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Do-do birds and Model Ts: Another revelation in Uganda

J. Adam Calaway

By J. Adam Calaway, Director of Communications and Public Relations

Posted Jun. 11, 2013

Ugandan days are like dog years; one day here seems like a week at home. How long have I been awake? What have I done today? The never ending road trip to Gulu. My soul-renovating afternoon with Innocent and Sister Rosemary. My complete gut-punch, perception-redefining epiphany in the ensuing hours.

Sounds like a typical Tuesday, right?
Still, just one more quick thought before I close this day.

The Watoto guest house in Gulu is a haven surrounded by a 10-foot, white wall with barbed wire. Immediately outside the wall is a series of huts, about 12-15 feet in diameter. These are people's real homes. Inside the walls, there are two, freshly painted white buildings (one two-story, one single), a small water tower and a mango tree. If you want fresh mango, just take the pole resting against the trunk and poke one down. The compound doesn't cover more than half an acre, but its stark white façade pops next to the orange roads and green foliage.

mango tree

When we arrive at the guest house, I notice two items. Hanging above each of the bedroom doorframes are etched wooden plaques with the names of people from the Bible (my room is Enoch). This gets me thinking. Most of the people we've met have Biblical names - Simon (our driver), Isaac (one of the Watoto babies) and Moses (head of Watoto's agricultural division). No Skylers or Avas here. Again most Ugandans' faith permeates every aspect of their lives.

The second noticeable item is actually the first thing I spot in the large, tiled commons area - a television. Genuine disappoint manifests itself as a sneer on my face. TV is a staple in my daily routine. Getting ready for work? Click on ESPN. Eating dinner? Find a ballgame.

But here in this moment, standing with my little backpack slung low, seeing that glossy black box was like walking in and finding puppy piddle on the floor.

Solitude. Detachment. Reflection. These are invaluable gifts. Africa already has yielded personal revelations, but unplugging from the technological drains and obsessive drive of my life happened so subtly that I hadn't realized it even happened until faced with the opportunity to indulge in a little western entertainment.

The TV stayed off during our visit. The monolith in the corner was nothing more than a reminder of changing perspectives. Instead, each evening was spent the same way - talking. The art of fellowshipping is largely lost in our culture. Communicating and sharing have gone the way of the do-do bird and Model Ts.

This is not an anti-technology rant; I love my Internet connection as much as the next instant-access Gen-Xer. My iPhone's map app keeps me from asking for directions (my genetically encoded worst nightmare).

However, this trip serves as a personal case study in what happens when distractions are removed from the equation and priorities are refocused on people.

Each evening, our group gathers to talk after dinner. The cool, still darkness of the Ugandan night serves as a backdrop, easing us out of the day. Music drifts in from Gulu or a nearby hut - faint, but noticeable. Pretense is stripped away. There's no need for it here. There is just us.

We share our stories and talk about our faith. We discuss hopes and concerns. But mostly we laugh. We laugh about the day's follies and our own past silliness. We laugh until we cry. And then we go to bed, smiling and content. We are connected.

This is the Ugandan way. They place a premium on time together. Everywhere I go, the people of Uganda are clear that their fundamental priority is each other. A country born in violence and death has discovered life through personal bonds.

In the west, we jam pack our lives with career compulsions (me), technology (me, again) and diversions (no time, see previous parentheses).

In moderation, these things are not necessarily bad. However, like anything, gluttonous consumption becomes self-limiting. They often serve as the bricks and mortar of emotional walls carefully designed to hide our hearts and mask our insecurities. Ultimately, we disconnect from each other (even as we claim to be more connected), and some intangible piece of our humanity slips away.

Sitting face to face. Sharing. Fellowshipping. This makes us vulnerable, but when the facades fall, we discover the power of genuine connection. We step out to find what the Ugandans know so well - happiness is rooted in the simple act of connecting with others. Of course, all this may just sound like a conversation about do-do birds and Model Ts.