Hatchet Expat: My new friends: Hopelessness and Helplessness

He fell out of the tree and hit the ground with a thud. I watched as he struggled to stand up.

He looked at me, then at my friend Jack, who had gingerly put his book down to watch the debacle.

Little Guy, as I’ve taken to calling him after many failed attempts to cross the Smabya-English language barrier, was the most rambunctious orphan in the Nsambya compound. Although he only measures up to my hip, he could carry plantain bunches and water jugs twice his size. His amusing appearance – which included a mini black satin vest that looked like it might have come from a village wedding in the 1960s, and loose-fitting camel-colored trousers along with his broad-faced toothless grin – immediately made him my favorite.

Finally, he looked down at the protruding bone in his left arm. A look of anguish, pain, and perhaps even surprise, mingled with faint confusion, danced across his face.

I ran back into my hut to grab some old T-shirts to make into a sling. By the time I came back, he was gone. His guardian sent him, along with a few other orphans to the “First Aid” – a shabby village clinic about 10 kilometers up the dirt road. I didn’t see Little Guy’s toothless grin for the rest of my stay in the village. I didn’t know where he went, if he was able to see a doctor, or if he still needed medical attention. There was nothing I could do.

This wasn’t the first time I had felt helpless during my study abroad experience in Uganda. “Helplessness” is the name I’ve given to the little knot in my stomach that formed after months of AIDS clinical research, torture victim interviews and refugee camp visits. As my boda boda – a bicycle taxi common in Uganda – pulled away the next morning without me saying goodbye to Little Guy, “Hopelessness” became that second little knot in my stomach telling me that for an HIV-positive orphan living in rural Uganda, falling out of a tree and breaking a limb wasn’t too bad of a day.

Even though I’ve made other friends and acquaintances in Uganda – including a wonderfully exciting pair of Barack Obama-obsessed Kenyan graduate students and a vivacious fashion designer in the tailor district near Old Taxi Park – “Helplessness” and “Hopelessness” stick with me the most.

One of my favorite high school teachers once said, “Some people are meant to be those Ghandis, and others are meant to be those Matisiyahus. Still others are meant to be those guys playing guitar in the coffee shop. It doesn’t matter how you make an impact, so long as you make one.”

There are 17 of us on this study abroad program, and while we come from different places, we are all here for one reason – to make an impact. We have nebulous majors like development and political science, but as a group, whether we are navigating the Ugandan Internal Review Boards – the country’s research approval organization – or children’s HIV/AIDS clinics, there seems to be an insatiable desire to make a Ghandi-sized impact.

Now, as I begin the second part of my program – a six-week independent study on the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS outreach programs – I find myself desperately searching for a happy medium, the perfect balance between my Ghandi fantasy and “guy in the coffee shop” reality.

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