My time in Africa with Be Free Revolution is hard to describe in words. I know in this world there is “need” all around us, including in our very own neighborhoods and backyards, and so to some, traveling halfway around the world to engage with the kids of SMILE makes no sense. It’s very easy to ignore what you can’t see. At least it was for me, until my dear friend Mary Monaghan began sharing her experiences with BFR in Africa with me, and I knew I could no longer sit and do nothing. So, feeling completely ill-equipped for mission work, but with an open heart and mind, I set out on the eleven day journey to Uganda with our June team.
The first day our team arrived at SMILE Africa, the thing that struck me most was the incredible excitement that the children showed upon our arrival. They came running out of the gates and bowled us over with hugs and introductions, just craving our attention. While I’ll admit that I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea of holding a naked child, of potentially coming into contact with a virus, and even with counseling kids that may be facing horrible circumstances beyond my comprehension, my fears quickly dissipated once I met these sweet kids.
First, let me tell you a little about SMILE Africa. SMILE provides meals, medical treatment, bathing facilities, primary schooling, and Christian-based prayer and ministry to as many as 400 of Tororo’s street children daily. Additionally, SMILE boards about fifty children who either have abusive home lives or who have lost both parents, babies on up to kids of eighteen years of age.
In actuality, most of the street kids also encounter abuse and neglect at home. Survival is the word. Many have just a single possession, the shirt on their back. For the street dids, “home” might be a mud hut of a single room, shared by seven or eight relatives. Children are basically left to fend for themselves. Despite these challenging circumstances, SMILE offers the kids hope and a chance at success, while meeting their basic needs. SMILE has several other initiatives, like the Widows program, which teaches women a trade or skill to help them become self-sufficient. My friends may have seen me wearing these beautiful beaded necklaces. These were made by the widows in the program, and the sales support not only the widows but also the SMILE food pantry. Most of our team involvement this trip, though, was with the kiddos.
The children receive two meals per day; a serving of porridge for breakfast, and posho and beans for lunch. The severely malnourished also receive a fortified peanut-based paste packet daily. Some of the little ones are so malnourished that they cannot stand or walk and are literally resigned to being held or lying on the dirty concrete of the pavilion.
While we were there, our team helped with the daily feeding and bathing routine, reinforced good hygiene and sickness prevention habits, counseled and played with kids, launched a mentorship program for the boarders, and for a lot of the time, just held and coddled the babies. Even the older kids have a desire to touch and be touched, and are fighting to hold your hand and sit next to you during activities…anything for a little contact. It’s heartwarming and sad at the same time, because I know it represents the extreme neglect they feel outside the walls of SMILE. All I can say is that inside SMILE, there is so much fun and laughter. We brought many activities to share (books, coloring books, bubbles, jump ropes, string for friendship bracelets, etc.)
We also played a little bit of the “universal sport” with the kids – soccer, about 20-a-side!
On Sunday, our team co-leader Nick Wirwa guest preached during their four hour church service, delivering a very relevant sermon on the importance of Glorifying God by sharing your gifts and talents.
While Swahili is the primary language in Uganda, English is widely understood and spoken, and I was moved to tears when the children’s choir performed traditional African songs mixed with Christian songs. The songs are choreographed, and the kids beam with pride as they perform.
One kid I’ll mention by name is Isaac, an ambitious boy who clearly has the chops to be something big. His English is far above the level of most kids and even adults we met. He is top of his class, first to raise his hand when we ask for participants and very helpful to the younger pupils at SMILE. I’ll pray that he’ll continue walking this path and will someday be in position to affect change in this community. I’m smiling as I remember other kids with similar high potential. The babies really stole my heart on this trip.
I had a special bond with a little guy named Richard. I’m guessing he’s around two years old. He doesn’t speak much and is small in stature, but man, is he a master at non-verbal communication. He’s got this kind of perma-pout. The bottom lip goes out further if you do not do what he wants, and all he really wants is to be held…constantly. I would hold him as long as I could, and every time I put him down, he would chase me and grab on to my legs, begging to be picked up again. I was also charmed by Samuel, known affectionately by our mission team as ‘Pants Off, Dance Off,’ because of his affinity for dancing and his general nakedness. Samuel is clearly not one of the malnourished! He has a mischievous little giggle and is very ticklish. Individual stories aside, there were countless examples of charity amongst the kids, which is pretty incredible considering how little they have. The sibling relationships were particularly touching. It is commonplace to see an older sibling carefully cool and feed porridge to a baby that can hardly sit up. When it’s time to leave, that same sibling will have to carry the baby home, which could be a mile or more away.
Before I left for this trip, I told many people that this was a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” but I realize now that this was probably just the first of many mission trips that I will take. I’ve caught the bug, and by that I don’t mean malaria! I’d heard that often the missionary gets more out of a trip than they give. I know this to be true for me.
In closing, I want to recognize my fabulous team members (Mary, Nick, Mary Helen, Josh, Laura, Katie, Molly, Kelsey, and Weston), a group of strangers who really embraced the service mentality and united as though we were old friends to do the work of God. I learned so much from each of you. You inspire me.