Bringing Kids to Uganda

by Sandy Unger

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“You are going where?”

“To Uganda.”

“On a safari trip?” (Look of surprise and excitement.)

“Not exactly. We will be going to a residential center working with vulnerable teenage mothers. After a week there we will also go to a refugee camp.” (Look of more surprise and less excitement.)

“Where will the kids go while you are gone?”

“They are coming.” (Silence, look of astonishment, even more surprise and sometimes horror, followed by an audible "wow" or "I could never do that" or "good for you" said in a tone that made us wonder if the person thought we were just kind of crazy or completely out of our minds.)

We had iterations of this conversation many times in the months leading up to our trip to Lukome and Imvepi. We have taken many trips as a family, and over the years have joked that our vacations resemble mission trips without a mission more than a typical vacation, as we naturally gravitate to places off the beaten path. The kids have always been a part of our adventures, and this time was not going to be any different. In a way, our kids have been training for this kind of trip their whole lives.

We had wanted to go see the Lukome Center for many years, but the timing never seemed to be right. When we found out there was a group going from our church and that one emphasis of this trip was couples and families--hopefully to demonstrate to the girls what an intact relationship looks like--we knew this was our time to go. Our girls are 6 and 9 -- old enough to remember this trip, be able to process it, and, fingers crossed, pull their own carry-ons and keep track of their stuff.

We certainly had our concerns. How will everyone handle the travel? What will the accommodations be like? Will bringing the kids be of any value. . ?

We did not approach the trip lightly. We knew the flights would be long and the van ride even longer. Meal times and food would be different and the risk of various diseases was there. It was far, and it was more off the beaten path than we’d ever experienced before.

We certainly had our concerns. How will everyone handle the travel? What will the accommodations be like? Will bringing the kids be of any value, or will it be a distraction and a waste of precious resources? Will they be scarred for life by what they see and hear? Will our daughter who has a medical condition be OK? We’re supposedly going as a model family with good parenting skills. What if we fail? What if this trip turns out to be two long, expensive weeks of misery? We finally decided that the "what ifs" would never get completely resolved, and we could either be paralyzed by them or just go.

The girls had some concerns of their own:

"I don't like the dark. What if I am scared at night?"

"I like to sleep with a fan but there is no electricity."

"Someone went somewhere in Africa and they said it was smelly, what if it smells over there?"

"Will the 'mud hut' collapse and fall on us?"

“What if I don't like the food?"

"What if I have nothing to play with?"

We were blessed beyond measure as we had opportunities to step into the lives of some remarkable, strong, hard working, funny women whose faith, graciousness and resilience are second to none.

Thankfully, with some minor ingenuity, online shopping, and e-mails to the Childvoice staff, most of these problems were relatively easy fixes. A couple of extra headlamps and a battery operated white noise machine took care of the night, getting a couple of essential oils calmed the fears of odor, finding out that the huts were sturdy and assuring our girls that many girls there sleep in the exact same huts and all of them are safe took care of that. Learning that there would be rice and something spicy with almost every meal and that there will be plenty of other kids to play with was the final straw that turned their minds from reluctance to excitement. Finding out that there would be personal TV screens on the flights was just the icing on the cake. And so we packed our suitcases with all the essentials, way too many extras, enough power bars to nourish our whole team of ten for a good three weeks "just in case," and went on an adventure of a lifetime.

We are happy to report that we did not get malaria, cholera, typhoid, sleeping sickness or any other horrible diseases that people often associate with the continent of Africa. In fact, none of our fears came true. The kids did not get sick at all. We did not suffer from hunger; in fact, most of our power bars came back home and we all gained a couple of pounds, and the trip was a far cry from being miserable. Here is what we did get instead: We were blessed beyond measure as we had opportunities to step into the lives of some remarkable, strong, hard-working, funny women whose faith, graciousness and resilience are second to none.

The girls did great with the travel and slid pretty seamlessly into the daily hum of life at the Lukome Center. They were also accepted and enjoyed by the local children much more readily than we muzungu (white) adults were. They were natural ice breakers and sources of entertainment. A  little six-year-old who is almost always full of energy and ready to belt out a song at a moment's notice is an excellent cure to frustration and fatigue or awkward silence. Unlike the adults, the kids knew the names of most of the girls at the center and their children on the first day. I can't even count the times I heard "mom, that is not Sharon, that is Brenda,” or “you were not talking to Lucia, Blessing's mom is Skovia.”

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. . .they did not see teenage victims of sexual violence -- they saw powerful older girls, superheroes of sorts. . .

They also did not have an adult grasp of all the past atrocities that the students had experienced, and for that reason were able to see them as really strong and powerful girls who carry heavy buckets of water, cook on fire (and flip the chapati bread with their bare hands) and swing a hoe like nobody else. In other words, they did not see teenage victims of sexual violence -- they saw powerful older girls, superheroes of sorts, with very cute babies. On one occasion, our six-year- old remarked "look how strong she is, if she was on American Ninja Warrior, she would definitely win. When I grow up, I want to be just like her. On another, "she is like a Superwoman.”

While we spared our kids the sensitive details of exactly what kind of abuse the girls suffered, we made the decision not to shield them from learning about the atrocities in general. We believe that one can understand healing and redemption much better if one understands the pain and heartache that lead to it. We were correct in that belief. Our 9-year-old will be forever changed for the better by learning about the Lukodi massacre. She thoughtfully wondered what would have happened if someone convinced Joseph Kony that what he was doing was wrong before he got too much power. She also thought it "took a lot of courage" for both sides of the conflict to come together for their regular soccer matches as a part of the reconciliation process. "If I was in that situation, “our daughter remarked, “I hope I would be able to forgive them like they forgave each other."

Had we spared them this seemingly painful part of the experience, we would have not given the beautiful light that emerged only as a result of God's grace and courage of the people on both sides. These lessons alone absolutely convinced us that bringing the kids was the right thing to do.

The girls also simply had a great time. They got to be outside (electronics were not an option), eat different kinds of foods (many of which have been added to our regular home rotation), enjoy way too many mangoes, play soccer, make new friends, go to a church that was very different from what they are used to, and realize that our way of life is not the only right way. These are not lessons one can glean by simply reading a story about a country.

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These lessons alone absolutely convinced us that bringing the kids was the right thing to do.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was how much the girls missed Uganda when we came back. When asked what their least favorite things about Uganda were, one answered "having to drink bottled water because everyone could just drink from the spigot,"  while the other said "too many forks in the restaurant in the safari lodge. Plus, the food was not like Tracy's food. HER food had flavor.” Our 6-year-old wants to go back to eat the rice, stews, and pineapple, and hang out with the kids in Miss Ida's class. She hums--or full-on belts out--the songs we sang daily during chapel (complete with the Ugandan accent). Our 9-year-old is already plotting ways to go back and stay longer, and was not very happy to find out that 10-year-olds can't go by themselves as interns. She still has a hard time when people say "you must be so relieved to be back safely" and generally answers with a shrug and "not really, it was totally safe there, and it was peaceful, I kind of miss it." At the moment, her life goal is to be the next Kristin Barlow, be able to live there, hang out with the staff and students, and figure out ways to make their lives better. And until she is old enough, she wants to raise enough money to build a second well, because "if the one they have dries up and they have to carry water again, that's going to make their lives much harder."

So was it a waste of resources to bring our kids to Uganda and were we crazy to do so? I hope I helped you see that the answer is a resolute “no” on both counts. If you are reading this blog and wondering how little kids can be of any benefit on this kind of trip, we hope you now see that they absolutely can. And if you are thinking “good for them, but we could never do it,” all four of us want to give you hearty encouragement to take the plunge and go. It will be a trip that will change your family forever.

Sandy Unger and her husband, Mike, traveled with their daughters to Uganda in April 2019 with a team from Raymond Baptist Church (Raymond, NH). They have been actively involved with ChildVoice since the very beginning; ChildVoice CEO Conrad Mandsager and his wife, Kathy, are good friends of theirs.