Back from Africa - Hilgerson has life-altering trip

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Central graduate and current Iowa State University student Shana Hilgerson is pictured with some pupils at Namasagali Primary School, Uganda, where Shana recently spent six weeks.

Editor’s note: In mid-June, we told you about 2015 Central High School graduate Shana Hilgerson who was part of an Iowa State University team headed to Uganda for six weeks. Shana, daughter of Scott and Suzy Hilgerson, returned July 23 and shared her thoughts on the trip

What are your overall impressions of Africa?

Uganda is a beautiful country.  Everything is so green because of the tropical climate. The people were all very friendly. The only thing that was a little off-putting at first was the soil, its red, but I got used to it. The people all work very hard for what they have and love life- they are always smiling. And the kids are amazing! They want to be in school so much and love to sing and dance, and always demand we teach them new songs.

How did you communicate with your family during your absence?

I didn’t have access to a phone that networked back to the states so the only contact I had with my parents was messaging over Facebook or email when the Internet was up. We had one laptop that we all took turns using. We had each other to talk to and activities to keep us occupied so we didn’t spend much time online even when it was up and running. There were phones that (we could use) to contact our families if there was an emergency but we didn’t have to use (it for that purpose) this summer.

What are some of the projects/assignments/duties you had while there?

The Iowa State students were paired up with Makerere students from Kampala, Uganda, to work on individual projects such as grain storage, health and sanitation, bee keeping, or my project, irrigation. We collaborated with the other students and professors advising us on goals and how to accomplish them within our time frame and budget. A few things we did was install gutters to the roof of a kitchen to collect rainwater that was funneled into a drum for the cooks to use, dug a man-hole drainage pit to stop erosion from the base of a water tank, installed covers over the spigot of above-ground water tanks to prevent water theft at a couple of the schools, and watering a lot of plants! We didn’t get everything done that we wanted to, but were able to help out a lot in many areas.  

The projects were carried out at three primary schools and one secondary school in the Kamuli district. At these schools we also taught classes to Primary 5 and Primary 6 (roughly equivalent to 5th and 6th graders in the U.S.)  I taught Agriculture to P6 with a Makerere counterpart to help me with the language barrier and adjust to the teaching style in Uganda. Our topic to cover in four weeks was cattle keeping, which was neat because then I got to learn about their cattle industry while teaching it to the pupils. 

When we weren’t teaching we spent time in the school gardens, which were more like fields.  Each school had a good chunk of land they used for growing eggplants, collards, onion, bananas, papaya, mangos, and grain amaranth that they feed to students or sell to buy food for students. We did everything from making nursery beds to transplanting seedlings to fertilizing trees while we were there. On other days we would spend time visiting local farmers and seeing how they operate their farms and learn about their system while helping them with a special task.  Some things we did was thresh beans, re-side a chicken coop, transplant cabbages, and weed a lemon seedling orchard.  

How did your environment (i.e., a non-first world country) challenge your work there?

The biggest challenge we faced was lack of communication. Not everyone had access to a cellphone and no one had a landline so it was hard to get in touch with some people. Another issue was lack of infrastructure. Roads were in bad shape, making it hard to travel anywhere or transport materials. Also not everyone owned a car or motorcycle to get around. There was electricity where we lived but almost nowhere where we were working. The income of the families was also very low, and the schools were supposed to serve as models for the community. So anything we implemented at the schools we had to be simple and cheap enough for the members of the community to copy and implement at home, which was limiting.  

What were the best and most challenging aspects of the trip?

One of the best things of the trip was being able to fully immerse ourselves in the experience.  We lived with a group of students from Makerere University who were able to answer questions we had and teach us a lot about the country. We learned how to play a popular card game called Matatu, which we played every night and even sometimes at lunch if someone remembered a deck of cards. Matatu, Euchre, and Bananagrams were a few of the games we played a lot, and it was how we all really got to know each other. It also helped that none of our phones were connected to the Internet or had service in the area so we had to talk to spend time with each other and weren’t constantly distracted by what was happening at home.  

One of the most challenging aspects of the trip was lack of communication. Most of us lived together, but trying to get in contact with team members from the fieldhouses was a struggle or trying to get ahold of someone when we were out in the field was also hard.  Their cellular companies don’t work together so a lot of people have to have two phones, one for each company, and even then getting service is hard. Hopefully a lot of issues will be solved with the construction of a new compound where all the Iowa State and Makerere students can live together. A plan has been made and we started planting a living fence made out of Kei apple trees this summer, which was one of our first activities as an entire team and how we developed our team name; Team Kei Apple.

What did this journey teach you about yourself?  How did it change your perspectives or change you (if at all).

The trip really taught me to appreciate everything that I have and have access to in the U.S. Whether it’s paved, well-kept roads, being able to call someone, or watching the news in the morning. My perspective on the African community is definitely changed, since the closest experience I had beforehand was from The Lion King. The land is full of growth and hard-working individuals. Goats and cattle lining the side of the road, but elephants, lions, and hippos mainly stick to the wildlife preserves. The ground is clay, not sand.

Personally, I am now considering adding Global Resource Systems. GRS is the program that takes students to Uganda every summer and it gives students a better understanding of the international community, and has some of my best friends and favorite professors.  

What will you remember most about the trip?

I will mostly remember all the laughing and jokes and late-night card games and rushing to finish lesson plans with all of my new friends.  We had so many adventures I can’t even begin to name them!  I had lunch on the Nile almost every day, learned how to plant grain amaranth, transplant eggplants, fertilize mango trees, and am considering buying a hoe to have on hand at home. The work will be remembered, but more than that all the people, my students, their smiles, and all the fun we had while sweating bullets.

What would you say to someone considering this type of adventure?

Rock on! It’s going to be the best experience of your life. You’ll be scared out of your mind when you’re planning it and some people might try to talk you out of it because they don’t know what it’ll be like but it’s amazing—go for it! There’s no way to know what’s out there if you don’t go experience it for yourself, you have your whole life to work and be home, go explore anything you can any chance you get.

What will you take from this trip back to campus or back to your studies?

Well, I think I’m joining a new major so I hope I can bring my own ideas and experiences from a small dairy farm to them, and hope I can bring information from my international experience to my other classes.  A big thing I hope I can bring back to campus is the creativity and resourcefulness from Uganda.  No hammer? Use the head of your hoe.  No wood?  Cut down a tree.  No shovel?  Use your hoe to dig the hole.  Pretty much just buy a hoe and use it for almost anything.  I probably won’t be running around campus cutting down trees, but I hope the general idea can be incorporated into my daily life as far as re-purposing items and using everything to its full potential.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The only thing I’d like to add is to send a big thank you to everyone who has supported me on this trip.  Whether you came to my garage sale, asked me about it on the street, or helped me raise money I am incredibly grateful and blessed to be a part of such a loving community. I did have an amount of money left over from fundraising that I was able to donate to the program first to buy new water cans at all the primary schools, since they have few that are in good enough shape to water their huge gardens, and the remaining sum is going to the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Club to help them advance their programs.  Thank you everyone—this summer has definitely been one to remember and will be an experience I will never forget!

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