Service Learning in Africa (without the neo-colonialism)

On the eve of departure on my first study tour (two weeks in Gulu, Uganda), I would like to discuss some of the difficulties and potential pitfalls of leading students to Africa. As a white American, I am particularly conscious of the myriad of ways I can go wrong in developing such a study tour. Therefore, learning from an experienced leader of these tours who is also a white American has been invaluable. To avoid the worst pitfalls of neocolonialism when traveling to and especially working in Africa, four things strike me as absolutely essential: local leadership, long-term partnership, economic sustainability, and transparency and education regarding the first three with the students. Of course, I am still inexperienced and make no claim to have “solved” the problem. This post represents only what I have learned so far.


This post a continuation of the training I’ve received throughout this first year as a new assistant professor of French, on the tenure track at UCO. One of the many optional trainings I’ve joined in my first year is CaSTLE training, the semester long program that provides the training to develop, plan, and lead study tours with students. As so many of our students work full-time, have families, are non-traditional students, or have other obligations that prevent them from semester- or year-long study abroad programs, short term study tours led by UCO faculty are both immensely popular and encouraged by campus leadership. The final part of the training is engaging in an internship with an established study tour. Through connections I’ve made across campus, I was able to join Dr. Jarrett Jobe’s 4th Leadership Minor study tour to Uganda. This post serves as a reflection on the pedagogical merits of study tours, especially in regards to UCO’s mission of transformative learning, and on my own plans for building a study tour to Francophone Africa.

Preparing Students

First, UCO insists upon faculty maintaining rigorous academic standards for study tours, equal to an on-campus 3- or 4000-level class. For most study tours, this means the class actually begins long before the trip’s departure. For this Leadership course, class began six weeks before departure and involved a variety of assignments to prepare students for the trip. These assignments focused on Ugandan history and culture, the context for our hosts at Saint Monica’s, and the complexities of foreign aid and volunteerism in Africa. From the first class meeting, transparency and education took precedence.

Uganda: history and culture

Following only group introductions, Jarrett began the class with an intentioned discussion of students’ expectations and ideas of Africa. Many of these included the expectations of poverty and violence, but also (thankfully) included positive images of Africa like wildlife and a rich variety of cultural traditions. Rather than directly correcting stereotypes, students were also asked to imagine which of these images may be grounded in reality, and which they thought might be inaccurate. Thus before class began in earnest, stereotypes of Africa were tackled head on in the hopes of replacing them with more accurate information.

More traditional coursework began then with background in Ugandan history from the age of European colonialism, focusing particularly on the Ugandan civil war and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, as this conflict most affected the northern region where we are traveling and provided the context for our host Sister Rosemary’s work at Saint Monica’s Tailoring School. Students’ first assignment was completing a detailed demographic sheet so they began the class with a basic overview of Uganda’s geography, economy, population, and industry. Students watched documentaries and read books about the civil war, the LRA, and Sister Rosemary’s role in reintegrating abducted women (and their children) into society and helping them establish economic independence.

Saint Monica’s and Sister Rosemary

This study tour is particularly well-structured thanks to the personal relationship Sister Rosemary has to Oklahoma through Pros for Africa, Sewing Hope, UCO, and OU. Sister Rosemary’s personal story thus provides the framework for the wider context of recent Ugandan history.  Because the course satisfies a requirement for the Leadership minor, Sister Rosemary’s courageous and ambitious leadership within the north Ugandan community provides an example of exemplary leadership, in addition to the service learning component that forms the bulk of the trip. Sister Rosemary not only protected others during the civil war, but transformed the modest Saint Monica’s into a tailoring school for women to develop skills to become economically stable after the war without being dependent on a male relative. Since this first initiative, Sister Rosemary has continued to build resources for women and children in the northern Uganda region of Gulu. From health clinics and primary schools to restaurants, farms, and community centers, Sister Rosemary has created a network of organizations that educate and train community member. This training not only helps community members individually establish economic independence, but also serves the entire greater Gulu area by developing sustainable activities that contribute to the economy’s development. By learning the personal story of Sister Rosemary and the development of Saint Monica’s Tailoring School, students understand the context into which the class will enter before we even leave Oklahoma.

Aid in Africa

Local local local. This has been the theme of Jarrett’s class that guides his discussions about how we engage with service learning abroad. Before departure, Jarrett used his academic background in political science and international relations to discuss the problematic approaches to foreign aid that have been implemented throughout the past several decades. He emphasized the difference between what doesn’t work (undirected money, non-sustainable aid, foreign-led aid that meets imagined needs rather than actual ones) and what does (locally-run organizations who determine their own community’s needs and foreign aid assists in their own goals to create sustainable economic growth). Though UCO faculty leads the class, the nuns and site foremen (all Ugandans) are completely in charge of the project. We show up to contribute to their projects through the manual labor they need, but also by paying for whatever materials we are using to contribute. Too often, groups arrive on site with good intentions, but without the financial backing for the project they want to complete, and thus place an undue burden on the community they aimed to help. Repeatedly, Jarrett emphasizes that it is not about us, but rather the visiting class registers as a single sentence in a paragraph in Saint Monica’s story. The students learn about the full scale of Sister Rosemary’s combined projects to see how small our visit is within the context of the whole project. Jarrett emphasizes too the importance of maintaining a long-term relationship, not of individuals, but of institutions. A “one and done” type of project does little for the community (though the visitors feel good about their ‘contribution’), whereas a long-term institutional relationship provides dependable aid to a local group. Thus, both Saint Monica’s and UCO are mutually benefitted by their long-standing relationship.


What I have learned from this experience is that transparency, discussion, and information are the most important elements for avoiding neo-colonial volunteerism and white saviorism, at least from the student perspective. As a professor leading the tour, the onus lies fully on me to ensure I am bringing students into a positive situation. When choosing a location for my tour, it is essential that I find a partnership with locally-run organizations that support sustainable projects that serve the needs of the community (as determined by the members of the community itself). This experience has also taught me that it is irresponsible to begin a service learning study tour if I am not prepared to make a long-term commitment to establish UCO as a dependable partner supporting a local organization. Hopefully, this trip will open doors to new connections in francophone Africa so I can begin working to this end.

*More to come after returning from the study tour, May 13-28, 2018.


A Path Appears” – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book and documentary about sustainable service projects

11 thoughts on “Service Learning in Africa (without the neo-colonialism)

  1. This was a really great post, Jess! I especially liked the conclusion about your own path forward. Do you think you can develop more about the transparency aspect in a future post?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Marcia! I do hope to develop more on this idea as I myself learn more about the best ways to maintain transparency. I think Sarah had a great idea below about getting student feedback on the transparency issue. Perhaps you’ll have more thoughts on the post-trip post I wrote about this too.


  2. I’m really curious to know more about the kids’ experience/reactions vs why they were prepared for. I run into racial issues just brining black/brown children to southern France so I’d love to know more about their preparation and behavior throughout the trip.

    I love the idea about sustainability – I too agree you can’t really foster a true exchange or service learning program without history and the experience of prior years. I love that you prepared them to know exactly the size of your drop in the bucket in regards to the actual project itself as a whole. I love the vital social and historical context given as wel. Great read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was a great read with a lot of helpful information and an obviously large amount of knowledge gained. Your willfullness to learn and have a steady amount of introspection is respectable. I could not find any flaws with what you’ve said and thank you for coming with us! I wish you the best on your goals and don’t think your whiteness will be an issue as you are highly conscious of it. I find how you are going to French speaking parts of Africa rather than the French speaking European parts to be a great idea and hope this gets as much support as needed. Good luck and I hope I could provide an example of a whiny arachnophobe for your trips.


  4. Hmm, have to give this some thought when I can also give it my full attention… it’s an issue I wonder about too!


  5. Your article was really excellent and thoughtful, and like Sean, I couldn’t find any flaws. Your openness and willingness to learn and help really come across strongly, and I think that will have a positive effect, not only on your experience, but on that of your students, as well. They are very lucky to have you teaching them and I think the partnership between UCO and Saint Monica’s sounds like a great idea!


  6. Hi Jessica,
    I hope you are well! Just a note to say that I appreciated reading your blog posts about your Ugandan study tour! I read with interest because my PhD is in African politics and I am in the midst of planning a study abroad to Malawi. I have spent a lot of time in Africa myself but know that going with students will be a whole new ballgame. I have been thinking a lot about how to get students to challenge stereotypes, think critically about their own positionality, how to responsibly engage in service learning etc. Your posts resonate with a lot of what I have been thinking about and reading! Very exciting that you are planning a trip to francophone Africa! I love francophone Africa (most experience in Burkina Faso) and am rather of the personal opinion that West Africa=Best Africa (while maintaining an interest in and appreciation for the rest of the continent haha). Best wishes!


    Liked by 1 person

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