Everything I Need to Know, I Learned In Africa
In August 2007 a young lady traveled alone to Uganda to make a difference. In the year since, more than a dozen others have followed. Here is one student's account of her months spent in Africa this past summer.
By Elise Fisher
The summer was coming to a close as another volunteer and I walked the dirt paths on our way to church. Soaking in the beautiful Ugandan day, and knowing it was one of our last, we couldn’t help but ask ourselves a few questions: How could we describe the incredible transformations we had experienced in the last three months? What words would we use? What would we say when our families asked us the inevitable questions, “What’s Africa like? What did you learn?” Although words cannot fully express the whole story I would like to share seven of the profound lessons I learned in Africa.
First, God Weeps
What enters your mind when you think about Africa? Poverty. Disease. Hunger. Ignorance. Violence. Surrounded by these things, I recorded some of my thoughts in my journal.
3 July 2008:
“Poverty is not the saddest thing in the world. There are many things which are worse. Poverty is something that you can adapt to fairly easily and it, by no means, inhibits you from being happy. There are rich people who are happy and rich who aren’t; poor people who are happy and poor who aren’t. I’m not trying to down-play the negative effects of poverty, but simply want to point out it is not as horrifying as some people say. Although poverty can be temporarily cured through charity, the true problems that stand in the way of success, happiness, and peace, remain.
“Does God weep at poverty? Does he weep at disease? Does He weep when a family must use a charcoal stove because they can’t afford electricity? Does He weep because they must haul their water from a well, or use a latrine? I don’t think He does.
“I think God weeps when His children turn on each other, abuse one another, and hate their own blood.
"He weeps when we choose to use sarcastic or biting words rather than loving ones.
He weeps when our pride keeps us from admitting our mistakes and apologizing to those we have wronged.
"He weeps when we ignore His prompting to comfort someone in need of comfort, when we choose to look away rather than warmly greet the man or woman walking down our same path.
"He weeps when we forget that those around us are His children—that they have thoughts and feelings similar to ours, that they have dreams, hopes, and fears, and that they have been hurt.
"He weeps when we have the choice to be warm and inviting, to say a kind word, to acknowledge another, to share our beauty or talents; and we choose, instead, to put up walls, to guard our hearts, for fear of being hurt, unaware that by doing so, we are choosing not to add to the peace and happiness of another—pain that could have been relieved is left to itself.
“The real tragedy of this world is the hardening of men's hearts, turning away from God and humanity; when human beings stop treating each other as human beings—when a society’s heart is hardened because of it. The wound deepens, and God weeps.”
Second, The Power of Mentoring
A uniting energy developed when I sat with my students, looked them in the eyes, and truly desired to know who they were and how I could make their lives better.
After forming these connections, my students were much more disposed to arrive at class on time, put their cell phones away, listen to the lesson, participate, and make lasting changes in their lives. Mentoring is powerful—it helps us connect with who we really are. As we do this we start to see God in each other and both people walk away with a desire to become more like Him.
Mentoring greatly increases trust and respect and creates a comfortable environment of learning. It doesn’t have to be a student/teacher relationship. Essential principles of mentoring can be used throughout all areas of life. For example, looking people in the eye, being concerned with their happiness and welfare, inspiring them, and guiding them when necessary—all these things are forms of mentoring and bring the same benefits to you and those you interact with.
Third, Achieving the Impossible
While studying Man’s Search For Meaning with our class at Mukono Town Academy, I learned that finding purpose is the secret to ceasing merely to exist and actually starting to live. When we find purpose in life, life finds purpose in having us here and in maintaining us. That which was previously deemed impossible, though it still requires much effort and pain, becomes achievable. Since I returned from Uganda, the following has become one of my favorite quotes:
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
- local advertisement in Uganda
Impossible is nothing when I have a purpose to live for—when my mission becomes larger than the word “impossible.” In Uganda, our mission was large enough that it literally felt like we could do anything we put our minds to. And sometimes things were thrust upon us that were really uncomfortable, but never impossible.
After class one day, Erias, a teacher at Bweyogarere Secondary School, approached me and my teaching partner, Eric, and asked us to teach that day’s lesson to his students. Normally, we would have said “no” but I felt like we should, and Erias was very excited about the idea. The date was set for the next Thursday, and I was happy to have a week to prepare. Two days later (that Thursday) he said, “Are you ready to come teach my class?” “That isn’t until next Thursday!” I replied. “No, it’s today and we had to rearrange our schedule for it to happen, so you have to come now—the students are waiting.”
Before attending George Wythe University, I would have had a meltdown right there, and flatly refused to do it—honestly believing that I couldn’t. However, knowing that we had come all the way to Uganda to teach and that this was just another opportunity to do so, I stepped forward, ignored the chaos of distressed butterflies rocketing around my insides, and followed Erias to his class of 300 students!
Sometimes we just have to try something before labeling it “impossible.”
Fourth, Identifying Distractions
Living an extremely simple life in Africa gave me a new perspective on what is truly important and what is merely a distraction. I realized that many things I thought were necessities were only necessities within my mind; in reality, I could live without the majority of them and still be happy. Ugandans cook very simple meals, own only a few outfits, and many live in houses with just two rooms.
I was surprised to find how little diversity there is in public school meals. The children are generally given tea for breakfast, and posho (thick corn porridge) and beans for both lunch and dinner. Adults have a little more of a variety, especially the wealthy—but meals are still very simple.
In America, because we literally have millions of options, many of us have wasted hours and hours agonizing over what to eat for dinner or what to buy at the grocery store. Some keep their clothes in closets the size of a small Ugandan house and build homes that could never have enough rooms.
Living in abundance isn’t sinful but when it becomes distracting from my real purpose in living, it threatens my ability to accomplish my mission. Some distractions are so intoxicating that they could cause me to forget my mission entirely. Failing to fulfill the only objective that I was born to fulfill is something I cannot afford to do.
Considering these things, I was forced to reevaluate my life and ask myself: What distractions are preventing me from accomplishing my mission? Would I experience more joy and fulfillment by removing those distractions and focusing on what is truly important? What is keeping me from doing that?
Asking these questions is a continual process; the daily distractions which relentlessly knock at my door slip in the moment I stop asking. One truth I do know, that joining hands with other members of the human race and moving forward together, inspiring and teaching one another, bringing all to a higher level of existence—that is important; everything else is a distraction.
Fifth, Being Genuine
Before my experiences in Africa I had a real problem connecting with people. I cared about others, but I wasn’t concerned with them and didn’t feel like they should be concerned with me. I was an independent individual.
In Africa there aren’t individuals. Everyone is a member of a family, a clan, a tribe, and a nation. After being immersed in this, it occurred to me that the whole human race is one massive family. Unfortunately, we are divided into literally millions of factions; and since the beginning of civilization, these factions have tortured, killed, and enslaved each other. Instead of working together, we’ve often ripped each other apart. If we want peace in this life, we must act as a team and not as individuals. We are connected and desperately need each other’s support.
I now feel a deep desire to know my human brothers and sisters, especially those I see on a daily or weekly basis. My desire to learn their names, to express my love and appreciation for them, and to genuinely be concerned for their welfare has increased greatly. How could I not care about my brothers? How could I pass them by and not do my best to improve their lives and inspire them to rise to a higher level of existence?
What better way could my life be spent than living to love, uplift, and unify my human family?
Sixth, Getting Through the Hard Times
Though we learned a great deal and enjoyed ourselves, our summer in Africa wasn’t all butterflies and ice-cream. Our group faced many challenges, and we spent time fighting our own personal dragons as well.
One of my personal dragons was my passionate desire to control circumstances and my frustration at not being able to do so. I couldn’t choose which school I taught at, who my leader was, where I lived, who I lived with, what the “bathroom” looked like, how I obtained water, what I ate for dinner, etc. Through God’s grace, I finally stopped caring about my little circumstantial discomforts. Any anger or frustration I felt melted away and peace overflowed because I realized that the only thing that truly matters in this world are human beings; and I can always control how I treat them. Situations, circumstances, and material things come and go, but people are eternal and the impact we make in their lives stays with them forever.
In the realm of teaching, I was forced to slay the “inadequacy” dragon. My students were men and women at least 4 years older than me; all had bachelor’s degrees, some had master's, and many were married with children. Feelings of inadequacy entered my heart, but God quickly reminded me that as long as people are learning truth, it doesn’t matter who is teaching them.
Whenever I encountered a problem, I was always able to get answers by turning to God and asking Him to teach me to walk in His ways.
Seventh, Causing a Change of Heart Through Service
At age sixteen, I spent a week in Ecuador building a school, digging latrines, giving first aid, and doing other humanitarian activities. It was rewarding to know I was helping raise the standard of living for the people of Puca Cruz, Ecuador. If the way I felt inside during and after that trip was like a candle warming my heart, the reward I received through LEU would be comparable to the sun replacing my heart and pumping rays of light throughout my entire body. The difference is in giving the gift of truth and light as opposed to giving a gift of material things; feeding the spirit and the mind rather than the body.
The greatest rewards were seeing the changes which took place in the lives of our students. Here are two examples of men who made great and lasting changes in their lives due to leadership education:
Erasmus previously acted solely out of habit or because of the traditions of his parents. Our Thomas Jefferson Education class inspired him to discontinue this practice. He now understands that he always has a choice and, along with that, a responsibility to make the correct one.
Fahadie argued that “If anyone has changed because of this class, it was me.” When it came time for his oral exam, I asked him what he meant by that. He explained that leadership education has changed him in three ways:
First, as a person: He reads more and is focused on obtaining a liberal education, he feels like he has a mission, and he has gained the skill of independent thinking.
Second, as a teacher: He has stopped caning his students. In fact, he said it this way: “When you cane a student, you are simply inflicting physical pain. Beating the outside doesn’t change the inside.” This is a remarkable statement to be coming from a Ugandan. Too many of them believe that children won’t learn unless you beat lessons into them. He also went on to say that he now takes the time to analyze the problem and give guidance to his students instead of immediately punishing them. And he is more liberal with praise when the students do well or behave admirably.
Third, as a member of his community: He realizes that his community has problems with poverty, disease, and ignorance and that he has a large role to play in fixing these things.
Many teachers expressed how differently they treat their children now. Instead of being short with them or shooing them away, they listen more, discipline differently, and really try to love and understand them. It was then that I realized we weren’t only doing teacher training, but we were also healing families, liberating the captive, healing hearts, and helping them take responsibility in their lives. I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sensation of joy and satisfaction.
These are the true rewards of service.
I will forever be grateful for these seven lessons and the transformation they have produced within my heart. As I sat in the Entebbe airport on my last day in Uganda, I wrote a perfect summary of how I feel about that beautiful country and the inspiring men and women I met there.
22 August 2008: “As we were driving here it felt like I was leaving a part of me in Mukono. My heart is still there. I love them. I love these people; they are my friends, and they have become my brothers. We have been both teacher and student, giving and receiving, and all have walked away edified.”
Ms. Fisher served as a volunteer this summer with LEU, a program dedicated to implementing leadership education philosophies in Uganda, Africa. LEU was formed in August 2007 by Meghan Schulthies, a George Wythe University graduate, in cooperation with Nels Jensen, a George Wythe University mentor. Since that time LEU has sent 14 volunteers to Uganda and has had remarkable experiences promoting leadership education. To volunteer, donate or learn more about LEU please visit the LEU website or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms. Fisher is a junior at George Wythe studying statesmanship.
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