A University of Tennessee senior, David Burman has just returned from five weeks in Uganda as one of 12 students participating in UT’s first Gulu Study and Service Abroad Program. The project was cofounded by Rosalind Hackett, professor and head of the university’s Religious Studies Department and Tricia Hepner, an associate professor of Anthropology at UT.
How did the program work?
I earned six credit hours—after traveling to Gulu in Northern Uganda, we had a class at Gulu University at its Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies. Two professors from UT came with us, but they were almost students, too, when 15 lecturers from the area came to talk to us about various aspects of the peace-building process. It also included a service element: All of us students did a two-and-a-half week internship at various place in Gulu Town, based on our interests.
Were the lecturers from Uganda?
Yes, but one was an American who lives there now. The background on this is that from 1986-2006 there was a civil war in Uganda. The way it manifested itself on the ground was that both the government and the rebel forces targeted the population; they were caught between two hostile forces. From 2006 until now, the rebels have moved into other parts of Africa—the Congo, South Sudan. That means no more shooting, but the post-conflict rebuilding process has been very difficult, as we learned in that class.
What makes it so tough?
There are very significant economic problems—a lot of poverty still—and most of Uganda is still marginalized. The education system is still in a bit of a state, and not a very good state at that.
Were the Ugandans you met downtrodden about the future?
No, they were very hopeful. I was very impressed by that.
Did you ever feel you were in danger?
What really caught your attention on the trip?
I did my internship at the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative. The Acholi people are the main ethnic group in that area, and ARLPI was founded by Christian and Muslim leaders in the middle of the war—the goal is to promote peace and development in Northern Uganda through dialogue and other initiatives. Most striking to me, Monday, the first day of this month, was the beginning of Ramadan. During the morning devotion at ARLPI, one of the Christian members wished the Muslim community well, and said the Christian community would be praying for them during that time of fasting. This impressed me partially because I was there from a state in the U.S. where there’s been some complaint and a bit of anger at the building of a mosque. To me, that sort of embodied the goal of “A peaceful and prosperous Uganda where people strive to coexist harmoniously.”
Were you quite unique as a white person in Uganda?
Not really. Towards the end of the war, 2003-4, Uganda became a huge focus, though prior to that the international community had not paid attention to it. One result of that is there is a proliferation of non-government groups and missionaries in Gulu, and a fair number of foreigners of different races—relatively speaking.
This hotel you stayed in, was it like a hotel here?
Not quite, but very similar. There were mosquito nets of course, but that’s almost the only difference. It was not spartan.
Do you plan to stay in touch with anyone you met?
Yeah, a couple of folks in ARLPI, and there’s a musician we met.
Will you social network?
Yes, a lot of people over there have Facebook just like we do.