My name is Colleen Andersen and our trip earlier this summer was not my first time traveling to Uganda. I had been twice before, on vacation with my family in the summer of 2009 and on a service trip with 26 other people in February of 2010. The beautiful country and it’s overwhelmingly welcoming people stole my heart on my first trip, and changed my life the second. I had extraordinarily high expectations for KidsUganda Youth Board‘s Adventures in Service 2013, but I can still honestly say that my expectations were exceeded, the reason being the 15 other people I was traveling with.
It was late morning on our first full day in Mityana, and I was standing in the middle of the field at Nkonya, the school in the fishing village, when I realized that this trip was going to be different from anything I had experienced before. It was recess, and all the students and teachers were outside playing. On my pervious trips, I would have been standing with half of my group trying to follow the lead of the one or two out going people who were playing a game with the kids. This time, I looked around and saw each one of my fellow youth trip participants playing in their own section of the field with their own eager posse of young Ugandan admirers. Maggie was teaching some kids the ABC’s, Paul was running around playing soccer, Morgan had seemingly become a human jungle gym, and Caitlin was sitting on the ground making strange noises and waving her hands in the air while the kids followed in a game of Simon Says. No one seemed to be discouraged by the difficulties of communication, and no one was holding back for fear of being judged. I remember my first trip for the lessons I learned from Patrick, Eva, and their family. I remember my second for the inspiration I felt because of the students at Marantha. It was in that moment, as I saw all of my friends scattered around the field, that I knew I would remember this trip for them and everything they would teach me over the span of those ten days.
While I learned many lessons from my peers when we were in Uganda, one of the greatest lessons came to me out of our countless discussions after returning home. Asking someone who their hero is a common question, however, it is one that I have never really had an answer for. Hero is a really big word and holds a lot of weight in my mind. I came home from Uganda this June with a clearer picture of what it is that Patrick and Eva do, and that new understanding has given me the confidence to call them my heroes. The Maranatha Integrated Schools Project is a school system, so obviously the education the kids receive is an important part of their mission. But beyond that, Maranatha is a safe place for their students. It is where they come to learn, to see their friends, to be feed, to be loved, to be happy. It is the one place where they are free to just be kids. People always talk about the joy that they see at the Maranatha Schools, which can be confusing because when we look at the lives of those children, there is seemingly little to be joyful about. Many of these kids probably are on the more serious and less playful side when they are at home, but when they come to school they are free to forget their worries. They are free to play games and be silly, to smile and to laugh. They are free to be themselves, and that’s a joyful thing.
Some people could look at a trip like ours and say what’s the point? They might even look at Maranatha and say most of those students aren’t going to go on to University. They are still going to be poor, they are still going to have to work hard jobs their whole lives. What difference does it really make? Even if a boy was to go to Maranatha for 10 years, and still end up working in the fields, struggling to make a living just like his father. For those ten years he was fed, he was educated, he was loved. He was given a childhood and to me, that’s worth it. We didn’t build anything at Maranatha, we didn’t teach the students about God, or give them medical treatment. We played with them. Held their hands. Gave them a friendship bracelet. Made them feel special for the week, or even just the afternoon and to me, that’s worth it.
As our trip unfolded, I knew I was experiencing the best ten days of my life, falling in love with something new every day, trying as hard as could to live in every moment, and praying that I would never forget what it felt like to be so completely happy. To say I will treasure the memories forever is an understatement. The bonds I formed on this trip, with the Ugandan students and my fellow Mzungus, are stronger than I could have ever hoped for. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss Uganda, and if you were to ask me to go back with you tomorrow my answer would be yes in a heartbeat.