In 1968, a Catholic priest living in Mexico gave a speech to a group of college students preparing to spend a summer volunteering in Mexico. Monsignor Ivan Illich did not give the type of speech one might expect in such a situation. It was not a speech commending the students for their selflessness; it was quite the opposite. Ivan Illich’s proclaimed purpose was to challenge the students to “recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good,’ which you intend to do.” He declared “to hell with your good intentions” and continued on with a scathing criticism of “vacationing do-gooders” coming to his country. The ramifications of paternalism or the unconscious “sale of Western ideals,” Illich argued, are too great to justify the volunteers’ time there. These students, he claimed, were so far removed from the situation in Mexico that they couldn’t possibly know what’s best for the community.
I read this my freshman year in college and have struggled with some of his sentiments ever since. I think, to an extent, I have been able to reconcile with some of Illich’s arguments. His criticisms are probably a little too extreme. He was an idealist and radical thinker; compromise or moderation wouldn’t have been nearly as convincing. Nevertheless, the core of his message is something I keep reminding myself. Of course I want to help my organization in any way I can. I think that like everyone else in my organization, I have skills that can help work towards the mission of my organization. But who am I, or any other Westerner coming into Uganda, to say we know what is best for this country? Obviously, I can’t say that I know; I recognize that as an outsider I can’t possibly know the problems Uganda faces or the innovative solutions necessary to solve them. My intentions for coming here are, honestly, more selfish than anything else. I am here to intern, experience, and learn.
It’s been about three weeks since I’ve gotten to Kasese, Uganda and I am getting settled in to both my organization and my town. I am interning with Action for Community Development (ACODEV)- Uganda serving as the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) intern. ACODEV works specifically in the program areas of Human Rights; HIV/AIDS; and Child and Reproductive Health, implementing numerous programs in each area. As the M&E intern, I get to, monitor the projects being implemented and evaluate whether or not the projects are successful. In essence, based on indicators that ACODEV develops, I assist in seeing what works, what doesn’t, and based on the data, figure out why the results are the way they are.
I’ve gone out to the field to collect data a couple of times and have helped develop indicators to help track the progress of some of the projects we implement. For instance, we want to see whether the vocational center ACODEV runs is having an impact on its students. So, we will develop indicators like whether or not the students have found jobs in their respective fields after graduation. It’s pretty straightforward work, but does require its fair share of creative and critical thinking. When I’m not busy with M&E work, I assist with the resource mobilization of ACODEV. What that means is that I help develop and edit proposals for grants: a primary way in which ACODEV receives income.
Despite its violent history speckled with human rights abuses, friendliness appears to be a national value in Uganda. It could be because I look different, but everyone greets me with a “Hello. How are you?” Also, handholding is definitely a thing. It doesn’t connote anything romantic here, so I have had many a full conversations holding the hand of whomever I am talking to-- both men and women. Although the primary language spoken here is Lukonzo, I can get by just fine with English, unless we travel to the more rural areas; then I need a translator. It’s only been three weeks, but I can already tell that the two months that I have left are too short. I’ve made new friends here. I joke with my coworkers. I’ve made plans to explore this beautiful country for the next two weekends. I miss home, sure, but I can’t imagine leaving two months. It’s still a lot of time and I am beyond excited for the experiences that I will have in the future.
During our most recent office meeting—and probably my last—I informed the staff here that I will be leaving our regional office in a few days. It’s crazy for me to think about and it took my coworkers by surprise. After the meeting, one of my coworkers, Rebeka, came up to me and said “Ah! You’re time has been short. It must be because we like you. If we didn’t, it would seem like you’ve been here forever.” The same sentiments can be applied to my own time here. It’s a cliché thing to say, but it’s cliché because it’s often true: time has flown by. My role while I’ve been here has been somewhat organic. Officially, I am the monitoring and evaluation intern. And I have worked with the M&E team by monitoring project implementation and evaluating our programs’ effectiveness in regards to their intended goals. However, M&E hasn’t taken up all of my time. I’ve assisted the communications department by taking pictures at field visits and I’ve had the opportunity to work on some resource mobilization by means of grant proposals and project development. Because my role has been spontaneous, I think I gained a fuller picture of how a grass-roots development NGO operates. My time here has provided countless experiences that I won’t soon forget—both personally and professionally.
Professionally, I’ve worked in the office, seeing how an NGO runs. Seeing how ACODEV receives funding, remains accountable to donors, evaluates program objectives, and plans project implementation has been enlightening. It’s these sorts of behind-the-scenes things that make the organization run and don’t make it on the Facebook page or success stories. But, I’ve also been able to do some fieldwork while I’ve been here. I’ve helped facilitate dialogues between HIV-positive women’s groups, taken part in Village Health Team trainings on adolescent sexual reproductive health, and checked in on program beneficiaries of ACODEV’s vocational center. This is the kind of work that I envision when I think of development work: working and connecting directly with the beneficiaries. Doing fieldwork allowed me to see firsthand the situation on the ground. Whether that be the difficult decisions being made by marginalized communities or understanding the cultural and social stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS or even contraceptives. Simply put, working at ACODEV has provided an experience that I wouldn’t have been able to get behind a desk. I could study development theories and concepts for years at school, but be so ignorant to what was actually happening without being here myself. As St. Ignatius espoused, learning and solidarity best take place through contact with marginalized communities, not concepts.
Personally, I have grown by leaps and bounds as well. I continue to be fascinated by humans’ ability to adapt. It’s my last day at the office today and during lunch (I slaughtered a chicken!) I read the journal entries I had written on the first days here. Reading about my struggles with cold showers, mosquitoes, and hand-washing my laundry seemed funny now. I’ve only been here for two and a half months, but all those things aren’t novel circumstances of living in a developing country anymore; they have become the norm.
My three months here have been difficult and inspiring. I’ve learned tons. I’ve made lasting friendships with Ugandans and mzungus alike. While I of course miss home, I am equally as disappointed to be leaving so soon. Three months is a cruel time; just when I feel like a part of the community, it’s time to go home. Regardless, I have no regrets about this experience and will keep the countless memories I created in the Pearl of Africa home with me.