Nine years ago today, I was in Kampala, Uganda attending an international conference on HIV/AIDS and pregnant women. I remember coming out of a particularly exasperating session, and as I passed my colleague in the hallway of the conference hall, I pointed to the room I'd just come out of and said, "You wont believe the nonsense going on in there!" And he shook his head and said, "You wont believe what's going on in there," pointing to the international press center room. As I'd been in a working session for 2+ hours, I walked over to the press center and saw many of my American colleagues all sitting in rows in this rather small room, facing me. I walked in and grabbed a seat and asked my colleague sitting next to me, "What's going on? What are you all watching here?" There were a couple of TVs set up in front of the room and we all watched the second plane hit Tower Two. It happened a few seconds after I'd sat down and as I watched this plane swooping down towards the Tower, I thought, "...what the hell is happening?! It's going to hit, but it can't possibly do that, that's crazy..." Again, I said to my colleague, "I don't understand what I'm watching...what is this? Is it a movie?" She stared ahead at the TV and said, "They just flew a plane into the first Tower and they've just done it again to the second Tower." I asked her who "they" were and she said "nobody knows..." The entire thing was so surreal. I'd grown up watching the Twin Towers being built. I got to go to Windows on the World restaurant when it was new and exciting because my cousin worked there. And now I was sitting in Uganda of all places, watching the World Trade Center Towers smoking, watching planes flying into them. I honestly couldn't really process what I was seeing with my eyes so I decided to go back to my room and call my father and my boss, both of whom were in New York City. As I walked out of the conference center I bumped into a Nigerian colleague of mine and she said "I'm so sorry..." I told her I didn't understand what was going on and she said "It is the will of God." I remember thinking, "Are you kidding me?!" But I just walked past her and shook my head. I don't really remember even walking back to my hotel. I was that confused.
The next day I was back at the conference after watching an entire night of news coverage on CNN and BBC. I was standing in line for the tea break and a Ugandan woman standing in front of me turned around to me, looked at my delegate name tag, which said what country we were from, and said "My dear, I'm so sorry. How is your family, are they alright?" I remember trying not to cry and I said that I wasn't sure because I couldn't get in touch with my father or my boss, neither of which should have been in that area so I was hoping they were fine. She said, "We are all in shock over this." I told her now I understand what it must be like for people like those living in Northern Uganda, who have lived with rebel fighting for decades. She said to me, "No! It is not the same thing at all! We expect this from our people but we never expect such things to happen to America. If this can happen to your country, then nobody is safe. We are all very afraid!" We spoke a bit more and I told her, "For the first time in my life, I don't feel safe going back to my home country. I don't know what will happen." She put her hand on my arm and said, "My sister, if you don't feel safe at your place, your family can come and live with mine. We have a small place, but we can make room."
Nine years on, I still cannot think about that without tearing up. It was such an honest act of kindness and compassion, something I doubt any American would ever have offered a Ugandan if the situation had been reversed. Since that day, I've been back to Kampala several times, and I always think how odd it is that I don't even know how to find that woman and say 'thank you' to her for her kindness.
And while I don't remember her name, every year on the anniversary of 9/11 I think about her, and it makes me remember that there are good people out there, it's just a shame so few Americans get out into the world to experience it. If they did, we would probably be a better country for it.
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