Our flight arrived in Entebbe around 1am and it was an hour long drive from the airport to Gayaza High School-the boarding school where we would be both holding camp and residing for the week. When we walked into our room, the girls gazed around the room, silently taking in the unfamiliar scene. There were 5 bunk beds clustered closely together Tetris style and each lower bunk bed was surrounded by mosquito nets. Each bed was neatly made and our welcome baskets awaited us-a pair of Flip Flops, a plastic bucket, a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a huge chunk of translucent white soap, and a box of bottled water. There was no time for anyone to express concern or reservations as by now it was 2am and after traveling for 18 hours, we were tired.
Not even four hours later, we were jarred awake by shrieks, laughter, loud banging and happy chatter. It took about 20 seconds for my ears, eyes and brain to all get on the same page-bright sunlight, mosquito netting around my bed, someone is singing a Drake song, who is Sarah and why is someone yelling so loudly for her to return her comb?? The girls of Rhode Dormitory (Or “Rhodesians” as they proudly refer to themselves) were awake and getting ready for the day. A soft knock on the front door and a girl in a bright Kelly green dress walks in. She walks over to each of our Mosquito net cocoons and when she gets to mine, she says, “Good morning and welcome! It is time for breakfast. We have something special prepared for you.” F3B Uganda 2016 has officially begun.
For the last 17 years, F3B has taken their scholar athlete program across Africa and the African Diaspora and once to Eastern Europe. What started out as a basketball camp led and run by 3 girls, has evolved into an international women’s empowerment and cross cultural exchange initiative that each year, starts on American soil with the selection of the high school girls and goes across the Atlantic Ocean, to the Motherland. The journey for us starts in a high school, standing in front of a group of high school girls, with a seemingly unreal request: Come with us to Africa to play basketball and meet girls your own age. From that point forward, it’s like an endless interval training workout-fundraising, working with the parents of the families, working with our host country partners, more fundraising, working with the girls, packing, organizing, letter writing, more fundraising….When we finally make it to the airport, I look around at the 5 or 6 faces of those brave girls who took us up on our, “Let’s go to Africa, play basketball and meet girls your own age” offer and I realize how much I’ve learned about each one in just a few months. Boarding the plane they smile and laugh nervously and you can tell they’re thinking anything from “Here goes nothing!” To “This is my last chance to fake an illness to stay behind-what’s it gonna be and how can I make it look realistic?” Before they know it, it’s too late to turn back and we are thousands of feet in the air, and they are officially on their way. Fast forward 2 1/2 weeks-camp is over, sight seeing is done, and our last Shilling, Kwacha, Naira etc, has been spent on some local trinket….the time has come to return to the US. Every year, the night before we are scheduled to depart, one or two of the girls cozy up next to me and ask, “Ursie….where y’all going next year? Can I come?” That is my absolute favorite part.
We had some challenges with recruitment this year so instead of 5 or 6 nervous faces, it was two-Devia and Que. The first morning, Devia and Que gathered their buckets in preparation for taking “a shower”. They were visibly intrigued by the idea of using a bucket to bathe, while I on the other hand, being very familiar with the whole “bird bath process” from previous F3B experiences was dreading the thought of the ice cold water hitting my skin with my very own hands being my assailant. Within 20 minutes, from the room to the bathing room, and then from the bathing room back to the room, something happened and Devia and Que made friends with half the dormitory. From that point onward, Devia and Que had their dating cards full every night. After camp was over for the day, the girls hung out with their new Rhodesian friends. They shared dances, they played board games and they became in the know about everything that went on in the life of a Ugandan girl at a boarding school.
The Ugandan girls were amazing. On the court they were focused and enthusiastic. They listened attentively to the coach and paid rapt attention as the girls demonstrated the various basketball drills. Conditioning was met with a steadfast determination not to give up or succumb to all of the alerts that their out of shape, shocked bodies were sending. In the classroom for Professional Development, the girls were engaged and actively participated. During Conflict Resolution, one particular activity that is designed to promote either collaboration or competition created an insightful and dramatic moment (this activity usually does). At the end of the activity, when asked “What went wrong?”, Vanessa’s hand shot up in the air. Vanessa was one of the Ugandan girls from the team who lost the most points at the expense of other teams who were more interested in competing rather than collaborating. When selected to speak, she stood up and said, “I know what went wrong…..YOU ARE ALL LIARS!” The room erupted in chaos and the girls shouted over each other, accusing others of treachery and the accused claiming their innocence. When they settled down, we ended class with a very productive dialogue and shared our different perspectives. Later on, as a team-we asked Devea and Que about what they took away from the exercise. It was a continuous learning process for all of us and so much was gained and understood about each other and ourselves. That is my other absolute favorite part.
This F3B Uganda experience was unique from any other year in that we only had 2 girls. It was a tremendous concern of mine because the cultural exchange between the American girls and the African girls is a very important component of this program. So with such a disproportionate ratio of American girls to Ugandan girls, I was worried that neither group could truly leverage this cultural exchange opportunity. Devia and Que fully immersed themselves in the experience from the very beginning-starting with the horrendous (in my opinion) 6 am wake up time of Day 1 to the very end. They instantly connected with the Ugandan girls and were excited to know more about them and become familiar with all of the things that were important to a teenage girl in Uganda. The Ugandan girls were equally curious as to what it meant to be a teenage girl in America. The Ugandans were warm, kind, gracious and hospitable…they welcomed and happily embraced their two new American friends. It could not have been more enjoyable to witness and be a part of.
As for myself, spending time with just Devia, Que, Liz, one of our recruiting partners, and Pumla, the basketball coach, reminded me of one of the most important roles that I have with this organization-being a mentor. Over these past 17 years, dozens of girls have passed through the organization and has had at least one experience in Africa with F3B. My mother has written countless recommendations, given numerous job referrals, paid several visits to various colleges for basketball games, had random Starbucks rendezvous with girls looking to catch up, or seek general advice and council. These girls are in many ways, still in our lives and it is incredible watching them grow into women and finding their way to success. It is so easy to get consumed with all of the work that it takes to make the program happen, that I personally lost sight of my role with F3B as a mentor. This organization’s fundamental purpose is to develop and empower young women, and mentorship is possibly one of the greatest contributions that any member of F3B can make towards our organization’s pursuits. I arrived home from Uganda with a renewed sense of purpose, committing myself to being more of a mentor, more of a leader, and to be a better representative of F3B.