What Happened to Lauren in Uganda

I am home, and not in my Ugandan home; I’m back at my U.S.A. home. I wish I could give one straightforward answer about what happened to make me leave early, but I can’t quite do that. There wasn’t one specific event that led to me choosing to leave, but there were a few main things that made it just feel better to take some time away. Mainly, I went through a major depressive episode while there. I don’t want to say much else about it, other than that it started to come on before I even began the fellowship, and it was in no way Uganda’s fault. I would never blame the place nor the people for me needing to leave. Some people say it wasn’t my fault either, but you can decide for yourself what you’d like to make of it. The only reason I’m writing about this is so people won’t assume that I left for a reason that was negative towards Uganda. If there’s any part of you that does not see this as a credible health excuse, then know the following; I had two main health concerns while in Uganda. One of which was mental, and the other was malaria. Yes, I had malaria. As long as the proper medication is available, I’d take the latter diagnosis over the prior any day. 

Okay, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I am incredibly fortunate to have had Engeye Health Clinic make its way into my life story—I don’t doubt that for a second. I full-heartedly believe that I wouldn’t have been ready to take on adult life had it not been for this fellowship; I learned things about myself and the world that I likely would have struggled to learn otherwise. The past four months have been both the hardest and best months of my life.

This fellowship gave me an essential reminder about the things that are genuinely important in life. I know this sounds cliché… I thought I already knew what truly mattered; family is important, happiness is important, wellbeing is important… but I don’t think I had fully been living by these standards until being immersed in the fellowship. Throughout college, I had my horse blinders on—get good grades, get a degree, find an impressive job. I knew that these things weren’t really what mattered in the grand scheme of things, but I had become so wrapped up and obsessed with completing these goals that I forgot to live by the ideologies of what I really should have cared for. That’s not to say that I think this is the case for everyone; perhaps you are a person who will get more fulfillment from completing your PhD or starting a company. That is fine. I thought that’s who I was too, but I was wrong about myself. During my senior year of college, I found myself entirely unhappy. All throughout my four years at Union, I concocted an idea in my mind. The idea was that to be successful, someone should have good grades, be involved in many clubs, should have brag worthy accomplishments, and be overall more skilled in what you do than the next guy. To be considered successful, one should have a good GPA, important internship experience, significant research, notable projects…  I’m sure many of us feel this way during college. This isn’t a new idea; college is a highly competitive environment. In my mind, I defined success in terms of academia, and in terms of how ostentatious my resume would seem. 

In my mind, I had created a definition of success that made me miserable. Somehow, I realized that my definition was wrong. During the school year, I achieved accomplishments that I typically would have expected to make me proud; I received an award at Prize Day, I was inducted into an honors society, I completed two thesis projects, and I presented my research at Steinmetz. I had a decent internship the summer before, and was put on the Dean’s list. Any one of these achievements alone should have made me feel successful, but still, I did not. This is how I knew that my definition needed to be changed.

During my fellowship to Uganda, the times where I found myself the happiest and most fulfilled were once I became closer to the people there. There is no denying, when I first got there, I was lonely. I did not feel completely contented by the accomplishments that I achieved by working in the clinic until I felt familiar with the Ugandan staff and patients. Uganda felt like home once the people felt like family. I found happiness once I found a love for my Ugandan friends.

There is a misconception that I initially had about the fellowship: I expected for the whole experience of being in Uganda to feel mainly foreign for most of the time that I was there. This wasn’t quite the case—while it did take me a couple months to get acclimated, I found myself pleasantly surprised by many of the similarities that I felt being in Uganda compared to my American life. There is a bit of an unrealistic trope created in literature and film that makes it seem like every foreigner that you meet will give you some miraculous wisdom and spiritual guidance in your life… think “Eat, Pray, Love.” This is comically far from the truth. While I did indeed learn a lot, when it came down to it, the people there were nothing other than that: people. I will cherish the relationships that I made there for the rest of my life. If I can stress one thing about this, do not be afraid to see other parts of the world and meet people unlike yourself and how you were brought up. Perhaps this is a bit of a generalization, but I’m guessing that if some random American girl can befriend Ugandans, there are countless other combinations of friendships that are possible in this big world. I know that I will carry this lesson with me when forming new relationships in the future.

Alright, enough about me.

Engeye Health Clinic has the purest intentions of any organization that I have ever come across in my life. They are simple. They are not ostentatious. They are committed specifically to their goals, not to making others view their achievements. Though it’s not always the case, I believe that there is occasionally a disconnect in some American businesses between their initial intentions and the desire to gain flamboyant accomplishments. I credit much of the good heartedness of Engeye to the people who run the organization, on both the American side and the Ugandan. At Engeye, there was a small gazebo dedicated to the clinic’s founder. On the gazebo there was a plaque that read: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The Engeye family have come alive for the goals of the clinic. They have put their lives towards patient care and advancing the education of bright students with potential. So, though I’m not saying that everybody should feel a moral obligation for putting their lives towards those who are less monetarily privileged, I do certainly believe that it is a lucrative ambition. When it comes down to it, your life is mainly a lottery ticket that you are handed at birth. I know that this isn’t entirely and completely true—there are people who are born into hardships and overcome great obstacles to better their quality of life— but I believe in the majority of cases, only the most fortunate are placed into lives where they are able to steer their path how they choose. To my peers at Union, we had a chance to write our own life stories. We got a chance to decide who to be, and what to do with our futures. We had a whole surplus of choices, and I am incredibly grateful for this. But I learned an important lesson while I was there; this lesson was put well into words by my mentor and fellow Minerva Fellow, Nick Williams; “‘Better’ is a relative term. Personally, I enjoy the simplicity of life here. When there is less to be had, there is less to be desired. It is refreshing to break free from the clutches of capitalism and materialism, but that is exactly why others are so drawn to the idea of life in America.” There is a surplus of non-essentials in America. I know that I am very lucky to be able to live a life with non-essentials in it, but I’ve found that I spend much of my time obsessing over just how many of these non-essentials I can squeeze into a lifetime. I get a sense now that, to a certain extent, people define their worth and meaning in their lives by the extra experiences and objects that they are fortunate enough to be able to purchase. In my opinion, this is silly. I’ve befriended both people who grew up in mud huts and mansions. Perhaps it is nothing more than that—an opinion—but in my experience, it didn’t matter what they owned. It mattered that they were healthy and happy.

There is one lesson that I learned through the fellowship which I hold most closely in my heart: The world is a big place. At this point, there are countless life stories that have been written before yours, and there will be countless stories written afterwards. There are billions of stories that are being written at the same time as yours. Do what you’d like with this information. If you’d like to help someone make their life story more intricate, healthier, and perhaps happier, then personally, I think that’s great: https://www.engeye.org/support/donate-2019/

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