A little less than a month ago, I got back from a two week Engineers Without Borders trip to Uganda. For people who don’t know (out of the zero people reading this blog), Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is a student organization that designs and helps build water distribution systems. For the past couple of years I’ve been really, really (too much) involved in this organization. Like work until three in the morning, never see my non-EWB friends, 20 hours of unpaid work a week on top of my full time job, involved. Anyway, last month I finally got the opportunity to travel to Uganda and be a part of an implementation trip. Obviously it was incredible and amazing and wonderful and just all around one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of. So far I haven’t really taken the time to really think through the experience, so I thought I would write this post reflecting on what I learned from this ridiculously amazing experience.
Kids are Awesome
The kids were amazing. Obviously the main reason they wanted to hang out with us is that we were weird and new and different. But I have never felt more welcome anywhere than when we would walk home after a long day of work and kids would walk with us holding our hands or yell “Hi Mzungu” from their front yard (Mzungu is the word generally used to mean foreign person)
Everyone Else is Awesome Too
Although they don’t warm up to you as quickly as the kids, the relationships that we formed with the adults in the community were pretty great. Our organization has been working in this same community for about five years. In that time we’ve formed a strong relationship with them. At this point they trust us.
This makes it a lot easier to make friends with them on your first trip. On the first day I was there I was given a Ugandan name, Namaganda. From then on that was the only name people called me by. It made me realize (or at least hope), that we mean more to this community than the average Mzungus. And by the end I genuinely felt like I had made some solid friendships.
Things Don’t Go As Planned More Often Than They Do
This trip was probably one of the most successful problem free trips in the history of our program. Like by a lot. But it still had its share of issues. There is nowhere to buy ladders in Uganda. I accidentally overpaid a delivery guy by a large sum of money. The excavator we hired broke down for a whole morning. Our whole first week was spent mostly waiting for things to happen. These things happen, and the most important thing to do is fix what you can and let everything else play out as it will.
Using a Pit Toilet is an Acquired Skill
I never thought I would learn. By the end I was squatting like a pro.
My Favorite Parts Were Not What I Expected They Would Be
Going into this trip, the thing I looked forward to the most was the work we were going to get done. While that was pretty great, the greatest moments by far were the in between times. When we would have a couple beers in the town center with some of the guys we worked with and learn new words in Luganda. Or the dinner we spent with the priests at the rectory comparing Ugandan and American wedding traditions. Or when I would surprise someone by correctly saying something in Luganda.
I realized that the thing I loved the most is the thing that I had barely thought about before I left. The small moments of feeling like you’re closer to being a part of the community, for however short a time you can be.