My home in Uganda is much more than four walls. It’s the tribe of incredible women whom I’ve met whose friendships nurture me. Among my friends in Uganda, I feel a connection that I often lack with US-based friends. It’s a hodge podge mix of ethnicities – German, American, Ugandan, Dutch, Brit – but there’s a connection and familiarity, an understanding. Whether it’s the expat who can relate to the challenges of working in a country with profound poverty, or the Ugandan businesswoman whose tenacity and will propels her forward and inspires me, or the kindred traveler who may have been born in the United States, but whose spirit lives fully only when she is immersed in the unfamiliar, stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells that differ from her usual comfort zone. It’s this motley medley of personalities who welcome me, inspire and motivate me, who encourage whole-hearted laughing and living and who help to ground me and remind me of some of my most important values – kindness, happiness and respect. It’s a kinship that restores me. After a year apart, I forgot how much so.
The Project Have Hope family and the entire Acholi Quarter restores me in a different way. Like any family, the PHH family is filled with love, but that love comes with a price, a price that at times is truly daunting. During 2020, as time and circumstance kept me away, it became much harder to consider the love, and significantly easier to be inundated and overwhelmed by the entitlements and demands - demands that could never be satiated and failed to recognize the grave economic devastation COVID wrought on the already lean, PHH bank account. Demands that made unreasonable requests based on unrealistic expectations. Demands that have beaten me down for 15 years. Demands that felt like the burden of carrying the weighted cross I’ve often photographed on Good Friday in the Quarter. Demands that have nearly broken me.
The demands have many faces. I’m regularly asked to mule various items from the States – dolls, smartphones, cameras, laptops, reading glasses, shoes. Everyone seems to think they’re the only one who’s asking. They’re not. When I’m in the Quarter, there’s always a line of people who come to the PHH building to make their request. “My wife/husband died and now I’m left alone to pay the school fees for my children.” “My auntie died and I need money for transport to the village.” “I used the money to buy (fill in the blank) to pay medical fees for my child, now I can’t continue my business without more capital.” “My roof has holes in it and the rainy season is coming.” “I was not serious in school and failed, but now I want to go back.” “I did well in school and want to go to university, but there is no money.”
The requests are endless. The money is not. I know the demands are simply the voice of desperation, voiced by desperate people who rely on me as their only hope, their benefactor. But the unbearable weight comes from the semantics – people and benefactor. People, as in demands, is plural. Benefactor is singular. Even if I want to help, my resources are limited. Their requests are not.
It’s these demands that periodically ignite a fitful outburst from me (one that is usually heavily profanity-laced) that equally offend and anger the forgiving, deferential Acholi. This pressure builds to explosive levels, so much so, that each November, as the mounting needs for school fees for the upcoming academic year intensifies, my blood pressure rises steadily, unhealthily, until I meet the financial need. Year after year, when the New England trees lose their leaves, I lose my sanity. 2020 was no different.
Yet despite the unrelenting demands, unwittingly, when I founded PHH, I took a vow of sorts. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part …. I’m married to the Acholi Quarter. Though, perhaps this is true of any relationship that lasts long enough, there are definitely moments when Meatloaf’s refrain, “I’m praying for the end of time,” takes on another meaning for me. But, I digress.
After a year of separation, it had become increasingly challenging to remember all of the benefits afforded me by this crazy endeavor I foolhardily began in 2005. But, the truth is that I feel most alive when I’m in the Acholi Quarter. It’s where I feel truly useful, where my life and work really seem to matter, and where I can see the tangible life-changing impact that fifteen years of struggles has accomplished.
It is among these resilient women that I refill my own capacity for resilience. When I want to tap out, all I need to do is look around me. In the Quarter, it would be an unknown luxury to call it quits. How can you give up when your child is sick with malaria and needs lifesaving medicine? How do you stop working when you don’t know from where you’ll find your next meal?
In spite of the daily challenges they endure, dwarfed only by the enduring hell so many Acholi survived during the years civil war in the North, their capacity to enjoy life is, perhaps, the greatest gift they bestow - the daily reminder that life is to be enjoyed foremost. I believe I have them to thank in part for my reformed workaholic status. They remind me to breathe and to laugh, to dance and to embrace silliness. They remind me that we’re all human and prone to the mistakes that come with it.