As I was standing in front of 100 students listening to stories of the impact they were making in their communities, I realised I was going to learn much more from Ugandans than they would from me.
Last December, I went on a trip of a life-time – my first time to sub-Saharan Africa. In our inter-connected world, I was contacted on LinkedIn last summer by the founder of Engage All Africa, a young charity based in Eastern Uganda. Seeing our shared passions of empowering youth, I decided to spend nine days there. We gave Extraordinary Life sessions at universities, visited local communities, spoke at a final of a football tournament, and I was even a judge in a singing and dance contest. Whilst they invited Steffie Broere (from the Extraordinary Life team) and I over to impact them, they impacted us even more.
On our first day, we visited Nkumba University to deliver our Inner Beast session, focused on empowering students to discover and unleash their authentic selves – their inner beasts. When we give this session around Western-Europe, participants are generally focused on first achieving their individualistic success or happiness, with their contribution to the community being an afterthought. However, here I was pleasantly surprised to see how attendees prioritised supporting their fellow Ugandans – this was their definition of meaningful work! They wanted to start social businesses, enhance the sanitation in school bathrooms and teach local farmers about their rights.
This goes against the conventional view from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that necessitates people to follow flight safety procedures and “put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others”.
To support people within our sessions to explore the impact they want to make, we always use the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a thought-provoking proxy. In a developing country, these goals have very concrete, visible effects in the daily life experiences of the participants. A striking example was one of a young woman who shared her story of how her sister had HIV and despite the doctor’s advice, breastfed her new-born baby and gave it the disease too. This really made it sink in that whether these goals are reached or not in the coming years will affect the lives of billions.
From my short time there, I questioned why Ugandans were focused on helping those in their community. After reflection and a bit of research, I realised a key reason might be their relatively collectivistic culture. We assume our individualism to be the norm without questioning it, until we are exposed to a different way of living. In the book Sapiens, it is explained how the role of the family has gradually been eroded in the West, over the past two centuries - replaced by states and companies. In the Netherlands, almost the whole population went to a state school, have healthcare provided by the system and leave their families each morning to go to work. The independence and uniqueness of the individual are emphasised over the community.
In Uganda, it’s a different story. While most children go to primary school, according to UNICEF, less than 20% can afford to attend secondary school, so they learn from their family and village elders. If they get sick, they first turn to the community to care for them, then if they’re lucky can visit a local health clinic. And 82% of the rural population work with their families as farmers. The blood of the community still flows through every key aspect of their lives.
An example of the power of community was the multiple visits we had to the local Busia dance group sponsored by Engage All Africa. We were welcomed into their practice room to see them train. They ranged in age from 13 – 18 and lived in the area around the town, with different living conditions. Some lived in what were basically mud huts, couldn’t afford to go to school and had only recently received proper shoes to dance in. Despite these individual challenges, when they came together to perform as a group, they were magnificent. Incredibly talented, happy teenagers who cared for each other. The synergy of their performance and joy they felt together could only be achieved when they were with each other. This was their community.
In many developed nations, we judge success primarily as accumulating wealth (as discussed in a previous article I wrote), rather than nurturing our relationships that form our community. As an economics graduate, I was trained to judge the prosperity and thus implicitly happiness, of a country by its GDP per capita (in layman’s terms, essentially the average yearly income.) With Uganda scoring 606 USD per capita, 11th lowest globally, by Western definitions one would expect to experience a country with a lot of problems and unhappiness. (Source: World Bank)
However, when questioning the quality of life of Ugandans, I was told by Agnes Nansereko (Founder of Engage All Africa) that “as long as they have their health and don’t go to bed hungry, then they’re happy.” I believe that this is partly a result of their strong communal bonds. Harvard University’s pioneering 75 year longitudinal study found that the single most important factor for happiness is not money, it’s the quality of our relationships.
The clothes we wear, the home we live in and the technology we own is comparatively unimportant. So let’s get off our high horse and understand that other supposedly 'less developed' countries have a life that is just as wonderful as our own. Don’t get me wrong, of course there are a lot of problems in Uganda and other developing countries that you see on the news or hear about in charity appeals, but do not be surprised if a majority of these populations are satisfied with their lives. Their community supports them to get through challenges that we could not imagine having to deal with.
In contrast, our individualism has led to preventable problems of our own making in wealthy developed nations. Low self-esteem, anxiety and loneliness kill vastly more people than terrorism or homicide. We have lost sight of the importance of meaningful relationships.
Now, assuming you are convinced of the power of community, how can you develop this in your own life?
Take time to be part of local community activities. With our Extraordinary Life Tribe, Toastmasters Rotterdam (a public speaking club) and innovation community at Deloitte, I feel part of something bigger than myself, building meaningful relationships. Why not join an association, or take up a new group hobby to connect with others that share your interests?
Never eat alone - plan regular dinners with friends and loved ones. I always have a packed schedule day and evening; by choice. Planning time with people you care about is as important as attending to your work obligations. Everyone has to eat anyway, so why not eat together (at home is even cosier!).
Proactively cultivate your relationships – be the person to spontaneously call-up someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Sure, they haven’t messaged you in ages, but relationships are a two-way thing, and you can nurture the ones you care about. Living an international lifestyle, many people have come and gone geographically, but I’ve always found a way to keep in touch with the friends that matter. Why not make that phone call?
Thank you Uganda, Agnes and Engage All Africa for showing us the power of community. I very much look forward to continuing to work with you as a Global Partner & Ambassador. And I’m sure there is a lot more I will learn from you.