Truestself

On 22 April 2016, I received an offer to join the Global Health Corps (GHC) fellowship program. I was exhilarated! After a rigorous application and interview process, I had achieved my big dream. I was finally a GHC fellow! I finally had the stage to change the world! GHC is a growing global community of diverse young leaders working to achieve global health equity and social justice, and I couldn’t wait to join it.

During my fellowship, I was placed as a Strategic Development Officer in Reach Out Mbuya, a community-based non-governmental organisation that is actively fighting the spread of HIV and giving hope to those affected or infected by the epidemic in Uganda. Reach Out Mbuya employs a unique community engagement approach in poor peri-urban communities that can barely access mainstream programs.

This is the call of my heart to yours — the call of my “truestself” to you — the human in you. That part of you that sits silently, so deep under the issues of this life, under the hedonism and the superficial social media perfect lives. I need you to hear me… Hush now, and hear my impassioned scream, my desperate call to mankind.

My enthusiasm as a fresh GHC fellow sparked a burning desire to learn everything about Reach Out Mbuya and the beneficiaries of its programs. As part of my orientation, I was called upon to join a group of white university students from the USA — bazungu” — on a visit to one of the “poor communities” that Reach Out Mbuya supports. The chosen community was Acholi Quarters, a poverty-stricken slum in Kampala. I was prepared to be inspired by the visit for two reasons: this was an opportunity to meet my tribesmen and have a recharging reunion, and also an opportunity to experience the great work Reach out Mbuya is doing. But oh, how I was wrong!

For all my expectations, I received double heartbreak. Since that day, I have pain in my heart and a heavy weight on my chest. I would like to say I am going to do my part, but it’s not enough. My voice alone won’t deliver the message to where it needs to be. This is the call of my heart to yours — the call of my “truestself” to you — the human in you. That part of you that sits silently, so deep under the issues of this life, under the hedonism and the superficial social media perfect lives. I need you to hear me. Turn down that Black Beatles, switch off that Game of Thrones or whichever TV series you are currently hooked on. Hush now, and hear my impassioned scream, my desperate call to mankind.

The War I Found in Acholi Quarters

Acholi Quarters is a slum in the suburbs of Kampala where survivors of the “Kony war” in Northern Uganda have lived, as refugees, for over twenty years. The community derives its name from majority of the population who are “Acholi”, a tribe from Northern Uganda. In response to the refugees who fled the war in Northern Uganda, the King of Buganda, in his great mercy, welcomed the refugees and gave them leave to stay on kingdom land. The Acholi live here as squatters in semi-permanent structures, with limited access to the resources and facilities needed for meaningful productivity. Years after the end of the war, the majority of the squatters would rather stay here in the hell they now call home than return to Northern Uganda where, many years ago, they lost their dreams and will.

The face of disillusionment in Acholi Quarters (Photo by: Annika McGinnis/ Reach Out Mbuya)

I am Akot, an Acholi by descent. Yes, we Acholi have become famous no more for our “high intellect and impressive English accents” than for the war. We are known for massacre, bloodshed, child soldiers, and Kony. To be sure, twenty years of war left no one the same. Those who lived to tell the tale know a different world. I am one of the few privileged Acholi who have lived a life free of violence. I never experienced war, but that day I felt it all. That day in Acholi quarters, I lived the war.

That day, in Acholi Quarters, I met my truestself in a slum: torn clothes, empty bellies, toothless jaws and begging. I met my truestself in the bare-bottomed malnourished child running around and hollering “muni! muni!” an Acholi word for “bazungu” in amazement of their appearance. I met myself in the barely clothed young mother living with HIV/AIDS. I met myself in the girls and boys peeking through the windows of their rundown one-roomed houses as “muni” walked by. I met myself in Tony, who ran after one of the guests imploring him to remember his name and give him some attention in the hope of receiving favour or sponsorship. I saw myself in the women’s circle that had come together to sell their handmade jewelry to muni. Yes, that day I met myself in Acholi Quarters. I met myself and I felt so lost in the world I had built around me and yet I felt so connected to my truestself in that moment.

Our well-intentioned guests from the USA were moved by the extent of poverty and appearance of misery that looms over Acholi Quarters. They paid generously for what was offered for sale because, it seems, they felt that this was their way to connect and to relieve the suffering they saw. Some of the muni ladies carried the little admiring children that dotted all about them to their absolute delight. Selfies and photo sessions ensued and our guests seemed to feel a sense of fulfillment and authenticity, some sort of reminder to be grateful for the privileges and things often taken for granted.

Children scampering about Muni moving through Acholi Quarters (Photo by: Annika McGinnis/ Reach Out Mbuya)
That day I really saw my people and for the first time I really saw the war. I felt their losses and saw the ghosts of their dreams. I saw but shadows of those mighty Acholi told of in my mother’s folktales as I grew up in the safety of our home in Kampala. I was lost and in that moment my heart broke. It broke and broke. Why must men go to war, brother against brother? Why must a whole generation lose its dreams, its hopes, its values?

As for me, I was frozen. Stuck, shocked and momentously overwhelmed. My people grazed over me towards the “muni” for sympathy. They dare not recognize me because after all, I was one of them but not quite for I knew not their struggles and if I did then I had done nothing about it for all those years. You see, living in Kampala reduces the “Kony war” to “the war in Northern Uganda” as if giving it a locality made it less violent and easier to compartmentalize. But not that day! That day I really saw my people and for the first time I really saw the war. I felt their losses and saw the ghosts of their dreams. I saw but shadows of those mighty Acholi told of in my mother’s folktales as I grew up in the safety of our home in Kampala. I was lost and in that moment my heart broke. It broke and broke. Why must men go to war, brother against brother? Why must a whole generation lose its dreams, its hopes, its values?

There in Acholi Quarters, I heard my truestself say, “I was never meant to live in a slum in Kampala, a mere squatter on an overcrowded piece of land given to my kinsmen as we fled from the 20-year war that I never condoned. I left my land, my home where I had a life- a living, where my children run around overfed and fat, hopeful and so full of life, their wild dreams neatly folded in their innocent hearts. To live I had to leave and come to stay in this space where HIV/AIDS spreads like the fires that the rebels (those rebels- our very own children forced to turn against their kinsmen) used to set on our huts and dreams. I came to live in this space where I could farm no more, where my children became second class citizens and yielded their dreams to well-wishers. A place where I became an object of pity, a statistic of poverty, an image of destitution, a receiver of charity. But even here, I learnt to survive but to survive is not enough, I need to thrive, I need to be free. I need to be heard. I am human.”

Call to Action

I still do not understand why. Why do men go to war? Why must one human raise a hand, point a rifle at another human? Do you not see that we bleed the same blood? Can’t you see that we are someone’s someone? Someone’s son, father, mother, sister, baby! Wake up, my fellow truestselves. Raise your weak voices! Sharpen your ears to the cries of people losing their inheritance, legacy, and lives. Let us rise against war. Let us say no to injustice. Let us take a breath and hear that silent voice that says “hey stop!”, “make them stop!”, “you are killing your truestself!”, “they are killing your truestself!”

It is not enough that we “visit the poor” and “feed the hungry” or “clothe the naked.” It is not enough to go out and “be humanitarian” — we must be human first. We must see our truestself in the poor, the hungry, and the violated. Only then can we be our truestselves, truly human. Only then can we be truly alive. Only then can our unique contributions carry meaning.

Imagine how much bluer the sky or brighter the sun would be if we all used our uniqueness to serve at every opportunity. Go beyond cheap giving and helping as a means to discard our excesses and placate our consciences. May we, instead, choose to encounter our truestselves, vulnerable and yet full of potential to spark a flame of passion for humanity.

I have found my truestself in speaking out for the disempowered. I have found that I am most truly alive when I am serving, when I am giving of myself to make things better than I find them, and when I let those that are experiencing that situation define what better means. I am challenging you to rise up and give as if giving to your truestself. How can you truly be if you refuse to see your truestself in others? I dare you to see your truestself in others a little more each day. Be human! Be alive!

Imagine how much bluer the sky or brighter the sun would be if we all used our uniqueness to serve at every opportunity. Go beyond cheap giving and helping as a means to discard our excesses and placate our consciences. May we, instead, choose to encounter our truestselves, vulnerable and yet full of potential to spark a flame of passion for humanity. Give more — more than kind words, more than a well wish, let us go beyond the limits and find our truestselves in those we give to. In that giving, we shall find our humanness.

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