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Experiencing life in Jinja, Uganda

| Tuesday, September 12, 2017

When it comes to a culture, place, person’s life, faith or even yourself, there’s always room to dig deeper. The first day I walked down the main strip of Bugembe in the Jinja District of Uganda, I naively kept my eyes down. I watched my feet as I stepped over large gaps in the road and tried to ground myself in the broken gravel and red dirt. When I wasn’t watching my feet, I was taking hurried glances along the road, searching for zooming motorcycle taxis or unforeseen cars. I avoided eye contact with adults, trying to deter any locals from yelling “mzungu (foreigner) bye bye” or prices of their unique merchandise.

A week into traveling the same uphill route to my classroom of determined 5th grade students caught in a struggling education system, my eyes were fully open and scanning my surroundings. Everything around me still amazed me and challenged me in new ways but sights became normal. I was not surprised by the loose chickens and pregnant goats that roamed the streets or the clusters of toddlers that joyously sang “Oh mzungu bye bye, can I have a biscuit?” after me, as they did to all foreigners. I felt settled. Until one afternoon walk home, I noticed that every day, twice a day, I had passed a lumber yard. At least 14 times I had walked directly past mounds of wooden planks and not once had I taken notice of them. Life was beginning to feel normal, yet I still had so much to learn and to notice.

A month into my daily 25-minute walks to and from from St. Andrew’s Primary School, I avoided familiar pot holes and, when appropriate, greeted people with “Hello” as we passed each other. Occasionally, the local priest or a friend from Holy Cross would drive past and offer me a ride. My sense of belonging in Bugembe was cultivating itself as time passed.

One Saturday afternoon, as I sped past fresh chapati (warm bread) stands, bota bota drivers and businesses — determined to get home after a long day at school — I heard my name. I turned around to see one of my students. She sheepishly said hello and told me of how she worked at her aunt’s store and lived in the slums around the corner from where I lived. She spoke. I listened. I invited her to come over for snacks if she ever wanted to say hello. Six weeks spent walking along the same familiar road, and I did not know that I had passed my student multiple times. Over the course of my summer teaching in Uganda, I had walked the same route at least 75 times to and from school. I finally felt at home, but I still had an incredible amount to learn about the sights around me that I walked past each day.

I spent my summer putting myself in the new environment of Uganda and in the new role of an outsider, for all of its benefits and burdens. My experience taught me to never to be settled. Whether it be a culture, place, person’s life, faith or oneself, there is always more to learn. It is only when a person is challenged or humbly pursuing unknown knowledge that growth can occur.

During my ISSLP, I spent most of my time helping out and teaching at St. Andrew’s Primary School, Lake View Secondary School and St. Ursula’s School for the Mentally Handicapped. Having just finished my second year at Notre Dame and having never traveled across an ocean, I went into my ISSLP wanting to learn and form relationships. I knew that the biggest way I could make an impact in my placement was to learn and listen. As time went on, I realized how important it was to keep this mindset instead of trying to completely settle into where I was at and unintentionally cutting myself off from opportunities of learning. Whether it was being misunderstood by my coworkers or questioning my purpose of being in Jinja, I learned to welcome all challenges through the end of my ISSLP. While I did not realize it as it happened, the culmination of those challenges helped me to grow in confidence, independence, wisdom and faith.

Acknowledging that I had much to learn gave me more confidence to explore relationships and new places. Coming back to America, I realized that I had a newfound independence to place myself in new situations and sit my thoughts in new ideas. I have gained wisdom about concepts as large as the country of Uganda and as specified as my quiet student in the second row who loves to draw. Stepping outside of my comfort zone has helped me not only to rely on those around me, but also to rely on God. I know that he goes before me in all that I do. It is my hope for all people to be aware of what they do not know in order to make room for growth, to never be so comfortable as to be stagnant in their cultural or personal growth and to always be pursuing knowledge and relationships.

Noelle Pierce


Sept. 11

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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