I normally jump at any chance to go out and create an international volunteer project or to discuss volunteerism, global aid or how to help those living in poverty, but recently things have been a bit different. Also, I prefer to write about the people we're trying to help and the issues they're dealing with, but when faced with recounting my journey back to Uganda, I see an uncomfortable road of self-doubt and self-pity, and I struggle putting it into words.
Life had become incredibly fulfilling—running a small volunteer organization, living an itinerant existence while trekking around the globe, introducing individuals and communities in need to my friends and supporters who wanted to help. It was the epitome of self-reliance and independence, and I had created a feeling of strength after each successful project. With the exuberance and determination of a fading youth, I'd defy authority, naysayers and even restrictions from some governments, believing it was time to just make a difference in the world and not letting anything get in my way. It was the first time I felt invincible and in control of my own destiny...only to have it erased one evening in Africa.
I just left India and arrived in Uganda to work with the Batwa pygmies, a small group of people in a desperate situation along the borders of Congo and Rwanda, and I was incredibly happy. I had become quite close to them in the three short weeks I was there and, with the resources I had at my disposal, knew I could make a tangible difference by addressing some challenges they'd faced for decades.
I got on my motorcycle one evening to start the two-hour ride home (Friday the 13th no less) and was just motoring along, thinking about the mud hut we'd built for an old man named Kilembe. Planning the next day and lost in thought, I came around a blind corner where I was hit head-on by a speeding Land Rover driving on the wrong side of the road.
I was completely shattered—a destroyed left leg, broken arms, dislocated and broken shoulder, a cracked skull and covered in blood—in the middle of nowhere in Africa wondering what each passing minute would bring. Unfortunately, I was coherent and awake through the entire experience, just laying in the dirt on the side of the road with my leg perpendicular to my body, wondering if someone would stop and help and, if they did, where would they take me and whether they could even save me when I got there. I pleaded to remain alive so my mother wouldn't have to come to Africa to collect my body. My prayer was to at least let me survive long enough to get home. An hour earlier, I was at the height of happiness and confidence, but now here I was, more helpless than I could ever imagine and experiencing the darkest moment of my life.
The following weeks in Africa are a story in and of themselves—a few hours later I was dragged into the back of a little Corolla for a drive down the bumpy dirt road to an outpost clinic in Kisoro, bones grinding against each other as we went. From there, it was on to Kampala for initial surgeries, and then the long journey back to the United States with my brother and my mother, a 70-year-old woman who had flown across the globe to bring her "invincible" and now broken son home. We spent the next few months at a hospital at New York University where they performed surgery after surgery, followed by seven more months in rehab and follow-up surgeries.
Throughout the whole process, I'd laugh and portray confidence in my future, telling everyone, "I just want to go back to Africa and finish the job." But in reality, I was scared to death and had lost any sense of invincibility and independence. Before this, I could have written pages full of clich's such as, "get back on the horse after you've been thrown off," while telling anyone that they needed to face challenges head-on, but in dealing with my biggest challenge, the reality of rising up in the face of difficulty was harder than I expected. Friends and family were tolerating the new "needy" me, but when things started to heal and I knew I'd be able to get up again, I had no idea who the real me was anymore. I used to be this independent guy who ran around the world trying to make a difference, but I had since become a whiny shadow of myself that cried all the time and couldn't seem to do anything on my own. "I can't walk—help me" turned into asking for help with even the simplest of tasks—any confidence had been completely erased. If I did something, I wanted someone next to me to make sure I did it right and then praise me afterward for a job well done. I began to not recognize myself, as the need for someone to take care of me physically took over mentally as well.
Before the accident, my gut reaction to someone telling me I couldn't do something was to smile kindly while plotting how to prove them wrong. I think back, and no one ever said, "You'll never get better," because if they had, I think I would have tried to prove them wrong and fought harder. Instead, I just received praise and pity, and for some reason I couldn't find anything within myself to get the old me back.
Around this time, I got an email from Anthony Ayebare, one of my Ugandan volunteers taking care of the Batwa project, saying, "We are all so sad that we'll never see you again, because you would never come back after such a horrible event." Finally, a simple fight I knew I could win, and I said, "I'll be there for Thanksgiving."
I set things in motion and went to the doctor to be cleared for travel. There was a cheap flight available, I could get around fine on crutches and I had someone to go with me. No more excuses...I was going back to Africa. I had a goal, but even though my body was nearly ready, my mind was far from it.
I had built up so much fear regarding each detail, and I didn't know how to get past it. What if I get hurt? What will happen when I pass the crash site? What if the project wasn't doing well, and I get back only to realize it wasn't worth it? I started feeling like a hypocrite, telling everyone they could do anything they wanted, but when faced with my own challenge, I was wavering. There wasn't one part of that trip that I knew with confidence would work out well, but I just knew I had to go back.
My nerves overwhelmed me as we prepared to go, but as the plane touched down in Kampala, I felt surprisingly normal. "What? I'm not bursting into tears returning to the country of my near death experience? Maybe it's just because I haven't been to the actual place yet..."
I went to visit the nurses who had taken care of me in Kampala and felt surprisingly light and just happy to see them. Maybe the dreaded meltdown would happen when I got to further south. We made it to Kabale to spend Thanksgiving with loved ones: Marie McGee, the missionary nurse who tended to me after my accident, and my Ugandan friends Anthony, Saul, Nestory and Ignatius. The reunion was emotional and beautiful, but again, I was surprised that there was nothing more overwhelming than a few welcome-back tears and the gratitude that we were together again. Where was the crippling meltdown and failure I was expecting?
After a few days of getting reacquainted and planning the next phase of the project, we headed for the crash site where I was convinced I'd really lose it. We rounded a bend and stopped the car, and they said, "This is it." Really, this is it? Where was the angel-of-death feeling I was expecting? It was surprisingly anti-climactic, so I got out and went to the spot on the dirt where I was laying nearly a year ago and said to myself, "I'm done."
I took a mental inventory that night, and for the first time realized that I had been preventing my own healing because I was focused only on my own healing. I went back for closure to realize that I'd already found it and the reason I wasn't feeling my strength was just because I wasn't allowing myself to. It had become all about me. "I had a wreck! I can't walk! Help me! I'm hurt! Can't you see how helpless I am?" But my mind completely shifted that evening back to previous understanding that when I focus on myself, I lose every time.
I thought back to the time I felt invincible and strong; it was always when I shifted the focus to someone else. I felt powerful saying, "Let's take care of these Batwa," "These children in Cambodia need some help" or "These widows in Kenya could use some cows," but the time I focused on my own problems is when I felt my weakest.
We were scheduled to have a big celebration the next day and to reunite with the Batwa, and as we walked up the hill, all I could hear was their singing. I was back, both physically with the Batwa and mentally to myself. I bawled like a baby ('cause I'm like that) with gratitude to be home with these amazing people, and I could finally see that the project was more than worth it. We'd done our job—the gardens looked great, the chickens were laying eggs, Kilembe was safely in his house and we just danced and sang on our day of reunion. I felt whole again.
The next few days, we scoured the area for ways to expand the project, and I sent out my usual call for help: "We need more bees, chickens and seeds, and we need to buy an acre of land for Community 4!" And the generosity from people back home overwhelmed me. This is what I was really here for, to work for the Batwa, and we are now on track to exceed every goal we originally set.
Sometimes it takes awhile to learn what truly makes us happy, especially when diversions or obstacles get in the way, and I'm embarrassed to say that I'm still such a work in progress. It took getting hit by a truck to remind me that I do this not only to help where I can, but that it's also the basis for my personal strength and joy.
This is the last time I will write about me, the wreck or my experience to get back on track—that dead horse has been beaten, that story has been told, and I've learned my lessons—but it's no longer about me.
I look forward to future discussions about volunteering, how to create your own international aid project, the hope I have for hotels to find volunteer opportunities for their guests and especially to introduce you to some people and situations you may want to assist. But as for the struggles of poor old Barton, those days are done.
Barton Brooks is an international aid administrator and founder of the nonprofit volunteer organization Global Colors. His mission is to establish sustainable grassroots humanitarian aid projects around the world without the subjugating factors of time or previous experience. He calls this style of work "guerrilla aid." For more information, visitGlobalColors.organdGuerrillaAid.com.