UCU’s Hidden Jewel: the UCU in Africa Programme

text by Rens Bakker

Every year a group of UCU students travel to Tanzania and Kenya to study the lives and challenges of people living there. Afterwards, they all participate in a five-week internship at a local NGO. Participants unanimously praise the UCU in Africa program – many even call it ‘life-changing’. Still, many students seem to be unaware of the program, and last years’ editions suffered from a lack of participants. What is the UCU in Africa program exactly? And why is a program that seems so successful, threatened by a dropping number of applicants?

The UCU in Africa program consists of three parts. In the spring semester, all participants follow a preparatory course. Then, during the summer term, the group travels to Tanzania for the field course. After that four-week experience, the group spreads out to do internships at local NGOs. Students use big words in their evaluations: “a unique and life-changing experience”, “just the best and most fun course I have ever done at UCU” and “simply amazing” are only a few examples of the unanimously positive responses to the field course.

More than a normal trip to Africa

On the morning of June 25th 2014, participants woke up in an unfamiliar setting. They had just spent their first night with an agricultural family in northern Tanzania, as part of their first, five-day homestay. Some had to get up at 5AM to cut grass for the cattle, while others were awakened by an elephant threatening to steal the crops. Everyone’s involvement in the local culture, of which they have already seen so much, has once again reached new heights. This, in a nutshell, is what UCU in Africa is about: studying the East African life, not only by reading about it, but mostly through experiencing it.

The program’s field course, of which the homestays are an important highlight, is an intense and intensive experience. The group drives around in their own big truck, sleeping in tents and eating meals prepared by the cooking staff. Days are filled with community visits, class discussions and lectures by local experts. Topics and locations alike are manifold, including a visit to a National Park in Kenya, the pastoralist Maasai in Tanzania and a slum in Nairobi.

Learning through immersion

The field course is co-taught by Corey Wright and Kimaren Riamit. Wright is an experienced Canadian scholar in sub-Saharan development while Riamit, an indigenous Maasai from Kenya, represents African indigenous peoples across the international arena. The teachers and their contacts take students to places and people that other visitors do not reach — how many people conduct focus groups with local fishermen, witness centuries-old goat slaughtering rituals and talk to families about their polygamous marriages in only four weeks’ time?

It is not only the mere access to such things that makes the program unique, Wright argues, but also “the degree of immersion into political economic contexts, professional environments, ecological landscapes, diverse cultural communities, and specific family milieus that is rarely achieved in other programs.” Government policies, NGO activities and questionable company practices are not studied distantly, but through active discussions with stakeholders on all levels.

Most importantly, immersion happens through the three homestays as Wright explains, “The homestays provoke degrees of discomfort that most students have rarely experienced.” Being thrown into a fundamentally different environment is not easy. The nomadic Maasai, for example, where students stay for two nights, do not have any sanitary facilities. “It is in these spaces of discomfort that important things happen: you get to know elements of yourself in the process of building intimate relationships with families.”

Personal and academic development

For Wright, the key driver of personal development in the program is the process of confronting diversity. “I believe that it is in the experience of confronting diversity that we confront ourselves. Ultimately, it all boils down to understanding ourselves: what have we uncritically internalized, what assumptions do we have, and how does that influence the way we perceive the world? How do I need to change myself in order to more effectively engage with the world around me?”

It is this that makes the program ‘life-changing’, as so many alumni call it. Edward Dunkley, an alumnus of 2011, still acknowledges its impact on him: “The program not only revolutionized my way of thinking about development, but also generally how I saw the world. It makes you think about what it is you’re doing in a much more academic and useful way.”

Lonia Jakubowska, the academic director of the program, emphasizes students’ academic development as well. “Students apply the skills they learn in class to very real problems experienced by underprivileged populations. It is a program that integrates their knowledge and skills, their interests and experiences, all of which are put to good use.”

Making your own contribution

This ‘good use’ is immediately achieved through the final part of the program: an internship at a local development organization. Working in paris, students are given the opportunity to pursue their field of interest with an NGO. This exposes participants to new experiences, such as having to build up their own lives in a developing country and set up their own on-the-ground research project.

The internships serve two goals: students’ further development, and, as Jakubowska puts it, “making a small contribution to the improvement of human condition in the world, and East Africa in particular.” Students go Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda for their projects, and work on very different scales: some worked in only one village, others from an office, and again others traveling across an entire region.

Lack of interest?

Applying for UCU in Africa used to mean that you had to compete with other applicants to be selected. In the past two years, however, the program suffered from a lack of applicants. While two years ago extra student campaigns and a more lenient admissions policy were sufficient to attract enough participants, last year a one-off reduction of the program fee was necessary before enough people applied. And still, the final group only included nineteen participants.

Jakubowska enumerates a number of possible causes for this problem: the introduction of the 15 ECTS credits-thesis (which used to be only 7.5 ECTS); growing competition of other summer programs; the high costs and a lack of knowledge of the program among students. Especially the increase of credits for the thesis, implemented two years ago, correlates very strongly with the lack of participants, while the other causes are more gradual developments that do not necessarily explain the sudden dip.

Although no extensive research has been conducted into each of these causes, Jakubowska’s assumption is that the main cause was a lack of student awareness. Therefore, she says, “this year we put greater efforts in making students aware of the existence of UCU in Africa and the benefits it brings.” Furthermore, the program’s course load is being reduced by abolishing of the 2.5 ECTS methodology module.

Whether these measures will be enough to save the program remains unclear. Jakubowska is confident that enough students will sign up this year. However, by not implementing stronger measures — such as structurally decreasing the price, or a more meaningful reduction of the course load — she takes the risk that the program could soon cease to exist. “We sincerely hope that our strategy works. If not, well, programs live and programs die, but after eight years of the program’s existence and the energies put collectively into it, it would be a shame to let that happen.”

This year’s edition

Interested in participating in UCU in Africa 2015? For questions, you can contact Lonia Jakubowska: l.a.jakubowska@uu.nl.

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