On Leaving Uganda: Where I Found the Courage to Speak

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“Justice is not comfortable, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.” 

By Stephanie Motz Skinner | Twitter: @stephmotz

Africa was never on my radar. Not that long ago, I couldn’t even have located Uganda on a map, but when I met my husband, everything changed. When James and I first started dating, he described the colours of the earth, the water and the sky in Africa. He told me of a hilly city by a lake which fed a great river. The weather, he said, was never too hot and never too cold. The land was always green. There were forests and mountains covered with snow. The people were beautiful and hospitable, and they had a delightful sense of humour. He tried a few jokes on me, but I never quite got them. Or maybe I was just playing hard to get.

It sounded like nostalgia, and of course it was. It was also mostly true.

When he spoke about Uganda, he was passionate and he always had a glimmer in his eye. He also spoke with a certain heartbreak, the kind that comes when you deeply love a thing that is suffering. I soon understood that this place was a part of him, and although he found difficulty in expressing it, Uganda was his home. He missed it and yearned for it every day.

Still, when we decided to move to Uganda at the beginning of 2010, I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen the photographs on his screensaver and, over time, I began to recognize the images of a lush landscape, a raging river and the faces of beautiful children whose portraits he made. However, I had no idea what Uganda really looked like.

Once we arrived, I learned that Uganda shares many similarities to my country, Honduras. We eat the same food, but we cook it very differently. Ugandans are much healthier–they steam their plantain and boil their cassava. We deepfry everything. In Honduras we try to hide our massive poverty in neighbourhoods that we avoid driving through, and it’s easy to pretend that it simply doesn’t exist. In Uganda, poverty is impossible to escape.

Kampala, the capital city of Uganda where we live, is a crowded and bustling metropolis. On the streets you find a mesh of many different types of people. Children, as young as three, run in their bright school uniforms along the sides of the roads. Older women wear traditional Ugandan dresses, called gomesis, and they sit on handwoven mats on the sidewalk where they neatly display clothes, shoes, vegetables and an assortment of random items. Hipsters in skinny jeans and t-shirts ride on the back of motorcycle taxis on their way to work or school, or in search of opportunities that might allow them to support their families back in their home villages. Street vendors knock on car windows with hands full of candy, bags of fried grasshoppers and posters of the president’s face superimposed onto Rambo’s body.

Here everything happens on the side of the road. Even animals claim the streets. Goats and cows graze the grass that grows by the sidewalk. Sometimes they take over the road and clog traffic.

Movement is slow in this city and progress seems slow too. Corruption strangles development, and everybody seems to be trying to just make it through the day. I will never fully understand how my husband feels, but I think I have an idea of why it hurts to love this country. Like Honduras, Uganda is beautiful, but it’s also complex. People often ask me what I think of this place and how I feel about it, and it’s still hard to give them an answer.

I didn’t come to Uganda with any big plans. It was simply the only door that opened for us at a time when we had no other opportunities. I initially thought we would be here for six months, but inevitably we stayed a lot longer. I’m glad we did.

In Uganda I began to discover and embrace my own voice. I came face to face with issues that initially seemed so foreign to me, but are now very close to my heart. As I met children who had lost their parents to AIDS, widows chased out of their homes when their husbands died and rejected by their own families, and women who were abducted as little girls and forced to become sex slaves to rebel soldiers–all these issues began to have faces and names that I couldn’t simply ignore.

These people taught me there is too much at stake for us to remain quiet, and so I found the courage to speak.

It’s easy to feel defeated when we observe the magnitude of pain that exists around us, but here I discovered that strength and dignity exist in the places where people must battle and endure. Through our work, James and I met people who showed us there is hope. These people have experienced pain and rejection, but they had the courage to face their past and conquer their circumstances. Their stories are now a testimony of God’s love.

I learned that justice requires action, and that often the most simple acts of love and service can make a difference in another person’s life.

“Justice is not comfortable, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.”

It is sometimes in the ordinary interactions of daily life that we have opportunities to confront injustice. Through an encouraging word, an embrace or even a smile, we can make people feel noticed, appreciated, respected–and in some small way we can be a part of their journey to restoration.

I’ve learned that to overcome paralysis caused by fear and feelings of inadequacy, I need to remind myself that we each have something unique and necessary to contribute. We can’t do everything, but we can each do something. We are not alone in this battle against injustice, and if we each continue to faithfully use what is in our hand to respond, together we can make a difference.

In the words of Mother Teresa, “What I do you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do. The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”

I’ve heard that Uganda has a way of gripping the heart and imprinting on it an irresistible desire to return. After living here, I know this is true. In just a few days I’ll be leaving, but I’ll go with a new sense of hope and purpose in my life. I hope I never forget these lessons. The memories I take with me are seeds that were planted in Africa, but I believe they will bear fruit wherever I go. I suppose, in this way, I will carry a piece of Uganda with me forever.

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My dear SheLoves friends, I’d love to hear:

  • Where have you found your courage to speak? Has it been in a book, a revelation, a conversation or a country?
  • What country that you’ve visited has left the strongest impression on you?
  • Any other thoughts?
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About Stephanie:

I believe in the power of storytelling. I’m a photographer and writer for Fakeleft. Together with my husband, we love sharing stories of courage, of strength in the face of adversity, of triumph and hope. I truly believe that by partnering with others who want to bring change and justice to our world, we can actually make a difference. I’m learning to walk in my nascent faith, but it’s not always easy. It’s an interesting journey.

I am currently living in Uganda, but my heart is everywhere. I’m a proud Latina from Choluteca, Honduras. I wish I had a Latino accent. My favourite meal is dessert and my favourite sport is tanning. I blog at fakeleft.com and tweet at @stephmotz.

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Stephanie Motz Skinner
believe in the power of storytelling. I’m a photographer and writer for Fakeleft. Together with my husband, we love sharing stories of courage, of strength in the face of adversity, of triumph and hope. I truly believe that by partnering with others who want to bring change and justice to our world, we can actually make a difference. I’m learning to walk in my nascent faith, but it’s not always easy. It’s an interesting journey. I am currently living in Montreal, Canada, but my heart is everywhere. I’m a proud Latina from Choluteca, Honduras. I wish I had a Latino accent. My favourite meal is dessert and my favourite sport is tanning. I blog at fakeleft.com and tweet at @stephmotz.
Stephanie Motz Skinner
Stephanie Motz Skinner

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