15 things I have learned since I moved to Uganda–15 years ago today

September 17, 2015
By

 

Austin Christmas

With Austin, at home in Entebbe, Uganda.

On September 17, 2000, I boarded a plane in Phoenix, Arizona. I was headed for my new home in Uganda, East Africa, and my mission was to create AidChild.

 

(Thanks to the love, compassion and expertise of so many, AidChild has now touched thousands of lives, won countless awards, and has served as a model for pediatric HIV/AIDS care across the region. For more information, visit aidchild.org.)

 

On that day 15 years ago, I had just sold my car and most of my belongings. I was left with $3,500 in my pocket (and to my name), plus a couple of suitcases of clothes and supplies generously donated by friends.

A small team of dedicated Ugandan volunteers was waiting for me at my new home, 10,000 miles away. And I just couldn’t wait to meet my first kids.

Now I am reflecting on what I have learned–or at least on what I think I have learned–since then. As I look  back at that 26-year-old-Nathaniel from Dr.-Nathaniel’s-desk all these years later, here is my list:

 

  1. Those who say that they “have no regrets,” or “never look back,” should reconsider. Acknowledging regrets, and taking time to reflect, have been two of the most powerful tools in my toolbox. And it would be terribly insincere of me to claim that I have no regrets. But I am learning.
  2. You don’t know what you don’t know–but someone else probably does. In social entrepreneurship, there is a lot of pressure–and temptation–to champion oneself as “the first” to do something. While often true, it is NOT true that every piece of the experience is a novelty. Looking for best practices–and lessons learned in the mistakes of others–can be invaluable.
  3. Not all meat tastes like chicken.
  4. Purpose is worth defending. I frequently have the opportunity to speak to rooms filled with high-schoolers–sometimes hundreds at a time. When talking to them about purpose, I often say, “When you have found your purpose,  some people will tell you that you are not the one to fulfill that destiny. Don’t listen to them.” For example, I am often told that my work “should not be done by a white man.” One of the shadows of our humanity is to tear down the work of others. Learning to recognize this shadow–and then allowing our own light to overpower it–is magical. (Nehemiah 6)
  5. Social entrepreneurship is like marriage. Don’t walk down this particular aisle unless you’re in it “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, until death do you part.” Even when you hand over day-to-day leadership–which I have done–and which you MUST do–the role of “founder” endureth forever.
  6. Beauty can exist everywhere, but sometimes it’s up to you to create it.
  7. I don’t enjoy eating rice. I just don’t. When it’s served to me–or when I have no other choice, I am grateful for it. But when I have a choice, rice ain’t it. And, yes, it took me 15 years to learn that. I suppose the larger point is that gratitude makes most anything yummy, but/and it’s okay not to like things, especially food items for which healthy and tasty alternatives exist.
  8. Humans are capable of extreme hate, evil and ugliness. My colleagues, kids and I have been lied to, robbed, cheated, held at gunpoint, shot at, arrested, yelled at, etc, etc, etc. Evil actively hates good. That’s just how it is. Don’t waste time or heart-energy being surprised by it, but do focus your spirit and energy on ending it. Fighting the evil of poverty, opening the window of education, and making space for understanding of Other can and will leave in your wake a world filled with more love–and less hate. (Luke 6)
  9. Humans are capable of extreme compassion, kindness and goodness. Don’t ever take it for granted. But do find ways to tap into that capacity at every turn.
  10. I don’t need hot water. While I very, very much enjoy–and sooooo appreciate–running water, it doesn’t have to be heated. Even in cold weather, I know how to take care of bidness sans the agua caliente.
  11. Being a control-freak is easier than being a leader, but always a mistake.
  12. It’s important to take a day off. Frequently. Fatigue should be heeded. I mistakenly ignored it for many years–to my own physical and emotional peril. (Psalm 127:2)
  13. It doesn’t always work out in the end–and that’s okay. (Ecclesiastes 3)
  14. Happiness is not the goal. (Matthew 5)
  15. My kids are a far greater reward than I ever expected. While I am so partial to my babies (they are sweet, adorable and just so darn-cute), knowing their spirits as they emerge into the adult-stage of their human experience is the most fun (and the most challenging). (James 1:27)

I have also learned that there is no shame in inviting my friends and readers to invest in this incredible journey. AidChild needs donations of all sizes–all the time. To help yet another child today, please consider giving at aidchild.org.

It’s been an amazing ride! And as I always tell my kids, we’re just getting started!

Respectfully submitted,

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5 Responses to 15 things I have learned since I moved to Uganda–15 years ago today

  1. David Feeler
    September 20, 2015 at 6:32 am

    Congratulations, Nathaniel, on 15 years well served. I certainly enjoyed your insightful list. You are at or near the top of my list of successful people that I have had the privilege and blessing of knowing. Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ who works in us to will and do His good pleasure. Ellen and I welcome you to visit us here in Melbourne, FL. if you’re ever in the area. May our Lord, full of grace and truth, continue to fill you as well.
    David

    • September 20, 2015 at 6:48 am

      Thank you, David. Your words and support are what keep us going. Please continue to pray for our kiddos. I would love to visit one day! –N

  2. Gail Kavanaugh
    September 22, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Congratulations on the 15th anniversary of AidChild! What a journey. I have saved many of your e-mails simply because they were/are so insightful, beautiful and helpful to me. I will also save your current List of 15 Things Learned. It has been my joy to help AidChild with money and more importantly, prayer over the years. I will continue to pray and support you as I am able. May God continue to richly bless you and your team of volunteers. Sincerely, Gail Kavanaugh

    • September 22, 2015 at 7:31 am

      Gail, Thank you very much for taking the time to send this comment. I am glad that our friendship is a partnership in which we are able to serve each other. That blesses me. All my best, –N

      • Harriet Kelly
        October 4, 2015 at 12:52 pm

        Nathaniel…… We have always been so proud of you and the work you do!!!!! The 15 points are excellent. I love reading the articles you write and seeing the children. I still see you running around with Matt and find it hard to see you all grown up. The next 15 years will be even better. Continually praying for you and your ministry and looking forward to your next visit. Love and prayers, harriet

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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