On Tuesday, May 4th, we heard from Daniela Papi, founder of Pepy, who spoke about the transition from service learning to learning service in development contexts. Today, Irish Impact’s own intern, Colleen Wade, a junior IT Management major, personally reflects on her summer service learning experience. Colleen spent last summer as a research intern in Nnindye, Uganda, representing the Center for Social Concern‘s International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP), the Ford Family Program, and the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. With the help of her research partner Sawula Paul, she developed a general business skills training program for members of SILC (Savings and Internal Lending) groups. She presented her research from the summer at the Human Development Conference this past February and hopes to include the training program in the development of a microfinance non-profit.
In his book Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice, Father Daniel Groody, C.S.C., wrote “Reality begins not with the terms of free-market enterprise or mass media, but with the experience of those who are poor, marginalized, and victimized.” Last summer, I was lucky enough to experience this reality.
For eight weeks, I worked as a Ford Family Program research intern in Nnindye, Uganda, as a part of Notre Dame’s International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP). My service learning experience was rooted in research determined through a participatory development model. With its extensive preparatory and reintegration reflection process, you would be hard-pressed to find a non-profit service learning program quite as comprehensive as the ISSLP. Though I left the country for the first time in my life with a “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” attitude, I came home with a much more mature and measured approach to both international development and my role in it.
When I first came to the village of Nnindye, I was struck by the development problems you would expect a virgin traveler to notice. Needing to walk or bike miles to reach water sources that were contaminated, eating the same one or two foods every single day, and lacking health care access were obvious problems that blew my mind. However, I came to realize that the people did seem fulfilled in many ways. Family ties between mothers and children appeared strong, and neighbors bonded together more so than mine did back in the United States. There were plenty of people that didn’t have a specific profession nor sold crops, but lived off of what they did grow. There were no mortgages or car payments to worry about; they simply wore the clothes they had and ate the food they grew. For a while, I questioned the need to “develop” a place where the simple things in life were cherished. However, I read a quote in one of my ISSLP-required readings, “Inclusive Globalization”, that said,
“Fulfilling the promises of an integrated and more secure world requires the political will – and concerted national and international action – to reduce these disparities. This is not primarily about charity, but about helping people develop capacities and opportunities to improve their own lives and communities in a lasting way.”
What these people were in need of was not just more money, food, or short-term health services. What they needed was a chance to develop capacities they had never imagined possessing. If they could do that, then opportunities for a better life would become available to them, opportunities they never previously considered.
Throughout the summer, I witnessed a community beginning to truly possess that capacity to both engage and aspire. When I went into the village to conduct interviews, I found men and women eager to share their preferences about what the training program should look like. One woman stopped everything she was doing one morning to sit outside on her front porch and answer our questions for over an hour. Another women crouched under a roof awning beside us in the pouring rain as we asked for her opinions on the program. My most vivid impression came from a group interview in which the members closed with a prayer that I might return before they died to implement the business training program we’d discussed. These people would not have spent the energy they did if they did not think that this training program would come to fruition. The community was engaged in my research because the Ford Family Program built on that system of participatory development. The people were the ones who were truly developing the training program; I was simply collecting their answers.
After reading critiques of service learning that claim it’s wasteful, destructive to the community, and only in the interest of the foreigner, I’ve come to assume that my research and community-based service learning experience must be a diamond in the ruff. Developing a business skills training program for the residents of Nnindye Parish made me want to be more than a business student who jetted off to a personally meaningless job after graduation. Instead, it engrained in me this belief expressed in Father Groody’s book: “True wealth consists not in the accumulation of goods, but in their distribution to others in need, not in having more but in being more.”