The majestic crested crane is the national bird of Uganda (as well as the colloquial name of the country’s national soccer team). It is an amazingly beautiful and graceful creature with penetrating blue eyes, a regal gold crown and a palpable air of confidence. Simply seeing one -- even from a distance -- makes my heart skip a beat and fills me with inspiration and hope.
While picking up some national park permits in Kampala last week, I was fortunate enough to study one of these cranes up close. The poor thing had been injured and was being treated by a vet in the back of a military truck in the parking lot of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The AK47-armed guard noticed my interest and invited me over for a better look. The crane had a bloodied wing -- possibly broken -- and the vet was gently setting it as the crane patiently and stoically endured the pain. I looked it in the eye and tried to say some soothing words; something a parent might say to a child who was getting stitches or a shot. It seemed to appreciate my presence. After a few minutes, the vet stood the bird up and tested the wing, stretching it each way a few times, tugging here and there, then confidently nodded to me to imply that this crane was indeed going to be OK. With just a little support from caring hands, it would carry on stronger than ever.
The day before this encounter, I had an equally powerful experience in meeting and listening to the amazing members of FoDU’s Youth Council -- older children that have graduated from our programs and are now students in secondary schools and universities (many with tuition assistance through FoDU's Ekisa Scholarship Program). These brave young men and women -- who have patiently and stoically faced challenges as rough as the crane with the broken wing -- serve as role models and mentors for the younger kids at our partner schools. They courageously shared their stories with us: the entire FoDU staff and the six of us American board members who spent Thanksgiving week in Kampala planning and dreaming about the future of our organization.
The whole week was enlightening and powerful, but celebrating the Youth Council was a highlight for all of us. These are the kids we're hoping will become (and nurture) the next generation of leaders in Uganda, and I was struck by their courage, their confidence, their respect, the specificity of their dreams, and most of all, their hope for the future. At FoDU, we talk of developing men of integrity and women of substance. And after meeting these amazing kids and listening to how they've overcome challenges, I know that those aren't just empty phrases. For they are indeed an inspiration. And they indeed give hope.
I shared one of my hopes and dreams with the executive leadership of the Ugandan Football Federation (FUFA) two weeks ago. At the end of a meeting -- in which they showed great interest, appreciation and support for our work -- I told them that my dream was to see one of our kids as a member of the Cranes; our own Queen of Katwe story in which a child from the unpaved streets of unseen Kampala earns the right to play for the national soccer team.
In getting to know the members of our Youth Council a few days later, however, it occurred to me that the kids we work with are already cranes. They're majestic. They're graceful. They're confident. They're courageous. And most of them face daily struggles that westerners can't possibly imagine. Yet they have dreams. And they have hope. All they need is a little support from caring hands.