UW-Madison Students Foster Community Development on Island of Uganda

CONTACT: Farha Tahir, tahir@wisc.edu

UW-Madison News (November 12, 2009) – Eleven University of Wisconsin-Madison students working on an island in Uganda’s Lake Victoria knew they were making a difference when a member of the country’s parliament came to check out the fledgling girls’ soccer team they had helped to put together.

The UW-Madison students had researched community development projects and scraped together funds to travel to isolated Lingira, which is separated from Uganda’s mainland by a sliver of water. Government officials often ignore the isolated island’s residents, many of whom live in refugee camps. One of the students’ projects organized and outfitted the soccer team – the first of its kind on the island. Because of the high-ranking visitor’s stop on the island, one soccer player won a coveted scholarship that previously had been nearly impossible for an island resident to receive.

“It’s a huge deal that this member of parliament came to the island,” says Marissa Mommaerts, a graduate student finishing her degree in international public affairs from UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. Because of the visit, she adds, “there’s been attention drawn to the island and the living conditions there.”

The UW-Madison students traveled to the island through the EDGE Project, a student-run international development program launched by Mommaerts, Michelle Mazzeo and Farha Tahir to offer opportunities to do meaningful research that can be applied in real-world settings.

About 50 students in Madison – 7,800 miles from the island – researched the social, cultural and physical life in Lingira, providing valuable background for a smaller student group that traveled to Uganda this summer. Once on the island, the students built a grain mill, set up 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.

EDGE – which stands for Empowerment Through Development and Gender Equality – quickly got projects under way because of its lean, student-run structure, says Anthony Carroll, a UW-Madison public affairs graduate who has advised Mazzeo, Mommaerts and Tahir and opened doors for them in Washington, D.C.

“They were nimble and able to deliver assistance at the most basic community level,” says Carroll, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd. – which promotes economic relations between developed and less-developed areas of the world – and a member of the university’s Division of International Studies advisory board.

EDGE Project grew out of an international relations seminar that Mazzeo, Mommaerts and Tahir attended together in Washington, D.C. They returned to campus looking for a project they could research and take into the field. They originally e-mailed other students in late 2008, hoping that a few would spend a semester figuring out how to plan a community garden and travel to Uganda to plant it. Instead, they received more than 100 responses – including many from students who wanted to travel to the landlocked East African nation – and realized they needed to think bigger.

Once on the island this summer, as students talked to residents, they identified a more compelling need to help women with family planning and maternal health issues, says Mazzeo, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian studies. A few students went to the mainland to conduct research and prepare materials.

“We were very willing to adapt our projects when we got there based on community needs,” says Tahir, who is now working on a graduate degree in international public affairs from the La Follette School. “A lot of the projects we did on the ground were very different from what we anticipated.”

Sustainability and education are essential components of the project’s work, ensuring that Lingira residents can continue to benefit from them after the students leave, says Mommaerts.  A farmer’s association, designed to develop the island’s agrarian base, continues to meet, and Lingira’s girls’ soccer team is expanding to two squads. Crafts from women on the island will soon be sold at Madison-area sales and online at http://www.fairtradeworld.org. EDGE Project has also hired a young Ugandan woman to monitor and maintain the projects until the students’ next trip.

About 50 UW-Madison students are researching additional projects this semester, and two trips to Lingira to monitor projects already in place are scheduled for 2010, Tahir says.

EDGE Project has partnered with WE International, a Madison social-justice organization, and the work in Uganda is coordinated with Shepherd’s Heart International Ministry. The group has raised about $15,000, largely through online donations, to support its work, and a banquet is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13, at the University Club. Members are also collecting soccer balls, cleats, shin guards and other gear for the Lingira girls’ team.

Elisa Miller’s second-grade class at Mount Horeb Primary Center outside of Madison wanted to contribute to a project that would help people have access to clean water. Miller heard about EDGE Project and her students raised $522 by selling bookmarks to schoolmates, doing odd jobs and donating their own snack and gift money – sometimes bringing in pennies at a time, she recalls.

“They were so excited to give [the money],” Miller says. “I had a really neat group of kids that understood it and thought they were making a difference.”

The bulk of the group’s funds – including about $4,000 for a grain mill – has been spent on materials and projects on Lingira. Students have covered their own travel costs, including plane tickets that run about $1,500, but some of their living expenses have been subsidized, Mommaerts says.

“There were some girls who had never been out of the country and the first place they chose to go was Uganda,” Mazzeo says. “They were so passionate about it and they were working so hard. …These are people who are going to go on to make a huge difference in the world just because of this one experience they were having.”

For more information about EDGE Project, visit http://www.wisconsinedgeproject.blogspot.com. Read a story about the girls’ soccer team, from a Web site based in Uganda. View a video about the Uganda project.


– Stacy Forster, forster2@wisc.edu, 608-262-0930