January 12, 2011

Independently Studying in the Mzoo

Its been a while since I’ve posted last, so I suppose now we’re going to play a game of catch-up on my last month of research in Uganda.  Here… we… go.

The biggest, most important aspect of all SIT study abroad programs is the ISP, or the Independent Study Project.  Throughout the semester, we spent a significant amount of time preparing for this grand endeavor.  Essentially, we were thrown out in the big, bad world and left to our own devices, living how we pleased and conducting research.  All semester we were terrified for this period, but by the time it came, we were ready for some freedom.

heading out of Kampala to the north!

The last day of classes was the last day my group was all together.  Nine of them decided to stay in Kigali to do their research, and five of us prepared to head back to Gulu.  The next morning we hopped a 5am bus, destination Kampala.  We endured an 11-hour bus ride along cliff-side roads through the hills, and it was probably the most dangerous thing we did during four months in East Africa.  Why, you ask?  These buses kill roughly 25% of their passengers.  We spent the night in a hostel in Kampala, and hopped yet another bus in the morning for the 7-hour ride to Gulu.

the home away from home for 11 mzungus... nicknamed "The Mzoo" for the congregation of kids we always had outside our gate.

We arrived in Gulu late afternoon and headed to the house our other classmates, who had been in Gulu while we were in Rwanda, had rented for the month.  This was to be our (unfurnished) home for the duration of our stay in Gulu.

Coming back to Gulu felt somehow like coming home. I can’t describe what a wonderful feeling it is to feel so comfortable in such a foreign place, to feel like you fit and are welcomed when you are so far from your true home.  I felt complete, in some small way, when I walked into the compound of my former homestay.  And to see my little sister, Bridget, running across the yard to greet me was one of the best feelings in the world.

As much as I wish I could have spent all of my time hanging out at my homestay, I has a mission to complete.

I decided early on that I wanted to focus on NGOs for my research, but wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to focus that broad topic.  I originally thought I anted to look at dependency syndrome, but ultimately decided it was too broad a topic for only one month of research.  In the end, it was my research participants who determined my focus: I lent my research to what they informed me were the issues that needed to be addressed.

I immersed myself in Lukodi IDP camp, about a forty minute boda ride from Gulu.  Lukodi was formerly the home to thousands of internally displaced persons due to the LRA war, but now is home to only ten households.  During my first meeting with residents of Lukodi, they began telling me stories of their interactions with the NGOs operating there, among them Caritas Gulu, Christian Children’s Fund, and ChildVoice International.  They complained of the lack of consultation by these organizations with the community; they implemented their own programming without discussing the needs and desires of the community first.

After multiple meetings with various community members about their interactions with these organizations, I met with representatives of the organizations themselves.  They had quite the opposite to say… that because of the community’s lack of understanding about the way NGOs operate, they simply couldn’t consult with them before implementing programs.  It was quite a different outlook than was offered to me by Lukodi residents.

To save you the time it would take to read my 47-page paper on the subject, titled “Community Consultation and Communication as a Key to Effective Aid Provision: A Case Study of Lukodi IDP Camp,” I’ll just give you my concluding statements straight:

  • Better communication between the community and NGOs would facilitate better aid provision in the Lukodi community.
  • If community members were better educated by the NGOs about how they operate and what restrictions they operate under, there would be more appreciation and cooperation by the community.
  • With more in-depth consultation of the community by NGOs before the implementation of programs, more effective and necessary aid could be provided, improving the community for all.
  • With better communication between the community and aid organizations, aid providers can better prepare communities for the time when said organizations pull out of the region, lessening the likelihood of creating dependent communities.

Before undertaking this research, I had intended to pursue a career in NGO work in the future, but now I’m not so sure.  Throughout my stay in East Africa, I’ve seen the seedy underbelly the humanitarian aid community, and it isn’t always pretty.  There is mismanagement of funding, misrepresentation of objectives to US audiences, and a general lack of consideration to the culture and people of the communities these organizations claim to be trying to help.  These days, I wonder if I’d be capable of someday starting my own organization, and doing it the right way.  That’s the direction I’m heading at this point… now I just need to spend some time figuring out on what aspect specifically I want to focus on.  Right now, I’m interested mostly on education and empowerment of women.  We’ll see where life takes me… all I know is I want it to take me back to Africa.

posted in Niccole Rivero

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