Thanks to support from the InterExchange Foundation, I have spent the last 19 months working for the Kasiisi Project in rural western Uganda. Since 1997, the Kasiisi Project has been supporting primary schools around Kibale National Park through building classrooms, funding extra teachers, funding post secondary students, providing lunch, supporting conservation education, addressing the needs of girls, and training teachers.
The goal is to give the students around Kibale National Park a better education which will lead to more opportunities in the future and they will be less likely to have a negative impact on the plants and animals in the park. They have had short-term volunteers in the past, but I was the first volunteer to commit to more than just a few months and the first with professional teaching experience.
When I arrived in Uganda, my first job was to plan and carryout conservation education-themed trips for 27 Ugandan primary school teachers. These trips were being funded by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Grant. The teachers invited on the trips worked in schools within a few kilometers from Kibale National Park, but had never entered the forest itself because of the expense.
Kibale Forest is home to the world famous chimpanzee and twelve other species of primates. The cost to visit the park and track the chimpanzees is far beyond what a Ugandan primary school teacher can afford. The teachers were thrilled to have the opportunity to see one of their closest neighbors. In addition to chimpanzee tracking, we went on a swamp walk to see other primates in the forest and some of the many beautiful birds that frequent the swamps.
The other park we visited was Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) which is only a two-hour drive from Kibale. QENP is a savannah park that provides an opportunity to see a completely different landscape than Kibale Forest and view elephants, antelope, hippopotamus, lions, crocodiles, and hundreds of different birds. These trips provided an opportunity for these teachers to see the beauty of their country, as well as see for themselves, the places and animals that they teach about in their classrooms.
There are many challenges with trying to plan such big trips, especially in a different culture and one where each item - transport, food, and housing - had to be individually discussed and bargained rather than just booked online. In the end the trips went extremely well. The teachers enjoyed themselves and learned a great deal about their country. I successfully documented the trips and created a movie showing what they experienced.
This movie is currently being shown at each of the primary schools that participated in the trips. At the first school where the movie was shown, one teacher who did not go on the trips was so excited he shook my hand and said, “You have brought the savannah to us!” It was exciting for the students to see their teachers in new and interesting places and it allowed the teachers to relive their experiences.
My next major role developed when a One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Corps team came to Kasiisi Primary School. I worked with the team to make critical long-term decisions about what classes will use the laptops and how they will be used. We had to design a way to charge 100 laptops using one generator because the school has no power, train teachers who have never used a computer, and help in the daily computer classes.
After a short 10 weeks, the OLPC Corps team was gone and I took over supervising the deployment. I continued training the teachers, arranged for them to attend a traditional computer class at the nearest university, and dealt with numerous electrical, computer, and classroom issues. The Kasiisi Primary School OLPC deployment was a huge success. We have had many successful computer projects, made unique use of the server at the school and acquired an additional 79 laptops so we could expand over two classes. The children and teachers continue to be excited about using the laptops, and the computer are now a very real part of this rural school.
I also helped the Kasiisi Project in other roles. I was able to establish an internet connection in order to greatly improve communication between the U.S., U.K., and Ugandan sides of the organization. I later expanded this connection into a small internet café in order to recoup some of the Internet costs. I played a hand in the different assessment and advising meetings that are held for our 90 secondary school students we support. We have ongoing school-building construction at multiple sites, which I documented and reported on the progress. I also began making short movies about the various parts of the Kasiisi Project. The movies are being used to help generate funding for the project.
The InterExchange Foundation's Christianson Grant was vital to my experience in Uganda. Without this funding, I would not have been able to stay as long as I did, which was a primary part of my success. Having a grant that ensured I would be working for the Kasiisi Project for at least a year allowed me to devote a significant amount of time at the beginning of my stay to learning about the culture and the people I would be working with.
Through my experience this past year and a half, I have realized that one of the greatest mistakes that people make when volunteering abroad is not getting to know the culture well enough before starting to work within it. At the end of my stay, one of the things the teachers thanked me for the most was the fact that I took the time to get to know them. I worked with them, not over them, and I became one of their colleagues. This would not have been possible if I had planned on staying for less time. In this way and many others, the Christianson Grant certainly helped broaden my scope and give me an international understanding of current issues.
By becoming part of a community in which I was working and having the benefit of a long-standing project with years of experience to advise me, I began to see the flaws that often come along with short-term aid programs or quick-fix donations. Working within a community and not over them and being willing to put in the time and not try to make a quick fix of something is certainly vital to making a difference when working abroad.
Furthermore, because I was there long enough to see so many short term volunteers come and go, I realize how easy it was for someone to misunderstand a situation if they did not have time to get to know a place. Keeping an open mind is critical to all international work. These were things that I have always known in theory, but the Christianson Grant gave me the chance to see them in practice.
It gave me the experience to have specific examples of cultural misunderstandings, of aid gone wrong, of the openness of another communities, of the cross-cultural friendships that can flourish, and of the ways that someone willing to put in the time and effort can be of assistants to a community and can gain an incredible experience. I hope that I did some lasting good in the communities around Kibale National Park, but I know that this may never fully compare to the ways in which my life was affected by this experience. Thank you many times over to the Christianson Grant and the InterExchange Foundation for the funding you provided for this experience. With this opportunity, you have created someone that is devoted to a lifetime of international work and international education.