USF Student Reflects on Uganda Experience

Jennifer Williams
Jennifer Williams

I was in Uganda and I felt completely helpless. Poverty, pollution and disease consumed the streets I walked on and the air I breathed. Piles of trash, sometimes even old car tires, burned in ditches due to a lack of waste management. Nearby, children dressed in ripped, secondhand tee shirts made toys out of wires and metal scraps. I arrived in May of 2009 with my social justice class to research the human rights situation, specifically the nearly half a million people displaced or abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army. I felt helpless, not because of the harsh, unfamiliar surroundings, but because I knew at that moment I was not making a difference.  Everywhere I went groups of children trailed behind chanting “Mzungu! Mzungu!”, the word for white person. When I reached down to shake their hands the looks in their eyes expressed a mixture of awe, fear and expectation. White people were evil, white people were selfish and white people were rich, they had been told. They were all just as curious about our skin and our nature as they were about our capability to help lift them out of poverty. Some held their hands out, asking with eyes squinting through buzzing flies for chocolate, a bicycle, maybe just a few hundred shillings. I turned them down. It felt like swallowing my own stomach every time I had to tell them, “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t,” because I knew at that moment I could have. I had enough money in my pockets to help at least a few people. But that was not why I was there. Our goal was to learn more about Uganda’s past and present struggles and then reflect, question and find new solutions. We were instructed not give them anything because it would be contradictory to what we have learned about smart activism—rather than simply help someone, it is better to help them to help themselves. I was still unsure of my role in Uganda when we reached Gulu, the northern wartorn region of Uganda. We had arrived in the area a few days earlier and could instantly sense it was different than the busy, industrialized capital city, Kampala. Gulu was a smaller town where one could walk the narrow streets alongside other pedestrians and explore the open air markets filled with handmade goods. Only a few years earlier this area was overtaken by a war between the Ugandan government and a group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. One of the most devastating effects of the war was the legacy of the orphans and former child soldiers. Over 30,000 children had been abducted from their homes and forced to torture and kill the community members.  Those that were lucky enough to survive and find their way back from the bush to Gulu were faced with hatred, fear and alienation from their neighbors and even their families. While there, our group visited the Gulu Youth Development Association, a trade school for war-affected children. They looked bashfully at their feet while we admired all they had built. I spoke with a seventeen-year-old boy who was learning how to paint business signs at the trade school. Hesitant to talk about his dark past, I asked questions focused on the new future he had been offered. He was grateful for the opportunity he had been given, he told me with sad eyes. After a pause, he confided that he was an orphan and wanted nothing more than to find his relatives and a sense of home. We reached the end of my visit and he shook my hand goodbye. He said, “I hope you return to the United States and tell everyone our story.”  I looked him into his eyes and promised him that I would. So now you know, and even though you may be reading this at your kitchen table or on the bus to work half a world away, you are just as much a part of this struggle as my classmates. But you do not have to travel to Uganda to make a difference. You can start in your own backyard. One of the most tragic elements of the war in Northern Uganda was that hardly anyone in the southern half of the country, including Kampala, knew much about it. This may surprise you, but what if I told you something similar is happening in San Francisco and Seattle and Minneapolis; all over the United States and the world? Approximately 27 million human beings are in slavery today, being forced to sell their bodies in brothels, to sew the clothes we buy in the mall and to harvest the food we eat every day. At this moment you may feel helpless, like I did while in Uganda. But you can change that, because making a difference is as simple as opening your eyes. By visiting websites such as and you can familiarize yourself with both true events of slavery in your neighborhood and ethical, anti-slavery businesses to support. Unfortunately, slavery is driven by everyday civilians like you and me by where we choose to spend our money. By raising your own and others’ awareness of the situation and making simple, conscious changes in your lifestyle and buying habits, you can help eradicate the demand for slavery. Jennifer Williams is a junior English major


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *