A troubled relationship with our former advisor paired with the growing pains that come with adapting to life in Sub Saharan Africa had held Action in Africa back for years. After walking into the new AIA compound, affectionately nicknamed “The Center” by volunteers and community members alike, it became glaringly obvious that our organization had begun a new and exciting chapter. Led by Action in Africa president Sarah Nininger, who moved to Uganda 14 months ago to manage operations on the ground, a series of developments have revolutionized both the organization as well as the way we think about community service. And on day one, when I stepped out of the cab and into our new AIA for the first time, the sight of nearly 50 primary school students participating in an interpretative arts and crafts class wonderfully illustrated how far our organization has come.
Nick Ufkes and I travelled to Uganda following our university graduations, returning to Nakuwadde for the first time in years. I had remained involved in the organization over the years, working part time while finishing up my studies. As the Director of Communications, I worked a couple of hours a week doing website documentation, writing grant and donation proposals, and facilitating letter writing campaigns. Sarah’s move to The Center reinvigorated both my interest in the organization and my passion for development promotion in Uganda, as we were able to arrange weekly Skype meetings to discuss challenges for the organization. I quickly bought into her vision, inspired by the depth of her commitment as well as the fierceness of her passion for inciting change in the village and country.
Likewise, Nick was excited to return after a seven-year hiatus. While he was unable to continue working for the organization during school due to a combination of pre-med courses, constant thesis meetings, and football practices, this summer provided the perfect opportunity for him to begin a new role with AIA. This trip serves as a reminder of the incredible work Action in Africa has done, the progress that still needs to be made, and where Nick and I fit into the picture.
While physical changes have certainly been made at AIA, highlighted by the opening of The Center, Nick and I wanted to assess the structural changes to the Action in Africa model that have played the bigger role in improving the organization’s effectiveness. The “No Handouts” model has seen an improvement in academic performance amongst our students, as the movement away from handing out scholarships and towards rewarding the students who demonstrate a commitment to their education, through an application process, has created a set of incentives that encourages hard work and academic achievement. Similarly, the opening of The Center and introduction of various after school programs, including storytelling, arts and crafts, theater, and dance, has provided an outlet for creative thinking for our students—a much needed supplement to the memorization-based Ugandan education system. These programs have helped AIA provide improved educational opportunities for Nakuwadde children, a process ultimately intended to inspire hope, change individual lives, and produce the “change agents” of Uganda who can create broader reform in a country that desperately needs it.
Action in Africa has undergone a kind of renaissance under Sarah’s guidance, but there is still work to be done. During our three weeks in Nakuwadde living and volunteering at The Center, Nick and I will both attempt to formulate our own opinions on AIA operations as well as the broader development challenge in Uganda. We couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity, and we are thrilled to share our thoughts with the Action in Africa community via blog posts over the next couple of weeks.