My Semester in the Slums

Every time I hear Shakira’s Waka Waka song, my eyes well up with tears - remembering my 5th-grade students performing their hearts out to a dance I taught them. They didn’t have much, but during that performance, it was like time stood still. For a moment, they seemed to feel like they could do anything and be anyone, regardless of what their poverty and circumstances told them. 

You know those experiences you have in life that makes a lasting impression on you? Well, working in the Bwaise Slums did that for me. 

Some of Ashley’s students she taught during her Study Abroad in Uganda.

Some of Ashley’s students she taught during her Study Abroad in Uganda.

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Seven years ago I was settling into an internship opportunity as a 24-year-old, smack dab in the middle of the largest slum area of Kampala, Uganda. I was working for Action for Fundamental Change and Development (AFFCAD for short), and taught 3rd and 5th-grade Languages Arts at an elementary school in Bwaise. I also spearheaded a Women’s Literacy Class three times per week with several of my students’ moms and grandmothers. This was my study abroad opportunity, a capstone experience for my undergraduate education at the Institute for G.O.D. 

Day in and day out in a classroom full of students whose eyes had cried too many tears and had seen too much already, any romantic notions of serving the ‘least of these’ were completely tossed to the wayside. There was no “my dog ate my homework.” It was more often “We didn’t have electricity last night,” or “My house flooded again.” I’ll never forget my friend Mary (mom of 5) telling me that she just cries at night when her kids go to sleep because she knew she didn’t fill their stomachs that day. 

But then I saw my students show up every day, looking sharp and ready to learn with all of the right dreams and aspirations to grow up and help people. I watched my women’s literacy class light up when they learned a new greeting or could read a little further than the day before. I saw friendships blossom and I saw the walls of cultural differences fall down. I saw hope. A light in the darkness, the Lord working in our midst. 

So much has changed in my life the last seven years, but one thing that hasn’t is my love for God and my desire to serve him to the ends of the earth. The experiences the Lord puts in our heart as a youth--that fire--that’s hard for the world to stamp out. I’m carrying that fire still today, despite personal challenges and ‘growing up.’ It’s there and it’s burning and I’m still working to change this world. 

And I pray the kids I taught Waka Waka and all of their moms are too.