Sunday, 31 July 2011

Uganda Project: Looking forward while looking back

By Ezgi Ustundag
Special to The Tribune
Published: Saturday, July 30, 2011 2:00 PM CDT
Earlier this summer, I traveled to Uganda with a group of 21 other Ames High School students. From June 1 to 24, we were immersed in the foreign but fascinating culture of this beautiful central African nation. Throughout our three-week service project, we had the opportunity to interact with a variety of Ugandans: villagers and urbanites, shopkeepers and schoolteachers, young children and village elders. In addition to the valuable cultural immersion, we repaid the Ugandans’ overwhelming generosity and hospitality with the construction of a five-room schoolhouse in Kiringa, a village located in southern Uganda.

The school, called Glory to Glory Primary School, is expected to educate hundreds of children in the coming years.

Ames High social studies teacher Tim Mooney has taken students to Uganda for the past eight summers, offering the students a potentially unforgettable and eye-opening experience abroad while providing numerous Ugandan communities access to education. Since 2004, Life to Life Global Building Group (the nonprofit organization founded by Mooney and Eric Brookhart, of Davenport) has helped construct two other schools and a community center in Uganda. According to Mooney, a key aspect of Global Building Group’s construction projects is that they are built in cooperation with the Ugandans.

As this project promises to continue in coming years, here’s advice from three Ames High seniors-to-be who traveled to Uganda this year to future participants who will travel to the developing country.

Martha Ryan

Q: What are essential items to pack for a three-week trip to Uganda?

A: Bring plenty of Pepto-Bismol. Definitely bring a camera, but only take it under water falls (for a weekend excursion, Uganda Project members hike to Sipi Falls in Mbale) if it’s waterproof. Do not leave evidence of food (in your cottage) unless you want ants crawling all over it. You should also be ready to share everything you packed with everyone. You’ll go crazy if you don’t prepare yourself for the mooching that will inevitably occur.

Q: What are some things you learned about navigating through a big city like Kampala (the capital of Uganda)?

A: Just in general, you should use a toilet whenever you have the opportunity. You never know when you’re going to find another one. When in Kampala, you shouldn’t look out your window on the bus if you appreciate traffic laws—it’s scary to see how people drive without them. You should also hide your valuables (by bringing a money belt or pouch) because there are a lot of thieves in Kampala.

Hannah Steenblock

Q: How should students prepare themselves for arrival in Uganda?

A: Don’t think too hard about preparing yourself. Honestly, nothing will prepare you for it. You can read all you want about poverty and climate and people and culture but none of that is comparable to the real country. You will always be in amazement of what is going on around you, (and) it will always be shocking to see how people live in poverty.

Q: What should every traveller to Uganda try at least once?

A: Even though the travel clinic advised against it, you have to try the street food. There’s one dish in particular that we all tried called a Rolex. It’s chapati bread (similar to a tortilla) wrapped around eggs, onion, tomato, and cabbage. The vendors cook it in a cast iron pan over an open fire. It’s served to you wrapped in newspaper. I never got sick and it tasted amazing. The way I saw it was that I have the chance of a lifetime so I’m going to get a full experience and not be so cautious.

Q: What is the best way to go about the inevitable stress that occurs between Ames High students on the trip?

A: Initially, there was so much tension in the air between students that you could cut it with a knife. I couldn’t understand how some of the others could be so immature when the bigger picture of why we were there was so important. Later, I realized that after spending 25 days with people, you have to learn to ignore their flaws. Since returning almost a month ago, I’ve become good friends with many of them. I’d say for future travelers, open yourself up. You’ll share at least one amazing experience with everyone there.

Erol Unal

Q: What advice would you give future Uganda Project members when interacting with the Ugandans?

A: Going to visit the houses of local families was a great experience but could have been better if I had had a greater understanding of Lugandan (the official language of Uganda, along with English). While I had a translator to help me understand them, some of the interpersonal connection was lost. Also, I found that in order to get the most out of their stories, I had to put myself in their shoes and imagine what I would feel if my family was in their situation. Don’t isolate yourself from the Ugandans and keep an open mind.

Q: How has the trip changed your perceptions of life in the United States?

A: I still find it hard to accept how much we take little things, such as water pressure, reliable electricity, and even garbage collection, for granted. Many Ugandans struggle daily just to find food for their families while we are uncomfortable when our air conditioning isn’t on.

Q: How should future trip members prepare themselves for returning to the United States after being in Uganda?

A: There really isn’t any way to prepare yourself for the culture shock, but a start would be to appreciate everything we have because not everyone has the same opportunities we do.

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