What is it like to lose a mother? How do you process being helplessly stranded seven thousand miles away on a cold, foreign continent amongst virtual strangers? Who would offer support, and how would you overcome cultural barriers to receive it?
None of these are questions that I think I’d ever be strong enough to answer for myself. And I’m incredibly fortunate that I haven’t had such questions forced on me. But sadly, one of our Fellows faced such circumstances when he received notice from home that his mother had passed on.
“She was a teacher,” he said, eyes beaming with pride. “She was the first black woman headmistress in Mbale Municipality schools, following departure of Asian and European headteachers when Uganda gained independence on October 9, 1962.
That’s when I lost it. The tears burst through the levy. My own mom is also a teacher, and I felt an indescribably strong urge to call her, to make sure everything was ok, to tell her I love her and that I’m so proud to be her son. I hid my face under the brim of my hat, suddenly very conscious of what the others might think of me. I must have done a poor job of hiding my emotions; another fellow quickly sat near me and put a hand on my shoulder.
One of our Ugandan colleagues had informed us earlier that we were invited to gather here, at our cohort brother’s apartment, to offer condolences and fellowship in the colloquial sense. As a couple other American fellows and I walked through the door, our host smiled.
“Welcome to Uganda,” he said, referring to their apartment where they are four, but three of them are Ugandan, and jokingly refer to it as ‘Uganda’!
He explained that we would go around the room, taking turns to offer our support to the bereaved. This, he said, was the African tradition.
The small living room space was packed with people. Faces from Ghana, Nigeria, the Philippines, Indonesia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and India looked back at me. But it was different. We weren’t there as Alliance Fellows representing diverse cultures or proud histories or the patches of dirt between arbitrary political lines on a map. No flags, no hats; we were just there for him.
One by one the Fellows spoke. “Be strong.” “May God comfort you. We are here for you.”
Our host listened carefully to each participant’s words. His strength and composure in the moment were remarkable. More often than not it seemed that he was actually offering comfort to us as we awkwardly fumbled for the proper conjunction of sensitivity and meaningfulness. These weren’t the words of casual strangers. This was, in a very concrete sense, the moment we Alliance Fellows became a family. And it seems entirely appropriate for “family” to be a major theme in our group. “Family” is, in some sense or another, what drives all of us in this cohort: We’re here because we envision a better future for our loved ones. And considering the dire situation faced by many of our people in our various home countries, this struggle is very, very personal.
When it was my turn, I was barely able to mumble two sentences before the sobs ruined my ability to communicate a cogent thought.
“Thank you for welcoming me to Uganda,” I said. “I hope to visit many more times, and hopefully under happier circumstances.”
Our host, sensing my difficulty, walked across the room and embraced me. He is something of a patriarchal figure to all of us in the Fellowship. In a way we’ve all started to take on various family roles—The protective ‘fathers’, the tender ‘mothers’, the studious big ‘sisters’ and the mischievous ‘little brothers’. Of course these roles are fluid and vary in the context of any given one-on-one relationship, but there is an undeniable family dynamic at work. Like all close families, we’re prone to our own internal battles and interpersonal challenges. But when push comes to shove, this is a family that will watch each other’s backs and be there for each other when it matters.
The evening ended with thoughtful life-affirming words from Father Noli. There were hugs and tears, laughter and drinks, bonding and solidarity.
That bond is why I’m confident in telling everyone I know that this group, the Alliance Fellowship family, will embrace humanity’s innovative spirit and find ways to change the world. We’ll do it for the ones back home, and we’ll do it for the deep sense of responsibility and commitment to each other.