Inside USD

Lessons from Uganda

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This reflection was written by Nathan Phillips ‘15. Phillips, who is majoring in finance with a minor in English, traveled to Uganda this summer.

In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Uganda for a service trip, and my time there kick-started my passion for the country. Last summer, I completed a 1400-mile bike ride from Washington State to San Diego and raised money for a nonprofit that works in East Africa (primarily Uganda) called Invisible Children. From June 26 to July 8 of this year, I was able to come full circle as I traveled to Uganda for a 10-night whirlwind adventure. I want to share a few of my experiences from the trip.

During the first two days, I worked primarily at the John T. Miller School. The word “work” should not be taken literally. Basically, I played soccer with a group of young kids. During the soccer, I was able to build a wonderful relationship with a boy named Raymond. He did not speak English well and I speak zero Luganda, so we bonded over soccer. To me, service trips are less about service than they are about building relationships. When I left that school at the end of the two days, I had a fast friend in Raymond. We needed no language in common. All we needed was a love for a simple game.

Also part of the trip was a three-day project to build a police station deep in the bush of the Luwero District. The locals looked skeptically at me when I arrived at the site. I am positive they thought I would be of no help. The main task was digging a foundation and the supervisor reluctantly handed me a shovel. I decided that by the end of the project, I would earn the respect of the locals by any means necessary. It all came down to hard work. Five blisters, four hours, four dirt mountains, and one sore back later, four local men successively came up to me and shook my hand in the traditional Ugandan way. The supervisor even invited me to “make a night of it” and leave my team to spend the evening with his family. I learned a valuable lesson: hard work and determination can bridge almost any gap.

As a final thought, I want to share one of the most eye-opening and impactful conversations I have ever had in my life. I visited Cornerstone Leadership Academy, one of the top schools in Uganda, and talked with an extremely bright young man named Frank. He spoke perfect English. As our conversation progressed, I asked him a question that has been on my mind since I first set foot on Ugandan soil over four years ago. I asked him what the typical Ugandan’s perception is of Westerners coming to Africa for so called “service trips.”

His answer was lengthy but I will share the two most important things he said to me. First, he told me that it is hard to see Westerners come in and focus purely on the poor communities and then bring back stories to the United States that only encompass a sliver of Uganda. The stories create a rotten perception of Uganda, when in fact it has the fastest-growing economy in Africa and the third-fastest in the world.

Secondly, he told me that he and other Ugandans strongly dislike Westerners coming in and taking pictures of random people without first building any sort of relationship with those people. The comparison he gave was powerful. He asked me how I would feel if a random foreigner walked on to my property and started snapping pictures of my children. I was very thankful that he was so open and honest with me.

I learned an incredible amount on my journey. I learned that sports and work ethic can break down walls and build sound relationships across cultural and linguistic barriers. Also, I think I learned the most important lesson of my life to this point: it is wrong to presume that the color of my skin or the name of the country on my passport gives me the right to act ignorantly and disrespect different peoples and cultures. Essentially, I learned the importance of putting my inherently imperialistic mindset behind and acting organically in a way that builds meaningful relationships instead of furthering divisions that should long be dead.

— Nathan Phillips ‘15

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