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!
Happy Halloween! October has been full of monumental achievements for us at Ray United FC and we look forward to the opportunities that await us moving forward. On this spooky day, I’d like to quickly describe what’s on the calendar for us in the coming months. First of all, this week my mother has been having an awesome adventure! Accompanied by her friend Jessie, (who came with her son Locke on our RUFC Youth Trip) she has presented Ray United FC’s first academic poster at the Association of Pacific Rim Universities' Global Health conference in Malaysia. This poster details RUFC programming and the extensive benefits provided to all participants. This is exciting news for the future of RUFC. While mom has been working hard showing our work to the world, it hasn’t been a drag for her at all. She has the incredible privilege of experiencing the diverse and wonderful culture Asia has to offer as she travels from Malaysia to the tropical shores of Thailand to the towering city of Hong Kong.
This year I had the chance to personally collect data from the youth participating in our annual RUFC Football and Health Camp. We seek to collect data from our campers to help inform and focus our educational efforts and to generate evidence of a sustainable and measurable impact resulting from our programming. Thanks to a strenuous collective effort, led by USC faculty and students and GHN (U) staff, we’ve managed to survey over 300 youth and compile a unique set of data. You can read the final survey report HERE. (Note - our research was approved by the necessary ethics committees in the US and in Uganda.)
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in the data collection and found great value in the process. By conducting interviews, I personally discovered a deeper connection with, and understanding of, the youth whom we serve. In asking questions regarding their knowledge and beliefs about health and wellness, I was reminded that the reason we fundraise and organize these camps is for the benefit of the youth. Their responses reinforced the need for health education programming and the need for RUFC (and me personally) to continue advocating and fundraising has never been clearer to me.
Last March, I served on a panel at USC and the panelists spoke extensively about the disconnect between the benefactor and beneficiary in philanthropy. One of the panelist used the example of an organization purchasing and distributing numerous mosquito nets, only for them to be used as fishing nets. I argued then, and still believe now, that the organization in question was wrong in assuming that malaria was the most pressing problem for this community. Or that their ‘misuse’ of the nets was ill-informed or ‘wrong’. Based on their behavior, I argued, food security or economic income from fish was clearly perceived as more important than the need to sleep under a net.
One of the things I have learned over the past five years is that data needs to be collected and communities need to inform any effective programming. This is true for RUFC, there are gaps that lie between us and the communities we seek to assist. Through the data collection and analysis process, I believe we have taken steps towards overcoming that gap. In addition, data collection and analysis is likely to be integral to many of the career paths which I will have to decide between in the coming years. It couldn’t hurt to get a little head start!
In August, the world celebrated International Youth Day, a day during which we appreciate all of the hardworking, dedicated, and talented young individuals across the globe. I get so excited by the idea of youth leadership. I truly believe this generation of youth is different. We are connected in unprecedented ways through technology and by fostering connections and friendships early in life we can limit divisions and future conflicts. We have an underlying basis of understanding that has not existed before.
This year, International Youth Day had a special focus on safe spaces. Safe spaces are places where youth can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests, participate in decision making processes and freely express themselves. I was particularly moved by this theme as I recognize what a large role safe spaces play in helping me stay positive.
One of my safe spaces for the past three years has been the wonderful choir room at my school. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy school, but as a high school student it is not always easy to be your authentic self. There is tons of pressure to be perfect socially and academically. I know that when I enter the choir room, I can leave those feelings at the door. Through singing with my peers, my heart is liberated from the stress of living and I can feel free. Outside of class, I have a sizeable group of friends whom I have bonded with through music. When I see them pass me in the halls I get the same safe feeling – a feeling of belonging to a special community that understands me.
Safe spaces are necessary for everyone, and RUFC hopes to provide those safe spaces to children in need, whether it be through clubs or for one week every year during camp. We also aim to equip students with the tools and knowledge they need to create their own safe spaces at school and at home. We also create safe spaces where youth from all over the world can come together and share and connect. Through these safe spaces, I believe our communities and future leaders can make great strides towards peace and understanding.
PS. My choir experience at La Canada High School is truly extraordinary. Click HERE to see powerful video of my Choir Director, Dr. Jeff Brookey, and you will understand why!
Yesterday I was reminded about the things we share with my friends living in rural Uganda, as well some differences, as I enjoyed cooking dinner for my family. For many in the US, the process of cooking dinner usually amounts to going to the store to buy the necessary ingredients, and cooking them over a gas flame, or even a microwave. Yesterday was no exception for me. As I grilled burgers and sliced fresh produce I remembered my recent experience helping cook dinner in Oyam. From the break of dawn tasks are divided, from collecting firewood, to pulling out cassava root, and even killing and plucking the chicken. No one is spared from the work. Not even me.
First, I went to town to buy the chickens from the butcher. The shop was lined with the bloody carcasses of pigs and goats, yet the chickens we received were still quite alive. We carried them back to the bus by their feet as they clucked and flapped their wings in fury. Back at the home, their heads were removed, and they were dipped in steaming hot water to aid in the plucking process. After their bath, the feathers practically fell off on their own. I must say, watching my little sister tear the feathers off of a chicken was slightly horrifying. However, after this the chicken looked similar to one you might purchase in the store, albeit less plump. After the chickens were sent to the chefs, I was employed to collect and cut cassava from the garden. Cassava is a white root, which I knew, but I didn’t know what the rest of the plant looked like until our hosts began chopping down entire trees and pulling out the thick roots. Carrying the roots back to camp was a stress on the arms, and I wished I had put in a little more effort at weightlifting practice. I then attempted to remove the bark from the roots with an enormous knife and managed to get through two before the experts had shaved the outside off of the other dozen. Meanwhile my brother sat on the other side of the compound pounding relentlessly on sesame seeds until the thick paste was deemed suitable.
Once my chores were done I attempted to visit the cooks in the kitchen – a small hut where multiple fires were burning adorned with numerous pots. I can’t get too close, the thick smoke burns my eyes and chokes me. I stand at an angle at the opening and squint through the haze at the women crouched over the fires, pulling and shifting the boiling metal pots with their bare hands. Small children sit next to their mothers only inches from the fire.
When dinner was finally ready, we all gathered to enjoy the fruits of our effort, a delicious home cooked (and home grown) meal. Your appreciation for food is different when you yourself have engaged in a process this complex. While a trip to the store might seem like an arduous task at times, the effort pales in comparison to the effort given to prepare the delicious meals we have shared during the many homestays we have attended.
Across the world, food is a way to come together as family and friends to enjoy each other, an idea I realized as I watched my family eating my own burgers (courtesy of Gordon Ramsay on YouTube). And as we dug in I thought again of the Onapa family we have repeatedly stayed with, and imagined them sitting around the fire enjoying their own delicious meal.
RUFC’s fourth annual soccer camp which concluded last week was another wonderful success. As always, we provided soccer training, health education, healthy meals, and a health clinic on the final day. We once again reached over 1,000 youth throughout Oyam District. We endured very long bus rides in the mud (got stuck a few times) to ensure that we reached distant communities that are often neglected by national and international programming.
This year we were proud to introduce our partners, Football for Good, to some incredible young talent in the communities where we work. Football for Good travels throughout Uganda seeking talented young footballers and recruits them to join their top of the line academy based in Gulu – a city not far from Oyam. The academy represents an incredible improvement in living quarters and education for many of these young athletes, as well as a shot to become a professional soccer player – a dream for so many young Ugandan youth. Just this month one of their older players signed with a professional team in Spain. We were able to watch the under 13 team play against the U18 finalists in our annual RUFC tournament. The level of play and professionalism that the Football for Good kids showed was admirable and comparable to the most elite teams I have encountered in my own soccer career. They were truly a pleasure to watch – beautiful passing and finishes (and awesome celebrations as seen in the second video below).
Excitingly, during this year’s camp the Football for Good coaches scouted a player to join this same under 13 team. Daniel was a participant in our camp who caught the attention of the coaches with his superb skills and attitude. He was named the camp MVP and was invited for a trial run at the academy. This was thrilling news for us, but it was especially important for Daniel’s community in Northern Uganda. When the coaches announced their decision, the entire community cheered and celebrated along with Daniel and his family (video below). Daniel’s mother hugged me tearfully. Hopefully Daniel will prove that anything is possible when given a chance to shine and I hope Daniel can become an inspiration for all the talented, smart, and athletic individuals in the community.
It’s often hard to communicate the power of RUFC’s camp to supporters back home and to justify why we need to continue to fundraise and mobilize resources to reach more youth. I hope that Daniel’s story can help illustrate what we mean to ‘level the field’ and how we aim to expand opportunities for all youth. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think it is a wonderful thing knowing that we have set one child up for future success. Daniel – the entire RUFC team is rooting for you and can’t wait to see how far you go!
Ray Wipfli, RUFC founder, shares his thoughts.