Building Connections in Uganda

Students’ study abroad inspires fresh takes on shared challenges.

For more than a decade, School of Social Work (SSW) Professor Hugo Kamya has set off annually on a 6,800-mile journey with his students to foster an understanding of how social work is practiced in his homeland of Uganda.

“It’s to really build the connections,” he said. “What separates us is much smaller than what actually brings us together. I think if students can actually build this kind of consciousness about what happens out there, and link it to what’s happening here, that will help heal the wounds of this world.”

Between 12 and 15 students in the “Human Services in Developing Countries Study Abroad Course” spend three weeks in July and August at various human service agencies in and around Uganda’s capital, Kampala, observing practitioners and learning about their response to HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, sex education, human rights, and adoption. Weekends allow time for safaris and visits to Kampala’s religious sites, craft markets, and local restaurants.

“Over the years I have realized that the local is part of the global just as the global is part of the local. In fact, someone has coined the term ‘glocal.’” —Simmons School of Social Work Professor Hugo Kamya

On the 2017 trip, Alex Lee ’18SW, a second-year student in the master of social work program, said he focused on learning how practice and approach in Uganda differed from the Western part of the world. Each organization’s ability to build its network was remarkable, he said, as was the relationship between individuals.

“Every day I could wake up reminded of my privileges growing up in the U.S., yet also be amazed at how some people and organizations are able to do so much with so little in the way of material resources,” Lee said. “This is not to say that anyone has superhuman capabilities of making ends meet, but we have much to learn from the way they use problem-solving techniques and engage the community in all the work that they do.”

Lee recalled a visit to a hospice organization where he asked who cared for patients who did not have family or friends to rely on. After a long pause, he was told that’s a highly unusual scenario. Someone from the community typically steps forward to help. That’s a lesson Lee hopes to carry forward into his work. “It really highlights how powerful the importance of human relationships can be,” he said.

Kamya emigrated from Uganda to the United States in the late 1980s to attend Harvard University. Political unrest in his country made it unsafe for his family, who were being hunted down and detained. He was unable to return for nearly 10 years. In the early 2000s, while teaching at Boston College, he began making the annual trip to Uganda with students. He has continued the trip since joining the Simmons faculty in 2006.

“While we’re here, I think it’s important to actually be cognizant of what is going on all over the world, because what happens here has so much influence on the world out there,” Kamya said. “I think to a certain extent what happens there influences what happens here. So I do this to expose our students to doing practice in the global arena.”

Second year SSW graduate student Emma Cope-Flanagan ’18SW called the 2017 trip “the best three weeks of my life.” She was struck by the slower pace and the friendliness of the people. “In America, we are on the go all the time and don’t talk to strangers, but in Uganda, life is much calmer and people want to have a real conversation with you.”

After learning about child sacrifice while in Uganda, Cope-Flanagan said she’s interested in working with children who have experienced trauma and possibly going back to the country to work with survivors and families affected by child sacrifice.