30 Day Travel Series: Stuck in a Pothole

"I am not tired at all anymore," John said. "Talking about all our work gives me so much energy, I feel much better. Working with friends around the world is very important to me. I can see it is also important to you."

It was New Years Eve. We set aside the whole day to meet with John, but when we called he said he wasn't feeling well. He had malaria, and it was acting up that day. Julian was on the phone with him, suggesting we come another day, but I heard John insist we come over anyway. He said he’d just shut his eyes while he waited for us.

As we drove up a steep dirt road to John’s house, Robert's taxi bottomed out and got stuck. He had carefully tried to navigate around the massive ravines, carved out by the rain, but his tires slipped and spun and the car stopped. Julian and Robert pushed the cab and I sat in the back feeling nervous. I was nervous because I wasn't sure our project was going to work in Uganda. It wasn't like in Vietnam where people could take the skills, advice and support we offered them, get on a bus or scooter and put it all to use as they chose. In Uganda everything was more difficult. A lot of the people we were working with had zero income. They lived off subsistence farming, they would trade for what they needed, and any small amount of money they did earn went directly to a school or a hospital to care for children, a family member or someone in their community.

You know when people do that thing when they are frustrated with someone and they make the motion like they are slapping them back-and-forth on the cheeks? I felt like doing that to myself and the Million Person Project. “Duh, Heather. You can't just touch down in Sub-Saharan Africa and say to people, "Let us help you tell your story!" There are bigger f-ing problems than story telling. Wake up HBOX.” I knew that before we went there and I had thought about it a lot, but sitting there with the car submerged in a pothole I felt overwhelmed with the roads, the malaria, the sucky education system, the pollution and the unjust history. I realized that the problems were a lot worse than I had thought. I was starting to feel like maybe we shouldn’t have come.

The car jolted and Robert jumped back into the driver’s seat. Julian gave us the final push and Robert skidded forward. Out the back window, Julian was dusting off his hands and shaking his head. I could see he was satisfied with himself, but I could also see that that moment had devastated him. He got in the car, and calmly asked Robert, “How are you supposed to get anything done when you can't even drive down the street? This is the capital, how can the roads be SO BAD?” There is a certain kind of mad that Julian gets that I classify as the worst. It's like he is so mad he loses his energy, like he is crushed. He wasn't exasperated or outwardly frustrated, he was over it. I looked up to see if I could see steam coming off his face, but I could only see the back of his head. It was still shaking slightly.

Robert responded, “The government is eating all the money for their big houses on the hill,” he pointed to the mansions presiding over the city. The tops of homes stuck up behind walls and I felt like I could see the glimmer from the security guard’s gun points. “Do you know how much aid money we have received for roads?” Robert asked. “Billions!” he exclaimed with a laugh. “Billions! They have eaten billions of dollars.”

John was waiting outside his home for us when we pulled up. There were a half dozen neighborhood children standing with him. He shook our hands, his tough sixty-something skin was comforting. I offered him a hug, and he took it. He sat us down in his home and gave us bananas. Two people who work with John joined us for the meeting. We went around sharing our stories and talking about each of our projects. We had so much in common and were so excited about each other's work. We made a plan to go out to John's village and view all the innovative farming practices they were using that had allowed his community to diversify their crops, adapt to changes in climate and create healthier soil.

We'd been there for two hours and I imagined John was getting tired. I said that we would go now and let him rest. “Oh no,” he said. “I am not tired at all anymore. Talking about all our work gives me so much energy, I feel much better. Working with friends around the world is very important to me. I can see it is also important to you, since you are here. We must unite our struggles and we need to do that through conversation. You know that. I know you know that, that is what this One Million Persons is all about.”

It was like he lifted off the top of my head, saw the self doubt swirling around inside and asked me to just stop it, be present and understand that through conversation, love and global partnerships a lot can shift in this world.

He excused himself for a minute and came back with a file filled with brochures and papers from all the campaigns he had worked on over the years. From campaigns to save lakes and replant forests, to developing model gardens that demonstrate food security, John had worked with passion, dedication and consistency since he was a young man, way back when. As John talked I mentally gathered bundles of his dedication and determination and stored it away for a rainy day in the future when I might be stuck in a pothole losing hope.

On our way home I sat quietly in the back seat, letting the inspiration of John's story run through me and listening to the chickens scratch around in the back of the station wagon. Robert had bought New Year’s Eve dinner for his wife and Mom while we were in our meeting and they were living their last hours scurrying around in the back of our car. Julian guided Robert around the potholes and complimented him on his driving. Uganda looked so different to me on the way home and I felt grateful to John for mustering up the energy to share his inspiration with us. He had really slapped me out of the “woe is Uganda” mentality and reminded me of the only thing I know in my heart to be true, that we are all intrinsically connected as human beings and that that connection has the power to solve a lot of the problems on this planet.

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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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