East African Summer Part I: Uganda

Fresh from time off for my glute injury and running pain free again (though out of shape), rather than heading off to Moscow or Europe for track racing I decided to spend the summer in East Africa.  There I would get in shape halfway around the world, hopefully alongside some fast company, while simultaneously getting in touch with another of my life passions besides competitive running: bringing aid to those in extreme poverty.

To begin the trip, I headed to Uganda for 2.5 weeks.  Uganda is a place that is easy to fall in love with.  This “peal of Africa,” as Churchill named it, is lush and tropical with red dirt roads and smiling dark faces everywhere you go.  The majority of the time I stayed in a rural village outside of the bustling capital Kampala at the Show Mercy base.  Each morning I would wake excited to head out on my run, knowing I would not be alone for long.  As I headed out the undulating dirt road that snaked through the village, I was welcomed by shrieks of delight and the chanting of children who ran out of their small mud houses to see the “mzungo” (white person) running by- a rarity on a number of levels- 1) white 2) female 3) running.  The most common greeting was “Byeee, mizuuu-ngoooo, byeee mizuuuu-ngooo!” which would not stop until acknowledged with at least a wave, no matter how hard the fartlek interval I was in.  Often I would pass and hear the pitter-patter of bare feet running behind me, along with giggles of excitement.  I would always encourage them to keep up, though sometimes they may only last 50 meters.  As the weeks went by and I ran the same route, I became acquainted with them: the little boy in the first mile who would try to block my path mischievously; the 16-year-old Francis who would run out of her house with her arms stretch wide yelling “Sara, wait for me!” and give me a big hug; the little girl who would call out to me in the sing-song voice of a bird call “Mizungooooo, How are yoooooou?”

Typical sight of children coming out of their homes to greet me on a run

Spending so much time in this village reminded me how hard life is for a poor farmer in Africa.  Children as young as 6 would be up far earlier than I chopping away at the fields with a hoe.  4-year-olds carried their year-old siblings around on their back or hip for hours.  Many of the children I spent weeks investing in were HIV+ and most had some kind of ailment from as minor as large “scabies” scabs on their heads to malaria, which was so common that it became synonymous with the term for sickness of any kind.  Children are not free just to play- they are constantly working; doing laundry, cooking, herding animals, working the farm…  As I would tempo by and watch all this play out, I was reminded during my “hard” workout that these people knew the true meaning of hard work.

Despite the immense poverty and disease, I saw so much resiliency, joy and beauty while in Uganda.  I had the pleasure of sharing the gift of running with at-risk youth in the most extreme sense of the word.  When I first arrived, I spent some time with the organization Sixty Feet, which brings medical care and advocacy to imprisoned youth.  Some of these youth have committed crimes, but some were merely street children sold and trafficked to Kampala to beg on the streets, only to be rounded up by the government and dumped in prison in an effort to keep the streets clean.  Sixty Feet put on a 5k race on the prison grounds where I was smoked in the first half mile by nearly the entire group that tore recklessly down the dirt trail, most barefoot, some in Crocs, and one little guy wearing an oversized suit coat.  Afterwards over watermelon, jump rope and blasting music we had a big party, and I was amazed the joy that could rise up from such sad surroundings, largely through running.

Children imprisoned for begging on the street in Kampala

I ended my time in Uganda up north in Lire with Children of Peace Uganda, an organization which advocates for former LRA child soldiers and others victimized by the war with the LRA (the orphaned or born in captivity, often a result of rape) through rehabilitation and education.  Recently Kelsey Owens, as featured in an article in Runners World, piloted a running program with these children to help with the rehabilitation efforts through running and I trekked up north to run a 1.6 mi race with these precious children who had overcome more in their lifetime than I could imagine.  Once again, I was amazed at how much they enjoyed running, taking off from the gun and running so hard that the girl I was running with at the end was weaving and on the verge of passing out in the final 400m.  These children knew how to overcome pain and discomfort, this race was nothing compared to what they face on a daily basis.  I loved to see, too, how running was helping them assimilate back into their communities, where they are often seen as outsiders when returning from the war, as former child soldiers made friends with villagers out on the run.  I was reminded how the gift of running can bring light in the darkest places and doesn’t require a lot of coordination or expensive gear.

Running with former child soldiers/ victims of war in Northern Uganda

During my travels, the plight of one child in particular captured my heart: Lazarus.  I named him this upon finding him in one of the large (and understaffed, under-resourced, and absolutely heart-breaking) public hospitals of Kampala while we were there one afternoon praying for people.  He was hardly recognizable, asleep under a sheet on a hospital bed outside the hospital room itself which is common due to lack of space.  As I pulled the sheet back I was not completely sure he was alive; he was emaciated and unconscious in a pool of his own urine.  His chart showed “unknown boy, dropped at the hospital by someone (likely the police) in the middle of the night, no guardians known”.  He was one of many anonymous children in Uganda with no one there to advocate for his care, which is a matter of life and death in this hospital I soon learned.  With much effort we woke him, slowly fed him bits of food, and gave him juice through a straw.  Although he couldn’t move his body, his face started to show signs of life.  Our time at the hospital was up and we had to leave, but this boy weighed heavy on our hearts as we knew that no one would give him food and fluid until we returned, which is exactly what happened.  We spent the next day at his bedside, literally nursing him back to life, and though he still could hardly move his arms, his facial control improved dramatically and he was even able to utter a few soft words.  “Lazarus”, named after the man Jesus brought back to life in the Bible, was coming back to life despite being at the hospital for 36 hours and still not having seen a doctor.  When we left we doubted he would receive anything until we could return the following afternoon, but prayed God would provide for him.

Lazarus, Day 2

God answered our prayers and a young Ugandan man visiting his aunt in the hospital took notice of the boy and began to ask why he didn’t have anyone with him (which is a miracle as most people we encountered are used to these sights).  No one else seemed concerned, but he felt similar compassion and began to feed Lazarus and advocate for his care with the doctors.  Women nearby asked him “What’s the point of caring for this child? Even if he recovers, where is he going to go? He is likely a street kid.”  But our Good Samaritan Kevin responded, “You don’t know, this could be the future president of Uganda!” to which they scoffed.  Long story short, when we returned for the last time before leaving Uganda, we were able to feel a peace that we were transferring his care into the capable hands of Kevin and a nurse from Sixty Feet who were taking over visiting him and already looking into transferring him to a different clinic.  Kevin continues to send me updates and I’m happy to report he is slowly improving! “Lazarus” is nameless no more.

As my time in Uganda came to a close, I looked forward to the next chapter in my East African journey: Ethiopia.

Thanks for reading,

Sara

Lazarus recently, making progress

Read more:

East African Summer Part II: Ethiopia

East African Summer Part III: Kenya

. Posted by Steps Foundation.