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Wide-Eyed Innocence—Reflections from Uganda

When Doug Burnett was named Grand Prize Winner of the Tzedakah Box category in the Where Do You Give? National Design Competition (for his “Vending Box” design), he received a cash prize and the opportunity to travel to Uganda with Global Circle, the community of young professionals who support American Jewish World Service (AJWS). He left for that trip one man—American, Artist—and returned last week another, irrevocably changed. This is his story.

A bit more than a week ago, a crispy grasshopper challenged its way down my throat.

With cracking smiles, three teens from Kampala, Uganda handed me strange bug in a bustling street market and said, “Eat. It’s good!” As it turns out, fried grasshopper is not only a Ugandan delicacy but a not-so distant taste cousin to the French fry. Its legs were torn off, sautéed while still alive and had a meaty thorax, head with two empty eyes staring straight back at me. If those eyes could speak, what would they say?

Literally a world apart from that street market, I’m sitting on the French Riviera for a business trip — a place as abject in its luxury as Ugandan slums are in its poverty. It has been a horrific transition. At first I was so depressed I could barely muster a “bonjour”. One week, I was helping children, the next I’m helping myself to another course of cuisine. To make it worse, I looked down at my plate of shrimp, tore off its legs and stared down at the meaty thorax, head and those same two empty eyes staring straight back at me. This time, those eyes were speaking and they said “Why are you here when those incredible Ugandan kids need you?”

I had the opportunity to learn from one thousand loving Ugandan kids at Obim Primary School. I learned how to speak Lango, I sang and got schooled by 10-year-old soccer champions. After a long, sun-soaked game, I casually walked over, picked up a water bottle and started going bottoms up. Suddenly, a visual silence rung though the kids, as if I was the music conductor about to signal the down beat and every child was piqued in position. I immediately remembered how the closest water source was two kilometers away. No matter what every one of those kids were doing at that moment, they all turned and looked fixedly at that water bottle — with two empty eyes now longing, “Why can’t we just have a sip too?”

I got the opportunity to go to Uganda because of the amazing generosity of AJWS through the Where Do You Give? competition. But under the stares of all those kids, I realized something very heavy—the amount gifted to me to go to Uganda matches some of the grants AJWS gives to these world-changing grassroots organizations, a cost that rivaled the amount it would take to build these thousand kids a well. Could my trip really be worth their sacrifice? What about all the other funds we use to raise awareness about poverty, or inspire people to donate? It’s a loan with a heavy interest that we decided to borrow from those kids. In a very real sense, are now in their debt.

Cue the guilt trip, right?

It all sounds so cold. Cold enough to make the French Rivera feel like a frozen prison. But I’m slowly beginning to realize that self mutilation with the whip of luxury accomplishes little more than depression.

Luxury and poverty share the same sky and dirt. I am the same person with the same ability to help no matter which part of that dirt my feet are on. While it is absolutely true that we must donate everything we can, especially until it hurts, the most important part is to always be working toward making a small change for good, no matter where you are or who you are with.

Just last night, my bosses asked me about the trip and before the night was over, I could see something in their eyes too, but this time it was a tear. We talked for hours about what we can do as a company for Uganda. I shared with them things I had learned from all the grantees we visited and the importance of sustainable donations. One boss said “Let’s do this. We are going to make a difference in Uganda.”

We talked about building a new group in the company dedicated to using advertising to do charity work. They even said my business partner and I could be a big part of it. People chimed in about different celebrities and resources they have good ties to that we could leverage. Then, out of the blue, a client walked up and said how they have a lot of money they want to donate and how my company should start leading the industry on charity advertising. It was so exciting!

Basically I am just barely beginning to realize when you’re not with those you want to help, you can joyously be an undercover spy on their behalf because it may be the reason you won the geographic lottery—to benefit those who didn’t.

Whatever happens, I know one thing is for sure. Whether we are here or there—wet eyes can be dried, dry mouths can be wet and longing-eyed kids in the world at least the worth of my ticket to go see them.

Doug’s story was originally seen on the Global Circle website. That post can be found here.

Doug Burnett

Doug Burnett is a Grand Prize Winner in the Tzedakah Box Category. He also recently travelled with AJWS's Global Circle to Uganda. He currently works as an Art Director at Leo Burnett (no relation) and lives in Chicago, IL.

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