A first-time endeavor for six K-State students this summer may shed new light on a hot international issue.
Those six are going to Uganda to both serve people and conduct research on The Lord’s Resistance Army. The ten-week trip is being led by David Westfall, a PhD candidate in sociology.
Westfall has been to Uganda in 2010 and again in the summer of 2012. He said he’s always been drawn to Africa and developed an instant connection to the Ugandan people.
“I like to use the phrase, ‘The red dirt dyed my soul,’” he said. “Once you get in that red dirt, it’ll stay with you forever, and you’ll never get rid of it.”
Uganda received widespread attention in 2012 with the short film “Kony 2012,” which shed light on allegations of terrorism by the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader, Joseph Kony.
Many in the academic community felt the film misrepresented Kony’s presence in Uganda.
Westfall said Kony 2012 portrayed the people of Uganda in an unfair light as well. “From a western perspective, we often see or characterize sub-Saharan Africa as hopeless, helpless and voiceless,” he said. “The people will tell you right to your face they’re not hopeless, helpless or voiceless.”
Westfall said this trip is to help develop a more accurate picture of what’s happening in Uganda today. The goal is to use the research material in various publications and videos, he said.
Half of the summer would be spent interviewing families affected by Kony’s actions, asking about their perspective on what happened, what’s most important in their daily lives, and their needs.
The group will partner with Makerere University in Kampala — the largest and oldest university in Uganda — and Bead for Life, a poverty alleviation group that teaches highly impoverished women how to make beads.
The other half will be volunteering at the M-Lisada orphanage in Kampala. The orphanage, which was started in 1996 by eight street children, houses about 80 children at night and has about 150 during the day.
Westfall said students in his classes would always ask him about taking a group to Uganda. He frequently showed pictures and told stories about his Uganda experiences.
Toward the end of last semester, he said he came in contact with International Service Teams (IST), a service-learning program involving K-State students who serve globally during summer breaks.
“We will all be gone in a year,” Westfall said. “The creation of a new aspect of IST is something that can live on long after us here at K-State.”
The students going this summer are juniors Grant Kohlmeier and Chase Fortune, and seniors Anna Clary, Danielle Crossland, Maggie Burger and Cori Christopherson.
Clary said she was “very drawn” when Westfall talked about it. “I hope to come back and spread a true message of what we can do to help or maybe what we don’t necessarily need to do to help,” she said.
Fortune said he turned down a summer internship to go to Uganda. “It felt like one of those things you had to do, and I haven’t looked back since,” he said.
Crossland said she’s looking forward to the opportunity to bring what she’s learned at K-State to Uganda. As a culture and diversity advocate for the K-State housing and dining department, she said she enjoys getting informed about others’ backgrounds.
“Learning about other people’s cultural backgrounds, it gives me a happy feeling,” Crossland said. “We’re all different, but we almost have the same struggle.”
Christopherson said she initially blew it off due to the lack of time and money and it not being in her area of study. Obviously, she had a change of heart.
“I feel like a lot of people say you can help people in America, here in your backyard,” she said. “But I can’t find what weíre going to find there in my backyard. I’m sure of that.”
As can be expected, planning an overseas trip isn’t cheap. The total cost is $28,000, or $4,000 per person, for airfare to Uganda, and transportation, housing and basic necessities while in Uganda.
The group has applied for numerous grants and scholarships. Online donations can be made to the group by searching “Uganda 2013” at indiegogo.com. It is also having benefits from 7 to 10 p.m. Tuesday and May 16 at Purple Swirl, and at 7 p.m. May 4 at Bluestem Bistro.
Besides the airline ticket, the rest of the money will have an impact on the local economy in Uganda, Westfall said.
“Weíre not staying in fancy five-star hotels,” he said. “We’re staying in this community with victims, with highly impoverished people.”
Before the group departs for Uganda, there are numerous things they’ve needed to do this semester besides fundraising.
The team members are all enrolled in a three-hour course this semester to learn about the country such as language and the history of Uganda to figure out what to expect while in Uganda.
“The students do everything as far as picking the dates they want to go, looking up flights to get the best deals, and going to Lafene (Health Center) and setting up their vaccinations,” IST worker Kaitlin Long said.
They’ve also been engaging in team building exercises to get to know each other. Several of the members have been learning Swahili, the official language of the country along with English.
Afternoon meetings have been devoted to learning research methods on how to ask questions, record the answers and analyze the responses.
Clary said all of these steps have been necessary to help prepare for the trip. “It’s a large commitment, but youíre getting ready to go to a place youíve never been and experience a culture you’ve never experienced before,” she said.
The students said the preparation is helpful to remove some of the ignorance of Uganda before getting there. An example of that came when discussing wardrobe during a meeting.
Christopherson said she anticipated wearing “crummy, old clothes” she didn’t mind wearing a few days in a row. She said the instructor told the group that the Ugandan people donít have that approach to their clothes.
“They’re people who have jobs and families,” she said. “They want to look respectable and dress nicely. If that’s all you bring, youíre going to feel foolish wearing the same dirty shirt for three days.”
Kohlmeier said the instructor told them Christopherson’s initial mindset isn’t uncommon. “It just shows the American attitude of going over there,”he said.