Today I ate pineapple for lunch, wore a pair of worn-out flip flops that have absolutely no sole left, and walked back from class at about a third of my normal pace. While eating fruit for lunch, wearing old shoes, and being a bit sluggish after class doesn’t have much meaning for most people, to me each one of these represents a small piece of my experience in Uganda this past summer.
I spent eight weeks in Nkozi, living and working at Uganda Martyr’s University (UMU) as an intern for the Ford Program. During those eight weeks I learned both what I had gone there for—to further my understanding of development, specifically the challenges of development and water—and hundreds of small lessons I’d never have expected to learn.
I had applied for the internship to better my understanding of the challenges of grassroots development and to see if it was a career path I was interested in. The structure of the internship allowed me to do just that. With the guidance of staff at UMU, I was able to choose my area of focus from development projects in the neighboring parish of Nnindye. Notre Dame and UMU have a partnership with the people of Nnindye to promote community development within the parish.
After reading through many documents on the project, I decided working on water was what I was most interested in. As a result, I spent the larger portion of my eight weeks visiting water sources and homesteads of different villages with my UMU student partner and translator Dennis Jjuuko. At the end of these visits I compiled all of the information on specifics of the water sources—when man-made ones had been put in, the depth, reliability, etc.—as well as the community’s reactions to the water sources (involvements with NGOs, participation in maintenance, etc.). My goal was to contribute to the ND-UMU collaboration by providing information they will find useful in planning major water interventions in the coming years and to help the program avoid mistakes that other NGOs have made in the past.
While my work and goals sound pretty straightforward, the complications were truly innumerable. The bulk of my days was spent thinking about or discussing all of the problems with development and water and how many obstacles needed to be overcome. The cultural impacts of development along with the financial burdens imposed on the communities, mixed with the necessity for clean water, impossible governmental structures, and mistrust leads to a logistical nightmare. I would literally think myself into headaches over how complicated and cyclical the development process was. Regardless of how much information I had read or learned before arriving, I could never have understood the true depths of the challenges of grassroots development until I witnessed it firsthand.
At the same time I was learning so much about the realities of development, I was learning much about Ugandan culture. My experiences ranged from incredible discussions with the other Notre Dame and UMU interns, to lessons in Luganda [the local language], to World Cup watches and leisurely walks to the equator. Possibly the most important experience for me was immersion into the food of Uganda. For the first two weeks I ate nothing but the Skippy peanut butter I’d been generously given, but slowly I began to understand Ugandan food. I started by eating pineapple—a fruit I’d claimed to hate before the summer began— and even gave in to the staple foods of matooke and posho. By the end of the summer I would finish heaping amounts of everything on my plate, more than making up for my small fast at the beginning.
I learned other things as well, such as an acceptance of walking slowly—I didn’t have to be on an incredibly tight schedule all of the time. I discovered my own strengths in handling freezing showers and cockroaches the size of my face. I began loving to stroll to the local trading center in my red-dust-covered, worn-out brown flip-flops to buy bananas with Annie, another Notre Dame intern.
Whether it’s noticing my pace is significantly slower than the people around me, stepping into a warm shower in the morning, letting a fly buzz around without swatting at it, slipping because my shoes are still dust covered and completely worn out, or seeing freshly cut pineapple in the dining halls, I am reminded of my summer experiences daily, and constantly reflect on the lessons I learned, both big and small.