30 Day Travel Series: Courage Invites Courage

"That was the last day I saw my Grandparents," Stephen said as he reached up to rub his shoulder, "but I still have the scars."

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[A photo of Julian and I leading our workshop in the most beautiful setting ever]

It didn’t happen often, but occasionally in our workshops we would ask for volunteers to share their stories, and not a single person would raise their hand. I stood before the room during one of those moments, waiting for the courage to break open inside of someone. I knew there were lots of furiously beating hearts and sweaty palms. I also knew that some people, with those frantic heartbeats and sweaty palms, were also almost bursting off the edge of their seats to get up and share. They just needed a minute.

We were in an open-air gazebo at the Ndali Lodge in Uganda. It was stunning. Our gazebo overlooked valleys filled with vanilla farms and crater lakes. I turned around and looked out at the view, took a few breaths and tried to allow the participants time to raise their hands. The workshop participants were vanilla farmers and staff from the Lodge. When I turned back around, everyone was still sitting there with their hands by their sides or on their laps. “You don’t have to share,” I said. “But practice is the best way to improve. So if anyone is on the edge of their seat, about to volunteer to come up here and practice, now is the time.”

A young man’s feet shifted and in a very soft, high-pitched voice he said, “I’ll share.” Stephen walked up to the center of the gazebo and the crowd applauded him.

Stephen was 22 years old. When he was a small boy, both his parents died, and he had to go live with his grandparents. They were overwhelmed with the burden of having to feed another mouth. They couldn’t afford school fees to send Stephen to school. He remembers hearing the school kids pass by his house everyday on their way to school. At eight in the morning, as he heard the students footsteps, he would cry and cry because he was so envious that they got to go study.

His Grandparents had tried to toughen him up. They owned 40 goats, and when Stephen turned eight years old, his Grandfather told him it was his job to herd the goats. One morning when Stephen returned home from herding, he only had 39 of the 40 goats. He Grandfather was enraged. He tied Stephen to the bush outside and whipped him. He Grandfather left him tied to the bush. Stephen wiggled his way out and ran and ran and ran. "That was the last day I saw my
Grandparents," Stephen said as he reached up to rub his shoulder, "but I still have the scars."

His voice broke at this point in the story and he asked the crowd, “Can you imagine asking an eight year old to care for 40 goats?” Many of the audience members were shaking their heads.

After he ran away from home he started to live on his own. He found different sheds to sleep in and occasionally a family would take him in for a bit. He started doing odd jobs for different families, determined to save up $10 per month for his school fees. He made the most money on Sundays because no one else was willing to work on the holy day. He said he hated to do it, but he needed to in order to go to school. He managed to get himself through elementary school on these odd jobs.

In school he was so happy and he got such good marks on his exams that he realized he had a special gift for learning. He wanted to continue to high school but knew he needed a sponsor to pay the higher fees. He had heard rumors that there was a lodge on the top of the hill that sponsored children to go to high school. So one day, he compiled all of his exam scores and made his way up the hill to the top of the road. He could see the lodge from where he was standing. His heart was pounding and he felt short of breath. He couldn’t manage to go one step closer.

The manager of the Lodge, Sophie, saw this boy at the end of the road and called to him to come. He stood before her and didn’t say a word, just handed her the scores. He was looking down at the ground. She reviewed the scores and put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Nobody from our village has ever received scores like these. Stand here a minute, let me show my boss.”

Ten minutes passed and when she returned she repeated herself, “Nobody from our village has ever received scores like these. My boss says he will sponsor you through high school. You can also work at the lodge if you like.”

Susan was in the audience watching Stephen fight through his tears and breaking voice to tell his story. She was sobbing. Susan told me later that she had never known his story because he was just so quiet and always kept to himself, working quietly.

As he finished his story, his voice grew stronger. He said, “Now I am in University to get a business degree and have been working at the lodge for seven years. Yeah.” He paused awkwardly, “That is my story.”

The applause came with force. People wouldn’t stop clapping. Scanning the audience I could see how proud people were of Stephen. They put their hands together to clap even louder for him. They nodded their heads and some people ever stood up.

I had a role in that moment that I needed to carry out. I needed to walk up to Stephen, put my hand on his back, thank him for sharing and ask him to stay standing while the crowd gave him feedback on his speech. But I was too proud of Stephen. I was too sorry his Grandpa beat him up so badly. I was too sad his parents had died. I was overcome by people’s generosity, and was overwhelmed by the fact that given the opportunity to be ourselves in front of each other, we usually all end up just wanting to clap as loud as we can for each other. But I was also just sobbing and not doing my job. Stephen started to return to his seat, “Wait, wait, wait, stay up here,” I said. “Let me stop crying.” I dried my cheeks with the collar of my dress and asked the group to give Stephen feedback on his presentation.

Comments flew at Stephen from all around the gazebo. Some people saw their resilience in his. Others saw their common struggles. Many felt inspired to hold onto hope.

Stephen thanked everybody for their feedback and took his seat. His story broke open the courage inside so many other people that day. I asked who wanted to go next, and five or six arms popped straight into the air.

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This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.

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