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GEF Blog: Defining “Home” in Uganda

August 7, 2018 • Erin Reitz • No Comments

The Global Engagement Fellowship (GEF) supports UNC Chapel Hill students conducting international social-­justice oriented summer projects. The following blog was written by GEF recipient Alaina Plauche.

With only 5 days left in Uganda, my great summer adventure is coming to a close. When I try to think about the beginning of the trip, I feel like the older version of Rose in the movie Titanic, recounting a beloved story from long ago. Just yesterday, actually, I found Titanic playing cards depicting the classic scene of Rose standing at the front of the ship and bought them as a gift for my best friend back home. How can I feel as if I’m both the young Rose on a freeing adventure, standing at the bow of the ship flying with her arms in the air (except I’m riding a boda around town), and the old Rose reminiscing on a life altering moment of youth all at once?

Before I left my mom at the airport, I felt an overwhelming sense of unpreparedness and panic for this summer. I didn’t feel logistically or emotionally ready to leave my zone of familiarity and venture to a new continent, country, and town for two months. I was scared, for sure, but I do not allow fear to dictate my decisions or life. My fears were quickly allayed as I made fast friends with the other UNC interns and felt at home in this place very foreign to me. Reflecting on how quickly I made this transition brought me to an important self-realization. The word “home” is not defined by one, singular place for me, but instead by the relationships and people with whom I surround myself. I have always known home is wherever my family is: Mom, Steve-Dad, Tyler, GG, Icee, JJ, Grammy Little, Grandpa Bob. What I didn’t know until this summer is that great friends can make me feel just as much at home as family.

The first people to make me feel at home in Uganda were the other UNC interns. We all bonded quickly during our 24-hour layover in Amsterdam and three-day stay in Entebbe before we arrived in Jinja. We share a love for travel, food, adventure, and (most importantly) Grey’s Anatomy. Being all UNC students, we naturally had many things in common. Having even just a few other people from home gave me a safety net in an environment otherwise very much outside of my comfort zone. To the other UNC interns, thank you so much for being open minded, caring, and great new friends to me this summer.

The next group of people that made Uganda feel like my home away from home was the students and staff at Obwaagazi Children’s Foundation. Each and every one of them welcomed me with open arms and big smiles. Every day, I would take a break from the office and join the kiddos for outside time. Fridays were craft days, and I would help the students create necklaces, lion masks, personalized books, rocket ships, and more! I received bountiful gifts of mangoes and bananas from the students’ families as a warm “Welcome to our home!” offering. With all of this hospitality, how could I not feel like I was right where I belonged? To everyone at Obwaagazi, thank you for loving me with all of your energy. I hope I was able to return at least a fraction of that.

Every Ugandan I met white water rafting, hiking the mountains of Sipi Falls, on safari, walking on Main Street, shopping at Central Market, buying artwork, or even just eating dinner showed unbounding interest in getting to know my story and becoming my friend. At first, the constant interest and exchanges were overwhelming, but I grew to love every conversation and new friendship. Jacob: the supermarket security guard insisting on gifting me a cow. Robert: our summer waiter at All Friends. Pius: the incredibly talented artist my age who paints and sells his artwork alongside his brothers. Ruth: the innovative young woman aiming to help the systematically oppressed in her home country. To everyone I met in Uganda, thank you for being the outgoing extrovert I am sometimes scared to be and forming new friendships so readily.

Lastly, I found a home within myself while in Uganda. Self-care is so, so, so important, especially when traveling far away from the comforts of home. For me, this manifested in giving myself time to relax: reading on the porch with a cup of tea, writing about anything in my journal, listening to music as loud as I can, just dancing, cooking my favorite meal (spaghetti), and carefully reading the many letters my mom sent with me. I was able to find true contentment in being alone in a place so foreign. To myself, thank you for being you!

I can feel like both the reflective Rose and young Rose because I have learned so much about myself and my place in the world, but I still have many great adventures to come! This summer, I realized that my relationships with other people are what define my “home.” It doesn’t have to be a literal house, town, state, or even country. Wherever my people are feels like home. I also realized that I love to dance. Anywhere. Anytime. With anyone.

Great people and strong relationships can make or break any travel experience. I believe the truest way to experience a place is through the customs, dress, holidays, food, and culture of its people. So, if you’re traveling to the next town over or halfway around the world, I advise you to work to meet new people and build lasting friendships. This will deepen your travel experience and ensure that you always have friends to visit around the world!

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