African trip offers senior chance to volunteer, learn

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Tim Seery

Set against the lush backdrop of the “Empowerment Farm” nestled in the Ugandan countryside under a blazing sun and cobalt sky stood a young woman with Jackson, a 30-year-old local discussing his history.

Jackson had a past that was all but empowering. Jackson told the young woman about the day when time, for him, stopped. He was nine years old and was taken from his home by militant rebels.

While away, Jackson was trained to kill his family. One night he went back to his village and did just that.

The young woman to whom Jackson spoke was CMR senior Jessie Hardin. This February, Hardin and 13 fellow Montanans traveled to the East African nation of Uganda with the mission of administering direct aid to a nation whose infrastructure sits precariously on the brink of collapse.

“It was life awakening—completely changed how I see the world we live in,” Hardin said.

After two eight-hour flights, Harding arrived in Entebbe, a city of more than 70,000 that boasts the nation’s largest functioning airport.

“It was night when we arrived so we didn’t get to see anything right away. When we got to the hotel in Nebbi it was my first realization that there was no running water and the toilets didn’t flush,” she said.

On her first night Hardin says she quickly learned to appreciate mosquito nets. Insects and a tropical climate aside, Hardin said that mere observation of the living conditions on her first day was a “lesson.”

“We first traveled to a village called Kayunga. It is the worst village in Uganda. The roads are horrible, there is garbage everywhere, there are chickens, goats, and babies sitting in the garbage,” Hardin said.

Kayunga, while termed a “village,” is home to more than 300,000 Ugandans. It was there that Hardin underwent her first experience with humanitarian aid.

“We went to an orphanage in the village. As soon as we arrived we had a following of children behind us. As soon as they see white people coming they know help is on the way,” she said.

“We would see little kids just go to the bathroom right out in the open in front of us, or would be sitting in pools of waste. The conditions were horrible, but it was the best they had,” she said.

Hardin and her group, equipped with one shovel and their hands, built the orphanage a cookery that would prevent fires that often occur in Ugandan huts that result in maimed children. Shortly after, Hardin assisted her crew as she prepared 50 kids for their first day of school. Hardin organized their school supplies and uniforms and celebrated as children went to school for the very first time.

“In Uganda it costs $300 to send a student to primary school, and %600 for secondary school. These 50 kids were sponsored by our organization and were supplied with the necessary supplies for school,” Hardin said. “African women in colorful dresses came to celebrate as they watched their children go off to school for the first time. One woman came to watch her 14-year-old daughter start her education.”

Later in the week Hardin continued her aid campaign as she hosted a sickle cell clinic for the village. The clinic educated villagers about the causes of sickle cell anemia and treatments.

“It was very basic. Blood cells are formed in the shape of sickles and are prone to over clogging. It causes great pain, as one woman said it felt like she was giving birth three times in a row. The sickle cells cause the bones to die and the area around it resulting in an open wound,” she said.

Hardin witnessed a woman bring her deathly ill baby to the clinic and tell them that she had taken her baby to the witch doctor who instructed her to stop feeding the child anything except herbs. In reality, Hardin said, the baby suffered from sickle cell anemia, and with the correct medication the treatment was simple.

“We were teaching them that it is not bad spirits that cause this. It is genetic. When you see babies in Africa with the enlarged stomach it can either mean malnutrition or sickle cell anemia due to an enlarged spleen,” Hardin said.

Hardin’s journey through the heart of Africa was as much a lesson in medicine as it was in government.

“We got caught in a riot which was very scary. In Uganda the government is run by the president and five “kings” who are representatives of different regions. One of the representatives died, and the region put forth a successor who was refused by the president,” Hardin said.

Perplexed by the nation’s consistent support of a tyrannical president, Hardin asked a man why he continued to vote for him.

“Because it is better to have someone in office who you know is corrupt instead of someone you don’t know who might be worse,” he told her.

Near the end of Hardin’s journey at the “Empowerment Farm”—a refuge for families that have fallen victim to the violence of militant rebel groups  Hardin found Jackson, a man who embodied the spirit of Uganda—a struggling nation, with a precarious foundation, immersed in deep cultural pride, and set against a backdrop that personifies Hardin’s experience.

As she put it, “Beautiful.”