Adongo means “the one who stays” in the northern region of Uganda. The women of the Dkolo tribe named me Adongo Jessica that day, telling me they wanted me to “stay forever.” The love, acceptance and honor I felt in that moment, when my Ugandan friends named me, is insurmountable.
I left their village that day with a new name, full heart, and my master’s thesis data collected.
This story truly began six months prior to that moment. I had been given the incredible opportunity to travel to Uganda by my professor to aid an NGO in-country. My ultimate research dreams were coming to fruition--I was going to be conducting a photovoice over gender-based agriculture issues with smallholder female farmers in Uganda. But I needed help.
The timeline in which this thesis project was made available to me was out of alignment with many funding opportunities and grant application deadlines--including the application for The Texas A&M Center on Conflict and Development’s student grants.
I decided to contact ConDev anyway--and sure enough, I was answered with encouragement and support. ConDev was gracious enough to fund the 10 cameras I needed for my photovoice. This placed a tool for communication and self-expression in the hands of 10 Ugandan women.
Six months flew by. I sat on an airplane to Uganda by myself--a little unsure of what the next three weeks had in store for me. When I arrived at Entebbe airport, Emma, an intern for the NGO Field of Hope, greeted me outside.
While I was there, Field of Hope tasked me with taking photos and videos to document their programs that support agriculture education, Ugandan leadership, and women’s empowerment. Through this opportunity, I met many wonderful people, danced at a Ugandan wedding, ate cassava, and explored the beautiful country that is Uganda.
After about a week of traveling, photographing, and working in Uganda, we arrived at the villages that I asked to participate in my study. We came to Apac, the first village, on a Sunday after their church service. As I stepped foot into the dirt floor, handmade brick building, the light from the open windows shined onto 30 pairs of curious eyes. I spoke to the group, explained that I would teach five women how to use a camera and ask them to take photos of their daily lives, and then come together again for a focus group. My good friend, Agnes, translated every word for me, and helped me answer the ladies’ questions.
That day ended with five women, camera in hand, leaving their church with giddiness and excitement.
I was without familiar friends, mentors or guidance in a country that was not my own, asking strangers to photograph their lives for me. I was scared. But after my first interaction with my new participants--and seeing how excited and open they were to help me, my nerves were gone, and I felt a sense of relief and confidence wash over my body. I realized then that I truly could do everything I came to Uganda to do.
The next day we traveled to Dkolo and repeated the process. These kind women showed the same excitement as the ladies at Apac the day prior. After I introduced them to their cameras, we ended the meeting with food they had prepared for my FOH team and I. I say under a straw roof, surrounded by mud-built walls and ate chicken, cabbage, beans and--of course--cassava.
As the weeks went by, I continued my job with FOH, took hundreds of pictures, and that nervousness in the pit of my stomach grew. The ending focus groups were the final challenge. I knew my procedure, methods, script, questions. I was prepared. I had everything I could possibly need. But a shadow of doubt followed me. Why? I am not too sure. Maybe I felt inexperienced, out of my element. I reflected on how far I had come on this journey: I had flown on a plane to a strange country all by myself, explored Uganda, met incredible people, and already started the hard part of this project.
Traveling back to Apac, I let that doubt fade, and my confidence grow again. These women have important stories that need to be shared, and it is my job to share them. I took that purpose with me back into the church, where my five participants met me.
They showed me every single photo they took. They smiled as they pointed out their crops. Their voices showed strength when they pridefully showed me their ox plows. They were happy to identify their babies, and grandbabies in photos taken of their family. They explained how it is their job to grow the crops, cook the food, raise the children and keep their families together.
After each one showed me their pictures, they picked out the ones that they thought best identified themselves as a woman in agriculture. The group and I discussed their photos, what it is like to be a woman-farmer, and other aspects of their lives.
I will never forget the warmth in their Ugandan handshakes, and the sound of their voice telling me “apoyo,” meaning thank you as I left.
This experience was more than I could have ever asked for. I completed thesis research that I never thought possible for myself, but more importantly I was let into the lives for these ten incredible women. Their kindness, and my time in their country, are things I will never forget.
While I was a little too late to apply for the Texas A&M Center on Conflict and Development’s student grants, others do not have to be. The help from ConDev gave me the most incredible experience of my young-adult life, and the platform to perform valuable and important research that has the potential to help those who truly need help.
Author: Jessica Spence
Jessica Spence is a Master's student in the Agriculture Leadership, Education and Communications department at Texas A&M University studying international agriculture development and visual communications.