Raby admits her farthest trip from Bradley County was to New York once, but the 24-year-old says she had no plans of visiting the Republic of Uganda in East Africa.
When her older brother Jared had a scheduling conflict with his new job, Raby volunteered to go in his place with Visiting Orphans, a nonprofit organization that leads mission trips to orphanages around the world to aid orphans in their distress.
Raby learned Uganda is a cultural melting pot with a population of 33.8 million people, speaking English, Swahili, Luganda and various Bantu and Nilotic languages. Of the 2 million known orphans in Uganda, an estimated 940,000 were orphaned due to AIDS.
Still, Uganda is considered the “Pearl of Africa.” It is a country with breathtaking natural scenery and a rich mosaic of tribes and cultures. Visitors are often captivated by its beauty, accessibility and friendliness. The natural beauty of its people and its landscapes are renowned. Uganda is also regarded as Africa’s friendliest country.
Raby arrived there with 17 other people, including her sister-in-law. They stayed from March 11-23. What she saw — and more importantly what she felt — left an indelible mark on her world view and innermost feelings.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Raby. “I just wanted to love on as many kids as I could and hope I affected them somehow. Our whole point was to show them that we are the arms, hands and heart of Jesus — to love them and show them that God loves them — that was our whole point.”
In addition to sharing love and compassion, Raby and her associates brought shoes, clothes, undergarments, dolls, mattress pads, sports equipment and other items for the orphans.
But what the children of Uganda gave their American visitors was of more intrinsic value than words could fully express. The Bradley Central High School graduate says she learned lessons she’d forever cherish and received a first-hand education in appreciation for the simple things in life.
“The biggest thing I noticed over there is that everything is so relaxed,” says Raby. “Even in a Third World country where they’re going through all of these horrible wars and diseases, they have fun in the morning.
“Instead of exercising, they do songs — dancing and jumping around. Nobody is, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry — you have to do this!’ It’s always relaxed and happy even in those circumstances. They live every day and enjoy it. They don’t take it for granted.
“There are kids over there literally sleeping in mud huts with straw for a roof. There’s no rooms, no doors — just one room. We take for granted our space and our ability to block everything out. We have to have alone time. We have to have our own environment. That’s completely unheard of over there.”
Raby said Americans tend to take for granted their basic amenities that countries like Africa regard as a luxury due to poverty.
“There are kids over there who don’t have pillows. They don’t sleep on pillows!” she says. “They have one little blanket and sleep on flat cots. In our hotels we have to have the fluffiest pillows and the nicest things. We take things for granted.
“Over there they have such joy. We gave the older kids deodorant and magic markers and it was like we gave them a million dollars. They were so ecstatic about it! They wanted everyone to smell their deodorant.”
According to Raby, the temperature was 80 degrees all the time and very warm when she visited Uganda, despite it being the rainy season.
“It rains for about 45 minutes to an hour and then it dries up,” she says. “The landscape was so beautiful. But they’re lacking clean water and I don’t think they realize it.”
What Raby realized from the moment she arrived in Uganda to the day she left is how connected these people became to their visitors. For her, the connection came with a pretty little girl named Favor.
“The first day I go there she just ran up to me and sat on my lap,” Raby recalls. “After that she would be there when I woke up every morning. On the days she went to preschool she would get off the bus and come right to me. I guess they pick who they like.”
The bond became so strong that the day she left, Raby’s emotions got the better of her. She confessed that she and Favor starting crying and could not stop. They hugged long and tight, not wanting to let each other go.
“I would love to go back and help them do anything I can,” says Raby. “I loved it there. I miss those kids.”
Although it was her first trip off American soil, Raby doesn’t think it will be her last. Now that she has gone the distance in showing love, generosity and care for orphans of a foreign country, her desire to love and help other children in need has awakened a sense of nurturing and wonder in Raby.
“We taught vacation Bible school, we taught songs and played with the children all day. We learned their dances and taught them our dances. We talked about America also. They didn’t know what snow was, what a peach was or what a horse was. It was very interesting.”
Being able to show them what love was, however, was a gift Raby not only gave but also received. She says she is forever changed by the exchange.
According to the U.S. Department of State, Uganda was the first country to be eligible for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative and had virtually all of its foreign debts forgiven by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other major donors.
Visiting Orphans conducts many missions trips for schools, churches and individuals from around the U.S. to orphanages all around the world including China, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, Ecuador, Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, India and Costa Rica.
For further information, visit www.visitingorphans.org.