Georgette Condos is an International Studies major working toward a certificate in African Studies at UW-Madison, and is one of the first students to do course work toward a new certificate, which is still under development, that focuses on global health. Condos has plans to study public health after graduation, and works as the Empowerment Team leader of the EDGE Project. Last year, she spent some time volunteering in Uganda and more recently took part in the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference (CGIU) in San Diego.
In this Q&A Georgette discusses her experiences abroad, as well as her involvement in the CGIU.
What was your reason for choosing Uganda for your volunteer project? Did you get connected with this project through an organization on campus? Will you explain more about your involvement in the EDGE Project?
My passion for international relations and global health inspired me to participate in UW-Madison’s EDGE Project, a student led initiative that researches international sustainable issues and implements these development projects abroad.
Currently, my research is focused on addressing schoolgirls’ and women’s lack of access to affordable, eco-friendly, sanitary products for menstruation. Without access to sanitary pads, girls and women miss school and work, limiting their education and economic productivity. Educating girls and women is vital to the well-being of their families, communities, and countries. I have been in contact with Professor Musaazi from the Makerere University in Uganda who developed Makapads and Professor Ntambi from UW-Madison who has had experience distributing Makapads in Uganda. My goal is to distribute 500 Makapads locally made sanitary pads made out of papyrus in Uganda to the girls and women on Lingira Island in Lake Victoria, Uganda. The anticipated impact will be improved attendance in school leading to better health and a more productive future.
Where did you stay, and for how long?
The EDGE Project team was on Lingira Island for four weeks and stayed with a missionary group called Shepherd’s Heart International Ministry (SHIM). We were thankful to be staying in a standard cement building with a tin roof and enough beds for all of us to sleep comfortably under bed nets. There was no running water, but we had access to the limited rainwater available and water taken from Lake Victoria treated with chlorine.
What was the greatest challenge when you arrived?
The greatest challenge when we arrived on the island was putting what we learned about their culture into practice. I had to constantly remind myself to greet everyone and ask them how they are before talking about anything else. It took a couple of weeks before we were able to communicate our research and ideas to particular community members. Another challenge was to be flexible and understand that their concept of time is much different than ours. This was a great challenge when our agriculture team tried planning meetings to show them more innovative, but very simple farming techniques and community members would come an hour late or not even show. This concept of time did not mean they were not interested in what our ideas were, rather it is simply their culture and their concept of time.
What would a day in your village typically consist of for you?
In the morning we would do chores before breakfast that included helping prepare breakfast, washing dishes, sweeping the compound, and cleaning the latrines. After breakfast I would walk to the primary school with two other girls to teach environmental and geography lessons that we prepared during the academic school year. We would visit the classrooms until lunch and walk back to SHIM to eat. After lunch we would visit the secondary school girls and boys and either play soccer with them or spend time with them in the classroom, teaching geography. We would be back at SHIM around 5 p.m., before dinner because it was not safe to be out when it was dark. After dinner the EDGE Project team would reflect on the day and offer advice and encouragement.
Did you have a chance to absorb the Ugandan culture outside of the volunteer setting?
I was very pleased with the Ugandan culture we were exposed to. The EDGE team was honored to have been asked to attend a Ugandan wedding. We did not attend as volunteers, but as new friends and were very welcomed at the beautiful occasion.
What were some of the most memorable moments you had with the people you met there?
My most memorable moment was with this young boy named Ema. He would join us on our hikes up the small mountain that had a beautiful view of the entire island, Lake Victoria, and other nearby islands. Ema taught us how to count one to ten in Lugandan and would sing Uganda’s national anthem to us. It was fun learning from him and he was so happy when we would repeat the counting back to him correctly.
Another touching moment was when one of the elders on the island came to SHIM to show us his improved cabbage plant. The agricultural team showed him an easy way to protect his cabbage field by spraying a solution of just soap and water. He walked about 30 minutes in the dark to show us the improvement of his cabbage. He was very happy and pleased with the simple, yet innovative, information we provided during the agricultural seminars. It was so great to see the improvement that we helped create.
How do you think your international experience will influence your future? Do you plan on returning to Uganda at some point? Or work or study abroad in another in another location?
The commitment to being an active member of the EDGE Project helped build the foundation for my future plans of going to graduate school for public health and volunteering for the Peace Corps.
I plan to return to the island this summer as a former traveler to lead the new group of EDGE members. I am also studying abroad in Uganda for three weeks next December through the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS) Uganda study abroad program.
What advice would you give to someone who was considering a project like this?
I would tell them to be very serious about committing to a student organization because you will get the most out of what you are doing if you are ready to make that time commitment.
You recently attended the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference. Could you tell us a little bit about what that event? What did you take away from your involvement?
I attended the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) this April with three other UW-Madison’s EDGE Project members. It is a meeting that brings together students and national youth organizations to create and implement Commitments to Action across five focus areas including education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health. My commitment to action is the MakaPads project through EDGE Project in the focus area of public health and the various positive affects it will have on education.
CGIU annual meetings are a great opportunity for CGIU students and youth organizations from around the world to meet and identify others who share similar interests and concerns for their global community. During the student networking meal times, students are encouraged to meet other participants and share ideas, experiences, and advice. It was a such a great opportunity to learn from other students and to think about ways to strengthen our commitments, network and form collaborations, and increase my impact in Uganda and in all that I do.
What was the most rewarding part of your entire experience?
The CGIU conference was one of the most rewarding experiences, along with traveling abroad to Uganda with the EDGE Project team. There are times that I get discouraged about some of the inherent barriers to implementing my ideas on Lingira Island, yet attending this conference provided me with inspiration that anything I can bring to those less fortunate will make a difference. Interacting with and learning from young adults from across the globe who attended this conference has enabled me to realize that there are other students and peers sharing the same emotions as me.
What brought you to choose the International Studies major? How will this area of study help your career and you as a person?
I chose to focus my studies on international relations because I enjoy learning about the positive and negative aspects of international politics and relations. Over the course of my academic career at UW-Madison, I have learned that international relations are vital to the battle of finding improved solutions to the world’s most pressing global issues. The depth of these issues such as poverty and disease like HIV/AIDS have detrimental effects on a nation and there are actions that can be taken to better the state of countries that are severely in need of aid. I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience in the courses offered as a student pursuing an International Studies degree. Furthermore, the courses I have taken draw parallels with my passion for global health issues, particularly those that burden Africa leading me to work toward a certificate in African Studies and a certificate that focuses on global health.
By Tom Schneider, Division of International Studies
View more photos from Georgette Condos.