By Steven Youngblood
KAMPALA, UGANDA — One of my goals as a professor and international educator is to make my students uncomfortable. Using that criterion, I’d say my students’ first day in Uganda was a rousing success.
Two Park University (Parkville, Missouri) communications students, Andria (Andi) Enns and Keith Taylor, recently journeyed to Uganda on a 17-day study abroad program. They shadowed me as I taught peace journalism seminars for radio journalists in Fort Portal and Gulu. The goal of these two seminars, and 22 more that will follow, is to prevent media-induced violence before, during, and after the 2011 Ugandan presidential election.
Day one for the students started out with African tea and breakfast at a local restaurant/coffee shop. Both students were surprised at how Western the restaurant was. In fact, you could plop it down in the middle of Missouri, and it would fit right in. The portions were even American-like. Keith’s breakfast was enough to feed a family of four, yet he bravely managed to choke it down.
A tour of the city, given by my genial driver Tabu, followed breakfast. Now, I had wanted and expected something more than the bland “highlights” journey that one might get from a tourism company. Tabu’s tour did not disappoint.
Rather than head first for the nicest part of Kampala, or maybe downtown, he went straight to what might be charitably called a working-class neighborhood. Tabu said bluntly that “this is where poor people live.” One might also call it a slum. Whatever the term, neighborhoods like these house a majority of Kampala’s 1 million or so residents, many of whom seek out a living selling vegetables or trinkets in small stands or on the streets.
The dirt roads winding into the first neighborhood we visited were rutted, cratered, and virtually impassable by any vehicle other than an SUV, and foreshadowed what lay ahead.
As we lurched into the poor neighborhood, Keith and Andi were uncharacteristically quiet. Tiny, broken-down shacks and small kiosks lined the main street, which branched off into seemingly endless small paths that would lead to more tiny shacks, most roofed with rusty tin. Abruptly, Tabu asked if we’d like to stop and to see where his sister lives. The students didn’t say much, but I assented without hesitation.
Walking into Tabu’s sister’s tiny house, we were greeted by a smiling, pretty young woman swarmed by a number of cute, happy-looking kids. She invited us into her house – just one small room with a couple of windows. Conspicuously absent were a kitchen and bathroom. There was no running water, either for her or for her neighbors. Indeed, Tabu told us that sanitation is a big problem in these poor areas. There are no sewers, but they do have common pit latrines that residents can pay a few cents to use. As we chatted, Andi and Keith seemed uncomfortable, although their nerves were calmed a bit by the children who came over to visit and hold hands.
Our second stop was Tabu’s house. We met his lovely wife and most of his eight (!) children. His house was bigger and in a slightly better neighborhood, but still tattered by Western standards. We were introduced to his son, who is studying to be a doctor. As we toured his neighborhood, two of Tabu’s smallest kids tagged along, holding hands with Keith and Andi as we took in the sites-small shacks, dilapidated huts and tiny rooms for rent, a neighborhood spring from which the women had come to collect water in jerry cans, and an open, putrid garbage dump guarded by a grazing longhorn cow.
As we chatted afterwards, both Park students said that, despite the poverty, they were not depressed by what they had seen, since both correctly sensed some hope from this place and from these people, who were unfailingly smiling and curiously happy given their circumstances. If my students learned nothing else during the following 16 days, I knew that these several hours alone would make their study abroad experience worthwhile.
I wish everyone who has ever questioned the validity of the study abroad experience was along with us as we strolled through the “real” Kampala. As NAFSA’s values statement says, my students built “understanding and respect” with Ugandans in the best way possible, thanks to Tabu’s tour. Indeed, this tour, and my students’ subsequent experiences interacting with Ugandan journalists and creating radio projects, confirms what all international educators already know-that “international education by its nature is fundamental to fostering peace, security, and well-being.”
Steven Youngblood, a NAFSA member and associate professor of communications at Park University in Parkville, Mo., is the director of a 10-month Peace, Development, and Electoral Journalism project in Uganda funded by the U.S. Embassy-Kampala, and USAID through the Northern Uganda Transition Initiative (NUTI). Youngblood is also a member of the ACE internationalization advisory council and a two-time J. William Fulbright Scholar (Moldova, 2001; Azerbaijan 2007).