Life Lessons From A Family Mission In Africa

I spent six days in Uganda on a mission serving the Abayudaya Tribe and the surrounding communities in five villages near the city of Mbale. In honor of my son’s Bar Mitzvah we fundraised for mosquito nets, notebooks, pencils, pencil sharpeners and soccer balls. My son, my husband and I took the journey and disseminated the supplies to the five villages and their two schools. While on our journey we additionally donated eighteen benches and three book shelves to a synagogue in one village, three mattresses to a household where their five children were sleeping on the floor and paid the school fees for a child for a year for the individual who accompanied us throughout the villages during our journeys.

I continue to process my array of thoughts and feelings which range from joy, gratitude, sadness, disappointment, shame and guilt. The journey has been a profound one and I expect it will continue to have impact on my thinking, feelings and the actions I take throughout my lifetime. There are many life lessons that came from opening myself up to new experiences and challenging myself to shift my perspectives on how I view things.

 

Life Lessons To Reflect On:

 

1) Gratitude is a way of being, not just a feeling state – There’s a difference between feeling gratitude and acting on behalf of the gratitude. To act graciously is to be keenly mindful of all that we’re afforded with and take actions on a continual basis based on that level of consciousness. That overarches how we relate to material items, how we relate to and treat ourselves and other people, and how we take the moments to notice and appreciate our lives, our freedom and all that we’re afforded with.

Internally I fear that as time passes my level of consciousness will dissipate. The fear comes from not being face to face with and directly in touch with my discomfort and vulnerability, at such a concentrated level, as I had been when I was in Uganda. I realize that this, like most things, takes concerted effort on a daily basis to be able to maintain and remain conscious of.

2) There is a differentiation between the state of “me” and the state of “we.” In today’s modern world, social consciousness, forging a sense of community, and banding together for support most often happens when people are forced to or are prompted to rely on each other. When we are self-reliant we are more likely to disband and accomplish things independently and not necessarily rely on each other.

 It’s helpful to integrate the “we” as a state of mind and a state of being, not just when there’s urgency or necessity but continually. It’s reassuring to know that if and when we need help that there are others to support us through our most difficult of times. This must be purposefully sought after and maintained overtime.

I’m always in tune when something traumatic occurs, which is usually prompted by violence. Moreover, there are numerous announcements on social media of how a community stepped up, aligned, to help one another. It’s usually highlighted as being surprising or eliciting great pride for the community. However wonderful and prideful these experiences undoubtedly are, they should be expected and more plentiful.

I was especially taken back at the continual social responsibility that the villagers took because of their allegiance and reliance on one other. They took care of and fostered each other’s children, cooked each other meals and generously gave to the neediest of residents, even though it largely took away from what would remain for them. As one villager shared, “It’s just what we do, we don’t even think twice about it. We are devoted to each other because we genuinely empathize with each other’s circumstances.”

3) Focus on the process, rather than on the results. It’s so easy to focus on what we’re trying to achieve and assess our accomplishments based on the results of those achievements rather than focusing on the process of our journey. Unfortunately, the results are not always contingent on the process but rather due to some other extraneous variables. We are blatantly missing out on being in the moment and savoring the pride and joy we can be rewarded with if we were also to consider and be with the process.

For the mission, it required extensive networking, planning, fundraising, etc. The results of what we were able to deliver left my family and I with very mixed feelings. We were joyful and prideful that we helped others in a meaningful way but were also left with somber feelings that “we weren’t helping enough” or “we won’t ever be able to help enough” and “could and should do so much more than we’re already doing.”

It comes with shameful feelings of returning to a life that villagers only dream of and feeling guilty that we don’t personally give up more to help others with their most basic of needs. It’s helpful to own those feelings which is deeply rooted in our value of thoughtfulness and helping others which will prompt future philanthropic work on our behalf and to also acknowledge and whole-heartedly appreciate the process of this meaningful experience.

4) The essence of our values is worthy of notice and should directly guide the actions we take. To maintain a grounded sense of self, it’s important to have an awareness of the values we subscribe to and ensure that we’re integrating them and taking action on behalf of them in all realms of our lives on a continued basis. An inventory can be taken on every given day as to whether we leaned into and practiced those values.

We can assess what values we directly took action on behalf of and take personal pride for those accomplishments and assess what we need to accomplish more of for days to come. Values are continuous, but over our lifetime, they can be reconsidered, realigned, and recalibrated to meet our needs and stages of development. It’s also critically important to consider what values you’re exposed to, are prompted by and choose to practice.  

The villagers were surrounded by mantras in their communities, their homes, and in their schools. I was impressed to see encouraging and inspiring messages in plain view voicing sentiments such as “practice self-acceptance”, “respect each other because we’re all worthy of respect” and “with knowledge and persistent hard work you will succeed.” Even with limited resources, what was evident was the villagers sense of personal pride in how they appeared, carried themselves, and conducted themselves, especially in their relationship with others. They were hyper aware what was intrinsically important to them and it carried through in their overall behavior.

5) Be aware of your prejudices and biases, we all have them but can choose not to act on behalf of them, rather challenge them, be curious about them and be willing and open to thinking and feeling differently

I remember when I first arrived, I thought, how can “they” function “this” way. Inherent in this was judgments about them and how they were functioning.   Due to the lack of resources, the villagers had to contend with deplorable sewage conditions, contaminated water that needed to be boiled to get rid of contaminants, and a constant flow of dirt and dust because of unpaved land and roads and a two-month rainy season that left them with floods and mudslides.

I was aware that thinking of the villagers in only this realm created a power differential between them and I. It clouded my ability to see through to their essence which encompassed warmth, generosity and kindness. Shameful feeling got evoked because of the awareness that I can become so easily judgmental, negatively influenced and be blocked from my true caring and empathetic nature.

What amazed me too, was how easy it was to grow accustomed to living differently, with less than we’re used to and for which we sometimes consider are our most basic of needs. For example, from day to day, my morning routine sped up and became less bothersome with having to rely on bottled water and I even got relatively used to and tolerant of the toileting conditions. Throughout my trip, I even fantasized about moving and living there because life seemed so peaceful and simplistic. I never thought that shift would be possible when I first arrived.

When I became aware of and acknowledged my prejudices and biases I made concerted efforts to understand the country, communities and residents better and was willing and open to see and experience things differently. I gained an understanding that by creating distance and seeing the villagers as very different than myself, I was avoiding the fear of imagining what it would be like for me if I had a lack of resources. I was also warding off sad and disappointing feelings that people I got to personally know and cared about and others like them were gravely lacking.

Additionally, I was avoiding my guilt and hopelessness. I realized my reflections and perspectives were skewed and directly influenced because it was seen through my personal lens, based on who I am and how I live my life. I recognized that if this journey was experienced and written by someone with less privilege, it would most certainly be different. I was also avoiding to think of the mounds of other individuals, very close to home in the US, that lack, suffer and are in fear of their safety and security on an ongoing basis because of abuse, racism, poverty, etc.  

I was disconnecting from my guilt by not wanting to take ownership of how I was contributing to the power differential. I preferred to avoid my hopelessness by seeing the world in general as a place of fairness and equal opportunity, with a plethora of resources for all to be privy to, rather than fully acknowledging that for most, the world at large is very far from that.

The growth for me is in acknowledging the thoughts and feelings it evokes and the willingness to act on my values, rather than on my initial thoughts and impulses. Also, to face the reality that as much as it’s hard to accept there is a fundamental difference between us because of our circumstances, that I can do my part to proactively help them because I empathize and truly care for them and their plight.

6) We as human beings are inherently resilient; we can overcome more than we can ever imagine. When we experience suffering, we often take on the role of victim and compare ourselves to others, have little tolerance to sitting with the discomfort and most often strive to get rid of the discomfort in any way that we possibly can. We personalize our experience and maintain the perspective that “it only happens to me” and “I can’t take it anymore” and conclude that we have a certain threshold to our suffering. We often don’t give ourselves enough credit as to how much adversity we can actually tolerate. We have a hard time recognizing that each of our experiences are unique. Also, most often, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to challenge those thoughts by riding through those experiences, as difficult as they may be, to build up our tolerance and resilience to adversity.

As Buddhist theology thoughtfully highlights, “Life is full of human suffering.” If we accept our humanness, we also need to accept our suffering. It’s inherent in being a human being. Society declares, in so many unconstructive ways, that we should always be happy and avoid discomfort and suffering. Sometimes its unavoidable, no matter how hard we try. Some of us are more fortunate than others because of having experiencing a minimal amount of suffering but all of us suffer in our own way. It’s all very relative.

The villagers suffer greatly in so many serious ways, yet they maintain their positivity, are sensitive to all that they have gratitude for and take little for granted. They have limited expectations about the way things “should” be but rather take one day at a time and accept it for what it actually is. It’s to our advantage to be aware of our expectations and be more open to our experiences without preconceived ideas about the way things “should” be and be present with what actual is.

 

Being in Uganda I had the great fortune of having six concentrated days of feeling blissful because of having the opportunity to solely focus on giving and offering assistance to others. It genuinely felt like my happy place and contributed to me living life purposefully and meaningfully.

Having my son witness and partner in the collaboration, compassion and generosity was the best gift of all for me. I always reinforce the power of taking action and doing rather than just thinking of or talking about. He had the chance to first handedly practice the values my husband and I hope he and his siblings continually aspire to carry out. It’s a trip I’ll never forget and undoubtedly, either will he.     

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