Life Lessons from Uganda

Published 11/04/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Roy Kim | 11/04/2022

Being the only non-Ugandan in my entire community, I learned what it meant to look and feel different. Being invited into Salim’s, Kimani’s, and Simon’s homes showed me that I was welcome in a foreign country.

As I weighed the different summer options offered by Princeton’s Office of International Internships Program, I came across an opportunity to serve with Children of Peace Uganda, an organization that helped reintegrate children who had been abducted and made into soldiers by Joseph Kony’s rebel army – a horrific human rights issue I had been made aware of in sixth grade – back into society. Seizing this opportunity to even make a minimal impact on these kids’ lives and hopefully demonstrate God’s love to them, I immediately applied. At the same time, I had been taking a seminar on international development and took the opportunity to write my final paper on the afflictions of these defenseless children and the efficacy of current reintegration efforts in preparation for the internship.

Unfortunately, however, I was told soon after that the university’s partnership with the organization was discontinued. Subsequently, I was awarded my second choice for the summer: an internship with TEXFAD Vocational Business Incubator, a local Ugandan organization that trains mostly young women to weave and create products out of waste products like banana fiber and fabric offcuts. In doing so, these women learn a vocational skill that they are passionate about and allows them to be self-sufficient, thereby alleviating poverty within the community. I was fascinated with the organization’s multifaceted model of localized poverty alleviation, sustainability, and zero waste through ethical business practices and innovative products. Although I was unable to work with Children of Peace, I was glad that I would be able to contribute and excited for what was in store for me at TEXFAD.

I was unhindered by grand expectations of what my workplace, projects, co-workers, or lifestyle would be like when I arrived in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. I traveled to the city with a blank slate, very excited and ready to live and learn. I had applied to the program with the expectation that I would be a business development intern for a noble and growing organization. The first thing I discovered, however, was that despite TEXFAD’s incredibly noble mission, it was lacking in infrastructure. They had just been evicted from their previous location which was centrally located (great for exposure and foot traffic from tourists – incredibly important to their line of work) and was previously stocked with all the necessary amenities (i.e. space for all the weaving apparatuses, WiFi for business development and expansion, etc). The new location was run down, lacking in all these things, and on top of that, the lack of WiFi and cellular service meant that I would and could not do anything to help grow the organization by way of business development. Instead, I was to do as I see fit and make the most of my opportunity there.

Despite the initial confusion, I devoted my time to be of service to the organization and to my co-workers. Over the course of the internship, I assisted my friend Mwambale with all the manual labor and learned how to extract banana fiber with a machete and a machine, how to manipulate banana fiber to make sellable products like coasters, clocks, and bracelets, how to make chalk and candles from scratch, and finally how to weave out of both banana fiber and fabric offcuts. There was a surprising amount of applicable and helpful uses of this knowledge and time as well. I accompanied my friend Simon on a trip to a local, underprivileged school where we taught teachers and students how to make chalk out of inexpensive materials. Whenever a new shipment of banana stems came in, I transported banana stems to where they’d be extracted. When students from Mengo Senior School came to visit TEXFAD, I taught about 50 students how to make coasters and bookmarks out of banana fiber. In doing all these things, I was able to serve and contribute my part, however small it was, even to the micro-level success of the individuals and the larger organization.

Outside of work and time spent with friends made at work, I attended a local Baptist church planted by American missionaries where I served for the duration of my stay in Kampala. Apart from the weekly services and Tuesday night prayer nights I attended, I contributed in small ways like cleaning the church every Saturday, praying for and with the brothers and sisters I met at the church, spending time in fellowship with them, and treating them to meals.

The nine weeks of living, working, and serving in Uganda was a humbling learning experience for me. I learned work ethic from my industrious co-workers and hospitality from the ones who were not. I learned what sacrifice truly looked like in the missionary families – the Dwires and the Applegates – who gave their lives and gave up many privileges to serve God and Mwambale who slept four hours daily working to provide for his family. Through it all, working at this organization and serving at the church reignited my heart for international missions and service, and I return to the States with a renewed sense of desire, love, and humility.