Gavin and I recently returned from a trip to Uganda, I’ll get into more about what we were doing there in a minute, but first I want to talk about giraffes. This may come as a shock but we don’t see a ton of giraffes in Georgia. So, when we first stumbled across one on our one-day Safari in Africa, everybody freaked out. So majestic and tall and spotted and…tall. We watched in speechless wonder as it silently munched leaves from the top of the tree. We lost our minds like teenage girls at a Taylor Swift concert when we saw, not one, but two giraffes walking in the same area! It was surreal.
But as the day went on, it became incredibly clear that giraffes were not so exceptional on the game preserve in Uganda. It actually began to feel like you couldn’t look in any direction without seeing giraffes. They eventually began to look less majestic and more like stretched out horses with a skin disorder. Before long the reaction had shifted from shock and awe to “Oh… it’s just another giraffe.”
When we see something that exists so far outside of our normal it can really cause us to stand up and take notice. It’s like we wake up to this new reality that we couldn’t have imagined before. Like looking at true poverty in a developing country. The first time you drive through the streets and see the devastating poverty that so many people live in, it’s like having cold water dumped on your head when you’re fast asleep. You are violently pulled into a new reality that shakes you and says, “Look at this! Can you believe this?”
But over time, even in the course of one week, it begins to normalize in your mind. It seems less shocking and less upsetting. In a truly sad way, seeing a few poor people grieves us, while seeing thousands tends to numb us. It should not be that way, but it is. At least it is for me.
While Gavin and I were in Uganda, we partnered with Champions United, a tremendous organization that leverages Soccer as a means of connecting kids to mentors who will pour into them over the course of several years. The goal is to create communities full of responsible, engaged, and spiritually mature men. Something that seems to be almost unheard of in the local communities. On the last day of our time there we were able to visit the home of a local family and just sit and talk. No agenda, except showing that we, and the Coaches at Champions, care.
It was just three of us, Simon (a Coach in the Champions program, himself a local Ugandan), Gavin, and I, walking up to a small house made of hand-shaped brick. It was raining when we arrived. We met Pheobe (my best guess at spelling, pronounced ‘”fi-o-bee”) and two of her young children out in front of the house. The kids where so excited to have visitors. Pheobe nervously showed us into the house where we entered into what I’m quite sure was one of only a couple small rooms. Then Olivia entered. She appeared slightly older than Pheobe, wore a vintage Run DMC shirt, and held a small child in her arms. She greeted us, then took a seat on the floor next to Pheobe. I felt very uncomfortable taking the only available seats in the room while the ladies sat on the floor, but Simon assured us that this is how it works here and there is no use trying to refuse the offer.
Olivia and Pheobe are sisters. They have both been abandoned by their husbands and they are raising their five children together. Growing their own food and selling what they can at the market. They live simply, without electricity or television but they do have a radio that they listen to occasionally to know what’s going on.
We were told that, while we were there, we would likely help with household chores and have a conversation, with the help of the Coach translating, about things like daily life in America and in Uganda, We came prepared with some questions about their daily life, their families, and their community. I was getting ready to start things off when Olivia beat me to the punch and started in on a very different type of conversation. She turned to Simon and asked, in Lugandan, “Why do you only help the young boys? Why is there no program for girl children?”
Simon answered that they are working on developing a program for girls but they started with boys because so many of the biggest challenges in these communities are caused by irresponsible and abusive men. They are trying to break that trend by mentoring young men to be responsible husbands and fathers. Olivia agreed but added that the girl children are the biggest victims of the problems here. She said that most won’t finish school because their fathers marry them off early to avoid paying school fees. She said that, after finishing school, many women struggle to find a good job and so many fathers think sending them to school is a waste.
Her passion was obvious. She spoke, not only as a woman but as a mother of young daughters. Four of the five children in the house are girls and you could hear her deep concern for their future in her words.
It’s truly a heartbreaking reality for women and children in this culture. The men are mostly treated as superior and entitled to unquestioned loyalty and respect. Women and children kneel in their presence, and worse yet, suffer because of their absence. Fathers are largely not held accountable to provide for their wives and children. They often end up having multiple families and engage with none of them. There are so many single moms who are fighting to make enough money to provide food, pay school fees, and maintain a suitable place to live.
After explaining the circumstances that they are living in, Olivia asked me, about women in America and if they face the same challenges. I shared about how things are not perfect but they are far better than they used to be. I talked briefly about the history of fighting for equal rights in America and how it took people organizing and standing against oppression and abuse of power to make changes in society and eventually in government. We also talked about how the message of the gospel compels people to have the same self-sacrificing love for others that Jesus showed for them. And that this is ultimately the foundation for hope that this corruption and abuse can change. They both said, “Amena” (amen). Olivia is Catholic and her sister is Protestant. They attend different churches a couple blocks apart.
At one point, Olivia asked Gavin about how girls are viewed in American schools. She wanted to know if they have the same opportunities and are seen as equally capable as boys. I can’t remember exactly what he said but I do remember beaming with pride as he said it. It was such a mature and well-stated answer. He even wrapped it up by talking about how we are all made in the image of God, and therefore we deserve the same respect and opportunity.
As we sat there shucking beans together in their living room, Olivia told us about how much of the aid that comes into the country from outside doesn’t actually make it out to the rural villages. She said, and Simon confirmed, that the national government will take a large cut of everything that is sent, then the regional government takes a cut, leaving little left for the people who are really hurting. Which makes the efforts of locally-based organizations like Champions United so crucial. We also talked about the state of the local schools and the difficulty of paying the fees each year. I asked about public schools and they told us that there are government-funded public schools but they aren’t completely free and that the teachers there do not actually teach anything. Simon sadly acknowledged that this is true.
Eventually, we did talk about daily life for them in Uganda, the different types of foods they grow, their relationships with their neighbors and their churches. There were some light moments where Pheobe showed us a game that kids play with the beans after they are shucked (is that a word?). But mostly our conversation was heavy with the reality of their impossible circumstances.
At one very serious moment in our conversation, Olivia asked me, “What can you do, as an American, to help us here?” It was a pretty hard question to answer on the spot. I thought for a moment and then told her, “I can tell your story. I can make people aware of the real struggles that you face every day. I can help raise more awareness and support for Champions United because I truly believe what they are doing here has the potential to change this community.”
So, that’s what I am doing.
I could tell you about the hundreds of kids we were able to dance, sing, play, and pray with while we were there. I could tell you about the thousands that we saw all along the roadsides in loosely thrown together housing, many sleeping on the streets at night. But I don’t want to this to be “just another” post about poverty in Africa.
This is the real story of Pheobe and Olivia. Two strong, brave women raising five incredible children against nearly impossible odds.
If you would like to learn how you can help them and others like them, please visit, https://www.championsunitedfc.org/