My last week in Uganda was outstanding. Andrew, Connor and I toured around with Fremma, a grant recipient of The Pollination Project. We owe so much to Fremma, who has gone out of his way to make sure I see and understand his country from the inside out. Much of the wonderful things Uganda has to offer are often only accessible through private vehicle and/or expensive tour companies, which made it unattainable for me. However, Fremma, or Emma, as others call him, found a fairly inexpensive vehicle and he took it upon himself to be our personal guide. Not only have I gotten a chance to see things I would have never seen, but, we had the privilege of really getting to know this unique man.
Fremma is like many Ugandan men his age. He’s had a tough life and a poverty-stricken childhood. Fremma’s father died when he was a toddler, leaving Fremma’s mother the sole provider of 3 very young children . Fremma’s adulthood, like most Ugandans, is also filled with financial hardship, limited resources and unemployment. Yet despite the similarities he shares with men his age, Fremma stands out the moment you meet him.
With a college education, which he paid for himself, he is also a student of Buddhism and nonviolence action. His English is impeccable and he speaks 4 other languages. From the moment you meet him, you can tell he’s well traveled. As a child, Fremma bounced around from the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), Uganda and refugee camps. Despite the minimal support he had, Fremma managed to live a life of service, constantly giving back to his community and finding ways to encourage others. His work in the refugee camps earned him the nickname “Papa Emma” (Father Emma) because he is a father to everyone. Fremma’s work in the camps resulted in an invitation to Thailand where he became a monk for 9 months, studying mindfulness and meditation.
“I was a celebrity” he said when speaking of his time in the monastery. “Nobody had seen an African monk and people came everywhere to see me dressed in the robes. It was really all so difficult,” his contagious laughter filling every pause.
“Did people back home think you were weird for doing this?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he exclaimed. “They thought it was wichcraft! But I know I must do it and come back and help my people.”
The Pollination Project’s grant helped support Fremma’s work in the refugee camps. A place he still considers part of his home and where some of his family members still live.
“Many of the people that live in the camp together, as neighbors, are the same people that were fighting outside the camp. It is really a bad situation actually.”
Fremma arrives to the camp, to teach mindfulness and meditation and engage them on the concept of forgiveness within and to each other. He collects used clothing and brings it to give away at his workshops. This encouragse attendance at his group sessions. This tactic is not a foreign concept, in many places, you can not hold information sessions such as these without giving something away- at least a certificate or a t-shirt- to encourage attendance. Since Fremma himself operates on 0 budget, he offers donated items that cost him very little. His excitement built as he told me about teaching people to draw Mandalas, a process where one creates an image using repetitive patterns. The act of drawing the same thing over and over, calms the mind into a state of meditation. “And that’s when the people all started talking to each other and laughing,” he says excited to relieve the moment. I imagined how Mandalas were bridging tribal war rifts and erasing enemy lines in one of the largest refugee camps in Uganda, and smiled with the same enthusiasm he was. I wanted to visit Papa Emma’s project, but towards the 2nd week it all became too difficult to fit in. However, my conversations with Fremma and seeing his pictures painted a detailed image of what it was like. I have pretty solid experience working in camps where displaced people live. International aid organizations strive to make sure that all the displaced people receive basic needs in these camps. But, we always forget to feed the most hungry part of us, our souls. Because after we have shelter, and our bellies are full what keeps us in pain are the parts of us that need healing.
Somewhere in our conversations about his work in the camps, Fremma told me about the time he was 12 years old and trekked the impenetrable forest to reach the safe haven of his grandmother’s house from the Congo to Uganda. A few days after our conversation, I trekked a part of the Impenetrable Forest in search for Gorillas. It was a forest so thick, that our guide had to machete the path in front of us. I walked up and down the mountains for approximately 8 hours and barely got a glimpse of the sprawling jungle. I had hiking shoes and a camel pack full of water and knew I would be returning to a vehicle and access to more water and food. I thought about Fremma. How he did not have a guide but followed a man that was smuggling tobacco, across the border. He was barefoot and without food or water and despite the risk, it was the safest and the only affordable option he had. In that forest is when I realized Fremma is an ordinary man in Uganda, however, he has taken these hardships and chosen a path of compassion and service. Fremma’s life is still a struggle. Being unemployed in Uganda is as hard as you can imagine. He lives an extremely humble life with access to very little. Yet, despite his poverty, after talking to Fremma, one can’t help but think; “this man is an example for Uganda and Congo.” Every pit stop we made, along the country, Fremma’s came to greet him. If we left him alone for 5 minutes, we would come back to him laughing with a stranger or surrounded by children. And after 2 weeks of riding around with Fremma, I realized, he is far more than hope for these two countries. The depth of his compassion and his commitment to serving others has given me a window into the power of mind and the hope that lies within us all if we take time to activate our highest self. Because, despite the odds, circumstances and challenges, Fremma has found a way to tap into his higher self and let Love win, and that is a lesson for all humanity.