To embark on a 3 week long journey to a continent you’ve never visited where the culture, language, and issues vary greatly from your own may seem like a nightmare to some. Going into the Uganda Service Learning Program, I had little experience to draw from other than the courses I’d taken in WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Health) related subjects. This was going to be a real test of whether I could put the practices I’d read about into action.
Our group of 19 students took a multidisciplinary approach to researching Gulu, Uganda and surrounding villages that included engineering, education, entrepreneurship, architecture, and city planning aspects. In partnership with Sister Rosemary and the other Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Uganda, I was a part of the team assembled to focus on the engineering aspects of Water Sanitation and Health. In partnership with Sister Rosemary and the other Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Uganda, we interviewed community members about their water sources and what they thought some of the biggest problems were. It was immediately apparent that, here in the States, we take so much for granted that many people throughout the rest of the world don’t have access to. From women having to sleep in line over night to ensure they get water for their families the next day, to the gender roles that rely heavily on women and children to bear the brunt of water related chores, every day was a learning experience in terms of water related issues and culture difference. Where we can simply turn on the tap and have access to clean drinkable water, many people in Uganda and other parts of the world walk several kilometers multiple times per day to access questionable water at best. You can read about these situations day in and day out, but it doesn’t really hit you until you see an entire village using water from the same unprotected well that many also get sick from.
Some of the hardest and most rewarding days while in Uganda were one in the same. Speaking with the residents of various villages in northern Uganda struck an emotional chord, but gave us a better look at the daily lives of the people there so that we were better equipped to brainstorm solutions at the end of the day. The most difficult thing going into this trip was knowing that in 3 short weeks we would be on a plane back home, and that no matter how much work we did it would still feel like we needed to do more. I imagine this feeling isn’t uncommon, but the important thing for me to remember was that I could take that feeling as motivation to continue doing more water and development projects and supporting others who will do the same, as well as continuing those that we’ve started and following up on their progress and status.
When development work fails, many times it is due to a lack of community input on the projects that would best serve the community as a whole. This trip to Uganda was largely one in which we worked to gain insight into the daily workings of local communities, and to establish a relationship of trust and respect to find solutions to some of the issues community members deemed most important. We could have come in and began any project we thought might be necessary, but having that local input guarantees not only that the community feels they were listened to and that they are getting what they need, but it helps ensure that the projects will last.
While I learned so much about walking distance to water, bilharzia, malaria, and other dangers that many developing countries face with their water sources, I also learned about the numerous viable options for the future. With a grant form the Norman Rotary Club, we were able to put $5000 towards supplies for rainwater harvesting systems and storage tanks to lessen the burden of water demand for St. Monica’s Tailoring School in Gulu. Helping Sister Rosemary achieve a goal of hers for her school, which helps hundreds of young women each school year empower themselves, is a fantastic feeling. So while embarking on a 3 week long journey to a place you’ve never been has its challenges, it is singlehandedly the number one experience I would recommend to anyone. You learn more than you ever could in a classroom, you meet some of the most incredible people this world has to offer, and you have memories and experiences you can draw from for the rest of your life (it all sounds so terribly cliché, but it’s 100% the truth). All I have to say is apwoyo (thank you), Uganda!
While this trip was not explicitly tied to Sooners Without Borders, it definitely followed the principles and helped set an example for what our future trips with SWB will be all about: making a positive impact with sustainably-minded projects and useful development work.
So if you’re even thinking about a trip like this….GO.
This was the pilot trip for the Uganda Service Learning Program, so if you’re interested contact OU Education Abroad to get involved with the next trip to Uganda!