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Nothing like a sunrise safari at the equator. It may have been winter back here in Plumas County, not so in Uganda.

Uganda trip changes perspectives and plants seeds for future exchange

Plumas County students make new friends in Kanungu, Uganda. Photos submitted

All who wander are not lost, so the saying goes. In the Bantu language, there’s a word for those travelers of fair skin to the continent of Africa — Mzungu!

The word dates back to the 18th century and applies to “white” women and men travelers to the region. Mzungu. “Someone who roams around aimlessly.” At the beginning of trip abroad, any of the participants on the trip may have agreed with that.

It was indeed the trip of a lifetime — but it hasn’t ended just yet. If anything, it’s just begun. The nine students and three adult chaperones on the Uganda trip led by Indian Valley Academy with students from Quincy High School, Plumas Charter and IVA has come to a close, but it’s already reshaping the way the students are thinking.

“Uganda was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Each and every one of us wish we could return to the amazing people and community of Kanungu. What can I say? I fell in love. Sure we had cold showers, and were continents away from our original homes, but we all found a new one,” said Julianne Cook, one of the students who went on the trip.

Since their return two weeks ago, Cook and the other students on the trip have been busy giving presentations around the county about the three projects they started in Uganda and their plans for cultural and economic exchange with Kanungu in the future. They’ve also been readjusting to life back home.

When they arrived in Kanungu in late March, a few of them had never left the country. Now, with multiple plane changes, they’ve been to Rwanda and Uganda.

As the students settled back into Plumas County, Indian Valley Academy Director Sue Weber reflected on the trip and plans for the future.

“We went over with three projects to implement: the preschool, the rabbit project, and the goats and were able to accomplish all three,” said Weber.

The table is set for a last banquet dinner in Uganda.

The work to sustain the preschool, raising rabbits for protein and introducing dairy goats for milk and soap making had begun before they ever set foot in Uganda.

Ugandan diets have included goat meat before, but the concept of dairy had not been introduced. The group from Plumas County taught milking and cheese making. Five dairy goats in Uganda can feed 340 children. Plumas County youth, who are familiar with using what you have to build, built goat pens, too.

Even though the students may be used to rural living, Ugandan rural living was a whole other concept. Somehow, six kids were able to get 45 rabbits from point A to point B in one vehicle without any cages. Such moments awakened the group; they weren’t in Northern California anymore. But bringing the rabbits to Kanungu was essential. Feeding Ugandan children some rabbit three times a week adds major protein to a protein deficient diet.

One of the early highlights was teaching Ugandan elementary school children how to play American baseball. The group had collected equipment they brought with them for just such an endeavor.

“It was hysterical and fun to watch,” Weber said.

The students from Plumas also had a window into a completely different school system. In Uganda, it’s common for 40 to 50 kids to sit in a classroom where the expectation is rote memorization of facts and figures. Straight delivery. The teachers come in and the students take down what they’ve said word for word. Thirteen subjects a day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a couple of breaks. It was a bit of a culture shock. But so was the friendliness.

“In Uganda it’s uncommon to not wave to each other. In Uganda, people come up and hold your hand almost as an extra assurance of their love. We all left with new friends and began to understand … our problems are so small and theirs are so fundamental, but they are still happy,” said Cook.

That’s just one of the many lessons in cultural exchange learned by the nine teens who spent three weeks hanging out with Great Lakes High School students in Uganda.

“You could see the kids changing and learning before your eyes,” Weber said. Weber added she was “surprised and so floored” that the students were so open to the experience and that no one sat back and all remained engaged. She recalled them having to physically walk across the Rwanda/Uganda border crossing to get passports stamped and inspected. The walk took roughly half a mile and the kids looked a little uncertain at first. “When we crossed the second time on the way back it was like they’d been doing this all their lives,” Weber said.

Great Lakes High School students catch on quickly to milking dairy goats.

The students were also impressed with how far the dollar can stretch in the developing world. Through a grant from the Plumas Chapter of Bread for the Journey, the students were able to work on their preschool project.

“One thousand American dollars in Kanungu is huge. So big that it keeps a preschool open all year, that feeds their students maybe the only meal they will get that day,” said Cook.

The students spent the bulk of their time working with the preschool, and dairy goat and rabbit projects, but also had time to visit coffee plantations and other agricultural endeavors. They also had a microloan project where they listened to business plans and helped finesse loans to local business people to start up small companies.

“[There’s] so much hope there. The country itself. Beautiful. Pearl of Africa is stunning. Agriculture everywhere. The challenge is they are so poor and everything is by hand and not efficient,” said Weber.

Weber and others expressed the idea that Ugandans welcomed innovation, but are careful not to destroy the culture and community. The Plumas students impressed Weber even though she knew them well beforehand.

Toward the end of their trip,  they also had a three-day safari and stayed on an island on the last night between Lakes George and Edward. They were dying to finally swim. The entire time they’d been in Uganda, they hadn’t been able to. Most lakes either had a parasite issue or hippos, or perhaps both.

The trip, however, appears not to be a one-off trip. It is Weber’s intention that the Great Lakes High School in Kanungu will become a full partner to keep the economic and cultural exchange going. Right now, however, most of that is in the planning stages. Weber would love to see Uganda students coming here in an exchange. She wants those students on the trip who were juniors, to step up and be team leaders on next year’s trip.

There were all sorts of adventures too. A car getting stuck in the great craters of potholes on the dirt roads. A prom proposal in puns made into a song on a tour bus. A worrisome hike. An upset stomach that made its way through the participants to varying degrees. An elephant about to charge a bus. No one got homesick though. It was about changing lives.

This makeshift preschool room typifies the common classroom in Uganda.

“I think the seniors came away with some educational and possible career decisions,” said Weber.

The change was infectious. One of their bus drivers remarked that he’d never had a bus that he drove that was more fun. Never met people as kind and thoughtful as the bunch from Plumas County.

Right now, the students are busy with thank you notes. They’ve submitted a video to a business summit. They still want to help.

“There’s a lot we can do to partner. The cost of the trip was $36,000 for 12 people. We want to build and take on more,” said Weber. They’d like to see a student center and library at the high school and university there. In the next few months, Weber and others affiliated with the trip will discuss how to make it an even stronger experience and the projects more sustainable.

One student has plans to return; another wants to major in nursing.

“Clarity on what they wanted to do. What’s important and what’s not so important,” said Weber. “I now have another home in this world and hope to make many more, said Cook.

Mzungu, no more.

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