9 October 2019

UCU in East Africa

Building better relations in today's world

Last summer, 28 University College Utrecht students spent three months in East Africa studying various local contexts. The aim: to enlarge intercultural understanding of the contemporary world and its discrepancies.

university college utrecht, east africa, student fieldwork

The UCU in East Africa programme that runs already for 12 years, covers a broad range of topics, including critical development studies, postcolonialism, globalisation, political economy, international development theory, development policies, and community development methods.

This year, it brought the students to a range of extremely different places. They visited corporate offices in Nairobi as well as impoverished homes in the city’s informal settlements; nature conservation landscapes of Amboseli, dryland ecosystems and indigenous territories of Maasailand in Tanzania, and agricultural lands of Mount Meru; they went to Bagamoyo’s fish markets and the world heritage sites of Zanzibar.

Confrontation with prejudices

As importantly, the programme taught the participating students a lot about themselves, emphasises the programme coordinator, University College Utrecht Lecturer Corey Wright: “In the course of the programme, the students were confronted with tough questions about difference and diversity. They came to question their own assumptions, prejudices and biases, and it made them interrogate their own privilege, positionality and (white) fragility.”

Jana Dimitrova, one of the participating students, could not agree more. “When you are placed in challenging situations, you slowly begin to discover your own limits”, she says. “But you also learn about the personal mechanisms you can use to extend them. Frankly, I learnt much more about myself than anything else, and that was amazing. For me, the special value of the programme primarily lies in how it gives you the opportunity to get a clearer view of who you are as a person.”

Reflecting on experiences

Also third-year student Mark van der Boor was met with surprises. “As a Science student, I have to admit that not everything that we learned and looked at was particularly interesting to me. What I did find fascinating however, was studying and analyzing the stereotypes that the West, or in this case, I, have of ‘Africa’.” 

This led Mark to yet another discovery: “We had reflection sessions that I thought were not adding anything useful to our learning experience, but in hindsight, they were actually very valuable because they offered us a way to process everything we were experiencing. If you study Science, you are never being asked how you feel about something.”

“I was stunned by the honesty and openness that we were able to hold together”, comments Gerard van der Ree, University College Utrecht Lecturer in International Relations, who joined the programme to host the reflective sessions.

“One of the sessions included the de-briefing of a homestay, in which the students had spent two days living in a Maasai boma, a compound. At first there were stories of a beautiful encounter: of bridging cultural difference through wordless play and appreciating beauty in radically different cultures. After that, though, stories of mental shut-down emerged. Students said they had to struggle to remain open-minded while confronting difficult questions about privilege and power. This led to anxiety that comes whey you start to doubt your own certainties.”