By Aries Rutledge
My name is Aries Rutledge and I am a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. This spring, I studied abroad in Uganda with the Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU) Program. As I began this experience, I knew very little about Uganda, the language, customs, and what was to come during the (4) weeks I would be there. I was both nervous and excited to embark an intercultural experience in which I could learn from being an active member of the community, as opposed to reading textbooks and observing from the outside like in a traditional classroom setting.
Uganda is one of the most beautiful and underrated countries in world. The program was located in the city of Kampala, which is the biggest city in Uganda and known as the city built on seven large hills. Kampala is also known for being rich in history and contains some of the most diverse cultures in the world. To my surprise, Uganda did not fit the typical depiction of Africa that I have always seen in media. While the country maintains the rich natural beauty of Uganda, it still has some modern attributes that resemble many American cities. Kampala, known for its crazy taxipark, was full of heavy traffic jams and people zooming by in “bouda boudas” (which are like dirt bikes). One noticeable difference that took me by surprise was seeing monkeys running around the lawn instead of squirrels! The local markets are outdoors and very busy with people selling many items including clothing, fruits, and live chickens.
One of my favorite moments during this experience was when our group visited the Murchison Falls National Park. We went on several game tours, which allowed us to drive through the safari and get up close and personal to the animals. At one point, our tour guide’s truck got stuck in a ditch and several of us had to get out and push it (right after a lion walked by)! It was astonishing to see all of the animals in their natural habitats, as opposed to behind the enclosed gates at a zoo. Additionally, we took a boat tour on the Nile River and saw one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls!
Through the program, I had the great fortune of living with a host family. I was anxious to learn as much as I could about the Ugandan culture to have a better understanding, but I also didn’t want to appear too intrusive or ask a question that would offend my host family. To my surprise, they were equally interested in learning more about living in America, so it turned into a mutual learning experience. Everyone understood that the questions derived from our lack of knowledge of each other’s culture. In addition, living in my host family’s home was my first time living with someone other than my own family, so at times I felt uncomfortable, but I learned that being a leader is all about being able to take on roles you are unfamiliar with and making the most out of them.
While in Kampala, my peers and I volunteered at Watoto’s Village of Hope, which is an organization that aims to decrease the number of abandoned children in Uganda and give them a place to call home and the skills to become future leaders. Our role in the community was to work in the Baby’s Home, which consisted of children from newborn to 2 years old. On my very first day, I quickly realized I didn’t even know how to change a diaper! Throughout the day, I faced several obstacles while caring for the babies, including getting puked on! Although I was inexperienced in caring for babies, I would not let frustration get the best of me and knew I had to overcome this challenge. This experience has taught me the value of patience and persistence because over time, I became much more comfortable in my new role. During our free time, we often took walks around the neighborhood and visited the playgrounds and basketball court to play with some of the older children in Watoto. Interacting with the children and mothers of Watoto taught me about the effortless joy of life and they showed me how to take advantage of opportunities to create stronger bonds with the people around me.
In the past, I have had the pleasure of touring several countries; however, those experiences simply do not compare to the extent of learning I gained through living as a Ugandan. Through this wonderful opportunity, I feel like I came back as a new person and gained valuable lessons on leadership that have a lasting impact on my life. I learned about being comfortable with the uncomfortable and pushing myself to learn outside of my comfort zone. For the first time in my life, I experienced true feelings of gratefulness and realized how very fortunate I am. Above all, my time in Kampala has been a life changing experience and has shown me how gratifying it is to give back.