“Our mission is to immerse ourselves in Ugandan culture, to seek the betterment of others and ourselves, and to provide meaningful service to the people of Uganda.”
International Volunteers—Uganda official mission statement for spring/summer 2001
The Mukono Town Academy (MTA), a secondary school of approximately five hundred students, is located in Mukono Town, an agricultural base of around 300,000 people. The school was co-founded and is now owned by Christopher Mugimu, a native Ugandan and doctoral candidate in educational leadership and foundations at BYU. At the academy, BYU students participated in classroom activities and extracurricular events, worked with teachers and staff on school and curriculum development projects, and engaged in service activities to help the growing school meet its pressing needs.
Within a week of their arrival, the group began to serve at the academy, beginning with manual labor—clearing ground and digging a foundation for boys’ shower facilities. “We moved bricks from the big pile over to the plot of land we cleared the week before,” said Patrick Lee and Meredith Stockman. Students Janna Usher and Bryn Jensen reported, “There was only one wheelbarrow and nine people, so you could say there was a lot of free time between turns. Lora Cook suggested finding buckets or other materials to transport the sand. This helped us realize the need to be creative, especially in developing countries where you often have to get the job done with limited resources.”
In addition to their physical labor, the group began teaching computer classes. At first, teaching as well as interacting with students of a different culture—who don’t view punctuality the same way Americans do—was a bit of a challenge, but the BYU students soon began to adjust. “Class rotations were much smoother, and computer class (Microsoft Word) worked much better with an assignment on the board,” said Lee and Stockman. “In the computer lab, certain students, determined to learn, worked hard with their individual BYU tutors,” noted Usher and Michelle Carr. “Our service hours allowed for a lot of growth for us and the students. Plus, the friendships we made with these students will probably leave a bigger impression than the overall service ever will.”
In order to provide recreational opportunities, BYU students taught Ugandan students basic volleyball skills. “The skills of so many players have really improved,” Carr and
Usher observed. The class, taught by Marci Miner and David Boone, went so well that at the closing tournament, held between BYU students and MTA students, the Ugandan youth proved themselves the victors.
With limited resources, producing a play was an act in itself—especially such a distinctly American play as Grease!, where many of the English words in the songs are not words at all. “Now all the students think that Americans walk around using slang like ‘shu-wap’ and ‘rama-lama-lama,’” Miner and Katie Walters pointed out. Student Kirsten Adams, with no other means available, taught students the songs by ear—and that was not the least of her difficulties. She noted, “There seemed to be different kids at every practice.” The children’s enthusiasm for the play caught on, and they especially loved the dancing. “After each runthrough, the ‘pink ladies’ always stopped to see our reactions to how they performed. Three of us [Bryn Jensen, Janna Usher, and Tiffany Devore] erupted into applause and started screaming,” stated Devore. The final performance went over even better. “Line after line flowed smoothly, and, when the final number, ‘We Go Together,’ came on, there was nothing but screams from the audience,” Adams said.
Good Samaritan Integrated Primary School
Service projects were not limited to the academy. “We had a group meeting, and, since we finished the shower facility at MTA, we had an opportunity to do the same at Good Samaritan,” commented Devore and Josh Rew. Good Samaritan is a primary school that specifically targets disabled and orphaned children, as well as children from very poor families. “Our first day there, we helped the group use their skills acquired at the academy,” said Walters and Miner. “The art of brick-making was demonstrated by Ben Cook and several students. Their phenomenal strength and mud-making knowledge served them well as they made over three hundred bricks.”
Students opened each day with a devotional before teaching classes in English, arts and crafts, music, and physical education. “The girls did a wonderful job of teaching children new songs and sign language, playing games, and just loving them,” observed Devore and Boone.
“There was only one wheelbarrow and nine people.”
Their labors did not go unnoticed. The New Vision newspaper and the WBSC news station visited the site “to record, interview, and take pictures of us,” said Devore and Boone. Students also observed an increasing growth of support for the school as student enrollment increased, as did contributions from parents. Mothers of students demonstrated their support by helping to provide labor and service.
BYU students, whose fondness for the Ugandans grew with every interaction, desired to use their resources effectively. “The financial support from our group was evaluated, and the final decision was made to help with the garden and then buy exercise books and pens for each student,” stated Carr and Usher. Devore and Boone spoke for the group, “We were happy to render our time, energy, and talents there.”
The students, though primarily serving in an academic setting, did not neglect their religious duties and devoted time to hosting super activities, attending religion class, and participating within their Latter-day Saint branches.
During their stay in Uganda, students held one activity for each age group of the youth of the Church. “For the Young Men and Young Women, we taught songs before registration, had a welcome, and then YM/YW activities. Next we had a service project writing testimonies in Books of Mormon and putting together packages for the local missionaries. Afterwards, we had lunch, played games, attended mini-classes, and a final testimony meeting,” Usher and Jensen said.
With the theme “Come Together,” the Young Single Adult’s activity was also a success. The students hoped to help members unite with one another in order to accomplish the members’ goal of becoming a stake. “After a short talk on unity, we split them up to talk about how they could improve things. This was a great activity that got them to interact with one another and circulated a lot of ideas,” said Devore. Further unity and fun occurred at the end of the day. “We taught swing, disco, country line-dancing, and the cha-cha. The climax of the day came when the long awaited dance-off began,” said Boone.
The final “super” activity was held for the Primary children. The theme was missionary work, and the children were taught the song “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.” Each child was given a name tag and a pretend calling. They enjoyed participating in games. Lee and Miner said that “overall, the day went really well.”
The BYU group participated in a standard, two-credit-hour religion class and invited Ugandan members to attend as well. Taught by Lora, whose master’s thesis was about the Church in Africa, the class met once a week with growing participation as time went by. “We were so thankful for the Ugandan members’ participation. The Church is truly a world religion,” Carr and Adams noted. Interacting with faithful members in Uganda helped BYU students gain a new respect and admiration for them. “It was amazing to see how these members in our class really are the pioneers of the Church here and how most of the people we discussed in the history of the Church [in Uganda] are their friends and relatives. Later, we all got the opportunity to interview Ugandan members and hear their conversion stories,” remarked Jensen and Walters.
Local leaders and missionaries also participated in the class. For their final class, the new Ugandan mission president and his wife spoke, as well as members of the district presidency. The students commented that the Ugandan members were the ones who really made the class successful. Said Lee and Miner, “We have enjoyed getting to know them better.”
Students actively participated in their separate branches and sometimes met altogether in a branch to provide service—often teaching, speaking in sacrament, providing musical numbers, or performing other duties. Their second Sunday in Uganda, they jumped right into their new experience as all attended the Makindye Branch, where their group was in charge of teaching the classes and speaking in sacrament meeting. Another group experience occurred later in the Kabowa branch. “Everyone had opportunities to serve in the branch and some surprise service was initiated during sacrament meeting when Patrick was suddenly given the opportunity to perform the confirmation of a new member,” noted Lee and Miner.
Though cultural differences called for adjustments, the group observed that the Church is the same everywhere in the world. During the priesthood lesson, “it became evident that many of the brethren have difficulty reading English. Yet the spirit of the Lord was felt by all in attendance, and the brethren felt more inspired to strive for the blessings of the priesthood,” said Lee.
On their final Sunday in Uganda, the group joined together one last time with the Mukono Branch that had specially requested they do a program. Adding even more significance to the experience was the fact that two men—both named Fred—whom the group had met at Good Samaritan, were baptized.
“Everyone had opportunities to serve in the branch.”
Becoming familiar with cultural sites is an important part of the program; thus, students took trips to areas such as the Nile River, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and the Kibale Forest, among others.
The highlights for many of the students were trips to sites where wildlife-viewing was optimal. Their excitement about a camping trip to Murchison Falls was conveyed best by Carr and Adams, who said, “We caught a ferry across Lake Albert and saw our first hippos! The park was beautiful— rolling green hills with vast vegetation for miles and miles. We saw buffalo and antelope. We took a side trail that circled up more hills, which soon turned to savanna grasslands, and the first giraffe was sighted.” Later in the day, the group was privileged to see over ten giraffes slowly cross the road in front of them. “We continued down the trail where we came across over 150 elephants!” Carr and Adams said, “We took a three-and-a-half hour boat ride in the sun up to Murchison Falls.” On their way, the group saw hippos, crocodiles, an elephant, giraffes, water buffalo, warthogs, and numerous birds. “Our boat went right over one hippo, causing it to jump up out of the water in a rage.” After experiencing so many new experiences together, Carr and Adams concluded that, “We all had more fun than originally imagined, and our group unity and love for each other grew.”
Adventures were not limited to planned activities. An interesting cultural event took place during the first week of the students’ stay in the capital city of Kampala. “Perhaps the crowning moment of the week occurred unplanned on Friday during a routine tour of Kampala,” said Ben. “People were lining the streets waiting for something, and after a few inquires we discovered Libya’s President Moammar Gadaffi was coming to attend President Museveni’s inauguration. After a few minutes, a bunch of military and police vehicles came flying past. Suddenly, a car came into view carrying Museveni and Gadaffi waving at the cheering crowd. Their vehicle had to turn the corner where we were standing, so they passed just ten feet from us—a rare chance, indeed, for an American to catch a glimpse of Gadaffi.”
Another memorable occasion occurred when the group went with Stockman and Miner’s host mother, Stella, down to a village. “Upon our arrival, about twenty village women were waving their hands high in the air and yelling ‘I-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!’ It was great!” said Carr and Usher. “That night at the village, we enjoyed sodas, ground nuts, wild and crazy dancing, slaughtering of animals, village style cooking, latrines with bats, lots and lots of children, and sleeping on mats in a big cement building.” Their time at the village provided a new outlook on life. “It was interesting to learn about village life and what villagers face; their lives are so different from ours. They seemed to be happy and are making ends meet as best they can.”
As the group packed up to leave the village, they made sure they had everything. “Our van must have looked ridiculous with all of our stuff on top—we even had seven mattresses piled up there. The whole ride was extremely long,” Carr and Usher reported. The van looked even more interesting when a goat and a couple of turkeys were added to the top—the turkeys were for Thanksgiving, and the goat was to be auctioned off at a Good Samaritan fund-raiser. They added, “The goat would let us know he was still up there, usually when we would go over bumps, and it was almost too painful to bear.”
Final days were filled with programs, fund-raisers, special dinners, and ceremonies. One special occasion was a dinner for the students’ host parents. “After the meal, we had a little program and ceremony where each of us spotlighted our hosts to thank them for all that they had done and to show our love and appreciation for them. We have families now in Uganda,” said Usher.
Before students split up for the journey home, they held an awards ceremony among themselves. “Each person was given an award by members of the group,” Usher said. “It was great to reflect and honor each person and remember the awesome strength each individual brought to the group. Our program was coming to an end, but the friendships we made, the accomplishments we achieved, and the experiences we encountered would never leave us for as long as we live.”
“We all had more fun than originally imagined, and our group unity and love for each other grew.”
During their stay, students came to realize the responsibilities now required of them with their added knowledge. In the words of Carr and Adams, “We have all learned the need for us to take our experience home and apply it there. Being involved and active is not enough. We need to be pro-active and continually looking to lend a helping hand. We can still make a difference in this world by building our own families and communities. This experience has deepened our desire to continually serve and appreciate all we have been given.” In short, they all concur, “We love Uganda!”
Sponsored by the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations and the Kennedy Center (with some funding for the student participants from the Jacobsen Center for Service and Learning), the International Volunteers program offers students, through academic courses and service, the opportunity to become directly involved in educational issues that face people in developing countries. Ben and Lora Cook served as field directors to eleven students in class work, service projects, and their individual research projects—which ranged from organizing a women’s group to studying the effects of AIDS-prevention education on youth. Battling culture shock, fatigue, and the daily pressures of course work, research, and projects, students must be “bold, diverse, and adventuresome” said Ben, as they branch out into new territories. Though students stayed with local host families, the BYU group met together often for service and Church activities, as well as Family Home Evenings, field trips, and the occasional party.