Sage Lancaster tells the story of how five weeks spent in Uganda taught her an important lesson

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This summer I spent five weeks in Uganda, a trip won as a prize in the Bongo Ball raffle. All my life I have been active in different volunteering projects and often thought I would pursue a career in the NGO world, so winning a spot on a five-week teaching and construction project in Busesa, Uganda sort of felt like ‘fate’, something I couldn’t just pass up.

Let me back up a little bit. I had been having a difficult time for the past year because I was constantly faced with the question of what I was interested in and what I wanted to be doing after University. It was a question that I started asking myself over and over, and that I let consume my thoughts. I was so sure that I needed to find the answer to those questions soon because if I didn’t, I would miss out on taking courses and finding internships that would help me get to that future career I wanted. Now, the weird thing is that I never used to be a planner, but in the past year or so I had stopped my usual “come what may” mentality, and started worrying about the future, which soon translated into planning out my days and coming weeks. The overarching question in my mind was always: “What am I going to do with my life?”

When the opportunity of five weeks in Uganda came at me, I took it. I thought, “Here it is. The answer to all my questions. I am going to go to Uganda and do some volunteer work, which I know I love. And by doing what I love I can find out exactly what I want to do with my life.”

About a week into the trip I was speaking to Remy, another student on the trip, about why he had chosen to come here. He explained his passion for travel and his desire to see a new place and experience what it would be like to live there, rather than just visiting the touristy spots. When the question was reversed to me, I told him about my plan to figure out my life and answer all the questions I had by being out here. Remy offered up his opinion of my reasoning—some well spoken words that roughly translated in my mind to: “Sage, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

And he was completely right. What had I been thinking, coming here to try to answer all my life questions? Why couldn’t I just see what each day had to offer?

Having no access to the Internet, no distractions from whatever the days ahead would bring, I again started to wake up each day with no plan, no consuming thoughts. I began to live in the current moment, jumping at every chance for a new experience, having the most interesting and unexpected conversations, and meeting people who could teach me so much more about the world we live in and what it means to be alive than I could ever teach them.

Each day held something more incredible and unexpected than the next. I never could have anticipated hiking on Mt Elgon in Sipi Falls, seeing waterfalls, wandering around a cave, renting motorbikes and riding on one driven by a group member, who had only learnt how to drive that day, on a search for monkeys that also involved rock climbing over a deep valley.

I never could have predicted finding myself at a village music competition where local schools were competing in dance, singing, and acting. I sat there with a little girl who wanted a better view on my lap, cheering for the students of the school where we were working. Then we spent lunchtime sitting out on the grass with the children eating plates of rice and beans with our hands, and learning how to play the drums from two eleven-year olds, who provided the beats for the dance numbers.

The first day we started construction, our task was to use a sledgehammer to break up huge boulders and then carry them into the building we were working on to create the first layer for the floor. As people started to grow tired and go home for the afternoon, some of us kept working, dancing around to music on an iPhone and chatting as we broke the huge rocks. We went home and I started to help make dinner for everyone with a boy from Kenya. We spent four hours in the kitchen making chapatis, listening to music, and talking about our homes. I spent that day covered in mud and dirt in my nose, went home to then be covered in flour, and later went to bed with blisters and cuts from the day’s work, as well as a burn from cooking. Falling asleep that night, I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so happy. That day held amazing conversations and experiences I never could have foreseen, and I felt alive.

One weekend, we went white water rafting down the Nile. At a shallow part where we were allowed to swim, Remy was debating doing a back flip off the raft. Having never done one before, he was a tad uncertain. This time it was me who had something to say: “When are you ever going to have the chance to do a back flip off a raft into the Nile River on this day with these people ever again?” And I realized that that had become my new outlook on things.

I spent my birthday in Uganda, and it was one that I will never forget. We mixed cement and laid down the second layer of a floor for a girls’ dormitory in the morning. In the afternoon we went to the village health centre, per my request, to learn more about the care and treatment for HIV patients. In the evening we headed on bodabodas (motorcycle taxis) to a nearby village to dine on a supper of matoke, rice, posho, and beans. My group members brought out my meal with candles as they sang to me, the candles melting into the steaming hot food, whilst I sat laughing and feeling so grateful for the amazing people I had around me and the experiences I had been given. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start off the next decade of my life.

I find as I re-enter my life in the United States and the United Kingdom that we often don’t live in the moment. We are constantly consumed by the Internet or our phones, talking to people who aren’t with us instead of spending time with the people who are. We think about the exciting things we will do during the weekend or the week after instead of taking advantage of the things we can learn from the people and experiences that are a potential of today. This past year I had forgotten what it was like to live in the moment, and to wake up every day excited for whatever may happen. Of course, we will forever use our phones and technology, but we can still live each day knowing that we can never relive it again.

Life is a series of events and opportunities that you can’t even dream of predicting. How is it that I can expect to plan my life when I’ve got no idea what sort of opportunities will come my way? By letting go of all the things I wanted to figure out and all the questions I wanted to answer, I was able to fully experience every day, take advantage of every opportunity, and learn more than I ever could have imagined learning. Our Kenyan group leader said to us one day: “The only way to understand and live in the world around you, is to take the next flight and land somewhere in Africa. And when you go back home, you will be a human being again.” I can’t say what that would mean to anyone else, but I can say that that held some truth for me.


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Sage Lancaster


Image credits: Sage Lancaster