In January 2003, as most students were returning from winter break, I was sitting on the tarmac waiting for my life to change. As the plane pushed back from the gate my heart was bursting with an uncomfortable mix of excitement and fear. I was on my way to Kampala, Uganda. Aside from its notorious past under Idi Amin, this was a country with which I was largely ignorant. As a child in rural Iowa, missionaries would often visit our church to share their outreach efforts and raise money. I was fascinated by the great big world that they experienced. So, when I learned of a study abroad program which promised cultural immersion and classes that meet under Umbrella Thorn Acacia trees, I jumped at the chance to experience some of that great big world myself.
Acknowledging my own ignorance, I embarked on the semester with low expectations and high hopes.
Our coursework focused on developmental economics. We covered economic policy at all levels and the impact that governments, NGO's, non-profits, and well-intended donors have on the lives of everyday Ugandans. The core mission for many of these organizations is a customer success mission - to raise people from poverty and give them a chance to live healthy, happy lives.
We had the opportunity to meet dozens, if not hundreds, of Ugandans over the course of the semester. We learned that most organizations were failing to provide lasting economic improvements for the majority of their customers. Achieving desired outcomes for complex problems is not easy.
Then again, the things worth doing rarely are.
I also learned that despite their poverty, Ugandans are some of the most generous people on earth. I remember one afternoon, in particular. We visited a number of homes to get to know the residents and learn about their lives and economic challenges. Our hosts had little more than a roof over their head, a few sets of clothing, and food to eat. Yet every single person we met provided the warmest of welcomes, hugs all around, and gave freely of what little food they had.
By the fourth house we were stuffed. Still we continued to eat - our fear of offending these wonderful people overshadowing the growing discomfort in our bellies.
Our hosts' generous spirit was ever present that semester. We traveled the country and with each new village the generosity overflowed. It’s this generosity, more than anything else, which came to define Ugandans for me. From nothing, they give. From abundance, they give more.
My lessons in Uganda stretched far beyond my coursework. The Ugandan people showed me that generosity is what allows them to build relationships to celebrate the highs and endure the inevitable lows that come from tackling complex problems head on. Many Ugandans have not yet reached their desired outcome. But in Uganda, as in life, relationship building understands that generosity is king.