By Diane Stern, S.O.U.L. Foundation Board Member and Director of Outreach and Public Relations
Omg. What an experience. For a number of reasons.
My first visit two years ago was very hard for me and I’m not sure that many people I know would be able to manage the rawness of it all. Today, I say sincerely: "this experience is not to be missed.”
It was eye opening, once again. The village looks different to be me in so many ways than it did two years ago. My daughter Brooke, who founded S.O.U.L. with my husband three years ago, tells me the only difference is that I am not in shock this time. While that may be true, there are significant differences that are overwhelmingly evident in a multidimensional way.
The village looks cleaner; there is less garbage and waste on the paths. The homes we visited have much more order and the people seem proud of their living conditions. The smell of waste is not evident as it was two years ago. More people have shoes on their feet although many of them tell me they spend a good portion of the day wearing their "originals" (which is their bare feet), to keep their feet in shape and tough skinned. They are standing taller, smiling more and their clothes are cleaner. Although they are poor they do not look downtrodden.
During my time in Uganda, S.O.U.L. held a community-wide meeting, which was attended by over 500 people including local and regional officials. The progress S.O.U.L. has made in the community was recognized and celebrated. A female politician who represents seventeen sub-counties (probably equivalent to a state senator in the U.S. or maybe even a congressman) gave a speech that brought tears to the eyes of many, including my husband. The local leader discussed how never in her political life or in all of her lifetime has she seen villages transform in such a short period of time and declared that S.O.U.L.’s example should and will be a model for all of Uganda. She was choked up in her presentation, and wowed us with her kind and generous words.
The local chairmanship then proceeded to surprise us by donating a large piece of land in a central location to the S.O.U.L. Foundation, positioning us to better serve the numerous villages surrounding our original project area. That's a real vote of confidence. The meeting went on for six hours and included presentations from our preschool children, female students whose education is sponsored by S.O.U.L. and the women who participate in our business cooperatives even coordinated a dance performance! The day was mixed with speeches and entertainment. Brooke hired a PA system so all could hear and at the very end we were able to play some music. Food was provided by members of S.O.U.L. business cooperatives who cooked all morning to feed over 500 people rice and beans and vegetables.
At the close of the meeting, one by one, the women from the community came up to Brooke and gave her gifts of fruits and vegetables. By the time it was all over, the gifts could have filled a small grocery store. Now for the first time, I saw Brooke cry. It wasn't the land that was donated, or all the wonderful things that were said about her and S.O.U.L. that day; it was the appreciation that the women showed and the significance of their gifts of food. A year ago, they could not have given that food away, as it might have provided for the only meal their family would eat that day. Brooke was choked up, a rare thing to see. As a mom, I was completely moved by all of it, but especially by that moment.
We also visited the fish ponds. I was floored. The pictures don’t do the project justice. It just so happened that representatives from the World Bank, the African Development Fund and a number of other global lending institutions were scheduled to visit the project to listen to Brooke give a presentation on our progress. I felt privileged to watch as Brooke described the hard work that has gone into making this project a success.
Here's a funny story.
We needed two cars to get to village and when we were only about 1 km away we noticed the left wheel on the other car was severely wobbling. Several meters down the road, the wheel completely fell off and the car collapsed. It was something out of a movie. Now picture this. Cars behind us and cars in front. No one can pass. We are 1 km away. Out of nowhere, at least fifty Ugandans emerge and start helping to figure out how to jack the car up and get tire back on. Lots of conversation amongst them debating how to do this. Women and children everywhere. The willingness to help was amazing and was only topped by the reception we received when we entered the village. After we finally drove the last km, we were greeted with at least sixty women and scores of kids singing and clapping and cheering. Everyone was so happy to see us. My sister-in-law and niece got choked up witnessing the loving welcome Brooke and all of us received. It is unimaginable. You need the 3D experience to really appreciate the depth of it all.
This time was glorious for me. Beyond words. This time I entered into S.O.U.L. through a new door, with new eyes and new skin.
I am already planning my next trip back. Can't wait!