Life Lessons Learned From Living in Uganda
Living abroad is one of the most powerful teachers I’ve ever known. You’re far from home, friends and most family members, and there’s a new culture and possibly a new language. And, if you’re moving to a country like Uganda, there’s a standard of living and way of life that is vastly different than the one you had a home.
Having the opportunity to spend 5 of the past 15 years living in Uganda with my family has been a true privilege, and I’ve learned so much. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been rewarding.
Over the next few months, I’ll be highlighting some of the big life lessons I learned while living in Uganda. And the first lesson I learned (but should have known) is about giving and receiving.
Lesson #1: To give makes us human.
Everyone has something to give. And giving is part of the human experience, a way to exercise your dignity. While many of us are good at giving, receiving a gift from someone else is a whole other story—especially if the “someone else” may have less than we do. Here’s how I learned this lesson.
Many years ago when I was first living in Uganda, a colleague and I went to meet with an NGO to discuss a potential partnership. As someone who loves to share little gifts, I brought along some beautiful BeadforLife jewelry. As we were getting ready to leave the meeting, I thanked the woman we met with and gave her the jewelry as a gift. She then pulled out beads that their women’s group had made and offered them to me. I knew the NGO didn’t have a lot of funds and didn’t want to compromise their ability to support themselves by taking the gift, so I politely declined. My colleague was horrified and the second we got outside, she bravely asked me what I was thinking. While I thought I was doing this NGO a favor by not taking the gift, I wasn’t. It was rude, and I was wrong. Really wrong. In fact, in writing this down, I feel silly for even believing it was a good idea in the first place. By not taking the gift, I had denied this woman the opportunity to be generous back.
A Lesson that stuck with me
This was a lesson that stuck with me. Years later, a very shy woman in one of our programs approached me. Barely looking me in the eye, she handed me a little package wrapped in wrinkled, lined notebook paper. I accepted her gift and slowly unwrapped the paper to find an orange plastic pen. While most of us in the US have dozens of these laying around, for her it was a significant gesture. This woman had just started making money, and this pen was something she could give, something she thought about, and something she knew I could use. At that moment, this orange plastic pen leveled the playing field between us. She wasn’t a poor woman, but a woman with dignity who was able to show her appreciation through a small gift. And I treasured that pen and what it represented.
Since then, I’ve become a gracious acceptor of gifts and continue to delight in giving them as well. I’ve also been on the other side of the table, where some refused my small gift because of donor rules. In these moments I always feel a little bit crushed, but try think back with humility to the very moment in Uganda, when I did the same.
While it seems simple, everything we do at Street Business School is in some way built upon this important lesson. We are trying to break down the power dynamics that exist between the giver and the receiver, so that we can all just show up as human beings—each with something to share and something to learn. We are about enhancing human dignity.
So the next time someone offers you a gift out of kindness, take it. By accepting the gift, you’re recognizing them and amplifying their human dignity.