When the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity was looking for its first staff person to be based in Uganda it is unlikely that anyone on the search committee imagined they would find the match they have in David Nnyanzi.

Raised not far from the program’s Nnindye field site, he has a deep familiarity with the development issues facing local villagers. His doctoral studies in sociology at Boston College makes him uniquely situated to lead a research effort bringing together students and faculty from the University of Notre Dame and Uganda Martyrs University (UMU), Ford’s partner institution in Uganda, where he is a lecturer in the Institute of Ethics and Development. During his recent visit to Notre Dame, Nnyanzi talked about Ford Program efforts in Uganda and his globe-spanning journey to the position he started in April 2008.

What does being assistant director for research and community engagement for the Ford Program entail?

DN—The Ford Program has two major levels of engagement. One is to engage students—at both Notre Dame and Uganda Martyrs—in human development by doing research. We’d also like to encourage faculty members in both institutions to get involved, to work side by side with the students and provide mentoring. Part of my job is to talk with the students at UMU and Notre Dame to let them know this is something they can do to make a difference.

Practical application is a major focus of the research that students do and that we’re encouraging faculty to get engaged in. What we are trying to do is to translate the results of those research projects into real outcomes for people in our partner parish of Nnindye. The other part of my job is mobilizing the people, letting them know, “You have friends that are coming to work with you to develop your households—and so take part, don’t sleep!”

Any research outcomes yet?

DN—The research is just getting started. We are running a baseline assessment survey in Nnindye to identify and prioritize needs, which we think will focus student and faculty research. We would like to work with the people and do research that strikes exactly at their needs.

We do know there are needs in terms of providing clean water and agricultural education. This is a mostly subsistence area so people grow the majority of food they eat. A little bit they sell to purchase goods such as salt, paraffin, and healthcare.
Uganda Martyrs University has been involved in the sub-county for several years, doing research and outreach projects. The Ford Program is concentrating its work in a smaller area, so as to better be able to measure impact.

We are talking about a much more focused faculty research engagement, including opportunities for joint research between faculty at Notre Dame and at Uganda Martyrs.

Tell me more about Uganda Martyrs University and its relationship with the Ford Program.

DN—UMU is a young university, about 15 years old. The Institute of Ethics and Development Studies, which the Ford Program is connected with, has an undergraduate degree and a distance learning master’s degree where most of the students are development professionals already working for internationally funded NGOs.

The understanding of the new vice chancellor of UMU is that the university cannot be strong unless it is working in collaboration with other institutions of higher learning. The Ford Program is a gateway for UMU to connect with the University of Notre Dame. Both institutions and the people in these institutions stand to gain.

At Notre Dame, Fr. Bob Dowd, the Ford Program director, and the Ford staff are talking with faculty members in different departments—this program cuts across all disciplines—and have done a very good job of getting many of them to Uganda. When they return, they take ideas back to their departments. There is a lot of interest, which is very, very energizing for us. It’s even more overwhelming how many students say, “I really want to come and do research in Uganda.”

How did you come to study in the US?

DN—I studied in a seminary high school and then went to a Jesuit college. After college, they gave me a scholarship to finish my theology studies in Detroit. I studied there for a short time in 1999 but I didn’t think I was called to be a priest. I flew back to Uganda and returned the scholarship. Then I came back to the US on my own and went to Boston College, which my bishop recommended. I received Jesuit scholarships to attend and a Jesuit priest in Boston paid my health insurance.

I wanted to become a social scientist so I did a master’s degree in sociology. When I got to the doctoral program, a good advisor told me to look into my life and see what I could pick out that would be of meaning to me. I decided to specialize in the sociology of health and illness.

What drove me to this was mostly the experience I had in 1997, after my undergraduate degree, when I was working to help build self-reliance among young people in a rural district near Kampala.

On my way to meetings in the field, I would often find somebody being carried on a stretcher 15 or 20 miles to the dispensary, either because they had been bitten by a snake or because a pregnant woman trying to give birth locally needed medical help. Because there were no phones, I couldn’t call to tell people I would not be at the meeting. I’d just turn my motorcycle and take the patient to the dispensary, the family following on foot.

I kept interacting with things that were making people sick and die at ages they shouldn’t die. I became interested in the social context in which people live their lives: to what extent does social context decide whether somebody will get sick or somebody else remain healthy?

My dissertation looked at how large-scale structural factors, such as poverty, interacted with individual behavioral factors to cause high rates of HIV infection in Uganda. Such an approach can shed light on strategies for more effective intervention in Uganda and elsewhere in the developing world.

Why did you decide to go back to Uganda after you got your degree?

DN—Right from the beginning I had wanted to go back to Africa. My advisors reinforced this. In her recommendation letters my advisor Jeanne Guillemin would write things like, “Helping David to study is part of the best aid we can give to Africa because this is a social scientist for Africa.”

When the opportunity came to go back to Uganda, I just jumped on it. Doing my part this time is paying my dues to the country that loved me and raised me.