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The Happiest People on Earth

Forget Disney World. The happiest place on Earth is Uganda!

Two things are undisputed about Uganda – it has one of the youngest populations in the world and the happiest people in all of Africa and, I would argue, in the world!

The population of Uganda is estimated at approximately 43 million with nearly 10 million of those living in poverty. A whopping 77% of Ugandans are under 30 years of age – that translates to 7,310,386 youth from the ages of 15–24 years of age. This is to a combination of factors including high mortality rates associated with a number of deadly communicable diseases (we’ll explore in another post); mass killings ordered by President Idi Amin – popularly known as the “Butcher of Uganda” – during his. rule from 1971-79; and a brutal civil war in the 1980’s.

With this staggering combination of poverty and pain, it’s amazing the happiness the people of Uganda exude. And friendly? Oh, my goodness!! Within minutes of arriving at our home base of St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor, I took the task of waiting inside the main gate with our supply bags as our team check-in. Within a few minutes I was greeted by six strangers, received countless smiles as staff and patients walked by and even a hug! Within a few hours I had a 12 year-old girl named Anena ask me if she could be my friend. Happiness despite strife abounds.

The hospital serves as a general hospital for a significant percentage of the population of the city of Gulu and of Gulu District. It also serves as a referral hospital for many smaller hospitals in the region, as well as less well equipped and staffed hospitals in the country and is a teaching hospital. And is run by the Roman Catholic Church. The hospital became well-known world-wide in 2000 when one of the physicians, Matthew Lukwiya, was instrumental in containing a deadly Ebola outbreak.

On Monday there were easily 700-800 patients lining the pathways of the large, rambling, indoor-outdoor facility. Here at St. Mary’s women in labor, but not ready to deliver can be found lying outside on sidewalks with their family members. Exam rooms in various clinics here are very small so waiting rooms are actually the sidewalks. Wait times can be long so mats are often brought to sit upon and serve as a dining space during meal times.

You won’t find a cafeteria here. Families of in-patients cook meals in open areas and wash their clothing, linens and babies outside in a communal wash area. The hospital staff air dry all the linens in the intense sun nearby on clotheslines. And drying is pretty tricky considering 85% humidity and heavy, daily rains that seems to roll in like clock-work at about 3:30 and 6 pm each day. Mark Shields pointed out the best way to forecast the weather is to watch the patients. About five minutes before each downpour, they pick up their mats and move under cover.

Our art team comprised of Mason Hilty, Elizabeth Aguayo, Olivia Baxter and Mark Lowery worked outside in some steamy conditions all day in order to make patients wait go just a little more quickly. They handed out coloring books, small toys and worked with the kiddos to create some chalk art on the pavement. Thanks to our musician-in-residence, Mark Lowery, they even hosted some impromptu dance parties. Mark’s electric keyboard (which thankfully survived baggage handling at three airports) not only allowed him to provide live musical entertainment but a platform for performance for some very talented local teens!

Families abound here at St. Mary’s. But more than anything you notice, it’s all the little ones – running, playing, laughing, firmly secured to their backs with large scarfs, and occasionally, crying. But thanks to their spirit and kind spirit and kindness of our Team, and the happiest people in Africa, those tears don’t last long.