We had been on Safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park! Though an unexpected trip, it was an incredible one… truly a rare and amazing opportunity. My whole life I have dreamed of going on Safari – yet this trip was to be dedicated to the farm we had helped to build, so I didn’t allow myself to hope for it. Luckily, our new friends Kyle and Jessie were planning on going, and were gracious enough to envelope us into their plans. I liked them more and more as we got to know them!
We took an old rickety van with a grumpy back bumper that rattled for the eight hour ride to the park. The poverty there was astounding. There were children in tattered clothes, running around in the dirt and laughing. There were women standing in doorways, washing clothing in buckets, and tending to other chores like food and babies. We drove past so many villagers swinging a single garden hoe in endless rows of crops, heads heavy laden with goods, or manning a shack of vegetables, hoping for a sale.
Congo is the place I have wanted to go for as long as I can remember. The place I have dreamt about, read about, and wondered about. Congo – the wild, the raw, the untouched, the unknown. As I leaned further out the window, straining to be just a fraction closer, I felt so much stir within me. It challenged me to its mischievous danger, tempted me to answer the call.
I had to shake off the desire to cut and run to those enchanting mountains. There were more important things to consider, namely my safety. Congo remains in turmoil. Kyle said I might as well wear a t-shirt that says, “I’m American and I have money, kidnap me.” I didn’t feel completely deterred by that, but I did want to live to see the farm, so I melted back into the van with a twinge of defeat and sadness.
I couldn’t be down for too long, because the Safari was incredible! The land was teeming with wildlife. There was no way you could go into a space this large in the United States and expect to see that much local talent! But here, it was everywhere we went. Before noon on the first day we had seen so much. Water buffalo, Ugandan kob, waterbucks, warthogs, hippos galore! A rare sighting of a leopard graced the day, as well! We even saw a pair of lions, off in the distance, tumbling and playing in the grass after the storm. It had thundered and bolted with lightning in an impressive display of African rains.
My favorite was probably a small family of elephants that we encountered, just a few feet off the treacherous road we had been traveling on through the park. Elephants are one of my favorite creatures, and they are so incredible in the wild! Even the smallest would tower over you. They have a dull gray blanket of skin, that folds neatly across their bodies and lands in tapers at their massive feet. Tiny tails flick hopelessly at the flies, and their trunks curl around leaves and branches with ease. Some have threatening white tusks, but I can’t get past their eyes, so small and contemplative and kind.
A mother in the herd stood close to her young, an adorable little guy probably less than a year old. At one point, she linked trunks with him. Then she looked up at us and flapped her giant ears. Maybe it was to shoo us away, or maybe it was to give a friendly hello. I am inclined to believe the latter.
I could go on and on and on, but that is not the tone I wish to convey today, so let’s skip ahead. After the safari, we drove back to the outskirts of Kampala, where Peter lives. Our adventure was over, and had been very successful. I think we were all tired as we piled in to return home. Even the constant drumming of the back bumper against the rear of the van seemed less prominent. Though it was the same route we had taken to arrive at the park, it was so bewitching and beautiful that it seemed new again.
I was watching the sun swollen earth fly by, trying to leech out every ounce of power and spirituality it offered. I kept thinking about how, just that morning, I had wandered over to the lodge and sat on a deck above the water. I could hear the hippos from across the channel, maybe a mile away, their grunts echoing to me where I perched.
I had been contemplating life and where I currently stand. I found myself falling short in so many ways. Somehow, what I am doing here begins the process of closing that formidable gap, but it is only the beginning. I am not sure if anything I ever do will feel like it’s enough. That was a tough thought to reconcile.
While I was reflecting, Michelle, ever inquisitive, was asking Kyle about different projects that Groundwork Opportunities (the organization we fundraised through) was working on. They spoke of their success, what makes them so successful, etc. I listened to him chat with her about genocide reconciliation projects in Rwanda, the growth of Peter’s farm, and the models he wants to give to other locals. The way he talked about the ideas that the natives had in each place showed that they were eager to make change, full of possibility, yet lack resources and organization.
With all this talk of farming and money and ideas to improve the dismal state that so many find themselves in, I was watching the endless miles of one-room mud homes and thinking of a small fishing village we visited. It had been a place where poverty reigned and my heart sank with each step I took through the mud. I felt as if that mud was pulling me down off of my pedestal of a life (by comparison), back to reality.
Not because they seemed angry or sad about their state, but that I am so oblivious sometimes to suffering. I couldn’t begin to tell you of their lack of electricity, food, clothing, money, and even medicinal care. One teenage boy shivered in the chilly morning in just a t-shirt. I wondered - did he even own a sweater? I consider myself to be quite aware because of my travels and living in a third world country… yet still, things surprise me.
We pulled up to the office of a non-profit organization called Uganda Rural Healthcare Foundation, so that Kyle and Peter could reconnect with some gentleman they knew from 2007. I was already feeling emotional and overwhelmed from the nature of the conversation in the van, so stepping into their humble office threatened tears. I managed to keep composure, however, and we sat to listen to their ideas and improvements they wanted to make. New agriculture projects, and new healthcare initiatives were the theme.
The more the gentleman talked, the more excited he got about what they are doing. I pondered his enthusiasm and how incredible these people are. How the fight in them is immortal, how they never tire, never stop trying to make life and community better. Again, what they lack are resources; resources so easily obtained from others if only they were aware. Resources you and I wouldn’t think twice about, we would just reach up and take them. When was the last time that a few dollars meant life or death to me? Yet there, it is a story that is told every day.
Finally, I couldn’t hold it in anymore and I excused myself. As soon as I stepped out of the door, I began to cry. I sat by that rickety old mud-covered van from the safari we had all so easily been able to pay for, and I bawled. I bawled for the feeling of not having done enough. I bawled for the hope that I see in their eyes. I even bawled for a crumpled old man who walked by me, collecting charred bits of wood in a plastic bag. What was he using them for? Couldn’t I give him something so that it wasn’t necessary to pick through the trash infested streets?
A very still silence fell around me, and I wondered what the women carrying bundles on their heads that passed me thought – to see a white woman sitting in their neighborhood and crying. I felt ashamed, but I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t go back in. I even felt selfish that I was crying for the fact that I was feeling so helpless. And finally, I composed myself in time for the others to return.
As we completed the drive home, I had a lot to think about. My eyes returned to Peter, dedicating his life to his country and the improvement therein. I watched Kyle and Jessie who were so heavily involved and sacrificed so much. I watched Kristin, having given a semester of her life to the betterment of life here. And I see Michelle, so inspiring and interested in what she could do to help.
That is when I realized that there is enough love in the world, if you know where to find it. There is enough generosity in the world, if you know how to seek it. And sometimes, it is even within you. For the third time in my life, I have lost my heart to a place. Although maybe never quite this completely before.
If you ask me (Jo Wulffenstein) who I want to be, I’d say a woman of passion, adventure, culture and aspiration to be greater. If you ask me who I am, I’d say a woman on the path to obtaining those things. I grew up in a small town as a country cowgirl, and have since lived abroad, traveled the world, built farms, and influenced change. On the daily side, I work in tourism in Alaska, which happens to be my favorite place on earth. Age 30 comes for me this year, and I couldn’t be more ready!
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