GV Fulbright Recipient’s Reflections on Uganda

Article by Russell Rhoads, Ph.D. (GVSU Anthropology Department) on his experience as a Fulbright recipient in Uganda

Here’s my story:

I am trained in anthropology as an ethnographer. I have spent the last 30 years teaching and, on occasion, traveling to Mexico, Venezuela, Sierra Leone, India and now Uganda to carry out my studies. Locally, I conduct research in West Michigan, involving student in the intersections between food, agriculture and local farmers markets. Ethnography requires “getting into the field.” But as Geertz writes, it’s easier said than done: an ethnographer is “continually trying to pick her way.” My Fulbright experience in Uganda is a lot like that – picking my way.

To my surprise, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholars grant to carry out a sabbatical project in Sierra Leone, located in West Africa. I spent two years preparing to “Developing Community Engagement Capacities at Njala University” during the 2014-2015 academic year. But due to the Ebola crisis there, I had to draw on connections for reappointment to Kampala, Uganda. I had two weeks to prepare. Upon arrival in Uganda with my wife (an anthropologist at Kalamazoo College), I was appointed as a lecturer in the Peace and Conflict Studies Master’s program at Makerere University and as a Research Fellow at the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), an think-tank NGO.

I quickly explored the intersections of mutual interest with my Fulbright project in mind, linking teaching and training to community engagement. In the fall semester at Makerere I found myself team-teaching Master’s students on the subject of “Research Methods for Peace,” drawing on action research, an approach that co-generates knowledge from interactions between researchers and community members. I also participated in a curriculum review to integrate experiential learning and community engagement into teaching and student projects. At the NGO, I am contributing to reviewing research reports for publication and training researchers on how to integrate qualitative methods into field projects, including how to use computer software applications for data management and analysis. The NGO is actively building the capacity of local communities to gain a voice in expressing their needs for service delivery in areas of agriculture, health, education, and to seek engagement in local democracy. My involvement often takes me upcountry to see social change in action, for example, a project on oil development that displaces farmers from their community.

East Africa and Uganda in particular are vibrant places these days, experiencing rapid economic development in the throes of globalization. Resource extraction often leads to conflicts that impact local communities. The students at Makerere with whom I work are studying these impacts. It’s my position that Ugandan students, academic institutions, civil societies and NGOs build mechanisms to engage communities impacted by development and the degradation of their environment.

Fulbright offers me eight months of a well-supported community and wide-ranging learning opportunities. My Fulbright colleagues here include a biomedical engineer (Duke University) and a medical doctor (Yale University) as well as Fulbright-supported students from many places in the U.S. I highly recommend that GVSU students apply for Fulbright grants to support their projects and gain international experience. You don’t have to be from Duke or Yale; GVSU is on the radar! Our liberal arts education is valued as preparation for the social agility and practical training expected in the global career marketplace. A GVSU education positions students well to “pick your way” – negotiating cultural differences and adapting your skills to places far and wide. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to become a successful ethnographer.

-By Russell Rhoads, Ph.D. (GVSU Anthropology Department)

IMG_2217-001 photo Russ-Launch-photo

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