When Dave and I moved our small little family to the desert almost eighteen years ago, we made a deal.  You see, although we loved our years in Washington D.C. (six of them) and in some ways we felt like we were tearing ourselves out of a life we loved and worked hard to build there, we were “westerners” at heart and wanted to “settle” for the long haul closer to family.  It all matched up: so many cousins in the west.  The people Dave was ready to venture out in business with were in the west.  The timing was right.

But there was a catch: we were worried about leaving the diversity of D.C.  The place we were looking in the desert lacked that. It was a bubble in many ways.  Now, I think there are so many pros of “bubbles.”  We happen to adore ours.  But it is a bubble all the same, and we wanted to set some parameters in advance to help us morph in and out of it as much as possible.  We wanted to make sure we could expose ourselves (and our kids) to different cultures and languages and people.  People we could learn from. Cultures we could somehow intertwine with our own.

So our deal was that we would save up enough to leave that “bubble” now and again.  We would go out of our way to “shift up our Boggle game” whenever we could.  (My Boggle game theory is back HERE, but basically it’s that when you play the word game Boggle, you sometimes get stuck looking at those letters in the same arrangement for a long period of time.  If you stop and twist the game a little bit, you get a whole new perspective and new words are suddenly easy to spot.  If you haven’t played Boggle and all of this sounds like hogwash to, you, I’d highly recommend that game.  It’s one of my favs.)

Changing up your “game” can be done in a myriad of ways.  It does not need to involve an airline ticket, of course.  Things like a job change, adding another baby to the mix, finding service opportunities in the inner city (or right in your own neighborhood), going back to school…you catch my drift.  There are countless ways to shift it up.  Sometimes your Boggle game is changed when tragedy hits or when you are forced to your knees dealing with something you just don’t think you can do and you have nowhere else to turn but Up.  There is something in these things that changes your perspective.  Makes you think differently.  Gives you a new appreciation for things you take for granted.

Growing up, one way I was trained to switch up my game was to travel.  We did a lot of it.  My mother always said, “If life is just a bowl of cherries, hire a wolf to knock at your door.”  And that’s what my parents did.  They “hired lots of wolves” to fuss us up a little bit.  To change our perspectives.  From camping in tents and building a log cabin in Oregon one summer (back HERE) to living for a month in Japan the next (back HERE), to living for a semester in England (back HERE), they liked to switch things up.  And although I had a somewhat rocky relationship with some of those things when I found myself planted firmly in the middle of them (I think I bawled my eyes out pretty much every night when we lived in England for example), I look back and thank my lucky stars that they happened.  For that growth we all had individually.  For how we grew as a family.  For the people we met, the things we learned.  The appreciation we gained for the lives of others as well as for our own.

So Dave and I have tried to work in some of that travel into our own family (as evidenced in many posts in this blog).  One of the things we did was with Max and Elle when they were “babies” (a freshman and sophomore in high school).  Dave and I took them on a trip.  A trip where they could do some service in a culture so different from their own. We went to India.  And it lived up to its expectations to get us firmly out of our bubble.  It wove its way into our hearts.  I love that we are still connected with what we did there.  The child we sponsored at Rising Star (the organization/school we worked with there) graduated and still sends us letters occasionally, and we are sponsoring another little boy named Kabilah.  We still get newsletters from the organization and love that they are making a difference in so many lives. (I wrote all about that trip back HERE).

For years we have planned to take Grace and Claire on their own kind of similar trip.  For some reason we’ve always thought Africa would be the place, but wanted to get the timing right.  They are further apart in age than Max and Elle, and we wanted both of them to be old enough to really learn from and benefit from whatever adventure we could come up with.  We wanted to develop a long-term relationship with an organization that was working on making a long-term difference.  So we did a lot of research.

And it is interesting when you are earnestly looking for something specific, things tend to fall into place.  We were earnestly looking.  I had talked to a handful of different organizations over the past few years.  I had spoken to people from all kinds of organizations from Ghana Make a Difference to Care for Life to Mother’s Without Borders, all wonderful organizations doing so much good.  But something just wasn’t clicking.  So I kept asking.  And praying.  This was a big deal to me.

It just so happened that one day a while back when I happened to be in Utah hiking with my sister, she told me about an organization called Family Humanitarian she was wanting to send her kids to Africa with this summer.  She told me a little more about the organization and I had this strong feeling that this was something worth looking into.  She gave me the contact information for Michaela, the woman who started the organization, and when I reached out, Michaela let me know she had reached out to me through email a while back wondering if I’d be willing to be involved.  Ha!

I guess sometimes it takes a ton of bricks to get those “nudges” to reach you (I’m horrible with emails).

Long story a little shorter, this organization just spoke to me. I love that they have on-ground Ugandans leading the way.  I love that a guy named John (I’m sure that’s not his African name, I couldn’t pronounce a single one of those) was able to see a need for a school and connect with Emma (the in-country director) and Michaela to get things rolling. I love that the community is involved in this school.  I felt the ownership from them.  I love that we were able to knit our hearts together with so many people there.  People we will stay in touch with.  I love that it opened my children’s eyes so much.  I love all that it taught us.  And I am forever grateful.

But first let’s back up.  Because part of this draw to Africa was for Lucy as well.  That girl is in love with animals and we threw around the idea of doing a safari with her as long as we were going to be in Africa.  (She’s losing vision fast these days and we are working so hard to give her experiences while it lasts.)  We thought about having Max, Elle and Abby bring Lucy after we helped with the school and then the whole thing morphed into everyone coming the whole time.  We felt like Lucy could benefit from this service experience as well.  And we wanted to have Abby join us too, and Grace and Claire were all thumbs-up when we asked them if they might want everyone else to join in.  (Grace and Claire had some pretty good one-on-one time with Dave and me this past spring break…everything pans out a little different with each kid.)

SO, that is how we ended up in Africa with our whole family for two weeks.  We spent the first in Uganda helping to build the school, and the second in Kenya getting up-close-and-personal with every kind of animal we hoped to see.  It was not an easy task to get us all there.  In fact, it was completely nutty figuring everything out, from airfare to logistics to getting from point A to point B, (Max and Abby coming from China, Elle from Utah), oh, and the visas!  Yikes, I think I’ve already complained about those babies enough 🙂  I’ll just say I’m so happy all that hustle and bustle is over!

Of course it was all worth it a hundred times over to have that experience of a lifetime.

In order to get there, we traveled to four different continents in 48 hours.  And slept in three of them as well as in so many different planes.  Our first stop was Dubai (for a one-day layover) which I talked about back HERE.

We boarded that last plane…

…and our surroundings changed from burkas and Arabic music and hyped-up Las Vegas type newness to colors and smells and wide-smiles of Africa.

…where we made very quick friends:

Maneuvered the crowded roads:

Fell in love with the people as well as the beauty.

And got our hearts changed forever.

I have no idea how to sum it all up and incorporate even a fraction of the photos we have, but I’m starting here.

We were SO happy to finally reach Emma, the on-the-ground facilitator for Family Humanitarian who we fell in love with.  He picked us up at the airport and took such great care of us.

He is the best guy.  He and his family escaped from Rwanda when he was three, he has six sisters and two brothers, and he does so much good work for this organization.

It was evening by the time we arrived, so we had our own family church meeting over some pizza sitting around a table on the patio of our hotel under green umbrellas, played a few card games:

(of course)

…and tried to ward off heavy jet-lag.  This van was our “home away from home” for hours on end driving over those bumpy streets for the next week:

Some of my favorite things I noticed right off the bat from out of the windows of our van:

–A girl smiling and waving at me, carrying a gigantic tub filled with corn husks.
–Little well-cared-for garden plots dotting the horizon
–Immaculately dressed women walking along the muddy street
–Immediate smiles and waves the second we waved at anyone
–Piled up motorcycles packed with so many people going every which way
–A lady dressed in a beautiful orange dress gathering gigantic bundles of reeds in a field.
–Men sitting on steps, waiting for work
–Children dressed in beautifully pressed school uniforms, clean and sparkling, emerging from the mud-covered pathways leading up to the main road, many hand-in-hand
–road construction taking us in the craziest dirt roads  jam-packed with so many people
–Siblings carrying baby siblings slung up on their backs.

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It was a beautiful introduction to a beautiful country (we fell in love with Uganda).
A little peek of one of the nicest roads:

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I love that this is what my google map looked like:
And I thought this was a cool drawing one of the kids found showing the sheer magnitude of the African continent.  Check out all the countries that could fit in that place:
Wow, that place is gargantuan.
We had to drive a long way to get to the little town where we would be helping with the school, so in order to break up the driving a little, we stopped near the origin of the River Nile to do a little river rafting.  
And I’ll write about that tomorrow.  For now: some of our first African friends in Jinja:

Yep, our Boggle game was sure on it’s way for a good shift.

And also, congrats if you made it through this mini novel 🙂

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  1. I think that's why Shawni said the organization they went with is led by Ugandans in-country. Thats a different experience then what's in that article.

  2. Can my kids still become good people if I dont provide trips like this? I am asking for advice because I dont particularly want to travel or have the monetary skills to make this kind of thing happen. I love what your travels bring to your children's lives. Any ideas or do I just have to go for it?

    1. I think there's a lot of ways that you can open up your worldview within your own country. I didn't do any international service or immersion until college, but had been participating in domestic service trips to a very, very different part of the country through a church in my town (most of my group didn't belong to the church, and we liked to joke that we were the "[Town name] United Methodist Church of Jews, Catholics and Atheists"). Then when I was in college and a semester of service-immersion in Asia, I was able to draw from my domestic experiences. Traveling is all about experiencing a culture radically different than your own and most of us actually don't have to go very far to get that.

    2. Oh goodness, I'm sure your kids can grow in all kinds of ways without ever leaving the country, or even your own town (as Unknown already answered beautifully). Everyone has such different dreams and passions. There are countless ways to shift up our perspectives. Traveling is just one that speaks to me because it was part of our family culture growing up, and I love that it forces me to switch up my game a little. If you open yourself up to search for what can switch things up in your family and with your own interests I'm sure you'll find something that speaks to you as traveling does for me. Bottom line is that I think we can grow so much from looking for ways to stretch ourselves any way we can.

  3. If you go back to where Shawni first started writing about this trip there is some excellent discussion in the comments about tourist volunteerin, the white savior complex, etc.
    Also, check out the organization they volunteered with.
    So interesting to see how things evolve.

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