Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Northern Uganda: a weekend trip to Gulu

The Uganda Studies Program takes the students on a number of trips throughout the semester where learning takes place in interesting and tangible ways. One such trip we take is to visit ‘the north,’ a region of the country that until 2008, was in the throes of civil war. You have likely heard about the Lords Resistance Army (the LRA), the rebel group that terrorized the north for 20 years, famous for their abductions of children, who they conscripted into their army to fight their war.

While the LRA is no longer active in northern Uganda, the trauma of the conflict still haunts many Ugandans. By visiting several different organizations in Gulu, students had the opportunity to learn not only about the history and the recent conflict, but to see and feel and experience hope! There is a lot of creative and restorative work being done to rebuild affected individuals and communities.

It was beautifully green up north, thanks to all the rain this season.

The first organization we visited, was ChildVoice International. Their mission is to restore voices of children silenced by war. They “build therapeutic communities creating a village of refuge for children and youth traumatized by conflict – war orphans, former child soldiers, or members of displaced families. Within the residential center, participants engage in a comprehensive array of activities designed to promote healing.” Counseling, education, life skills training, vocational training, and income generating projects are services that are provided or taught to the young women at ChildVoice International.

We were privileged to hear from the staff members who answered our many questions as they talked about their passion and commitment to the work they do. We toured the grounds and saw where the young women and their children live, we walked through the farmland they cultivate, visited their fish ponds, goats, pigs and bunnies, as well as the buildings where they learn various vocational skills. A highlight for the USP students was interacting with the young women in the program, as they danced and sang traditional songs.

USP students talk with staff members about their experiences working for Child Voice International
CVI staff member teaches USP students about their fishponds. 

Jimmy, carrying a jerry cans of water from the borehole on his head,
a skill that many Ugandans learn at a young age.

We also visited The Recreation Project, whose mission is inspiring youth to overcome fear and patterns of war through active healing experiences. These active healing experiences involve group activities on their low ropes course. The TRP staff led the USP students in several of these exercises, where they also had to trust and help one another in order to complete the life-sized puzzles. Through debriefing afterwards, students talked about the challenges and the significance of vulnerability and trust.

Mallory and Kendra, play a game at The Recreation Project in which they must be the first to shout the other person's name when the curtain is dropped between them. 

The Recreation Project uses team building activities to teach people important concepts like trust and courage. Our students needed to work together to accomplish their task of crossing the creek with only two boards.

Post-struggle, group hug!  
       As always, we are grateful to visit these organizations— for the opportunity to learn about the hope they inspire and the good work they do.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Engaging Difference - Reflections From USP's Social Work Coordinator

There is a social work academic core competence that sets the goal to “Engage diversity and difference in practice.” It’s further unpacked in these practice behaviors:
        recognize the extent to which a culture’s structures and values may oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create or enhance privilege and power;
        gain sufficient self-awareness to eliminate the influence of personal biases and values in working with diverse groups;
        recognize and communicate their understanding of the importance of difference in shaping life experiences; and
        view themselves as learners and engage those with whom they work as informants.

The Uganda Studies Program is marked by a pedagogy of praxis. We talk frequently about translating theory to practice, especially when it comes to student’s field education. Students often come to USP being able to recite these academic principles, but putting them in to practice is where the critical, exciting, and deeper learning takes place at USP. 

“I lived for a month in Honduras so I assumed that I had this figured out” is a comment I recently heard from a student. Part of cultural humility, another guiding concept that we use, is the understanding that we never really “have it figured out.” Engaging diversity and difference is HARD. It takes work. It requires a humility that often is not in our nature; so much so that when we aren’t practicing these principles, it can go largely unnoticed by the sympathetic crowd around us. But it seems that the stakes have never been higher in our society to grasp these core concepts of engaging in difference well, and being able to practice them in the communities where we live and work. 

How do we start building these formative experiences for students and ourselves? These are some features that have emerged from USP’s Social Work Emphasis:

The “we” and the “I”A place to start in this process is to recognize the importance of difference and the richness of diversity within our communities. There is a risk in speaking of unity as if distinctions are unimportant. African-American theologian, Ruby Sales explains well the need for unity and difference: “…we live in a very diverse world, to talk about what it means to be humans is to talk with a simultaneous tongue of universality and particularities. I need to talk about my experience as an African American but also about my experience that transcends the universality of humanity. We have to stop talking about humanity as if it’s monolithic, we’ve got to wrap our consciousness around a world where people bring to the world vastly different histories and experiences but at the same time a world that experiences grief, and love, in some of the same ways.  We need to develop theologies that join together the “I” with the “we”, and “we” with the “I”.”

The tension is real.  Our student’s thoughts, assumptions and ways of interacting in the world have been formed by an individualized culture. They live and work for 4 months with others who have been formed from a communal culture. This is perhaps one of the most significant differences that can cause confusion and conflict. “My roommate used my comb again!” and similar sentiments are often heard from students within the first few weeks of living in the dorms. “People kept stopping by the office and talking, I hardly got any work done!” is almost always a frustration among students who come from a culture that places productivity above just about anything else. To start to engage in these differences we have to acknowledge that they can be hard, uncomfortable, and require supportive environments to process through the differences with people further down the road.

Living in to the answers through relationships.  Understanding these, and many other differences, requires time and relationships with people to help us along the way. At USP we call these people our “monks” along this pilgrimage. What are the differences and how do I interact within those differences? These are questions that cannot be answered fully within the parameters of a semester, but can be explored in depth during intentional relationships with “the other”.

Providing opportunities to practice…and make mistakes. I will often say to students that their USP social work education began before they ever touched Ugandan soil. The lessons, particularly within the competency of engaging in diversity, extend well beyond their placements. Students live with Ugandan roommates and host families throughout the semester, in both rural and urban settings. They join choirs, sports teams and clubs where they are pushed to engage with students who have vastly different worldviews, and then process their experiences through classes and discussions. These are all opportunities to practice using their “cross-cultural muscles” in a context of learning and grace for a process made up of lots of small decisions. I love when students share their experiences of stepping outside their comfort zones and trying to speak a few words in Luganda, the local language, and having clients or coworkers shout with excitement at their small attempts at engagement and connection. Or when a student shows their effort to value what Ugandans value by keeping their muddy shoes clean and dressing “smart” – walls of difference break down as students embrace a different way.

Modeling the process.  USP staff live and work at Uganda Christian University within a very diverse staff. We are on our own learning curve with engaging difference and diversity. The experiences may not look exactly the same as students, but the need is even greater to strive to engage in diversity respectfully and with increasing self-awareness. One significant development in the Social Work Emphasis is our relationship with the UCU’s Social Work and Social Administration Department (SWSA). We are working towards joint placements where a USP student will be placed at a site along with a UCU SWSA student. We are also holding cross-cultural social work meetings where Ugandan and North American students have the opportunity to ask questions of one another, learning about “difference and diversity in practice.” 

Mr. Kasule, the head of the SWSA department here at UCU, and I are learning from each other in the process – trading ideas and getting feedback from one another from our different backgrounds and experiences. Together we are navigating how cultural difference shape practice and our teaching. As it is with students, my journey with Ugandan supervisors, faculty, and coworkers can be hard and different than what I may have expected. It requires the inner work of growing in humility and patience.  Even in the missteps and miscommunications, there is growth. And it is always worth it.

There is much that the next generation of social workers can contribute to our societies. But perhaps nothing more valuable than a respect for difference and a uniting of diverse communities marked by mistrust and miscommunication. We are in need of social workers who use their voices to advocate for peace in communities, understanding that it requires the building of relationships marked by time, hard work, and grace. Henry Nouwen says, “Confrontation always includes self-confrontation” -- We need humble leaders who have asked, and continue asking, the hard questions of themselves about their own prejudices, privilege and power and how that impacts the work of peace. We need future professionals who remember the benefits of their hard relationships during a semester studying in Uganda, and as a result, have built the tenacity to see the peace process through, even when it’s frustrating and we don’t understand one another. It’s why we ask students, “why was that so frustrating that she used your comb?” Because it’s not about the comb at all…it’s about building leaders that we are so desperate for.

UCU student Joshua, and USP student Kendra, discuss social work differences between Uganda and North America
Audrey with her Mukono host family
Lisa Tokpa, USP Social Work Coordinator, and Kasule Kibirige, head of the
UCU Social Work and Social Administration Department. 

USP SWE students with their field supervisors

This semester, we have four students in USP’s Social Work Emphasis. Each of these students is interning at a local organization where they are getting hands-on experience and are being supervised by Ugandan social workers. These students also participate in a weekly seminar class that is facilitated by USP’s Social Work Coordinator, Lisa Tokpa, MSW.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Rural Homestays: SERERE!!!

Road Trip...

Friday, October 14, 2016, USP rolled out of the parking lot fully loaded with energetic students ready to embrace the unknown of their week with their rural homestay families. Every semester USP students go for a 10-day rural immersion experience, which is aimed at giving them a more encompassing view of Ugandan culture. The Mabira forest and the spectacular Nile inspired us along the way. We were on our way to Serere!

When the road becomes a place and the place becomes a community which in turn becomes a home. 
-- Wendell Berry

Drop offs…

Students were dropped off with eager families, who would be their mother, father, brothers and sisters for the next week. 

Some of our students spend their week living in grass thatched huts at their homestays

Danielle Awabdeh is embraced by her host mom

Program Assistant, Talitha Witt, introduces current student Caleb Strom to his host family


Growing into the norms and lifestyles of their families is what the students embark on as soon as possible with openness and willingness to learn from the richness of the Ateso people. The students soon learn the routines of the home from sunrise to sunset which include digging with "no. 7" (the best hoe for this region), shelling ground nuts, milking cows, tying goats and sweeping the compound without forgetting long walks to visit ‘neighbors’. Working together with their families, their bodies earn callouses and sunburns; testament of their labors and cross cultural immersion. The students learn of the stories and histories of their families as they are lovingly knit into them.

Elle Arnold's host mom teaches her to peel matooke, a common local food

Audrey Anderson pounds ground nuts to make ground nut butter
Jamie Whitcher meets one of her neighbors

Joanna Saufley washes dishes after lunch


Sipi Falls is synonymous with beauty, with a view of Mt. Elgon and Lake Kyoga -- the perfect place to debrief the week together. Meditations and reflections emerge on faith, culture, love, community, family, education and poverty. We hike to the waterfalls as we weave through the communities similar to those in Serere, enjoying each other’s presence and that of the Sabiny people.

USP students hiking in Sipi 
The beautiful, Sipi Falls
Thank you to all our host families who welcomed us into their homes and families. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Alumni Post: Emily Senff, Fall 2013

One-Degree Changes
I was a part of the Uganda Studies Program in the fall of 2013. I walked into this semester ready for what I thought would be a life-changing experience; armed with the entire book list in my bag, a new camera, and a suitcase I had finished packing the day before, I stepped into an experience I had planned for and prayed over for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when, during orientation, the director told us that if we were expecting a "life-changing experience” that USP would not be the program for us. In it’s place, we would discover one-degree changes - small, but significant, changes to the way we experienced life.

Several key experiences really shaped my time as a USP student in Uganda. As a daughter, I stayed with a family that treated me as one of their own: the Ssentongos always extended such incredible patience and joy my way. As a practicum student at Compassion International’s Mukono Child Development Centre, I was able to witness the groundwork of an organization I have always admired. As a traveler, I experienced incredible awe and wonder during the thunderstorms of Sipi Falls and the sunrises of Bushara Island. As a student of our cohort, I learned about the power of shared experiences and what resolving differences in community looked like. So while there were both highs and lows, both inspiring moments and challenging ones, a quick look back on my experience makes me think of the big picture - of the stories I have carried with me and the way relationships have developed since the time that seems like yesterday and ten years ago at the same time.

Now, after three full years, I find myself reflecting on what stuck with me from this semester. We all have moments of our lives, what I’ve heard referred to as ‘tent pole moments’ - times that mark the end of one season and the beginning of another, ones that we refer back to as pivotal in our journey as life continues to ebb and flow. For me, my semester with USP was certainly a tent pole moment. I look on the semester and see how incredibly it was orchestrated, from the timing to the people involved, from the culture to the travel. I see how God met me there in a way I could have never planned on my own. Uganda, for me, was a time that God chose to pull me out of my comfortable, quiet life, and drop me into a place and a time where I could only thrive if I stepped outside of my comfort zone and felt what it was like to really experience love and life in a whole-hearted way.

A lot has happened since then. I graduated from Trinity Western University in 2014 with my BA in Psychology and a Human Services certificate. I went on to work various temporary jobs within the field, and last year found myself in a really wonderful position as an Outreach Mental Health worker in Community Mental Health. While grad school and travel are always on the horizon - and, in fact, the not so distant future - I see the beauty in making a home and a place right where I am. And so every day, I walk with people as they journey with chronic mental illness and I get to experience alongside them what it looks like for hope to come alive in tangible ways. It seems that every day, with or without realizing it, I borrow from the lessons learned during my four short months in Uganda. I find that my grasp for presence in my community is ever changing and growing, and I struggle with newer and deeper questions when I reread Henri Nouwen’s Compassion (a core USP reading) at least once in a year. In the day to day, I see that it always comes back to presence and fully being with the people God has placed in my path. Moment to moment, I try to listen like Papa and exude joy like Mama (my Ugandan host parents) and act as a place for those in my life to find rest and strength and hospitality and forgiveness. And in the times where I am faced with the unknown and I wonder just what God is up to next, I think of how His plans for us are immeasurably more than we could ever imagine. I remember how He pulled through in a big way when it came to my time with USP, and that gives me hope and faith that He can - and will - do it again. Through these uncertain moments, I realize that one-degree changes are not as insignificant as I first thought they might be; in fact, I think that’s where life shines the brightest.

With my Mukono host family, the Ssentongos
On rural homestays in Serere.  
Fall 2013 group photo at the start of the semester. 
Our group of students has stayed connected in one way or another - the last big event was the wedding of
two of our own this past summer; half of us were able to reunite for the big day.