Leave and learn

Leading up to my Winter Study trip to Uganda, I was ambivalent, anxious and worried. I was excited about the prospect of seeing what international non-profit work was like, but this feeling was overshadowed by the paralyzing fear I felt about the implications of my privilege abroad and the colonialist connotations of a westerner traveling to an African country to “provide aid.” Non-governmental organizations do not have the best track record in developing countries because they often enter a society that they do not understand to try to fix problems of which they have no real grasp. I was scared of being typecast as a “voluntourist” and of ending up doing more to harm to a society that had already suffered. Ultimately, however, my deep-seated fears turned out to be completely unnecessary and proved only that I was engaging critically with the work.

Professor Kiaran Honderich, who led the Winter Study class, has been involved in AIDS activism in a variety of ways for over 20 years and has taken students to Uganda as part of Winter Study for over 10 years. She has a great grasp of the failures of non-profits abroad and understands the dangers of swooping into a developing country to free the people from all afflictions as the “white savior.” She has also built a multitude of genuine connections on the ground and worked with different organizations on a variety of different projects.

During our Winter Study, Williams students worked with pairs of Ugandan youths to help the latter create business proposals that would receive funding. We sought to establish a foundation that would act as an incubator for these partnerships. Small business loans with flexible repayment and no interest would be given to the partnerships, and this money would then be used to establish a new round of partnerships in the coming years. All the while, the organization would provide support for these new business owners as they learned the skills necessary to run their businesses successfully.

The Ugandan partners ranged from ages 18 to 28 and included those who identified as transgender, HIV-positive, sex workers and single mothers. Their defining characteristic, however, was that they were all involved in HIV advocacy or activist work. Securing a steady source of income for such people is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty that prevails among those who are HIV-positive and to giving them more time to dedicate to their activism.

Over the project’s course, we had extensive discussions with our Ugandan partners about the terms of the organization, how we might best utilize our time together and what would be expected of each group in its proposal, which was a radically different environment than what I’d been taught to expect from classes at the College. I was so pleased to find that instead of being perceived as egocentric, rich Americans that had come to impose rules of conduct and standards on a different country, we were given the opportunity to hear directly from the very people we were trying to uplift and empower on what would be most beneficial and realistic for them. It was not as if we were “giving aid”; rather, we were working alongside the Ugandans to support their goals.

Our role was to ensure that the partners had the strongest case for making their business a reality. Our goal was to empower these youth to understand their own agency and ability, which can often be stripped away by careless handouts from non-profit organizations. Our goal was not to mindlessly throw money at the youth, but to set them up for success by ensuring that they had carefully calculated the benefits and risks of their businesses.

My Winter Study experience was enriching beyond anything I could have imagined. It taught me to be flexible, to go with the flow and to keep more realistic expectations of what work outside the Purple Bubble looks like, which can be easy to forget as an uptight College student. If the College is setting out to provide a liberal arts education, going to Uganda was like a final exam. It challenged me and my understanding in ways sitting in class never had. I hope the foundation is successful going forward in empowering and propelling other Ugandan youth towards success. Moreover, I hope the College continues to support the work that people like Professor Honderich are doing, work that allows students to have intensive learning experiences in how to conduct sustainable, empowering development work.

Paula Mejia ’17 is from Miami, Fla. She lives in Mark Hopkins.