Story and photography by Lindsey Pantaleo –
As we prepared for landing at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, our group of ten was about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Little did we know that when we boarded the plane in two weeks to return home we would be different people; changed by the kind hearted people of Uganda and the severe poverty that can’t be erased from
My husband, Nick, and I joined eight other advocates from across the United States for a mission trip to Jinja, Uganda this past September to work with a charity called Sole Hope, a non-profit organization founded to provide shoes for African children, one pair at a time. The organization was founded by Dru and Asher Collie, who now reside in Jinja with their three young children.
Nick and I became involved with Sole Hope through Ashley Redburn, a high school friend that is now the stateside operator for Sole Hope. Ashley emailed me this time last year asking if I knew of any photo/video students that would be looking to intern overseas for the summer. I am a full-time photographer and my husband, Nick, and I own Pantaleo Films, which is a video and cinematography team that works with weddings and commercial video projects. Sole Hope is always in need of photos for marketing and has a long list of video projects they want to complete. While Nick and I couldn’t go for an entire summer, we were willing to take a trip to tackle as many video and photo projects as we could manage. As fate would have it, two seats remained on a September trip organized this past fall. We were on board literally. We didn’t give it a second thought, we knew what an amazing opportunity and experience this would be. Our mission was to create a video that shows daily operations for Sole Hope and the connection between the U.S. and
A luxury for most Ugandan children, shoes are much needed to prevent bacteria and viruses from entering the skin, and to protect against jiggers. Similar to chiggers, jiggers are a parasite that burrows into the skin, small fleas that live in the ground and can be found in dirt and dust in climates like Uganda. Unlike chiggers, once they embed in the skin they lay multiple eggs until they are removed. The wounds are painful and cause difficulty walking, running, and attending school. This infection can also lead to severe inflammation, ulcerations, and fibrosis. In severe cases lymphangitis, gangrene, sepsis, the loss of toenails, amputations of digits, and death will occur. Jiggers are considered taboo in Africa, many families believe that they are cursed and don’t seek help for removal. Others don’t know how to remove them properly and hospitals turn away patients with jiggers.
Sole Hope holds weekly foot washing clinics that go into the villages to remove jiggers, give children shoes, and support an Outreach Home, where the most severe cases are transferred to monitor, provide extra care, and heal. In addition, all families who stay at the Outreach Home receive information and education on how to take care of their families and protect against jiggers and other illnesses. Currently, the home can house 16 boys and 14 girls.
All of the shoes come from the U.S. During “Shoe Parties,” which are hosted by people and organizations of all ages. Commonly, a group of friends or family gets together and brings their old pairs of jeans, which are then cut into the shoe uppers and lowers and pinned together. The cut-outs are then sent to the stateside headquarters in North Carolina and shipped to Uganda.
Sole Hope assembles all the shoes in the back of the Guest House where we stayed in the twon of Jinja. It is a beautiful compound and we were taken care of by their awesome staff. They employ four Ugandans to sew and assemble the shoes. The organization employs almost 20 Ugandans to run daily operations. When we first arrived at the guest house, we spent the first couple of days unpacking all of the supplies we brought from here. Our team carried 32 totes of medical supplies, clothing, and other hygiene supplies to give to the outreach house.
Uganda is truly the most beautiful country I have experienced and has the most kind and humble people. Life is slower and people are more thankful; they wake up in the morning tasked with how they will survive the day and feed their families. They live for the hours ahead not for the next 20-30 years like we do in the US.
A third world country; electricity, hot water, internet, and food are not always available in Uganda and sickness is inevitable. Air conditioning and clean tap water does not exist. I have never been camping and even saying how much of an adjustment this was is an understatement. I had to let go of all the things that I take for granted living in a first world country. As Americans, we don’t understand living uncomfortably nor do we understand poverty. I have seen poverty in the U.S., but what I saw in Uganda was much worse. We have the opportunity and access to resources that these people could only dream about.
The harsh reality of living conditions and daily life were experienced the first day we spent in the villages at a clinic. When we pulled up to the dilapidated building with no windows or doors, about 500 children ran out to greet us. We watched these children cheer and line up in hopes of receiving a free pair of shoes and ending their pain. We were their hope. We experienced several horrible cases that day including a little boy with almost 100 jiggers in the hands and feet. The nurses and volunteers worked tirelessly to remove and bandage the wounds. The children are strong and brave and rarely shed a tear, but after several hours of removal, tears and crying are common. It is heart-breaking. Unfortunately, pain medication is not common. There were several times I had to walk away and re-group as the sobbing was too much to handle. When the school broke for lunch, instead of going through the lunch line like our schools, children are on their own. Most sat outside under a shade tree and watched our clinic. I asked one of the nurses where they get lunch, she said they go home if they can, but most of them don’t get any food for breakfast or lunch. They are lucky to get one meal of beans and rice a day.
The worst cases in the village clinics are asked to come live at the outreach home for a few weeks. We spent most of our days at the outreach home helping and playing with the recovering children. This is where their happy ending begins. After the initial removal and a few follow-ups, we watched children transform from being crippled over in pain, to laughing and playing soccer in a few short days. It is incredible to see their resilience for pain and joy for life. They are given new clothes, eat regular meals, have toys to play with, and books to read. There are severe cases that take many months to heal. One of the families had been there since the summer, when they arrived at the outreach home the three small children were severely malnourished and their small bodies were infected with jiggers. One of the little boys passed away within days. The youngest boy, Yamine, is two years old but looks more like a nine month old. He has finally put on the weight he needs to grow, but as his legs are still too weak so he still hasn’t yet taken his first steps. I can’t wait to see him finally take his first steps and I check the Sole Hope web site for regular updates. He captured our hearts with his shy giggles and his love.
We should be thankful for all our blessings, even the little ones like shoes on our feet and clothing on our backs. Most of us couldn’t bear the pain of walking if we had jiggers. Yet despite their pain these children walk to school every day and still find the joy to run and play with friends. The happy ending comes when all removal is finished and the child can finally heal.
Our issues and stresses pale in comparison to what these people face every day. With the lack of doctors and money, sadly people pass away normally in their 50’s. I have learned there are no “first world problems.”
Since I have returned, every time I go to the grocery store, drive in my car, or make a quick stop for a bite to eat I am constantly reminded of how blessed we are to live in this country. I always thought going to Africa would be a neat trip; however, I didn’t think it would be a place I would want to return. After this trip, I would happily jump on the next plane back. It’s a shame that so many people don’t get to experience a trip to Africa in their lifetime.
This country and its people have stolen a piece of my heart. I think and pray about all my friends in Uganda every day. I look forward to the day I can put my feet back in the red dirt and hug everyone.
If you want to get involved with Sole Hope, there are several ways you can help. First visit the website at www.SoleHope.org. Donations are always needed or consider hosting a shoe cutting party with your friends. For other information please contact Ashley Redburn at Ashley@SoleHope.org.
We will host a Uganda Night to raise funds for one of the orphanages this winter. The event will be held at our studio on 423 E High in Jefferson City. We will be selling their paintings and other handmade goods. Please follow my blog at www.lindseypantaleo.com for more information.
You can also see our photo and video work at our website.