I am often asked when people hear that I am traveling to Uganda whether or not it is safe. There seems to be a prevailing misperception that African countries are dangerous, especially more dangerous than high-income countries in the West. Lately, I have been struck by the hypocrisy of US citizens questioning public safety in other countries. Not only does the US suffer more deaths at the hands of guns than all other countries of similar socio-economic status, but our gun violence statistics compare with some of the most politically unstable countries in the world and we repeatedly suffer many times more indiscriminate mass shootings than any other country
There are guns in Uganda. You often see automatic assault rifles casually slung over the shoulder of security guards, police and military personal throughout the cities. However, in Uganda there simply isn’t the same level of civilian gun ownership or firearm availability as we have here in the US. In all my time in Uganda, I have heard gunshots once. I was sitting on the balcony of the Days Inn Hotel in Lira this past June, late in the night when sharp pops broke the silence. My friends and I, conditioned for the state of gun violence present in the US, assumed the worst, panicked, and retreated into our hotel rooms. In the morning we sought to find out what happened and were informed by the (very nonchalant) staff at the hotel that police had fired warning shots to prevent violence between a shop owner and a homeless youth that was suspected of shoplifting. No one was injured. Not only were our fears of gun violence wrong, but the presence of a police force in the area that is alert and responsive helped to quelle our anxiety for the remainder of our stay.
This month in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, many people heard that same sound. Just as in Uganda, the police response was quick and decisive. But, in Dayton alone, 9 people were killed within seconds. The fact is, the availability of powerful weaponry in the United States makes it more dangerous here than many of us care to admit. People (think Neil deGrasse) like to argue that because mass shootings make up so little of daily deaths, even in relation to ALL deaths at the hands of firearms, that the problem is not worth addressing. Maybe banning assault weapons won’t be the end all for gun violence, and maybe the total amount of lives lost to firearms will barely be decreased, but why should we not take all sensible steps we can to save lives and communities when we have that power? How many people, including young children, would be alive today had these weapons been kept out of the hands of those who least deserved them over the past decade? It seems even one of these lives is worth sensible restrictions on gun ownership.
The fact is, firearms in this country are enabling domestic terrorism, turning us into targets and making us fearful of living in our own communities. Both Uruguay and Venezuela have recently issued travel warnings to their citizens planning to travel to the United States, citing indiscriminate violence, especially against minority groups, and the government’s inability to control the situation given widespread civilian ownership of firearms. In remaining idle while gun culture ravages our country, the US appears less and less as an international symbol of freedom and opportunity, and more as the home of machine gun fanatics whose obsession renders us complacent in the face of great danger and tragedy. So, before we are quick to judge other countries, let’s ask ourselves how do we fix our shooting epidemic at home?
There is sufficient evidence from around the world regarding what can be done to address the gun violence problem. Countries like Australia, in the wake of great tragedy, have taken significant strides to ensure the future safety of their citizens, with measurable success. Unfortunately, many in the US have the hubris to claim that solutions that have proven effective in other countries would not succeed to reduce gun violence here. Such claims gain traction among those who have never travelled abroad, know very little of other countries, and under-estimate just how much we share, especially with countries in Africa (such as Uganda) and Asia. Without this experience, they are fearful and assume ‘exotic’ foreign places must be worse off than their own communities. I believe it is not until we explore the world outside our own that we discover that some of the world’s greatest horrors don’t find sanctuary abroad, but reside within our very own cities, streets, and homes. It is then that we finally accept to learn from others.
Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of attending the RUFC Youth Vision Trip in Uganda, allowing me to meet many new friends and be immersed in an incredible culture and country. Uganda is the first place I have traveled outside of the US and many people told me that I had picked “quite the trip” for my first international experience. Although this made me a little bit nervous, they were right; it was quite the trip. I had the experience of a lifetime and I cannot wait to go back.
Uganda was not only an exciting adventure, but also an opportunity to learn and expand my worldview. Even looking out the window on the bus, watching women carrying their babies on their backs and families buying food from sidewalk vendors, taught me something new. In my opinion, this is best exemplified through my group’s stay at Winnie’s family home, where my friends and I observed and participated in day to day Ugandan village life and culture. When we arrived at the family’s complex we were given a warm welcome and a tour of the incredible little huts we would be staying in. They made us a delicious feast of Ugandan food, including beans, rice, chicken, goat, and chapati (my favorite), a tortilla-like bread. After dinner, we passed out glow sticks and played with the kids in the complex. I played peekaboo with a five-year old girl named Eva. Although she did not speak English well, she would repeat everything I said and giggle and hug me when I would say “I see you!” While we sat around the fire, singing and storytelling, she curled up in my lap. In that moment, I felt so fulfilled and I realized that words are not needed to form a connection. Eva and I were able to connect and communicate through laughter and love. In the morning, we were awoken by the clucking of the chickens entering our hut and we set out to fetch water from the water pump. To my surprise, I had a knack for carrying water on my head! With one hand securing the water jug and the other holding my little friend, Eva’s, hand, I made it all the way back to the complex. It was definitely not an easy task and I now have so much admiration for the women who do it daily with such grace and strength. The home stay experience was one of the most memorable and rewarding parts of my trip because I left with a deeper understanding and love for Uganda and its culture.
I am so grateful that I was able to attend camp this year because the power and passion of RUFC is so apparent in this project. The moment I stepped off the bus at camp, I was taken aback by the spirit and enthusiasm of every single person present, both the staff and the campers. There was this unique, irresistible energy in the air that just made me want to smile and dance. And we did dance… a lot! I loved dancing with all of the campers and getting to see them show off their moves. Every day of camp there was a dance party, uniting us all through music and movement. The work that RUFC does is outstanding. Camp gives hundreds of children the opportunity not only to play soccer, but also to learn skills to combat challenges they face on a daily basis. I think the education that they provide in areas such as mental health, sanitation, and emergency preparedness, is invaluable. I was so inspired by the collaboration of the staff and the eagerness of the campers to learn and contribute. Overall, the most important part of RUFC to me is the sustainability of the program. Rather than just a one time experience, the program is an ongoing initiative. This trip, although impactful, was very brief and there is still so much more I want to accomplish with the organization. I intend to continue to be active in RUFC and I hope that I can return to Uganda next summer to help with camp. I also really want to encourage people at my high school, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, to become involved in Ray’s amazing organization and mission. I am overjoyed to be a part of the RUFC family and I cannot wait to see the program grow.
This June, RUFC successfully implemented our fifth annual soccer and health camp. It came at the cost of a lot of work from us and all of our wonderful Ugandan partners, and I couldn’t be happier with how it went. For the first time ever, the weather held up! We didn’t have one downpour! That combined with four years of prior expertise resulted in an exceptionally well-run event. All our workshops ran smoothly and the energy on site was as positive as ever. It seems year after year our team just gets better. This year was a bit different as we ran our RUFC Youth Vision Trip at the same time as Camp. For ten days, myself and a group of high school students from around Los Angeles toured Uganda to obtain greater appreciation for the culture, as well as an updated global perspective. This was our second installment of this program and like the first I believe it was an incredible success - perhaps even better because the youth got to experience a few days of Camp as well.
Prior to the trip I was excited to share Uganda and RUFC camp with my peers, but I wasn’t thinking about how much more I would learn about Uganda myself. But in the end, even after 8 trips to Uganda over the last 6 years, this year I found there was still so much left for me to learn and experience. For example, I had never been to a traditional healer before. In Ugandan villages, the traditional healers are often the most trusted members of their communities. This sometimes presents a public health challenge when sick people choose to forgo professional medical services and seek to be healed by natural spirits. My good friend, Dr. John Jubilee, set up a meeting for our vision group to meet a local traditional healer during our visit to Mpigi. When we entered the healer’s hut, we were separated by gender and sat down on the floor. The healer walked us through how he became a healer and showed us the process through which he summons the healing spirits, which involved a lot of drumming and chanting, as well as some very questionable dance moves involving red hot coals. When he had successfully channeled the spirits, he administered individual advice and made predictions about our future. I was so impressed by my colleagues’ willingness and enthusiasm to participate. Interestingly, the girls’ fortunes all involved becoming mothers, with the luckiest among them forecasted to have twins. At the conclusion of each prediction, he would spit on the recipient’s hands for them to rub on their temples. Eventually, after we all had the opportunity to consult with the healer, he cleansed the spirits from his body by swallowing water - or so we thought until he began spitting it back out, showering us with spirit spit. Overall, the visit was an amazing, educational experience.
I also found that no matter how many times I participate in a home stay, each time is different and special in its own way. This year one of our partners at Global Health Network Uganda, Winnie, was kind enough to host our large group in her family’s compound. Her family was especially welcoming, even slaughtering a goat for our visit. We had an incredible night of cultural show and tell around the fire. All of us huddled around the fire in plastic chairs, telling stories, dancing, laughing, and singing songs until the early morning. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful and profound moment of cross-cultural exchange and connections for my peers to experience. The feelings I had that night were similar to those I felt that first time I traveled to Uganda, on the soccer pitch. I was reminded of why I started this organization in the first place. I wanted to show the world no matter where we come from we are capable of connecting and loving each other. That was why I wanted to take this group of youth to Uganda in the first place and I was overcome with emotion as I sat by the fire and saw my vision fulfilled so flawlessly.
It's super busy at RUFC right now - last preparations are going on for the Youth Vision Trip and RUFC camp. It's taking me a bit longer to post the May Blog. Sorry about that but stay tuned!
This April I had the incredible honor to attend Unite for Sight's Global Health Innovation Conference, an annual global health conference held at Yale University. I originally made the journey with the expectation that I would share with others in the global health community about the power of community partnership, youth engagement, and fun in facilitating change in rural Uganda, as evidenced through our programming and research. What I didn’t expect, however, was the experience and guidance that was bestowed upon me through lectures from veterans in the field. I was surprised to see many of the ideas I champion on this Blog as the topics of interest in many of these lectures. I was relieved and encouraged to find that RUFC was already doing many of the things these experts advocated for, including ethical representation and intervention in communities, community-led programming, and interactive service learning.
I learned a lot about effective fundraising as well, which becomes increasingly relevant as we approach our fifth annual public health camp and still have funds to raise. One point I found particularly interesting was to “follow the mission, not the money.” This is a challenge I have frequently faced while fundraising, because donors look to us, the organization, as a resource to fulfill their personal humanitarian interests. Instead of receiving the funds we need to facilitate our programming that we know to be effective and powerful, we are often asked to serve the donor; putting time and resources into brainstorming programming that we know will not be as impactful as our current activities, does not take advantage of our strengths, or is likely logistically impossible. The responsibility to stand firm in our mission and adhere to the fundamental values of our organization ultimately falls to us. However, it’s often difficult to remain focused when funds are so difficult to come by, and potentially available if we just adjusted our programs to deliver on the interests of those with resources. Hopefully, as advocated at the conference, if we continue to prioritize the interests of our community partners and the vulnerable beneficiaries of our programming over the donors, we will eventually to gain the trust of new potential partners, donors, and advocates.
One area of work that captured my attention and that I hadn’t give much attention to was the role of artists in global health. I went to a workshop by the Emmy-awarding winning film maker Lisa Russell where she outlined how and why to engage with artists. I really connected with her message because not only am I myself an artist (singer), but at RUFC we are all about connecting at an emotional and personal level with the youth that we serve. We bring joy and music to everything we do and I instantly saw how we could engage more artists in our programs. Since coming home we have already reached out to a prominent, young Northern Ugandan poet, Harriet Anena, who has agreed to work with RUFC youth vision trip participant and aspiring poet Audrey Melillo, to run a poetry workshop in June. I’m so excited about this new partnership and recommend that everyone read Harriet’s latest book, Nation in Labour.
Significant youth (under 20) involvement in global health was unfortunately absent (and at times scoffed) at the conference. In a community of educated professionals, it might seem difficult to see the truth or benefit of such engagement. For example, as I was presenting my poster on adolescent knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, an older professional approached me and questioned my legitimacy; insinuating that my mother had done all the work. This was disheartening to say the least, but I can stand tall with the recognition that I had a legitimate right to be there. There is no doubt that my mom is my greatest partner and I wouldn’t have been able to register a non-profit, manage hundreds of thousands of dollars, and conduct research without adult involvement. But that does not mean that I have not been central to all that RUFC has done and I have many partners and witnesses to corroborate that statement. Just as I have an open mind to learn from those more experienced than I, professionals should also be open to listening to the experiences of youth. I had the unique chance to be involved in this line of work from an incredibly young age and have witnessed how one insignificant kid can serve as a rallying call, for professionals, funders and dreamers. Just look at the incredible leadership emanating from Greta Thunberg in Sweden! She has singlehandedly invigorated a new generation of climate change activists of all ages.
It has never been my role to provide professional services nor should it be the duty of any child, but even global health has facets that children can fill. Not to mention, engaged and active youth will remain engaged and active adults. I hope to remain rigid in my belief that not only should it be permitted for children of the world to be engaged in global health and development, but encouraged, because I know first-hand the power of a single child to impact change.
By Meddy Katende
I would like to share my experiences to the 2019 annual Global Health Conference on the RUFC blog. I have no idea where to start. From a frustrating visa process to exciting moments in LA, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Chicago, to an academic tour to some of the greatest universities in USA and a family reunion in Chicago and Ohio. Here is my story in bits!
I first learnt about this opportunity in September 2018 when Prof. Heather Wipfli informed me that our applications to present RUFC work at the annual global health conference was accepted. She requested my company to this historic event and this was one of the most exciting news I have ever had in my entire life. At this moment, I didn’t know that it just the beginning of a process that scares every Ugandan citizen irrespective of how educated or important they are: the “U.S visa application”
In October 2018 I started the process and, after doing enough research, filled and submitted my online application in December. At this moment, I was asked to pay a total of UGX 640,000 which RUFC provided. I then scheduled a date for my interview on the 15th of January, did all the research, asked people who had been in the process and by 15th was ready to go. I will live to tell a story about this day, here is what happened!
Having my interview scheduled at 8:30am, I woke up at 6am to prepare, made sure I was on time, got in and answered all the questions asked by the consular in an interview that lasted for less than two minutes. After asking a couple questions, the consular faced her computer and said to me “Am sorry Mr. Katende you’re not eligible to enter the U.S at this moment." I didn’t know what to say to her really. At this moment she returned my passport accompanied with a rejection letter that made it clear not to appeal this decision unless circumstances for which the visa was denied had changed. I left the room in complete disbelief, didn't know why she said I was illegible for the visa. But this is where the story gets interesting!
I immediately wrote to Prof. Heather informing her about this whole experience. I asked her if I should challenge the decision and her response was like everyone else's. “I don’t think reapplying will change anything”. She encouraged me to stay focused and wait for other opportunities in the future.
NEVER GIVE UP!
When everyone else thought it was never going to work, Ray’s opinion was different. Through his blog and other RUFC social media forums, Ray criticized the Embassy’s decision to deny people opportunities to travel due to what he referred as political reasons that had nothing to do with any of us. This gave me fresh energy and I decided to make an appeal, reapplied and was given a new appointment after making endless calls to the Embassy. Thanks to Ray’s cyber activism and my tenacity, my visa application was finally accepted on the 14th of February 2019.
At exactly 12:00am on 1st March, I set off from Entebbe airport for the much anticipated trip and it was a bit of a fluke because it was my28th birthday at the same time. Celebrating birthdays has never been my thing, but this was a special one. After traveling for over 28 hours, from Entebbe through Dubai and finally landing in Los Angeles at exactly 2:00pm, still on March 1st! And so after traveling for more than 24 hours, given the 11 hours’ time difference it was still my birthday. For the record, this is the longest birth I have ever had!
Great thanks to the Wipfli family for making that day even better, from a warm welcome at the airport, to a fundraising event where Ray and I shared a lot about RUFC and Uganda, to dinner where I had a Mexican meal for the first time in my life. At which point I thought it was done, but the party was just getting started! After dinner we went home and this was the most amazing moment, I found a very big chocolate cake waiting, and moments later was showed with gifts from the entire family.
The following days we visited lots of places in California including Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the Pacific Ocean. On the third day Prof. Heather gave me an opportunity to interact with her class at the University of Southern California on mhealth and public health in Uganda. I was happy to answer a lot of questions about health Apps and solutions from these exciting young people.
There were lots of other events during my first week in Los Angeles, including great meals and reuniting with some of the students that have been part of our RUFC program in the previous years.
On 6th March, we travelled to Chicago for the annual global health conference. The weather in Chicago was far different from LA and of course the familiar Ugandan weather. I had never experienced so much cold ever before, but life is about adventure and this was part of a wonderful experience.
While in Chicago, we visited a number of famous places including Millennium Park and Willis Tower. But one of the most exciting and favorite things about this whole trip was trying different types of food from the diverse ethnic groups in USA, including Italian, Mexican, Japanese and Indian (see pictures below!).
I also attended a number of important sessions on global health and we were able to present our posters on RUFC work in Uganda. We interacted with a number of people and was I amused to find so many people who have worked in Uganda addressing different health challenges.
Family Reunion and Academic Tours
While in Chicago, I was able to see my brother and meet his family for the very first time. There’s nothing that’s as beautiful as meeting family, especially people you have not seen in a long period of time. In the last week of my trip, I visited other family and top universities in Ohio and was able to connect with quite a number of people in the different academic departments of interest.
Great thanks to Ray Wipfli for doing his utmost best to see that this trip happened. Ray put up a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to fund my air ticket and did a lot of activism to ensure I was granted a visa from the Embassy. Second I would like to thank the entire Wipfli family for hosting me and taking good care of me throughout the trip. Lastly to everyone who donated to fund my trip and supports RUFC activities, thank you very much!
In May it will have been 5 years since writing my first blog entry on this site. I am proud of my commitment, but it is also strange to think that I have undertaken this task for half a decade or a third of my life... Over this time, I’ve gone through so many highs and lows with writing. Some months the words come naturally and quickly as my passion urges me onward. Last month was one such occasion when my frustration at Meddy’s visa rejection prompted a passionate blog entry. Often, however, I feel like my words here are squandered and left to hide unread in the far corners of the Internet. It is hard to measure the amount of people my words reach but more importantly how many they touch. I average just a few dozen 'Likes' per month and a small, quick spike on the RUFC website when I post a new entry. This void often leaves me feeling unmotivated and lacking inspiration. It reminds me that it is so important for people to not only feel they have a voice but that they are heard...including me.
Even though I can never tell who my words reach, they nevertheless do spread. This month I have repeatedly been reminded of the influence and the power that this Blog can have in reaching others. For example, after my last entry, which I posted on various social media accounts and made sure to tag the US Embassy in Kampala, the Embassy agreed to another meeting with Meddy. They then reversed their decision and granted Meddy a visa. While I don’t know that my words influenced the Embassy, I cannot help but feel that my activism may have helped. I also cannot begin to describe my pride and excitement about their decision. Meddy will be traveling to California tomorrow from Uganda before journeying on to Chicago to present crucial RUFC field data at the Consortium of Universities in Global Health annual meeting. Be sure to follow his visit on the RUFC social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram (@rayunitedfc), Twitter (@rayunitedfc)).
I received more proof of my Blog’s reach this month in the form of an email exchange between my mother and a medical school professor at Yale. My mother was communicating with her about non-RUFC related global health topics and mentioned she would be visiting the school in the coming months with her son who would be presenting on work in Uganda at the Unite for Sight conference. She responded that it just so happened that she is familiar with RUFC and uses quotes from my January 2018 blog about ethical representation to prepare students and faculty before they depart on international immersion programs. She wrote “Here is an example of a young man, who has such a simple, yet sophisticated way of getting this point across. If they can keep his words - or at least the essence of that wisdom - in mind when they are traveling, the images that they bring back will reflect a much more robust and nuanced understanding of the places they go.” I don’t believe I have ever received a higher compliment about my writing or my work.
I’ve found that by inspiring others through my words, a feedback loop is created in which I, in turn, am inspired. After all, my words here are my own and they are deeply personal. They aren’t buried in pretext or overcomplicated language. I’m just a busy high school student who spends an hour each month writing to make my work known and to spread ideas I feel could make the world a better place. Feeling that my words are reaching others and having an impact has reignited my passion to continue working hard and posting blogs.
I hope that RUFC can help others feel the same empowerment and influence from writing by encouraging them to find their voice. During this Summer's Youth Vision Trip, for example, one of our high school volunteers who is a gifted writer, will be providing a writing workshop to secondary school girls in Loro to encourage them to use their own words to tell their stories and advocate for their communities. I hope that we can also find a platform for their words to be heard.
I appreciate every one of you that takes the time to read and reflect on my words here. It is my hope that some of you will also take the time to share it on your own social media, respond, give feedback, share your thoughts, and propose new ideas for potential entries. With your help, I commit to continue to use this Blog as a place where I express my ideas while keeping my content relevant and entertaining. It’s your presence that keeps me going and your responses that motivate me to keep sharing...Here’s to another 5 years of musings!
The first month of 2019 is off to a blistering start, as it seems just yesterday I was enjoying the snowy holidays with loved ones. 2019 has already had ups and downs for RUFC. On the up side, we have sold out our 2019 Youth Vision Trip and collected and dispersed tuition for 12 kids to start their new school year. However, on the down side, I began a push at the end of last year to fund my friend and colleague Meddy’s trip to Chicago to assist in presenting our research. In a heartbreaking turn of events, Meddy’s US visa was declined, and he will be unable to join us at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) annual conference.
I have traveled to a multitude of countries (16) across five continents and have been met with nothing but hospitality. Never once have I been denied a visa to any of these wonderful places. I’ve never even worried about it. To be able to explore the world as such is a privilege, I know, but the robbing of these same opportunities to others by those in power is unforgivable. Travel (freedom of movement) is a basic human right.
As an American, I am ashamed. I have now had two virtuous friends denied traveling permits to the US, Meddy and #morethanadriver Abdul, based on unfounded American preconceptions and prejudice. These two responsible men represent no threat and neither would remain in the United States. However, our government is now practically unable to function because of the fear of ‘non-Americans’ entering into our “free” country. Many (like our current President) argue that allowing too many outsiders into our country poses a physical and economic threat. These arguments have been repeatedly proven to be false and, well, in my evidence-based opinion, the United States would be better off with diverse people like Meddy and Abdul in it. A great blog I found about the freedom of travel (and benefits of immigration) can be found here.
The real harm of denying our partners’ visas doesn’t lie the US. Our RUFC Ugandan partners serve as role-models to the upcoming generation of East African youth and have an irreplaceable role to influence positive change. Allowing them the opportunity to travel, share and learn is critical in developing them into future leaders. If youth with ideas and talents to share are not given the chance to overcome their perceived status, then how, as a society, can we ever progress? If important colleagues and workers are denied the right to travel and present their own ideas, will prejudice not remain? Are we Americans supposed to simply stand in and deliver the work of the passionate volunteers and social revolutionaries with whom we work?
Yesterday I was blessed to listen to a selection of stellar poems by Emtithal Mahmoud, and it reminded me that all across the world stories are being silenced. She spoke about her Father’s best friend being killed because he knew too much about government corruption and how the government covered it up. She spoke about how it was our responsibility as global citizens to keep record so those in power do not tarnish the reputation and legacy of those we hold dear.
Here is my record: The RUFC research to be presented at CUGH belongs to my Ugandan colleagues and it matters who presents the data. I believe that as Americans involved in development programs, we must insist that the intelligent men and women who are doing their utmost to help those in need in their own communities are able to tell their own stories, in their own voice, in person to audiences all over the world. The stripping of such opportunity is synonymous with robbing them of their human rights to equality, movement and expression.
Happy New Year! I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season full of love and appreciation for friends and family. Here at RUFC we are so grateful for the support we have received this year and would like to extend our thanks to everyone who has made a donation or attended a RUFC event in 2018. To all our volunteers and international partners: Happy New Year! May 2019 treat you well and I look forward to our continuing friendship. It’s amazing how much RUFC has impacted my family’s life. We happen to have RUFC’s first youth ambassador, Miriam, staying with us. We are overjoyed to have had her enjoy the holiday season as part of the Wipfli family.
New Year’s is all about resolutions and goal setting for the next year. Accordingly, I sat down to list out my own personal goals for 2019:
I can only hope 2019 is as fulfilling and successful as 2018 was for RUFC and me personally. I wish you all a Happy New Year and GREAT start in 2019!
Ray Wipfli, RUFC founder, shares his thoughts.