A Refresher Course on Life

How a visit to a small devastated community sparked a big change in my understanding of life.

Article and photos by Ethan Zohn, first published March 2010 at Tonic.com.

I was 15 years old when I traveled to my first international location. Actually, I jumped in a car with some older buddies, headed north and crossed the border into Canada. We found ourselves in Montreal and it was an epic couple of days. This was a perfectly executed field trip that cemented our friendship for eternity. I’ll save the details for a password protected website because I’m pretty sure my mom reads Tonic. Since my bright, but brief moment in Montreal, I have been extremely fortunate to travel extensively around the globe. More importantly, I have made a conscious effort to fearlessly immerse myself in the culture and traditions that exist in each foreign land. And because of this choice to take the unbeaten path, I have been blessed to learn so much about myself just by experiencing the way others exist.


During a trip to Africa, I visited Zone B Namuwongo, a community of 5,000 residents located in the Bukasa parish just outside Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. The extreme poverty I witnessed within Namuwongo cemented me in my tracks. I was scared. I was afraid to breathe the polluted air, nervous to slosh through the infected mud and fearful to even touch all the children I was there to help. There was actually a full-blown train track, complete with huge cargo bearing rail carriages that would slice through and shake the town multiple times a day. It’s like I had been transported to an alternate universe. I couldn’t believe people lived like this. The lack of clean water, sewerage-filled streets, poor housing, lack of adequate medical services and malnutrition almost had me fleeing back to air-conditioned hotel.

Additionally, a large portion of the Zone B population is internally displaced from the conflict in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan. These internally displaced persons do not have family, have lost their homes to destruction by rebels and have no stable income. I quickly realized that they are dealing with the physical, social and psychological impacts of their experience with conflict in Northern Uganda.  In short, this is a messed up place sinking deeper into poverty by the millisecond.

I was the first white person many of these people had seen before. The little kids would touch my white skin and tug at my curly afro. They were shocked that my hair could be so black, but my scalp was still so white. The beeping sound on my digital watch made them giggle and my picture-taking cell phone elevated me to hero status. The girls stole my aviator sunglasses and pretended to be “Beyonce Hollywood”. The cultural divide was as big as the Grand Canyon, yet I was welcomed with open arms. I was the honorary distant white cousin from America, and it felt really comforting.

Many of the residents of Namuwongo are faced with the challenge of deciding how to allocate their families’ income between health, nutrition, or other basic needs, yet they invited me into their homes and offered me tea and biscuits. Let me rephrase that, theses struggling, poverty-stricken angels proudly welcomed me into their dilapidated shacks and showed me their life like an Olympic athlete shows off a gold medal. How could they be so happy? Didn’t they realize their life was horrible? And that’s when it hit me, a sense of calm filtered through my anxious body. These folks are doing OK; they are happy to be alive. This community does not have any choices in life – they have been dealt a crappy hand. But collectively they have chosen to be happy for their existence on this planet, in whatever form that may take. This was my refresher course on life. These people celebrate the things that matter in life: family, laughter, a handshake, shelter and a decent meal. There were no professors or textbooks in sight.  No documentary film crews or YouTube videos campaigning for help. I needed to be right there and then to learn something so colossal from a community that didn’t even realize the hope they were transmitting to the world.


As I sit in New York City dreaming of a trip to another extravagant foreign neighborhood, I often get lost in all the insignificant stuff. There are times when the presence of more choices can make us choose things that are not meaningful for us. I’m just as guilty as everyone and easily get sidetracked by the little things in life. How essential to my survival is a new TV, specially blended coffee, a window seat, or the unique visitors on my fan site? It’s OK because that’s human nature. On that first voyage to Montreal I was the guy who constantly wanted to know how long until we arrived or how much more time until we could stop to get food. I was so hurried to get to the end, that I forgot about all the fun we were having along the way. Life is always changing from one moment to the next and is never the same; each moment that passes cannot be captured. It’s important never sweat the small stuff. Lets all make a choice to appreciate the joy that every moment can bring and celebrate all the things that truly matter in your life.

Editor’s note: Article and photos by Ethan Zohn. Originally published by our friends at Tonic.com. Tonic is a digital media company and news source dedicated to promoting the good that happens each day around the world. Tonic tells the stories of people and organizations who are working to make a difference, by inspiring good in themselves and others. Be sure to visit them and say hi, and follow Tonic on Twitter, too!