What These Poor Kids From Uganda Can Teach Us About Happiness

This can’t be how it all ends…

I can’t die here in the middle of Uganda… not like this.

“These kids are going to kill us if they find a way to break in this van,” someone in front of me whispered as were being attacked on all sides by what seemed like hundreds of angry kids in this remote village somewhere in the middle of Uganda.

As the angry mob of kids began to shake the van back and forth, I started to have a slight panic attack.

Within seconds, I was sweating, breathing hard, and begging God to let me live through this crazy attack that came out of nowhere.

I just knew that I had more to achieve in this world, and this was not how I was supposed to go out.

But these angry Ugandan kids had us surrounded and we literally couldn’t move.

One of the older kids came right up to my window and slammed his wooden stick against the window, just inches away from my face.

The stick had what appeared to be a dead squirrel on it, and the sight of dripping blood from its lips freaked us out even more (thank goodness for the piece of glass separating my face from that bloody rodent).

As we all became quiet in the van wondering what was going to happen to us out here in the middle of Uganda (where no one knew our location), we listened to the kids screaming in some form of Swahili, wondering what we had done to provoke this wild attack on our bus.

Finally, one of the kids who had his face up on the window was pointing at our friend’s camera inside the van.

“They want the camera!” one of my friends inside the van yelled.

We had taken a picture of them just minutes earlier and apparently that didn’t sit well with them.

AND THEN, IT HAPPENED…

Just as quickly as the onslaught from these angry Ugandan kids had started, it ended in what seemed like a split second.

It was as if some miracle had happened.

As if God had whispered in their ears all one time to stop, to leave us alone, to walk away peacefully… Because that is exactly what happened.

We sat there deadly silent in the small van as we watched these kids slowly walk away.

A few of them turned around to give us one final look.

Part of me wondered if this was some tactic or trick, but they kept on walking.

As we continued to watch them walk away from us, we noticed many of them carried sticks with sharp points to spear things.

None of them had shoes, most of them didn’t have any shirts, and it looked like something out of a National Geographic spread in some remote African village.

On the ride back home from this wild ordeal, no one spoke for what seemed like an hour.

We were all taking in what had just happened, and how lucky we were to be alive.

Finally, the quiet African-American man in our group (simply known as “Bull”) cracked a joke, and we all broke down laughing (trying to not cry).

That was our first official day in Uganda.

It was supposed to be a “leisurely day” of seeing the mouth of the Nile River along with some other historic sites as well.

Turned out to be more than just a leisure day…

Our host, a guy known simply as “Apostle Wilson,” had graciously given us a van and a driver that would navigate us around for the day.

There were eight of us that made this mission trip over from the States, and the owner of the company that I worked for back in Georgia, Steve Craig, was the guy who planned the trip.

We were there to help out any way we could with an orphanage that Steve was funding for the community, to see how we could help with their ever-growing (but always under attack from Muslims) church, and to share our love for God through stories and study.

But nowhere in the brochure did I read anything about a wild attack on our bus from 10-year-old kids!

Holy smokes!

NEVER SEEN A WHITE PERSON BEFORE?

Wondering what happened with the attack from the kids?

Turns out that we were way back in a remote area where they rarely see white people.

In fact, throughout the week I was there, multiple kids wanted to come up and touch my skin and hair as they had never seen a white person before.

However, the attack wasn’t an issue on race.

It had to do with the fact we had interrupted one of their most sacred rituals, the circumcision ritual.

In small villages in Africa like the one we passed through, there is a passage of manhood that many of the male boys must endure and survive to become a “man.”

Here is what happens in the village we passed through that day.

They wake the young boy up before the sun goes up in the morning, make them march around under the boiling hot African sun with no food or water for the entire day, and by sundown, the boy is ready to be circumcised in front of the whole village.

There is no anesthesia (minus the fact they have been on their feet walking for 12+ hours with no food or water), and no sanitary, surgical knife.

Just a tribe leader with a sharp knife that makes quick cuts while the boy stands naked in front of the crowd.

If the boy cries or makes noise while he is being circumcised, he fails and is not a man.

Sadly, many of these young boys in Africa end up dying from this dangerous and over the top ritual.

They die from everything such as dehydration (some tribes make them go multiple days without food or water), to an infection that can’t be cured, to contracting HIV during the “cutting ceremony.”

The next day we woke up in a “hot as Africa” hotel, surrounded by mosquitos in our room, and wondering what the heck we had gotten ourselves into.

I was personally saying some morning prayers that this “mission trip” wouldn’t come with anymore near death experiences.

As we packed into the van (as in literally with 10 people in a small van that was only meant to sit 7 at max capacity), drove through what could only be called “no rules, no signs, no road lines” traffic that would make a NYC cab driver faint, we finally made it up to village where the Jubilee church was.

Here are some actual pictures from our van.

This is my actual view in the van. Nothing surprised us driving around in Uganda

To see how these families were living was beyond anything I had seen in real life.

It’s the kind of living situations you see on National Geographic and just kind of take for granted.

Another view from our van while driving in Kampala

Just another day driving in Uganda…

For many of these people, “air conditioning” meant a rare African breeze through their home with no front door.

“Running water” means walking miles down to a river with a bucket to fetch a pail of water, and “shoes” mean toughening the soles of your feet enough so you didn’t need real shoes…

Ugandan boys filling up their buckets with water before walking back long distances to their homes

While we were there, I vividly recall times of almost gagging due to wretched body odor when we would have to huddle and pray with some of the men.

This is what it looks like behind most of the homes and small businesses downtown

It certainly wasn’t their fault, they didn’t have the luxury of owning deodorant, and a shower or bath was not a daily (or sometimes weekly) ritual for many of the men and women.

It was just part of life.

HAVING THREE MEALS A DAY WAS FOREIGN TO THESE KIDS.

They raised chickens to eat, they raised goats to eat, and they even raised a few prized cows that they would kill and eat for a celebration (pic of the cow later in the blog).

Nothing went to waste, and I presume even stray dogs became meals on many a hungry night.

It wasn’t inhumane, it was just life for them.

After a few really amazing and eye-opening days with this community, my friend Eddie and I were invited to play in their weekly soccer match.

The entire town comes out to see this soccer match on what could only be described as a blend of grass, gravel, sharp rocks, dirt, and dust.

Most moms in America would not let their kids play soccer on this “field” even if they had a helmet, knee pads, and arm pads on.

Here are the spectators on the sidelines getting ready for the game (notice that hardly anyone has shoes)

I looked at Eddie and said, “If we made it through the angry mob of kids wanting to kill us near the Nile River, we can certainly make it through one game of soccer with these guys.”

Little did I know that Eddie and I would spend the majority of our time slipping, falling, and eating dirt.

Scoring or assisting a goal was out of the question for the two of us.

It was hard enough keeping our feet planted on the crazy gravel terrain, let alone scoring a goal.

And it wasn’t like we were a bunch of knuckleheads with no athletic ability.

Eddie played pro baseball in the minor leagues and I considered myself a pretty good athlete.

Yet, not only were we schooled by these kids and young adults, but we eventually left the field banged up, bruised, and a pretty nasty bloody leg for yours truly (which really scared me with all of the potential infections that I might contract while in Africa).

But the craziest thing about this soccer game was the fact that Eddie and I were two of the only guys on the entire field that had a pair of shoes on.

That’s right, the same rocky field the busted up my leg from a fall, was the same field this group of young men and kids were sprinting on barefooted.

This is Eddie and I walking back to the village after getting schooled at soccer

A few of them had old Adidas flip-flops and a couple of the boys had what could only be described as part of an old shoe sole tied together with string and what was left of the leather top.

Some of them had feet that were bleeding, and some of them had soles on their feet that were tougher than any shoe they could wear.

But it wasn’t their tough feet that impressed me so much.

IT WAS WHAT THEY DID OFF THE FIELD THAT REALLY OPENED UP MY EYES.

These kids and young adults had grown up their entire lives in a corrupt, dangerous, and incredibly poor place.

The Ugandan police and government could steal anything they wanted of yours, you could be shot on the spot with no questions asked, and if you did have money, it was not safe to keep in the corrupt banks.

Not to mention, there was a constant blood battle between Muslims and Christians that could take your life at any moment.

To make matters worse, these kids went most weeks hungry, not knowing what a warm bath feels like, not having a closet with clothes, and not even owning a pair of shoes.

  • They didn’t have TVs
  • They didn’t have cable
  • They didn’t have iPods
  • They didn’t own cell phone
  • They didn’t have amazing free health care
  • The luckiest of them had an email address that they could check from a community computer.
  • Most of them didn’t have monthly paychecks, credit cards, or bank accounts (the average person made less than $1,000 per year USD)

YET, THEY WERE CONSTANTLY SMILING.

They had a burning desire to learn like I had never seen before in America.

They would constantly ask us questions, trying to gain as much knowledge about how to move up in the world.

They wanted to know God.

They wanted to learn scripture.

They wanted to borrow books and read more.

They wanted to be better people and they wanted to know how they could add more value to their community and their families.

And deep down, you could tell that they were happy.

Just being alive, mostly healthy, and having a warm meal for the day meant happiness to them.

This is some of the men in the village preparing the feast they had for us one evening to thank us for coming to Uganda

Getting a free book was like getting lots of money for them.

They were smart enough to know that more knowledge meant more power and authority for them.

A used dress shirt or a pair of old shoes were better than any Christmas gift they ever received.

These people felt blessed to be alive and to have another day to improve themselves.

They asked for no handouts.

They had never received anything from their government except extortion.

They didn’t know what it meant to go to an air-conditioned waiting room to see a doctor.

They didn’t have checking and savings accounts.

They didn’t have welfare stamps or special programs from the government.

Yet, they were happy.

As I looked around the place and continued to watch how these people live, interact, love, and respect each other, it finally hit me on what these people possessed that so many unhappy people lack.

It was clear to me why I had been sent here, and why these Africans would have such a big impact on my life going forward.

What they possessed was something that I read about in countless self-help books, and it was a constant overlapping theme in dozens of books.

IT ALL CAME DOWN TO ONE WORD THAT ALTERED THEIR HAPPINESS… ATTITUDE.

These amazing folks that I met in Uganda didn’t know what the word “entitlement” or “entitled” meant.

They only knew that they were blessed to be alive and were lucky to be able to go to church, to have a relationship with God, and to grow and learn more every day.

More than money or clothes, these people wanted knowledge from us.

They picked our brains, they read our Bibles, they wanted to excel and achieve.

These kids would give anything to go to school to learn (there were no public schools and you were considered lucky if you earned the right to go to school).

These special people had figured out that attitude was everything.

They also realized that their attitude on life was one of the core drivers of their happiness.

They realized that they could either feel sorry for themselves, complain about how unfair life was, grovel about the fact their parents and family members were killed by the government or religious battle, and demand some handouts and entitlements like so many of the unemployed and poor do here in America, or be happy.

But they didn’t ask for handouts and whine about life being unfair.

They choose to alter their attitudes to be happy and grateful.

They chose to take action to become smarter and better people.

They woke up trying to find ways to add more value to their community and family.

Instead of complaining, they prayed.

Instead of letting themselves get depressed and angry, they found happiness and laughter in the small things in life.

They found ways to a win and searched for things to smile about in a world that we could not imagine living in.

In other words, they made a CHOICE to be happy.

YES, FOLKS, HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE.

Here’s me with some BRAVE kids I met who were swimming in this fast moving river (aka rapids)

How you choose to perceive your environment and your current situation in life is all based on your attitude.

Most of us would think the world had ended if we had to trade places with these people, yet they wake up grateful for life.

Glad to be given another day.

Being around these remarkable Ugandans showed me a great deal about how little it takes to be happy.

It also revealed how powerful your attitude is in determining how happy you are in your environment.

After that crazy soccer game was over and I had washed off and bandaged my cut, I gave my shoes to one of the other soccer players who was playing with bloody feet.

It was his first pair of shoes he ever owned in his entire life.

He was 19 years old.

He cried. I cried.

I came to Africa with a very large hiking backpack filled with everything from dress shirts, pants, shorts, shirts, and a few pairs of shoes.

I left with the clothes on my back and a pretty much empty backpack… and nothing had ever felt so rewarding.

But the lesson in this blog isn’t about giving.

This lesson is all about one word.

Attitude.

How is your attitude matching up to where it could be?

Are you grateful for everything in your life, or are you constantly wishing for more?

Are you selling yourself short in the happiness department because your attitude won’t let you appreciate the small wins?

Are you spending too much time focusing on the small stuff when you could be choosing happiness?

If these people can be happy with hardly anything, then I am certain that you and I can be happy.

CONCLUSION

Happiness is a CHOICE.

Period.

You can either choose to be happy and grateful for all that you have or you can choose to be ungrateful, envious of others, and have a blaming and entitled attitude.

The choice is yours.

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