Having now returned from my internship with the Uganda leadership study tour, I want to reflect on the experience, not as a traveler, but as an educator. So rather than focus on what I learned as a participant alongside the students (which is a considerable amount!), I want to discuss what I learned about developing a successful and non-neocolonial (see previous post) study tour in Africa. I learned from the seasoned study tour leader Dr. Jarrett Jobe, from the local leaders we partnered with, and from the students themselves. In this post, I discuss dealing with an airport strike, watching first-time travelers interact abroad, and how students participate in an ongoing project. As in the pre-trip post, what I learned during the trip stressed even more the importance of partnership. Sister Rosemary said it best during our goodbye dinner: “It’s all about partnership. We can’t do it alone… The important thing is to be present, to walk side by side.”
Dealing with the Unexpected
Day before departure. Travel agent calls. Strike in Belgium. Flight 3 from Brussels to Kigali, Rwanda canceled. Minimum 24-hour delay in Brussels.
Fortunately, this call did not come to me, but to Jarrett as the primary leader of the trip. Where I may have (*definitely would have) panicked, Jarrett knew how to handle such a situation and manage its cascading effects – hotel in Brussels, flight from Kigali to Entebbe, transportation in Entebbe and lodging for one night in Kampala, travel to and arrival in Gulu. From the beginning, the importance of a solid partnership was evident; having a network established in Uganda, the series of lodging/transportation issues caused by the flight cancellation was relatively uncomplicated to fix as all were organized through St. Monica’s network across the country. I can only imagine how chaotic the situation could have become had we not had the local support we did.
Naiveté as Strength
Perhaps the biggest thing that struck me consistently throughout this trip was students’ willingness to jump in and engage with everyone they met. Compared to them, I feel jaded and distant, perhaps having traveled to too many places where travelers were approached only to push a sale or demand money, or perhaps simply because I’m quite shy. In Uganda, my students served as positive example; they weren’t wary of locals because they had no expectations that the interaction might go poorly. Expecting only positive engagement, students jumped into conversations, making friends easily and never being discouraged when indeed someone was only looking to sell a good or service.
Here is a good place to mention the type of students on this trip, especially as they impressed me so. While not all the students are leadership minors, all serve on one of two leadership councils on campus that both encourage study tours and provide scholarships. Several are first-generation college students and nearly half the class had never left the country before. One particularly brave student had never been on a plane. As I noticed from our first pre-trip class session, these are high-achieving students, every one of them ready to dive in head first to any task or project, regardless of their varied individual personalities. This translated to an incredible openness to authentic interaction on the trip that impressed me daily, especially as someone who is very introverted and unfortunately shy.
But again, the foundational partnership helped open the door for these types of interactions. Students felt confident connecting with locals because their professor had already spent years making his own connections at St. Monica’s and in town. During the pre-class, we learned about Jarrett’s friends in town, so students arrived with the expectation that they too would make friends while in Gulu. And indeed they did.
“Why is Mazunga Digging?” – How We Engage On-Site
Well the one thing we can say for sure about this trip is we entertained a whole bunch of people in the Atiak area as we joined the local construction team (whose foreman worked with Jarrett previously) for tough manual labor, mixing concrete and making bricks. Though Gulu is no stranger to foreign (mazunga) volunteers, manual labor is a highly unusual contribution for the community to observe. And it goes without saying that our ineptitude was highly amusing to both crew and observers. What most interests me though from a pedagogical perspective is how the deliberate way in which Jarrett framed and structured the group’s engagement impacted the students’ experience.
By joining very temporarily onto an ongoing, local project (the primary school and health clinic we worked on will be finished in October – the crew finished the foundations our first day on site), the class preempted notions of white saviorism (or western saviorism, since our group was not all white). We were so clearly not coming to complete a project of our choosing or to provide the community with something they couldn’t provide for themselves. Rather, it was clear that we arrived to help a project that would happen through local direction and local resources to serve the local community with or without us. But of course, help is always welcome.
Working alongside the local crew was also an essential aspect of the project that framed students’ interactions with the community. Even in spite of language barriers, working along side another person to a common end is perhaps the easiest way to break down cultural barriers and create a sense of team camaraderie. Since we were clearly out of our element, we struggled at first and were definitely more in the way until we got the hang of things! One student asked her team directly if we were slowing them down (we were kind of a mess and had a LOT to learn); the cement-mixing crew assured her that no, our presence was indeed speeding up the process for them. And we clearly made it fun as they taught us and good-naturedly mocked our ineptitude. I am sure the experience impacted the crew as well; those who seemed less than thrilled about the four mazunga women sent to help them hand mix concrete, but who laughed alongside them until the girls got the hang of it and ended up doing most of the work. From a feminist perspective, I was thrilled to see the mostly female class holding their own on an entirely male construction crew. I sincerely hope that left an impression on all who saw us working.
All of this work is also under an umbrella of fiscal responsibility that was discussed repeatedly with the students both before and during the trip. As I mentioned in the previous post, any engagement we undertake with a project should cover the cost of that particular engagement. Our group paid $10,000 before this trip, through fundraising and course fees, to cover the cost of the materials we used (sand, rock, concrete, boots, gloves) so that we take financial responsibility for the work we want to help with. Even though our two weeks were far from a complete project, a project that would continue without us, it is important to not place any undue financial burden on those the service learning experience intends to help. Similarly, we pay for room and board at Saint Monica’s, about half of which is profit (that goes directly into the school). Thus we support the school financially (to the tune of several thousand dollars) just by being here, and we support the students’ training in hosting, cooking, management, and hospitality as the “staff” assigned to us are gaining skills for their future careers. Again, the particular partnership Jarrett has established with Saint Monica’s ensures that our presence is helpful in as many ways as possible, according to the needs of the sisters and their projects. All of the class’ involvement comes directly from the sisters as they determine their own needs and priorities.
Through the trip, I learned that so much boils down to respect: for the community, their needs, their leadership, their time, their resources. When the partnership began years ago, Jarrett spent hours with the sisters of Saint Monica’s to hear from them how the partnership with UCO could best serve them. Without laying blame, the class also talked about ways other groups have been unintentionally insensitive, in one way or another, to be sure our students’ interactions were deliberate. Teamwork and shared experience colored the experience so that hopefully both groups parted feeling positively about our involvement.
Finally, it is important to recognize the host country as a vacation location, an area worth visiting in its own right for its rich culture, delicious cuisine, and of course, incredible natural beauty. To end on a bang, we spent our last 24 hours in Murchison Falls National Park experiencing a breathtaking African safari. Uganda is a decidedly beautiful country, both in and out of the park.
Of course, I’m not saying we did this perfectly! There is always some exoticizing of a foreign culture, and a colonizing attitude is unintentionally present no matter how hard group leaders work to avoid it. Overall, the service learning element was structured about as well as you can to avoid the neocolonial volunteerism that is, unfortunately, so rampant in much of the developing world. Now I turn my sights forward to develop my own study tour to a Francophone country (connections are leading me to Madagascar, Ivory Coast, or Senegal) that can come close to the high standards I learned from this trip.