Written by Noah Roberts, PFA Chairman
In the early morning dawn of Gulu, Uganda, my keyboard clicks to the rhythm of crowing chickens, a Muslim morning prayer being publicly broadcasted, voices in unison of the Sisters praying at Saint Monica … and of course, the screaming engines of mosquitoes flying around my ears. With all of this incredible cacophony unfolding around me, of all things, I find myself thinking about John Wooden. You know, the greatest college basketball coach of all time.
As part of the advance team for the PFA Medical Pros Expedition, I came to Gulu in order to help expand a much-needed collaboration and bilateral exchange of knowledge transfer between American, Ugandan and South Sudanese health care providers and medical schools. In the next few days, waves of PFA volunteers will begin arriving here in order to assess the health of the local health care providers and their local health care system.
Ambitious medical students land like sponges and absorb priceless lessons about treating tropical diseases and how to care for patients with kindness and humility. Medical School professors come armed with their entire knowledge based crammed into an iPad. Compassionate veteran physicians and nurses sharpen each other’s skills and leave energized by being on the front-line of health care.
As I’ve prepared for our projects in Africa, it’s been fascinating over the last week to observe how people from the U.S. and here in northern Uganda have responded to the Invisible Children KONY 2012 campaign. On one end of the spectrum, I’ve witnessed two of my young children and their friends begin to envision a life dedicated to the service of others. On the flip-side, I’ve read and listened to professional critics who have probably never lifted a finger to end injustice in Central Africa, let alone taken the risk of opening a lemonade stand. I guess that’s where Coach Wooden comes in.
My Dad once told me a story about Wooden’s first practice at UCLA. As the legend grows, this ordinary-looking coach with thick glasses, surrounded by the most talented athletes in America, was getting ready to do the unthinkable.
Neck craned, Wooden gazed up at these incredible human specimens … the tallest, strongest, fastest and smartest college basketball players in the nation. Expecting them to show off for their new coach and display their superiority on the court, a few observers stood speechless as John Wooden launched into his first team lesson as the Head Coach for UCLA Basketball:
Lesson 1: How to tie your shoes, properly.
Wooden knew that no matter how talented you are or how great of a teammate you may be, you cannot win without mastering the most basic fundamentals, especially those things that everyone views as simplistic, even childish.
My message to our embarking medical pro team members (and anyone who aspires to change the world) is really no different: If you want to leave the world better than you found it … regardless of your color, gender, nationality, education or affluence … you must first learn to listen.
Before PFA can inspire professionals of all fields to invest what they have, know and create in the youth of 54 African nations, we must first succeed my mastering the art of listening and responding to a single community.
This is why we’ve spent four years on helping a single local partner in a single region. My friends jokingly refer to PFA as “Pros For Rose” because of our undying devotion to supporting the work of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe at Saint Monica. But here’s the deal: if we’re good, and with a little luck, we can inspire others to leave our little nest and establish new projects of their own.
Likewise, before our medical team “delivers” anything in Uganda or South Sudan, our first job is to listen to our friends on the ground that are in need that have requested our assistance and are looking to collaborate.
I guess this would be my $0.02 for our good friends at Invisible Children:
Keep the fire burning, maintain your focus, and stay coachable. But above all else, remember to listen to your friends on the ground, especially those who have been quietly combating the atrocities of the LRA with love and integrity from the very beginning. These friends of ours were doing the work long before we arrived and they most certainly will remain here long after we are gone.
Like Nicolas Kristof so eloquently phrased it in his recent post, this isn’t a white man’s burden … it is a human burden.