The classroom in Uganda with the lyrics of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star written on the board. (Zoe Mamakos)
The classroom in Uganda with the lyrics of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star written on the board.

Zoe Mamakos

Alexa, Play Africa By Toto

October 25, 2019

Bare mango trees, empty, with unripe ones growing on top, are just out of reach. Long dirt roads are beaten down by the radiant African sun. Beautiful greenery, filled in every space you pass, is in every corner you turn. Echoing voices of fragmented English resonate from the classroom. The simple exchanged gestures of understanding: fist bumps, handshakes, and communication with a lack of words. 

With every interaction followed by brightening smiles all around, big, wide, and filled with variety. The kind of smiles and laughter that moves mountains, that evokes a foreign feeling, one most Americans could never feel. A type of feeling that shadows a corner of the world with the purest form of happiness. At least, the corner of the world that 12 students spent 3 weeks of their life in last June. Which some might say, changed their lives; as the experience continues to change more lives, year after year. 


I was one of the very grateful students who went to Uganda last June and the time I spent there felt like a dream. While only going for the first time, I can confidently say that it changed my life. It gave me a sense of purpose and desire to keep moving and enjoy every moment while I’m still living it. I don’t know if my lessons from Uganda will even begin to do the experience justice, but I’ll try anyway. 

As a senior in highschool, I still don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I don’t know what path I’m supposed to follow or what type of person I’m supposed to be. Most seniors get asked a billion times the dreaded question, “What are you doing next year?” And no one can truthfully say they know who they are yet, but to tell you the truth, in Uganda, you didn’t need to know who you are. All I needed to know was that my name is Zoe and I’m here to help build a school for children in Uganda. It was as simple as that. There were no questions about your future or the  past. All you needed to do was to live in the moment and gracefully move on to the next. The ticking clock of time was no obstacle and in fact didn’t even matter most days. We woke up when the sun did, ate when the food was ready, and slept when the night shut down. That was only one of the remarkable things about the Ugandan culture that inspired me. 

I’ve never in my whole entire life seen people so determined to get a single task done. Us Americans, we put things off by nature. We stop the progress on one task and move on to try and accomplish more relevant tasks with the little time we have left. And in between tasks we get distracted with the 21st century technology so easily obtainable at our fingertips. Whereas in Uganda, that wasn’t a distraction. The only distraction to the tasks at hand in Uganda were the things I was seeing with my eyes and living through. Everyday I saw the beauty of the many kids surrounding me with smiles and affection. The experience forced me to see that the best parts of life aren’t lived on a screen, but in the incredible encounters with people, places, and things that touch your heart. Now, I constantly think about my three weeks without social media and try to take breaks from the social world to experience everything around me while it’s still happening. 

My favorite part of the trip in itself was the day I got to teach a class of kids at the worksite of the school we were helping to build. The wonderful opportunity to sit in on a class was initially my idea one work day, and Mooney made it happen a day later. I went into the classroom and the teacher ushered me to the front and asked me if I’d teach a lesson. Me, a totally confused teen with no teaching experience, didn’t know what to do. I tried one thing but to no avail I started teaching a song. With around 10 repetitions in, around 50 young children were singing the lyrics to “Twinkle twinkle little star.” I remember standing at the front of the class looking around to see everything I created in that room. The joyous sound of children’s voices and laughter flooded the area and poured out of the windows. That moment will always be stuck with me when I think about my time in Uganda, it truly was the moment that changed everything for me. 


The experience I organize for Ames students is called the Uganda Service Learning Project. We go to Uganda for 3 weeks, we pay for and help in the construction of classrooms and teacher housing for a school while we hang out with people in a rural village in Uganda. It’s definitely more learning than service because Ugandans can teach us way more than we can serve them. I consider it one of the great privileges of my life that I have been able to lead these experiences for 16 summers in a row. Our first trip was in 2004.

In the late 1980’s, I lived and worked in Kampala Uganda for three years as Uganda was emerging from a gloomy 14 year era of civil war, genocide and severe poverty. It was an experience that profoundly shaped me and my world views. Living in Uganda for 3 years was the best preparation I could have gotten to teach the social sciences, which I’ve been doing ever since. 

People frequently ask me “How was Uganda this year?” The question I would rather answer is “why do you keep going back to Uganda?” The reason is pretty simple: they learn more from experiences than they do from information. Experiences have powerful potential to impact a young person’s values and life trajectory. A lot of people tell me “the Uganda trip was life changing,” my response is, not necessarily, yes it can be, I don’t think you can really measure that and I’m fine not trying to measure it.  I personally keep going back for selfish reasons; Ugandans teach me how to rest and live well, they show me how to be generous and they remind me of the value of authentic community.

In the United States of America, rest is a vanishing commodity, an endangered species of behavior. Ugandans teach me the futility of hurry. Their body language, speech and actions say “slow down, stop chasing whatever it is your chasing, let’s chat.” I don’t even wear a watch for the 19 days we are in Uganda because I don’t need to. I find myself immensely refreshed by this. People who live in rural villages don’t care what time it is, it doesn’t matter. Rural Ugandans are self employed, they grow food, take care of livestock, fetch water and maintain their houses.  The sun comes up, it lingers through the morning, turns to an afternoon heat and or thunderstorm followed by the cool of the evening. The same thing tomorrow. Consequently when these villagers (no condescension intended) ask you, “How are you?” they have time to listen. Conversation is an art form and a well developed skill. I am only describing superficially what I find refreshing, let’s call it resting and living well.

Working on a construction project in rural Uganda reveals to us Americans how much we value productivity.  The Ames group assesses each task with the view, “but this would be so much more efficient if did it another way. The skilled bricklayers and carpenters and parents of the village just smile and say, “who cares if it’s not the most efficient way; this work will be here tomorrow and will eventually get finished. Let’s sing and dance and enjoy your presence here with us now.” In Uganda, community trumps productivity, and apparently people are more important than any measure of efficiency. It makes me ask, when and by whom was efficient productivity declared Lord of all human flesh? People in the village remind me to reject the notion that productivity and profit should be our highest priority. Who knew that walking or biking to school unhurried would give me so much satisfaction?  Ugandan villagers remind me of the value of authentic community; to try to enjoy being with those around me in the moment, in the rhythms and rituals of daily life.


Being a part of the Uganda Service Learning project is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity, an unbelievable experience, and a unique chance to experience the world. Everything they say is true, but Mooney says it best:

My life will run out before money. Enjoy the fall colors Ames High, relish the crisp autumn breezes. Repent from working so much. I tell AHS students ‘Ugandans will teach you more than you teach them.’ 35 years ago, as a youth, I went to Uganda thinking I was going to change Africa. My greatest hope returning to Africa now is that Africa changes me.


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