A Summer in Jinja, A Lifetime of Appreciation

By Cindy Mei (Medill, '21)

Christine rocked back and forth in the minivan, waiting for her stop. These white 14-seater vans are the public buses that Christine Hwang, ‘21, has familiarized herself with over the course of her eight week GESI program in Jinja, Uganda. She smiled amusingly at the woman in front of her, who passed her bundled baby to a stranger, as the woman rearranged her things to depart the bus.

This kind of community solidarity is one of the unique aspects of Jinja that Christine misses from her time abroad. “Everything is run by the community [in Jinja],” said Christine, “that closeness is hard to imagine in a Western setting.” Even policing is a community-wide effort. “If someone steals, or a crime happens, a mob of community members come together like vigilantes,” she stated.

When Christine traveled to Jinja in the summer of 2019 to intern for an organization called Community Concerns Uganda (CCUg), she never imagined the grand impact that these eight weeks would have.

CCUg is a community-based organization aimed at educational, gender and class equity, specifically for women. Christine focused her research on gender-based violence in Jinja’s schools at CCUg. At the end of her internship, Christine and her team developed a 35-page report about gender-based violence in Jinja’s schools, based on extensive literature reviews, interviews with students and teachers and quantitative data. Eventually, her team led a training session with 20-some Jinja teachers on how to prevent gender-based violence in school settings.

Beyond the meaningful work Christine did at CCUg, she also developed a strong bond with her host family, who she still keeps in touch with to this day. A mom, a sister, a brother, another brother and another brother make up Christine’s welcoming host family. From watching football (soccer) matches to waking up at 6 a.m. to catch the sunrise atop a nearby hill, Christine cherishes all the small moments that helped form a lasting impression. She even taught one of her host brothers Chinese. He would then proceed to yell “Chi fan le!” (Time for dinner!) whenever they ate.

Coming back to Northwestern the following fall, Christine had a lot to reflect on. “I struggled to wrap my head around this experience,” she said. After finally adjusting to life in Jinja after eight weeks, she realized she had to leave again. “[GESI] emphasizes sustainability, building sustainable relationships,” Christine started, “making sure that the work you’re doing can be continued on in some way.”

So how do you reconcile with the fact that your placement is temporary? Christine worked with CCUg for two months, but to her, it wasn’t enough time. “It was hard to know what sustainability looked like when I was there, because likely I wasn’t going to return to Jinja,” she answered honestly. “How do I keep in touch with my host family? How do I share what I experienced with other people?”

Still to this day, Christine is processing her time in Jinja. What helped was reflecting on her positionality, in and out of Uganda. “I was someone who was able to go and have this experience in a relatively safe way,” she stated. “I made sure to be aware of my impact and interactions with other people, and that I’m speaking from my own experiences.”

There is no right or wrong answer in how we process our time abroad. Living in another country is as mentally, physically and spiritually draining as it is rewarding. And yet the memories and lessons we learn during our time as guests in someone else’s country, someone else’s home and someone else’s shoes are priceless. Christine’s time abroad is reflective of her personal experience in Jinja, and she will carry her appreciation for those eight weeks for a long time.

As a matter of fact, Christine might return to Jinja after all. As a post-graduation plan, Christine applied for a Princeton in Africa fellowship in hopes that she may continue working on community-based development projects in Africa.

To help her share her experiences with a broader audience, Christine even created a short form video diary of her time in Jinja. View Christine’s video here: