved and supported. This certainty is what gives me peace and encourages me to continue to dream.