I've been wondering why Team 9 keeps sending emails about their tears, why my recent Skype call with the kids ended with me in tears and why whenever I run into people who've made the
trip to the orphanage, they shed tears as they recall their experience.
I remember the first time I cried during my trip to Uganda in 2006. I had been spending time with a very poor family in a rural village in the southwestern corner of the country. After several days of photographing Margaret and her many children, it came time for me to board a bus and head back to Kampala. Margaret and the kids walked me to the main road and stood with me as I waited for my ride. We could barely communicate, but Margaret and I knew something important had shifted in our lives that week, and tears were rolling down our faces. Then, just before I got on the bus, I was presented with a bunch of freshly picked bananas, two sweet potatoes and an avocado, all neatly arranged in a basket Margaret had woven from palm fronds. She had nothing but a one-room mud hut, a small square garden out back and one dress she wore every day. Still, she insisted on sharing what she had, and she did it with dignity.
I cried off and on all the way back to Kampala. And I've shed countless tears during my many subsequent trips to Uganda.
Why all the tears?
To be honest, I often feel ashamed of the excess in my life. That I can and do shove more than Margaret's annual income across the counter at Nordstrom for yet another pair of boots that I have to squeeze into my overstuffed closet. That the money I spend on one chai latte would feed five of Margaret's children for the whole day. That I keep my extra possessions in a storage unit that charges the equivalent of sending three of those kids to school for an entire year. Maybe the tears represent a gnawing sense of emptiness that I can't seem to fill regardless of the number of things I buy.
To be honest, I often feel that relationships are conditional. That I'm not sure where I stand with someone because of something said or not said, something done or not done, something felt or not felt, something given or not given. Maybe the tears represent the sense of frustration and loss that come with conditional love.
To be honest, I often feel that I judge too much. That I appraise people too quickly based on appearance, social status or educational background. That I criticize people before putting myself in their shoes. That I don't reach out with an open hand often enough. Maybe the tears represent a sense of embarrassment over not accepting people as they are.
All of these emotions rise to the surface when I'm in Uganda (and I sense that present and past team members may feel the same way).
The children I've met there will love you even if you don't live in a big house, even if you don't wear makeup or jewelry or fancy shoes, even if your pockets are torn and empty, even if you aren't Hollywood pretty or Harvard smart. They love you just because you show up... and because you open your heart. They joyfully take your hand when you first meet, and they never let go.
Maybe that's the thing about tears. Maybe they flow when we simply open our hearts. Maybe they run down our cheeks because we forget about ourselves, all those clothes in our closet, the cars in our garage and the electronic gadgets in our living room. Maybe they flow because we take a break from trying to impress, compete and do what's expected of us. Maybe they well up in our eyes because we realize what's important and what's really not. That perhaps we're wasting too much of our precious time running in circles (the literal translation for mzungu, which is what those of us with white skin are called, is "aimless wanderer"), acquiring, accumulating, counting, measuring, weighing and judging - and not enough time being kind to ourselves and one another, not enough time loving.
Which is what Margaret and her kids, and all the children I've met over these many years of travel to Uganda have tried, without really trying, to teach me. Be present, be kind, be simple and open your heart... and let those tears go right on flowing.
"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange