Notes from Canada: Giving Back to Uganda with Love
I was born a white child in Uganda, East Africa to missionary parents, Velma and David Freeman. When I was 8 years old, our time in Africa came to a sudden and frightening end.
Just three months earlier, my dad had witnessed the brutal killing of our town mayor in Masaka. The mayor had been dragged through the town on the back of a pickup truck, and then a major in the army openly slit his throat as a warning to anyone who might stand against the regime of the ruthless and unpredictable dictator, President Idi Amin. My father was the only white man he could see, along with a few Asians in the crowd.
Our deportation was ordered shortly thereafter. Idi Amin’s soldiers picked up my father late one night and took him to jail. We had 48 hours to leave. Little did I realize at that young age that everything I knew as normal would change forever.
Years passed, and I found myself reading everything that came across my path on Uganda. My heart stirred for the country of my birth, and I longed deeply to see it again!
My life led me into a career in the media, and I became a national television show host for a programme called, “THE DAILY: with Mark and Laura-Lynn”. Mark was an African American football player, now coach for the B.C. Lions. I would tease him endlessly about my Ugandan birth place and how he was born in the United States. “Who is REALLY more African American?” I would chide.
Last year, my entire family decided that we would all go back. Eleven of us! It would be our once-in-a-lifetime trip to Uganda. I did not realize that this trip would breathe such a fire in my soul that I would be compelled to do something beyond myself, something that would capture my complete attention and change the course of my life.
I was overcome, undone and impassioned by that experience. I went to the home I grew up in and held the hands of those who had held me as a baby. My heart was irrevocably tied to this great land and her people. When I returned to Canada, I had a deep desire to make a difference to the country that owned my heart. I knew I would have to return.
I decided to do a “project”. I just couldn’t shut up about it. I found myself scheming on all sorts of ideas. I would often dream at night about going back and building structures. But, what could one girl really do?
A great lady and friend of my family, Ruth Moody, had lost her husband recently to cancer. She was left trying to find her new reality and where she fit in without her adventurous husband, Doug. I told her of my plans to do a “project” that, as yet, had no firm legs or strategy. She called me and said she would accompany me and would cover my airfare and hotels as a support to my “project”. I was thrilled beyond belief — but what was my project?
It was seven months until Ruth and I would fly off together. Time ticked on and the dull anxiety in my stomach grew with each passing week. Ruth had already paid my ticket; I needed a project — and fast.
In my turmoil, my good friend, Rod Forrest, from Compassion Canada helped me think through what I could do. As a woman, I love my home. If I could change a desperate woman’s life in some way by providing this same comfort I enjoyed, I would be satisfied. He suggested a turnkey home that would cost about $6,500 and would radically alter a family’s life. I said, “Like an extreme home makeover,” and my spirit lit up inside me.
Which brought me to my next anxiety: How do you raise money? I had no organizations behind me, no one jumping to my rescue with tons of money. I was alone. I wanted to give up! However, Ruth had paid my way and expected me to do something.
This was the darkest part of the journey. The pressure was overwhelming, and I found myself in the fetal position for nights on end, whilst my husband would gently pat me on the back and say, “It’s okay, Hon. We will figure out a fundraiser”. I groaned with fear and insecurity.
In my desperation, one day, I thought about all the great speakers and authors I had interviewed over my 10-year media career. I also had 5 HD cameras sitting in my basement in storage for Trillenium Media Group, the production company I had done my national TV show with. I decided to do a live studio audience taping and invite some pretty significant people to do a night of inspirational speaking. When I asked them, David Bentall, Dr. John Izzo and Dr. Susan Biali gave up their usual large speaking fees to be a part of the evening.
This led me to my next emotional meltdown. ”OK, so I have the project and the fundraiser, but who will build the house, and who is the woman to receive the house?”
One connection I had made was with the Vice-President of Uganda, Mr. Gilbert Bukenya and his Private Secretary, Joseph Lukwago. They had, ironically, visited Vancouver, in October of 2009 and were the most significant political leaders to come in 20 years. Joseph and I became fast friends and spoke many times over the next few months across the continents.
On exactly the day I needed true answers, I received an email from Joseph, the Private Secretary to the VP of Uganda. He made an impassioned, logical plea to allow His Excellency, Vice President Gilbert Bukenya to choose a very destitute woman from his home town and to use his own builders to complete the house. Joseph also threw in the promise of an on-camera interview with the VP. DONE!
The fundraiser yielded about $10,000 from 180 beautiful Canadians. In the weeks that followed, a further $5,000 came in. I was elated and so grateful.
They built the house. And when I arrived in May of 2010 I was able to do an on-camera interview with the Vice-President at his home and hear his heart and see the amazing initiatives he has implemented to help the poor of his country.
The woman they chose to receive the Uganda Extreme Home Makeover was Maria, a beautiful, 60-year-old woman with the most incredible spirit! She had stood as one desperate, lone, poor woman, living in the jungles of Africa. She had no running water or electricity.
As her age gave way to the loss of hope for a bearable life, she wondered how she could continue to care for the three kids entrusted to her or deal with the rain that would flood her entire mud home. Her rising blood pressure signalled that there was no seeming end in sight to the stress.
Maria had cried out to God year after year to be helped, to be seen, to be rescued. By an uncanny, unmistakable miracle, a blonde girl, born in Uganda, moved by an irrepressible urge to make a difference and helped by a generous woman who paid her way back was part of a masterful plan to have people on a different continent build a brand new brick house for Maria. Plus, a new outdoor kitchen, latrine, solar lighting and a house full of furniture were all part of the package.
On my way to Uganda, in my naiveté, I thought all of this had happened so that I would personally grow and step out of my comfort zone, throw a fundraiser, increase my personal skills, get over my fears, and offer Canadians an opportunity to give from their abundance. And all of that happened. But, it turned out, it wasn’t really about me. This all happened because of Maria, alone in the jungle, needing a miracle and, if not me, who would have done it? I have returned home, floored by the goodness that can change a life, swept away by the power of love and captivated by this thing called compassion.
I am now completely driven to build a village that will bring skills training to overcome poverty. The fears that once engulfed me are gone. I see Maria’s face and several million just like her that continue to cry out to be seen, helped and rescued. I cannot turn my back now.
I will return in November to Uganda. I am beyond excited to see what adventures lay just beyond my own mind’s limitations. I press on towards the call to do my part to finish the course that destiny has laid before me.
Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
For More Information
Find out more — or donate — at Uganda Extreme Home Makeover.