You always hear the saying “I Dream of Africa.” Like any dreams with constant dedication and belief, it can become a reality. Well dreaming of Africa is always a dream of mine but luckily through my parents and my own strong desire I have visited it 6 times so far. The first time was in 1999 when my parents got us an around the world ticket so my Dad could paddle on the Zambezi River with divides Zambia and Zimbabwe. During that trip I was finally taught what money could never buy, pure happiness. The kids and people have close to nothing but seemed happier than most. I was too young to realize the extent of how amazing the people are, but I was plenty old enough to start dreaming about my next trip.
In 2005 I started paddling harder than ever, claiming titles in the Senior Classes- 18 and over, and raking in what prize money Freestyle Kayaking has to offer. Many of my peers and fellow competitors who dealt with the responsibility of being an adult weren’t too approving of a 15yr old coming in and taking all the money. What does she need it for? With my Mother’s guidance and my family’s approval I decided it was time to go back to Africa.
It was time for my father to re-do his instructional videos, which were originally filmed in Uganda and Zambia in 2003. My father got Malaria in Uganda after taking the wrong Malaria Medications and lit a fire inside fellow paddler and my non-related Aunt, Jessie Stone. She didn’t finish her residency at medical school, but came pretty darn close only to realize her love for kayaking before all else. This led her to paddling in Africa with Dad and after his adventure with Malaria, led her to start a non-profit called Soft Power Health. Soft Power Health focuses on malaria education and prevention. Jessie was getting ready to open up her Health Clinic which is now running full throttle 5 years in. To give you an idea in 2007 the reported malaria cases for Uganda was 12,792,759.
With the $4,500 never going anywhere but to Soft Power Health, people became inspired and helped raise more money than I ever could have won. I used the money to refurbish a school and pay the doctor to work at the clinic for a full year. (yes all with just over $5,000) All while filming EJ’s Instructional Videos and Paddling the mighty Nile and Zambezi River.
When I visited the school I was paying to be refurbished, the community put on a huge party in honor of me and had the kids that were going to be attending the school come out and meet me. I have never gone through such a moving experience, they called me Mr. Emily and had a whole printed out speech explaining God’s grace in sending me to their small village. At that moment I knew Africa and the Ugandan’s in general, had me wrapped around each babies finger.
Polly Green, another kayaker, was filming a video on Soft Power Health and how the rivers have tied kayaker into such a unique country and their drive to help. Once this video was released with me being one of the lucky stars, I ran around the country showing as many people as I could. Now 16 almost 17, I was dumbfounded, look what I did with so little money… look…look… look!
This caused many people to donate money after each screening and my total raised money was climbing high above $25,000.
It didn’t matter to me what the total was raised, or how much money was thrown in, just the simple thought that anyone who put in a dollar including myself, should know that it makes a difference.
After the trip I left a better kayaker, a better person and a better role-model. I knew that doing what you truly love, can lead you to bigger and better places.
The next trip came with a different goal- Win the 2007 World Championships. In 2007 I spent the majority of my time surfing the big waves the Nile has to offer and focused on becoming the best I could at freestyle kayaking. We spent the whole month and a half on an island in the middle of the Nile and kayaked every second that our body would allow it. When not kayaking we helped out at the clinic, doing follow ups- visiting homes that we have sold nets to and asking them about their general health and if there’s been an improvement since sleeping under an insecticide treated mosquito net. This was another eye opening experience as we got to interact with the locals in their own homes.
2009 came and I knew I wanted to go back, a year away is wrenching, unfortunately my usual paddling crew (Dad, Brother and at time Boyfriend) didn’t see Africa in the plans for the year. But another crew did, and this time a slalom crew…. I headed off to Kenya to compete as a guest competitor in the Olympic Slalom Trials for all of Africa. A group of slalom paddlers were distraught when hearing that Kenya would be hosting the Slalom Trials but no Kenyan would be participating. Kenya at the time was going through elections which then resulted in riots and the whole country being shut down. Due to perfect timing, we were the last international plane allowed into the country. Luckily we were far away from any city and didn’t have even the slightest negative experience (other than being escorted away from Nairobi in military vehicles and men with machine guns). We had almost 10 Kenyans race and I had an amazing time zipping around in my slalom boat. I won the event and paddled better than I ever had in that discipline and was so proud watching each local make their way down the course. When other competitors started arriving, I asked them which country they were from and what it was like, my usual response was oh I am from France, England, and other European Nations. They just happened to acquire an African passport, very few of them had ever even been to the nation they were representing. Another example of African’s having fewer opportunities. I was never so happy when each Kenyan got to the end of the course with a big grin and smirk of determination. Another African nation, another lesson about life learned, don’t take any opportunity for granted.
Jessie Stone has played a huge part of my life, like my parents, she has taught me many life lessons. So when she asks for anything from me, I am always happy to do so. When she asked me to come back to Uganda in 2010 to train her for the upcoming team trials I was going before the call ended. Flying their again by myself was interesting but Jessie met me for the last leg of flying and we descended back to Bujagali Falls in Uganda. I paddled with Jessie for several hours every day making sure we both were improving as much as possible. What made the trip more exciting for me was I felt as if I got to live a day in the life of Jessie Stone (that lasted a month).
I went everywhere with her and got to participate in everything she does. From visiting sick patients, to family planning sessions, to follow ups and net sales, I got to do it all. This showed me how much general education is important as with family planning you had to explain to grown adults how they get pregnant. You wouldn’t think you would have to do that once they hit 25. Jessie would send me out on my own some days and I couldn’t believe how much I felt immersed in the culture, not to mention I was the only Mzungu (white person) I would see all day. One town the kids hadn’t seen a white person before and couldn’t stop touching my skin.
After I came home and bragged about my undeniably amazing experience, Dad, Dane and my no longer boyfriend but husband, Nick, decided they were ready to head back over.
This brings me to 2011. The primary goal for this trip was much like 2007, train for the world championships. But this time instead of staying on the island- Hairy Lemon, the whole time, we moved ourselves upstream to Bujagali Falls and had a much more interaction with the local villagers in that area.
The lesson I learnt while visiting Uganda this spring was much different and much more valuable than any I had before. The way I learnt was also one of the hardest lessons I have ever gone through. With a majority of my family around me, it was easier but I will never forget the day it hit me. Life is short.
Every day we would have a driver take us and our 8 kayaks to the river only to wait for us to come back 3-4 hours later. We had two that generally took us every time, Sal and Joseph. Joseph was driving us on my birthday which was also the second to last day of our trip. We were trying to get as much training time in those last days as possible so we tended to take more time while kayaking. Joseph decided he would go down to the water, which he is not supposed to do, and bathe to cool off while we were kayaking. There were kids lining the banks splashing around, all with incredible swimming capabilities. Joseph who did not know how to swim, must not have been paying attention, slipped in and failed to get back to shore. Little did we know as it was hours later we came up only to have an empty and locked car, no driver in site. The kids informed us of what happened as if it was something that happened often and we proceeded to the car. Joseph’s brother and family arrived telling us we should leave as it would be best, got the keys from the local chairman, whom Joseph had hold while bathing, and we went on with our day.
It was still my birthday and everyone was wondering what I wanted to do next. I wanted some simple down time to think about how I need to start relaxing and remembering to enjoy every moment of life that were given. I want to remember to make sure nothing is ever left un-said and that life is not about reaching the top of each mountain but enjoying each step along the way.
I hope each one of you has a person or a place to help you remember life’s valuable lessons. Mine came from the people I surround myself with and the simple smiling kids in Africa. They may seem like they have nothing, but they truly have everything, un-waivered appreciation for life.