Post-Inauguration Blues in Rural Uganda: Learning about “the front line” from community partners

February 17, 2017

By Kari Grain, a PhD candidate and Vanier scholar in University of British Columbia’s Department of Educational Studies.

*This post has been adapted from the original full length version which you can find at

I should be marching…

During my second doctoral fieldwork trip to Kitengesa, Uganda, I sat on a porch listening to the songs of tropical birds and giggling children. And instead of soaking it up, I was staring, enrapt, at my iPhone. I had finally bought some data and was able to access the internet, and what I saw in the news and on social media could only be described as fear, apprehension, anger, disbelief, and (in some cases) jubilant celebration over the inauguration of the new President of the United States of America.

As my friends flooded social media with photos of the women’s marches in DC, Vancouver, NYC, and Calgary (among others) and airport protests against the Muslim ban, I couldn’t help feeling that I was missing out on an important moment in global politics – a moment when apathy ceased to be a thing for a lot of people. A moment when armchair activists got off their computers and gathered their children, their groups of friends, to paint signs and to show up in the flesh. A moment when “social justice” ceased to be just a vague term for a radical few, and became a concern for everyone who cares about women’s rights, about transparent political processes, about the protection of our brothers and sisters who happen to be immigrants, or Muslims, or scientists, or gay or trans people, or this label or that label.

People have begun to show up because these are scary times, and many of us have had the honour of meeting Holocaust survivors and Indigenous elders, or visiting a Rwandan genocide memorial, or reading a history book or two about the slippery (and often legal) slope to mass human rights abuses at the hands of governments. And when you’re lucky enough to not be the one with a target on either your forehead or your place of worship, your conscience begins to haunt you with a one word: “bystander.” It whispers quietly at first: “bystander.” It gets louder as the inauguration happens, and as the first mosques go up in flames: “bystander” And as the media is strangled and “alternative” news sources pop up: “Bystander.” And as a colleague or a fellow student is barred from returning to their families in the US: “Bystander.” And as White supremacists become more brazen and vocal: “Bystander!”

As someone who has directed my educational and professional career toward issues of social justice, inclusion, and anti-racism, I have been feeling a strange sense of guilt about being in Uganda when my feet should be hitting the pavement in Vancouver or DC. So I shifted my attention to the research I am doing here in Uganda with young, local community leaders. I asked myself how this work connected to the issues in international media headlines. They have taught me that activism has many faces, and if we worry too much about controlling the image of our activism, we risk prioritizing our egos above the very causes for which we fight.

The Study: Photovoice, ISL, and local community leaders

Before I go any further, let me explain my research project. I am using participatory photography – specifically, a method called PhotoVoice (Wang & Burris, 1994, 1997) – to understand how Kitengesa community leaders perceive the impacts of international service-learning on them and their community. Having hosted and worked with service-learners for a number of years, the participants have both witnessed and been active agents in the changes that have occurred in Kitengesa. Thus, I am interested to know about what they hope for, broadly speaking, and also what they hope for when they host students and nurture partnerships with universities. I was also curious to learn whether they believe their socio-economic conditions have changed since service-learners began arriving here ten years ago. These initial questions have served merely as starting points in a fluid “inquiry-in-action” (Reason & Bradbury, 2006, p. xxii) that quickly became guided through dialogues among eight participant-researchers. I am doing this because powerful universities send more and more of their students abroad, guided by the potentially harmful notion that “the world is your classroom”, and (although this is changing) there has been very little research that consults with marginalized communities themselves (Reynolds, 2014; Stoecker & Tryon, 2009). This project positions Kitengesa community members’ expertise at the forefront of knowledge creation, drawing on Butterwick (2017) to uphold community as both a teacher and a source of legitimate knowledge. Butterwick points out that in much service-learning literature, “community is understood mainly as a site of learning, not a source of knowledge” (2017, p. 4) – a narrative that this project aims to subvert.

Thus, I would like to understand this phenomenon of international service-learning through the eyes and the perspectives of the host community, so that they can have a seat at the table and contribute to university policies that often have huge implications for their own livelihoods.  Following the nature of participatory research, this project is not just about co-constructing knowledge together, but it is also about actively addressing issues identified by the participants, and eventually, affecting policy. The PhotoVoice workshops so far have revealed that the participants see this project as a way to showcase the important work they do such as running a micro-finance group, being youth counselors, volunteering with a school for the deaf, and running a local community library. They see this project as a chance to build a sense of community among young local leaders, and gain global friends and allies for their causes.

This expansion of what counts as research is also why the participants have all received digital cameras to share their own stories of hope, change, and local leadership. The thing about action research is that it is meant to “expand the hold over knowledge held traditionally by universities and other institutes of ‘higher learning’” (Reason & Bradbury, 2006, p. xxiii). It is not owned or controlled by the researcher. Rather, it’s owned and guided by the people who are engaged as research participants (who in some cases actually become co-researchers). In other words, they’ve guided the project, and through group dialogue and democratic decision-making, they/we all decide how to go about these workshops in a way that addresses issues that matter to them. That can really shake up a researcher’s knee-jerk sensibilities because you need to continually let go of any sense of control over the project. It’s like you arrive with a general vision for your inquiry, and you release it to the people you work with. And it’s been thoroughly rewarding because they’ve come up with far better ideas than I ever would have on my own, and they’re steering this research-ship in a direction that will provide the greatest possible benefit to them as individuals and community members. Best of all, this isn’t an act of re-centering the work of foreign volunteers, but is instead reaffirming and highlighting the role of local Ugandan leadership in the face of looming global issues.

Emergent themes: Climate, water, women, education, and marginalization

Within a few short weeks, participants took some incredible photos and we met as a group to discuss the pictures and why the photographer took them. Here’s what they taught me through the photos they shared and their explanations of them: Climate change, clean water, women’s empowerment, access to education, and discrimination are some of the most pressing issues they’re up against. There has been a historical drought in the Masaka region that has nearly decimated the subsistence maize crops and cash crops such as coffee. As a result, food prices have soared. Many of the participants took photos of dead, yellow corn stalks standing rigidly in the sun. Another participant photographed a swamp area where his neighbours regularly visit to collect daily water for drinking and cooking – water that is so brown and cloudy that no human should need to rely on it for consumption. Another participant took a stunning portrait of her best friend who is deaf, and explained that she took the photo because her friend is so beautiful. There is significant stigma against people in the deaf community in Uganda, and deaf women in particular face acute challenges related to harassment and assault because they are widely perceived as powerless, voiceless, and unable to report their abusers. In fact, my interactions with many female service-learners and students in Uganda have entailed descriptions of scenarios in which they were groped, verbally harassed, or nearly raped. And a recent conversation with a Ugandan woman revealed a difficult truth laced with all the complexity of intersectionality: “If you think it’s bad as a powerful, white woman visiting here, imagine how we feel. We deal with it every single day of our lives.”

The many faces of activism: What do we work for?

Although the empowerment of women is a major concern in Uganda, it is not a problem exclusive to this region. It’s an issue everywhere to varying extents and even when great victories are won, governments – and presidents – the world over can undo hard-fought progress with a swipe of a gold-plated pen.  The same goes for clean water.  Clean water is sacred, as are the people who risk their lives to defend it, and as are the people and other beings who need it to survive. The water protectors and clean water seekers are standing strong at Standing Rock, just as they are here in rural Uganda, working daily to secure clean water sources for their families and neighbours. This is not in support of the “we’re all the same” narrative that ignores important systemic, racial, and historical differences. Rather, despite huge contextual distinctions, there are some commonalities among the struggles in the US, Canada and Europe, and those faced by people in rural Uganda. They may not be self-professed activists, and many don’t have the time, resources, or desire to march in an official protest, but many of them live in solidarity with these causes through incremental, daily efforts. And climate change: There is nobody more affected by climate change than those living in conditions of poverty, wherein one failed crop season can mean the difference between paying a daughter’s school fees or forcing her to drop out, between an infant who survives or one who succumbs to hunger. Defending the sustainable, healthy functioning of our planet, to me, seems like our greatest task in the coming years and centuries. Even though the local community leaders here in Kitengesa may not identify as activists, they are each at the front line of a struggle – for women’s empowerment, for clean water, for inclusion, for the health of the planet’s climate, and for an education that highlights the indispensability of each of them.

As I write this, I’m on my porch again in Kitengesa, this time listening to the drumming rehearsal of the secondary school next door. I had grappled with feelings of guilt that somehow, by not having my feet on the ground in a women’s march or at an airport, and by not being in my home community in Canada, I was being a bystander to gross violations of some of my deepest values. I worried that I was hiding out in a lovely village in Uganda, where social media is little more than a privilege of a few who can afford the internet or a smartphone. But the front line of any struggle is constructed in our own conscience, and materialized through our actions. As my Ugandan colleagues and friends have taught me through their daily acts of leadership, we create a new “front line” each time we move our feet for a cause.


Post -script

*I did not include the photography or identities of the local community leaders who I reference in this article because all decisions involving their art will be made collectively by them, and the project is still ongoing. They are cited here as great inspiration to me, however, all thoughts pertaining to global politics and activism are my own, and are not a reflection of any perspectives shared by local Ugandan community leaders. Although details are still in the works, the group aims to share some of their photography in a local Kitengesa community event / exhibition in late March 2017, and I will be replicating that exhibition in Vancouver, Canada at some point in Fall 2017. The PhotoVoice participants are currently working on a photo book that will showcase their community leadership activities (text will be written in both English and Luganda). They have also chosen to make this book available for free online, however, the details are pending as we have more group discussions. See for updates on their book and website. Thank you for your support.

Works cited

Butterwick, S. (2017). “Community as teacher: Who’s learning? Who’s teaching?” In Lund, D. & Grain, K. (Eds.) The Handbook of Service-Learning for Social Justice. Wiley.

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (2006). Introduction. In Bradbury, H., & Reason, P. (Eds.). Handbook of action research. London, UK: SAGE.

Reynolds, N.P. (2014). What counts as outcomes? Community perspectives of an engineering partnership. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 21(2), 79-90.

Stoecker, R. & Tryon, E. (2009) The unheard voices: Community organizations and service-learning. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1994). Empowerment through photo novella: Portraits of participation. Health Education & Behavior, 21(2), 171-186.

Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health education & behavior, 24(3), 369-387.

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