In 2010, when I left my position at Michigan State University , I had raised millions for the college of Agriculture and Natural Resources. I had moved up the ranks from Assistant Director to Associate Director, and was on the verge of becoming a senior director of development. I was on the fast track for promotion and recognition. I was living the American dream, making a name for myself and making money to support my family.
Why, then, did I leave a job with excellent pay, retirement benefits, medical insurance and career advancement to work for a small non-profit, Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project, that educates AIDS orphans in Uganda? It's called passion.
Many people from my homeland of Uganda are puzzled. I am lucky to live in America, they say. Why look back? Why not leave the country of my birth behind and think only of my future? One of my friends left Uganda in 1970 and never returned home. Idi Amin was in power at the time he left and killed some of his relatives. His reason for leaving was political and understandable. He brought his immediate family to America and is enjoying his success. He has worked hard to forget Uganda.
His story is not my story. I did not leave my country to escape political threats. I came to the United States to continue my education in an effort to help my country, not abandon it. Circumstances allowed me to become a United States citizen, but not a day goes by when I do not think of my parents, two sisters, and nieces and nephews in Uganda. Don't get me wrong, I love living in America, but Uganda is the home of my birth. I miss laughing with friends I've known since childhood. I miss matooke (steamed plantains) with peanut sauce and fresh goat roasted over an open fire. I miss the hot days and cool nights spent sitting out under the stars. The people, banana plantations, voices raised in songs at home and church, even the hills and mountains are all part of my soul. Is it surprising that my passion is still to help my homeland?
Recently, after a keynote speech, a woman told me she was glad to see I was leading Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project. "I could tell you spoke with passion and sincerity," she said. The woman was sixty-five and wished she had participated in non-profit work earlier. She was just beginning to get involved. I encouraged her and told her it was never too late. Passion knows no age limit.
It has been almost ten years since Nyaka began with its first two-room school. During these ten years we have changed the lives of more than 34,000 children, bringing to rural areas of western Uganda not only two primary schools, but also clean water, the first library in the region, community gardens, micro loans, and a medical clinic. Our Grannie program supports thousands of women who take care of their orphaned grandchildren. Nyaka has constructed and will continue to build houses, kitchens and latrines for these Grannies.
I have returned home to Uganda every year since I moved to the United States. Many people tell me I am lucky to live in America, the land of plenty. I am not only lucky to live here, I'm blessed because I have the opportunity to work on behalf of orphaned children in Uganda. When asked why I gave up a good-paying, secure job to help orphans, I do not blink. I have not regretted my decision. I wake up happy every day and follow my passion and my heart.
Follow Twesigye Jackson Kaguri on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@twejaka