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!
The person I feel most embodies humanity is my mother.
I’d like to thank her for raising me to be a compassionate and understanding person.
And more recently, pushing me toward goals I am sometimes unwilling to strive for.
For reminding me that love doesn’t come with hubris but with humility and the conviction to put others before yourself.
I’d like to thank her for showing me the world, and teaching me that it isn’t comprised of places, but people.
I’d like to thank her for teaching me to rise above.
Without her I would not have this opportunity to make a difference. I would not have this platform to create social change.
Throughout the world there are millions of mothers like mine working to make this world a better place for their children and others’ children. But for far too many young women, motherhood comes too early and is far too dangerous. The average age of motherhood in Uganda is 18 years old – with many, many becoming pregnant before that. Ugandan women on average have 6 children during their life - one of the highest rates in the world. When asked, Ugandan women report wanting fewer children but their lack of education, power, and access to contraception makes it difficult for them to control their reproductive health. Maternal mortality is also very high with only 42% of births taking place in the presence of a skilled birth attendant.
Many of the girls attending RUFC’s camp are around the age to become first time moms. Consequently, we talk to the campers about reproductive health and share information about family planning. This year we are also collecting information about the young women’s intentions – At what age do they think they would like to have children? How many children do they want to have? How can we help them achieve their reproductive goals?
I hope you will join us in this effort. You can donate to support next month’s camp at http://www.rayunitedfc.org/store/p39/Camp_Scholarship.html
This month, RUFC team member Simone St. Claire compiled all the data collected by our team during last summer’s camp and prepared our final report. The results will continue to guide our lessons and focus for the future and help us better understand any shortcomings in the health and wellness education of the youth we are reaching in Oyam so that we may fill those gaps.
Here were some of the results that I found troubling:
- 39.6% of children surveyed feel that they do not have had enough to eat on most days
- 67.3% have had diarrhea at least once in the past month
- Less than 60% believe they can control what happens in their life
- Half of students reported that violence is common in their community
- 44.4% believe that witchcraft is a probable cause of mental health issues
- Over 40% of students said they would refuse to be friends with someone who is HIV positive
- Almost 20% think Hepatitis B can be transmitted through hugging
- Almost half of female respondents agree that menstruation interferes with their learning and a similar number report knowing someone who has dropped out of school because of an inability to control their periods.
These numbers present a number of issues that I feel we need to focus on moving forward, especially stigma around mental health, HIV and menstrual hygiene. However, we also made a number of pleasing discoveries as well. The vast majority of students in the Oyam district, for example, describe themselves as happy, strong and smart. They are self-confident and determined to continue their education. These students are talented and intelligent individuals who refuse to get discouraged by challenges and want to give back to their community.
While I was reviewing this data I made a comparison to what I thought people in my community would say they feel, especially my friends and peers. I came up with words like depressed, stressed, tired, and hopeless. Why is it that I feel like this? Why, in one of the most privileged neighborhoods in the world would I perceive people to be so stressed? What is it about our society that pushes people to such hopelessness, while the people living on the bare minimum manage to be optimistic and happy with each new day?
These questions reminded me of a program my school has been running over the past year – Stanford University’s Challenge Success Program. The program is based on troubling statistics indicating that American youth are severely stressed about their academic performance. It aims to reduce stress and improve wellbeing for students by challenging how we as students define success in education. The program encourages us to push for a community where success is defined by happiness and not the grades we receive. Sounds good but when I recently went on a trip to visit Stanford I was told that I needed to take 6 AP classes representing different subjects, receive straight A’s, and score in the top percentile on the SAT/ACT to be considered as a recruit in my sport. In other words, I found that Stanford’s admission standards (as described to me by a Stanford coach) don’t mimic the Challenge Success mission. While I understand that high performing schools want high performing students (and that Stanford is the most competitive of any of the schools out there), it seems that universities across the nation are constantly increasing their expectations on incoming students.
Our youth are stressed because the expectation placed on us by universities, parents, and coaches is to be the very best. A perfect student and athlete. But is that even enough? What special ‘thing’ do we have that makes us unique? And how will we communicate that in a few short paragraphs in our application essays when the time comes? When you have four years of your life where you are expected to make no mistakes and outperform all your peers so that you can attend a school that will provide you the best shot at a successful future, it makes sense that American teens would be stressed. As long as admissions is judged by who takes the hardest classes, gets the best grades, and receives the top scores, students will be stressed out and telling them to just relax is probably not going to work.
Ray Wipfli, RUFC founder, shares his thoughts.