More than Just Service Learning in Kamuli Uganda

The cramped van had spent just under an hour navigating around small one-roomed houses that encrusted the road like potholes. Each house was built from handmade bricks using the soil from the area. Upon seeing each new person as the van bobbed and weaved on the road, the anticipation had mounted and nervous excitement washed over me like waves on a beach. For months prior to this moment we talked about what to expect when we arrived at the schools until we were blue in the face, but nothing could truly prepare me for the experience ahead. By now, my boots were stained a hue of red from the weathered and highly oxidized soils that clung to just about everything it touched. Already on the trip I had seen elephants close up and a lion stalking the grasses while on a safari, but those failed to compare to the scene when the van finally pulled in front of ​Nakanyonyi Primary School for the first time.

The school itself was built from the same red bricks as all the homes in the area. It consisted of two separate buildings; one hosted the small principal’s office and teacher’s lounge with a small classroom for the youngest pupils. The second building had 3-4 classrooms with large openings for windows and not nearly enough space for all the students attending the schools. ?there was no electricity, no tap water, and the absolute minimum for school supplies. If this building was in America it would be considered derelict, but here it was teaming with life.

Twenty-one of us college students, fourteen from Iowa State and seven from Makerere University (The largest university in Uganda), poured out of the two vans in front of the school before class had started for the day. A number of students were running around, playing games, working in the gardens, or talking with one another before they slowly began to realize we had arrived. At first it was a trickle but quickly the dam fell and it turned into a flood. The pupils started running towards us with huge excited smiles firmly painted onto their faces, shouting “Muzungu” (which means White Person in Swahili) and trying to get a better look at us while we did the same. Soon enough we were engulfed in a sea of smiling faces that formed around us. The moment was overwhelming.

The reason we had all taken two eight-hour plane rides and traveled over 8,000 miles was because we had been selected for the CALS Service Learning trip to Kamuli, Uganda. The program has been sending Iowa State students to Kamuli for over 10 years to help out the surrounding rural communities. Each of us was paired up with a Makerere student to help us teach and to work on our larger project, which ranged from forestry and irrigation to health and poultry. Georges William, my Makerere University partner, and myself were in charge of tackling the irrigation project, which presented its fair share of troubles.

Our goals were to teach the pupils and teachers how to use a human powered pump called a treadle pump. The pump was capable of using water from a small reservoir that captured lost water from a nearby well and irrigating the school gardens. We also decided we wanted to create a rain harvesting system that would capture the rains to also be used on the gardens. Many days we would have a plan of what we wanted to accomplish and start bright eyed and bushy tailed to usually find out we didn’t have the supplies we needed, or had the wrong supplies all together. When this happened Georges and I would alter our plan, get done what we could on our own project, and help out with the other awesome projects, but eventually we did finish our project.

I must admit, at first I thought I had accomplished something great by completing my project. However, I’ve come to realize Nakanyonyi Primary School, and the people that lived there, have had a much bigger impact on my life than I did theirs. I set off with the inspiration to make a difference and help out however I could, which I did, but I learned so much more about myself and how to better help those who need it. I could not fathom the hospitality of the people around Nakanyonyi Primary School. Despite not having much by the standards we’re used to here, they would still try to offer you whatever they could to make you feel as a welcomed guest in their homes. I learned many things on this trip, like how to properly thrash amaranth, how to repair a fence, that holding hands with your friends is the norm, and what will stick with me the most is that happiness doesn’t come from how much stuff you have or what you own, it comes from something else entirely. 

All of the people that watched us drive by in our vans each day would smile as small children ran towards the vans waving and shouting “Muzungu”. Each day at the schools the children were filled with laughter and happiness. This seemed impossible to me at first, how people with so little could seem so happy when at home I’m stressed out because I’ve got three papers and two exams to study for instead of being grateful I get to attend college.  

Despite the culture shock, homesickness, actual sickness, and the other emotions I faced, I would absolutely do it again. I’m very grateful to have had this experience and would recommend anyone and everyone to apply for this trip. There is so much to learn about the world, and yourself, and the best ways to do so is travel and throw yourself at new experiences. 


Mitch S.