I traveled back to the good ol’ USA from Peace Corps Uganda in April for a three-week furlough. I had qualified for the 111th Boston Marathon several months back while I was still in the U.S. and I flew back home to run it. I had to run it. To run the Boston you have to have run another marathon in a specific time in order to qualify. I had only qualified by 10 seconds – 26.2 miles of running and it came down to the last 10 seconds - so I figured that I had better run the Boston this time; there may never be another.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect after coming back from being in Africa for over a year. I think I expected some deep-seeded change to have taken place inside of me. I expected to be looking at the world through a different shade of lenses. I expected to be radically changed.
I guess the first thing that did strike me was how much stuff there is for us to buy and consume. When I arrived I was perusing around the airport spellbound at all the different lines of perfume, CDs, knickknacks and food choices there were. Entering back into this commercialized world served as a quick reminder as to how we are molded and shaped, many times unknowingly, by the ads for things we’re told that we need. We can personalize, customize, and individualize almost anything we buy too, "for just a few dollars more…" Coming from a third world country where a few pennies can mean the difference between getting necessary medicine to save a life, it didn’t impress me all that much. In fact it made me a little sad.
I also realized how things hadn’t changed much since I was gone. I saw a few new buildings that had been built. A few had been abandoned and ‘For Lease’ signs were hanging in the windows. Rushville hadn’t changed except for the new CVS and the talk of a new Wal-Mart. In many ways that was a comfort. After a day or so it began to even feel like my year in Uganda was more like a distant dream than an actual experience. I just felt so far removed from where I had come from.
I spent my time at home sharing my experiences with anyone who would listen. I shared with individuals over lunch and coffee and I also shared with church groups, family members, the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club, the Optimist Club, high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.
After all those talks I was beginning to feel like a broken record, but I found that wherever I went people were genuinely interested in hearing about my adventures. One of the three goals of the Peace Corps is to teach Americans about these other countries – how they really live and what their life is like - and I personally feel a great sense of obligation to share my experiences.
Upon returning to Uganda I accompanied a team of 14 college students and staff from Purdue Christian Campus House. When I was a student at Purdue I attended church at PCCH and they had contacted me several months back about sending a group to me to do some work with Compassion International, my organization. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, living and working in Uganda, I was in a great position to coordinate all the details of their mission trip. During their two weeks here they lived with host families in groups of two or three and they ate the local food. They spent their days working and caring for the kids of Compassion. They built a number of outdoor mud kitchens and pit latrines in addition to simple outdoor bathing areas and drying racks for dishes. A group of 25 of the older Compassion kids went into the field and worked right along side us each day. When there wasn’t enough work for the number of people working, they took hoes and went to dig and weed in the gardens - a great help to the Compassion families. They had such rich interactions with the kids in those times. They laughed and joked and wiped mud on each other. The kids were teaching them to speak Runyankore, the local language. Of course, everywhere we went people stopped and watched this group (more like stared in amazement) of Muzungus (white people) who were dirty, working in mud and building simple African structures for these poor people. Muzungus don’t venture this deep into the African village. They don’t work alongside the local people. Normally they stop off in town only to eat and rest on their way to one of the national parks for a safari. The Ugandans who stopped said things like, "I’m now challenged by the hard work and selfless service of these whites," "I thought whites spent their whole time in air-conditioning and didn’t know how to work and to dig in this soil," and "If this is how Christians serve one another then I must look into this for myself."
Before they left they received African names from their families. Names that meant grace, God provides, God is love, and in God there is hope. One could argue that to spend so much money and little time just to fly to Africa and dig in the dirt is a little extreme and not very productive. That money could have been just donated and done so much for so many. True. But I’m convinced that the change that happened in each of those volunteers from what they have now seen and experienced has impacted their lives, their faith and their futures in ways that will be evident only in the years to come.
So I’m now alone again in my tiny African village. Back to work. Weeks later, something still lingers from the time spent here by the American visitors. Like wind that gently stirs the dust into swirling circles. People are still talking. Contemplating. Remembering. The Ugandans ask if they’ll be back. "I doubt it," I tell them. "It’s just too far." But their efforts and time spent here will be remembered long into the future.
Brian Dunn is a Rushville Consolidated High School graduate who is spending time working with the Peace Corps.