There’s something about a Third World country that tugs at my heart and soul. I’m not sure what it is exactly. Maybe it’s the sense of community they have that we don’t. Maybe it’s the slowness. They experience flow. They are in the moment in whatever they’re doing.

They prioritize family, health, and work. They don’t scrimp and make quick meals so they can fit in time for Facebook or their favorite TV show. They don’t have favorite shows. Instead of Facebook, they actually get together IN PERSON. They don’t try and cram in a million things in a day.

They take care of their families, they work hard—very long days—and they take care of themselves. I’m not saying it’s perfect over there in Africa. They have their problems. I am saying that we’re headed down a very dangerous road here in America.

I’ve been to East Africa three times, and have learned so many lessons during the months I was there. I’ve met hundreds of people, heard story after story of devastation, struggle, and resilience. Resilience. Inner Strength. Mentally tough. Those are the words that come to mind when I think of East African people. And here’s why.

When you look at the woman in the photograph above, what words come to mind? Happy. Takes care of herself. Self confidant. Affable. Exuberant. Beautiful. Maybe a little sassy. She is all of these things and so much more.

Sunday is an accountant at Stella Maris Girls Boarding School where I spent the majority of my time while in Nkokongeru, Uganda. The volunteer home, where I lived for three weeks, is on the Stella Maris campus, so I would frequently walk up to the school to be around the adorable giggling girls. And I would often see Sunday walking home from her office, light on her feet—it’s almost like she’s dancing while walking. “Hello Tina!” She would yell across the street with a huge smile and her face, arm waving in the air. We’d stop and chat for a bit and be on our way.

She radiates such positive energy that I would walk away feeling revitalized. Her smile is infectious. And because of this outward joyfulness I was not prepared when she told me her story one day while we were sitting down for tea.

Sunday is from northern Uganda. When she was younger her and her family struggled to stay together and alive during the Joseph Kony annihilation. For those of you who haven’t heard of Joseph Kony, he’s a the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group who was initially fighting against government suppression, and then turned on his own people. He believed he was divinely guided to cleanse the region of the Acholi people and turn Uganda into a theocracy. For an easy to understand quick lesson, check out this video by Invisible Children.

Sunday explained that for many years, from the time she was ten years old, her and her family of six sisters, four brothers, and parents were fearing for their lives. She said Joseph Kony and his men would raid villages at night, killing innocent people and abduct children to build his army. They couldn’t sleep in their homes. They had to sleep in the bush. But they couldn’t sleep in the deep bush with plenty of cover as this is the first place Kony’s men looked. They had to lay flat on their backs or stomachs, with their arms tucked close to their bodies, behind a rock or small shrubs, stiff as a board, careful not to make too much noise.

They couldn’t use the roads for fear of being killed in an ambush. They traveled by water instead. Sunday told me about the close call her sister had one day when she was supposed to take a bus to Kampala, but missed it so she had to take the next one instead. That first bus was ambushed by Kony and his men and everyone was shot to death.

Sunday’s cousin laid in pools of blood between two people who had been shot to death, pretending to be dead, when his village was attacked by Kony’s men. The men had walked around to make sure everyone had been killed, and by some miracle they passed by her cousin and he was spared. The northern Ugandans endured this stressful way of life for years until eventually Kony and his men moved into the Democratic Republic of Congo area—now they are living in terror.

Sunday then went on to tell me that within the last five years she’s lost her mother to blood cancer, her sister to liver cancer, and another sister died of an infection from a tooth extraction. She’s now taking care of her nieces and nephews, in her mid twenties, on her small salary.

As she told me these stories I sat there listening intently, while looking at her in awe. I couldn’t speak.

Instead of Sunday playing the victim and feeling sorry for herself, she talked about what she wants for her future. She’s working to get a higher paying job so that her nieces and nephews can live a better life. She wants to go back to school to earn the equivalent of our Master’s Degree. She said she lived through Kony’s annihilation for a reason. She’s been put on this earth to do something special. She wants to give back in some way, but isn’t sure what that looks like right now. And as she said those last few sentences, she looked down, with a half smirk, and played with the edges of the tablecloth—humble. I could see the wheels spinning.

Once again I was taught the tough lesson that you can’t judge a person by his or her outward appearance. You just never know the journey a person has been on. You don’t know what happened in a person’s past. You don’t know what’s currently going on in a person’s life. You don’t know what struggles a person faces each and every day.

Be kind to one another. Lift people up. If someone needs to talk, listen. If someone needs to laugh, laugh with them. We as humans are all connected. And at the foundation, we are all the same. We are all just living life the best way we know how given what’s thrown our way. We are all just working toward our dreams whatever that looks like for each of us.

I challenge you to meet people where they are and give them the biggest gift of all—listen without judgement, with a heart of compassion. Lend an ear and take the time to really hear what a person is saying.

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