In planning my sabbatical, I knew I needed a change of geographic scene but these last three weeks in Uganda have been more than I could have imagined.

I came to Uganda with the Interethnic Health Alliance (IHA) out of Salt Lake City, Utah.  I had been introduced to John Shavers, IHA founder through networking and informational interviews during the start of my sabbatical.  John has been coming to Uganda twice a year for about a decade, providing grassroots community-based development projects in rural communities. Most the communities IHA serves are in southern Uganda surrounding Tororo, Iganga, Masaka and Bussi Island.

On this trip IHA also had plans to head to the northern part of the country to visit the Rhino Refugee Camp in the West Nile region to assess needs and explore where IHA might be able to lend a hand. The refugee camp part of the trip is what grabbed my interest. It fit right in with my sabbatical goals to meet with refugees and look at progressive forms of sustainable resettlement.

The volunteer work with IHA was a challenging, rewarding and informative immersion into community life in rural Uganda. It felt good to be out of the office to apply my engineering skills in more practical and direct ways.  More importantly, firsthand accounts from villagers on the front lines of climate change helped me to put the issues of vulnerable populations in developing countries more sharply into focus.


 Women hold up half the sky – Mao Zedong

In their non-fiction book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Kristof, 2010), Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn present a compelling case for stopping the oppression of women worldwide through improved health care, education and economic empowerment.  I got to see these powerful tools at play first hand in rural Uganda where women hold up much more than just half the sky.  Through IHA we met with over thirty women’s microloan groups across four communities.  More than a third of these women are the heads of their household without a male partner and nearly two-thirds are raising orphaned children in their homes in addition to their own children – six children on average per household. Bonding together on microloans to finance small agri-businesses, these women have worked with IHA to also implement sustainability projects into their children’s schools.  They’re eager and appreciative of family planning services and ensuring their health and wellbeing and those of their community members.

Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller – Ibn Battuta

Among the hundreds of women and nearly 1,000 school children I met along the way, a handful of women stood out as role models for me and beacons of hope in the communities they serve.  More to follow on people profiles, but for now a quick shout out these amazing women of Uganda – each with amazing stories of overcoming odds through education and empowerment:

  • Stella Omuse, Field Manager, IHA
  • Lillian Thando Naluyima, IHA Board Member, Ugandan studying medicine at Salt Lake Community College
  • Kim Koeven, IHA Board Member and Uganda Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
  • Annette Kearl, IHA volunteer and musical therapist
  • Penelope Pinning, IHA volunteer and adoptive single mother of 10
  • Beatrice Achieng Nas, founder Pearl Community Foundation and Portland School
  • Grace – aunt of Stella and member of Kayora Women’s Group
  • Rebecca Namirembe, IT service provider for IHA – conversations about Girls Who Code and ways to empower more women students in Uganda into non-traditional careers
  • Agnes – microloan leader at God is Grace
  • Nia – Peace Corps Volunteer in Tororo
  • Irene – Hope Schools and microloan leader, Bussi Island
  • Precious – daughter of Charles/Irene – college graduate in international business
  • Patricia – daughter of Charles/Irene – college student
  • Carol – Stella’s sister – studying economics at Macquere University

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world -Gustav Flaubert

Traversing the country also presented plenty of time to soak in the landscape, enjoy the wildlife seen from the roadside, especially on the drive back to Kampala through Murchison Falls National Park.  It was helpful to find contemplative car time to process the experience. I’m off to Rwanda today for more adventure and to process and digest my time in Uganda.  More travel updates to follow.  To the future!