What they taught me
by Kelsey Yam ’13 (business major, math minor, varsity soccer player)
After returning from an incredible two and a half months last summer in Kampala, Uganda, working for Soccer Without Borders (SWB), I miss everything about the program, the people, and the country.
My coworker and I had goals to begin a youth English class and to host a two-day cultural festival. I was responsible for teaching and providing course curricula, coaching football training sessions, and working with the local executive director to manage our limited finances, acquire new partnerships, and communicate with SWB domestic. Dealing with a language and cultural barrier added a level of complexity to my work, but also enriched the experience. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the support I received from the Megan McAdams International Community Service Award; I am indescribably grateful to Megan and her father, Doug.
Prior to leaving, I was smothered with reassurances from family and friends. My 27-hour travel time was filled with fear, excitement, and an immense pressure to make the most of my summer. I knew that I could not control what happened when I arrived in Kampala, but that I was “supposed” to have an amazing learning experience, whatever that meant. From the minute I landed, I was already encountering unimaginable situations and meeting new people. I cannot express the positive feeling I have for my experience without sharing their stories. This is what they taught me.
Raphael, the local SWB director. Rapha and I traveled to the post office on probably my worst day in Kampala. I was cranky and had only one hour to retrieve my package. After noticing that I had forgotten my passport, we searched for an internet café to print an electronic copy. Of course, the printer and internet refused to work properly. I have a type-A personality and expect my plans to play out perfectly. I wanted to blame this disaster on the theoretical concept of “African time,” where everything runs behind schedule, but Rapha insisted that I be patient. I realized that a situation never warrants impatience and that flexibility is always necessary.
Dark, a 5-year-old refugee from Congo. She was the toughest and also the shiest girl at the center. I instantly fell in love with her timid smirk and raspy voice. Unfortunately, the language barrier prevented us from communicating well and delayed our friendship. Each day, she would hold my hand and we would silently walk to the soccer pitch. I thought of the silence as a lack of relationship and interest, but it did not seem to bother Dark or many of the other kids. I resorted to basic social skills and asked her to teach me Swahili. She taught me to count to three and then I used that to get her into a foot race. I learned that just my smile and my consistent effort to show up (as a stable figure in their lives) was enough for the kids and that I could build their trust this way.
Emanuele, my enemy. He is a 10-year-old punk who likes to pick fights. I will never forget the glare he shot my way when I shook his hand for the first time. I realized that I had disturbed a nasty burn on his right hand, and for the remainder of that week he refused to greet me. Still, I really liked the kid and, oddly, his attitude as well. I did not want to give up. I made efforts to tease him and presented my pinky finger in place of an actual handshake. Eventually, he reciprocated the actions and we developed a secret handshake. He maintained his tough-guy act, but he is truly a sensitive kid. On my last day, he refused to leave my side and tried unsuccessfully to hide his tears. Our only conversations consisted of counting to 50 in different languages, but I loved him. I learned to see people for more than what they said or how they initially appeared. He taught me to love based on how people made me feel, because every day I eagerly waited for him to arrive.
Sharon, my best friend: I typically overthink how others perceive me and hesitate to let people into my life. Sharon questioned my cautiousness and criticized my every flaw. She laughed at my poorly spoken Luganda or Swahili and encouraged me, against my will, to exercise while others were watching. Although I’m sure it was an exhausting request, she translated every word of a conversation I inquired about. She changed me, and I felt flawless in her presence. I was inspired by her life story and motivated by her guidance. She taught me to be proud, not to jump to conclusions, and to be happy against all odds.
As I departed I was sad, but excited at the same time, to discover that there was still more to learn. I used to be ignorant of the importance of traveling and meeting new people. That viewpoint has rotated 180 degrees, and I am now dreaming of my next adventure abroad. Learning is often scheduled to occur in a classroom and a person’s progress has a set timeline. In Uganda, I realized that learning does not need to be so formal, but rather constant and spontaneous. I know that I will always remember these life lessons, and I expect them to guide me through everything I do in my future. I am now positive that my career must involve constant interaction with people, especially children.