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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Uganda: Rural life (Part 1)

An update from Katie, a sophomore majoring in dance, international studies and human rights:

This has certainly been an adventure… I have had the time of my life. Africa has far exceeded my expectations – my time here has been incredible in every sense of the word. I don’t even know how to put it into words, it’s just too much and still sinking in. But I know I must, because I don’t want to forget a single detail of my time here – the people, their smiles, the way the food tastes, the sounds of the land waking me up, the unreal green everywhere I look.

This entire experience has been so physically and emotionally and spiritually and intellectually overwhelming that I have to remind myself it’s really happening. I know this will require more than a week’s worth of reflection… I will think back to my experiences here for the rest of my life. I hope it informs my future choices, career path, lifestyle… I know that’s a tall order, but I have complete confidence that it will. And I know that I will come back many, many times. I just know it.

First of all, I adore the group of people we are here in Uganda with… I love them so so much. Empower African Children  is just the most incredible non-profit, so honest and genuine and transparent. So much momentum and desire to more forward, grow, and change lives. We are with Frank Roby, the CEO, and his wife, Linda, as well as two staff members, Courtney, who works in the Dallas office, and Jeremy, who works here in the Kampala office. Then the 6 amazing students, all our age, spending the week with us: Maureen, Faith, Brian, Daniel, Willington, and Simon Peter. Ugandans and Americans, blacks and whites, students and adults, all together, all friends. We’ve only spent 3 days together and already, we’re a family. I can’t imagine how much closer we’ll become in the next 3 days.

Kampala is an interesting city. Coming from Kigali – organized, clean, and beautiful – Kampala left an unpleasant first impression. It’s very crowded and very loud and dirty and the traffic is the most frustrating and horrific phenomenon I’ve ever witnessed. However, it has slowly started to grow on me. There are hidden gems within this place, you just have to look past the chaos and urban slums. Even so, it was really refreshing to get away from Kampala and spend time out in rural Uganda. I feel much more in my element there, much more at home. My heart longs for the red dirt roads and the endless green, the cows and the goats and the chickens, the children running free and the sky gorgeous both in its clear blue warmth and in blankets of rain-filled clouds.

We spent the early afternoon touring Sunrise School, a little patch of heaven on earth that is so much more than a school. We saw classrooms and a garden, the health clinic – Grace Family Health Center, the community programs, including an artisan group of 25 women making crafts, as well as the camp grounds and guest house where we stayed the night.

I particularly enjoyed touring the health clinic with Moses, a gentle and nurturing man, eager to show us around. The center provides pre-natal and maternity care to women in the community who would otherwise have no access to it. Rural women have 2 options: spend all their money on transport into the city and hospital fees or deal with pregnancy and childbirth entirely on their own, putting their own health and their baby’s health at risk. I’ve read so much about neglected maternal health care (Nicholas Kristoff’s Half the Skybut now that my older sister is expecting and I have a little niece or nephew on the way, it resonates so much more.

After taking a refreshing and filling lunch of local food (Maureen guided me through and made me try absolutely everything), we began our service projects. They threw us immediately into the work with a long hike up to the top of a steep hill through grass taller than me. It was quite invigorating and so nice to use my legs! And of course, the view from the top was astounding. There, we gathered grass, tied it up into bundles, and carried it down the hill atop our heads in the African custom. My body was created to move and sweat, my muscles to work hard, and my lungs to breathe fresh air. Then, I painted the labor room in the health center a bright and striking green. The process was very informal and haphazard, little planning or regulation, but the fact is – it was a stark improvement in appearance from before. Ugandans and Americans: we toiled together to benefit a community.

While some of us painted, the rest thatched a roof over a small vaccination area (vaccinations are offered free to the community each Thursday) with the grass we gathered. We finished the afternoon worn out, totally covered in paint and dirt and dust, itching from the grass and smiling altogether. God was with us and the day was lovely.

While resting between work and supper, I stumbled upon a little girl, Agnes. She immediately ran away from me, not from fear, but from wanting me to chase her! She was such a spirited girl, quick in her movements and bright in her eyes. She was also dirty and sick, with wounds all over her skin and gashes full of dust on the soles of her small feet. I don’t know who she belonged to or where she came from, but I know she wanted me as her friend. I picked her up and spun her around, tickled her to the ground, and locked my eyes into hers without looking away. She touched my heart in those few sweet moments.

More later!

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