By Aino Kemppainen
BYU students broke new ground offering service in far off Africa.
On the 29th of April, 17 BYU students from the newly organized Kennedy Center Volunteers Program landed at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
Many of them had never been to Africa, let alone Uganda, and nobody knew what to expect.
This was a pioneer program, the very first BYU has ever offered in this tropical country right on the equator.
Other students participating in the Kennedy Center Volunteer Programs went to countries such as Mexico and Romania, places that have been familiar to BYU students in the past.
Christopher Mugimu, a masters of art student in the education leadership and foundations department, initiated the interest in Uganda.
As a native Ugandan, Mugimu had contacts in the country and a school he had established himself together with a fellow worker, James Walusimbi, in 1989.
With the help of Mugimu, co-director of the program, together with Professor Steven Hite from the same department, the group was able to participate in some projects at his school, the Mukono Town Academy.
The school in Mukono, about 20 kilometers from Kampala, the country’s capital, is one of the many private secondary schools (Ugandan equivalent of junior and high schools) springing up in Uganda.
During the first three weeks when local schools were out of session, the volunteers attended lectures, painted classrooms and dug a pit for a water tank.
They also set up computers, which were partially paid for with money earned from the annual Hunger Banquet organized by Students for International Development.
Some of the classrooms hadn’t been previously painted at all and the students were pleased as they came back after their vacations.
Some of the parents bringing children back were brought to tears when they saw all the changes, including the water tank.
As a result of the new water tank, the school children won’t have to carry water from behind the school, an uphill walk that had previously taken them about 20 minutes per trip.
Additionally, they also will not be as susceptible to diseases that students are exposed to from drinking rainwater, such as cholera, typhoid and different diarrheal diseases.
The truth behind the projects is a little more complex though.
There were days when everyone was frustrated and felt useless.
Questions about the necessity and usefulness of such service were on everybody’s mind.
“Even though we weren’t skilled, we made an active effort and contribution towards the improvement of the school. We definitely built rapport with the students by digging and painting there,” said Karina Wohlgemuth, a senior from Austria.
Locals will always remember the “muzungus,” or the “whities” working in the pit and getting as dirty, if not even dirtier than local workers.
The students will readily state that the local people performed most of the work and were often left in the shadows of the visiting students.
A working “whitie” was a sight since many had not known they were able to work, Wohlgemuth said.
Some problems did occur with the computers at first.
The power voltage in Uganda is different, for example, and the power supply of the first computer blew up.
Computers are now being used with a stabilizer.
This (power supplies) and other factors have to be taken into consideration when introducing new technology to rural areas.
The students and the teachers are excited about the computers though.
The school’s headmistress, Stella Edwan, said that she feels very content even though she doesn’t know how to use the computers yet.
Many secondary schools in the area already have computers.
Computers are seen as a sign of progress because they are better able to integrate the labor market with education and provide the students with practical skills for the workplace.
“It is important students are exposed to computers — that’s the language now,” Lawrence Nyanja, a business education teacher from Mukono Town Academy
Students have not had access to the computers yet as projects such as this can take a long time to be established, but the students are excited to use them in the near future.
As the students came back from vacations they were all surprised and impressed by the improvements at the school.
They want to thank all the BYU students who contributed, either by digging in the pit or indirectly by attending the Hunger Banquet this past winter semester.
After the projects were done the volunteers had time to do individual research on subjects like AIDS prevention and private secondary schooling.
They also had time to do some additional service projects working at health clinics, tutoring at primary schools and working with different non-governmental organizations dealing with street children.
The program was finished on the June 17, and Mukono Town Academy is waiting for a group of new volunteers next spring.