UW-Madison Students Aim to Sustain Work on Island in Uganda

UW News Release — November 10, 2010

Aphids have long been a nuisance for farmers on an island in Uganda’s Lake Victoria, and the harsh chemicals used to keep the bugs away usually mean a crop of small, wilted plants.

A group of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate students working with the farmers on isolated Lingira island had a simple suggestion: spray the plants with old, soapy dishwater to drive away the bugs.

“One of the farmers tried the pesticide right away and was successful, and then he wanted to let everyone know it worked,” says Alisha David, co-director of EDGE Project, a student-run international development organization.

What made the incident a breakthrough for the challenged island wasn’t just the effect on the farmers’ crops. It also demonstrated a newfound sense of trust between residents and those who have been coordinating the community development projects for EDGE Project for more than two years.

“It’s taken this long for them to trust us and start responding to what we’re teaching them,” says David, a senior genetics major.

Developing agriculture on Lingira is just one of a handful of projects undertaken by the students working with EDGE — which stands for Empowerment through Development and Gender Equality.

But as the organization grows and matures, its biggest challenge is sustainability — both in providing steady leadership in an organization run by undergraduate students who finish their studies and move on, and in keeping their projects on the island going between the students’ trips there.

EDGE Project was started in late 2007 by then-undergraduates Michelle Mazzeo, Marissa Mommaerts and Farha Tahir, who created the project as a way to be able to do meaningful international development work.

But the trio of founders has graduated and migrated to Washington, D.C. Although they remain involved in EDGE Project, they’ve turned over the operations to another group of undergraduates who are passionate about the work they’re doing.

A team of UW-Madison students made the project’s second trip to Lingira this past summer, laying a foundation on which they hope to continue to build in the coming years.

Before a trip, as many as 50 students on campus research and create plans for a variety of projects related to agriculture, health and nutrition, the environment and empowerment for island residents.

Last year, the students built a grain mill, created a women’s craft cooperative, organized the girls’ soccer team, and taught the residents about global studies, family planning and HIV/AIDS, among other projects.

But this summer’s trip — made by seven students, two of whom were visiting Lingira for the second time — represented a more concentrated effort. The group tackled fewer projects, hoping they will have a greater chance of succeeding during the many months they’re away from the island.

“What we had to do is reassess where the opportunities were, where we wanted them to be, and find people on the island willing to take them on and do regular assessment back to the people in Madison about their status,” Tahir says.

Some projects were changed so that residents could better manage them on their own. The girls’ soccer team, for example, was integrated into the local schools to give it more structure.

The students have also tried to find ways to maintain a presence on the island from afar. In addition to regular conversations with leaders there, the students created tools and guides to leave behind as references.

“What’s really great about the challenge with working in Lingira is that it really tests the ability of people at UW-Madison to do what they need to, and to recognize how serious this type of work really is and how important their roles in it really are,” Tahir says.

Even the students’ arrival back on the island went a long way toward building lasting, productive relationships with the people they’re trying to help. David says the residents were excited and somewhat shocked to see the students return.

“A lot of foreign aid workers say they’re coming back and they don’t, so they didn’t necessarily expect us…but they remembered the EDGE Project and were happy we cared enough to come back,” she says.

EDGE continues to raise money to fund future trips to Lingira and will host a banquet on at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12 at the Lowell Center, 610 Langdon St. Tickets are $15 for UW-Madison students and $30 for non-students.