Student Leadership Initiative, Africa

Seven members of SMU’s recently formed Student Leadership Initiative (SLI) are in Rwanda, Uganda and Johannesburg during May 2012. The students are researching human rights issues and empowerment solutions for three African countries recovering from decades of genocide, war, famine, disease and apartheid. Pat Davis, associate director of the Embrey Human Rights Program, is accompanying them on the program.

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Our African tour

An update from Allison, a junior majoring in environmental engineering, math and dance:

Two and a half weeks in Africa was just enough to scratch the surface of understanding the central and southern regions of the continent.  I along with six other students were overwhelmed with new sights, sounds, foods, animals, education curricula, government systems, social structures, and everything in between.  I feel as if I took a whirlwind tour of the most tragic and poverty-ridden sites in the world right alongside the most beautiful landscapes and colorful cultures.

Rwanda

Our first week in Rwanda I experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum every single day.  When touring the Kigali, Ntarama, Nyamata, and Murambi genocide memorial sites, I saw the destructive capabilities of humankind.  I’ve never felt so close to death as I did walking through a narrow corridor of shelves lined ground to ceiling with skulls and bones, the dampness of the underground cavern and odor of skeletons permeating my skin.

As soon as you walk back outside, though, the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the kids are laughing on their way to school.  No matter how dark Rwanda’s past was, you cannot help being touched by the beauty and hope in the land and its youth.  The will to push forward after that tragic event 18 years ago was very evident at the different organizations we visited – whether they were homes for children, rehabilitation centers, or dance classes for kids living on the street.

One of my favorite visits in Kigali was the afternoon with Rebecca Davis Dance Company, which works in partnership with FIDESCO.  Kids living on the street come to take a dance class three afternoons a week, followed by a session where they can share their stories and a basic IT course.  In only one afternoon, I could see the excitement in the kids’ faces and how they used dance as an outlet for the hardships they have been dealt so early in life.  The confidence and renewed purpose for education they acquire, along with access to FIDESCO’s social services and programs for reintegration with their families, help put them back on the right track.

Uganda

Driving from Kigali to Kampala, we got to see the stunning landscape – the hills with clouds sitting in the valleys.  We stopped at a stand on the side of the road to eat fresh pineapple, watched the water spin different ways as we crossed the equator, and went to a drum-making shop that turned into an impromptu dance session.

Kampala has five times the number of people as Kigali, and we arrived in the middle of rush hour with boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) weaving in and out of the cars and people.  The busyness of the streets was just preparing us for the full week ahead of us.

Our week in Uganda was spent with six students from the Empower African Children (EAC) organization, and they quickly became our best friends.  We began the week with talks in a conference room, followed by a trip to a rural village where we did service work and spent the night in a camp.  We got the experience of carrying grass on our heads down a mountain to thatch a roof, and we also heard Ugandan folktales around a campfire.

For the rest of the week, we were mostly focused on our different areas of research.  We got to talk to the “who’s who” of Uganda, including the U.S. ambassadors, a professor, a lawyer, and microfinance business owner, a teacher in the arts, a school principal, a tourism business owner, and the list goes on.

I focused on an organization called In Movement that provides an arts education for schoolchildren in hopes of promoting social change.  However, I ended up learning about the entire scope of Uganda – the failures and successes of its education system, government corruption, oil and gas laws, etc.  It was very helpful to not only get the perspective of the professionals, but to get the Ugandan students’ take on the issues as well.  Meanwhile, we got to see Lake Victoria, eat grasshoppers, and learn Ugandan dances and drumming.  EAC provided us with a fantastic weeklong experience, and both the Ugandan and American students learned a lot from each other.

South Africa

Our last few days were spent in Johannesburg.  At first it felt like we were back in the States, until we visited Soweto.  The poverty gap there is enormous, and as you drive through the city you go from upscale white neighborhoods to complete slums in the black areas of the town.

We walked around one of the areas of Soweto, Kliptown, where the houses were made out of scrap metal and one water tap was serving a whole community, along with a couple portable toilets that were cleaned only once or twice a week.  In learning about apartheid, we discovered that racial tensions still exist there, despite the positive view that South Africa shows the international community.

On our last full day, we went to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve.  We got to see lots of different animals, like giraffes, elephants, rhinos, and hippos, and some were even right next to our car windows.  Just like Rwanda and Uganda, South Africa has its beauty to offer as well as its hardships.

Overall, it was a great trip.  I learned so much more than I ever would have in a book or on the Internet, and these experiences will stay with me for a lifetime.  Even in the short time I’ve been home, I’ve viewed everything through the perspective that I acquired this past month.  Now when I talk about the issues that Africa faces and start to tackle them for myself, I can fall back on my own opinions instead of those that others have formed.

Central and southern Africa have so many natural and human resources; it’s just a matter of direction.  Hopefully everyone, including myself, can learn from the past mistakes and move forward with determination and grace.

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