By Caitlin Schudalla
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — For most students, choosing a service trip to Africa over a leisurely vacation during spring break would be out of the question, but University of Oklahoma College of Law students Kasey Stricklin, Ronni Laizure and Adam Engel aren’t like most students.
“I always spend my spring break on the beach, but I spoke to a friend about this trip for 5 minutes and it was like fate — I knew that was what I wanted to do, and I couldn’t tell anyone why, but I’m so glad I did it,” Engel said.
Stricklin, Laizure and Engel spent more than two weeks in Gulu, Uganda, at Saint Monica Girls School led by globally-recognized humanitarian Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe.
Sponsored by the Oklahoma-based nonprofit Pros for Africa, the students’ trip was a first-time opportunity to donate their time and legal scholarship by offering classes to St. Monica students on domestic abuse, resources and advocacy, in addition to helping with the school’s daily operations and needs.
Though Uganda has been ravaged by the violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army and continues to struggle with poverty, the students found ready opportunities to make a difference in a social climate that is anything but despondent.
“There’s so much hope at St. Monica’s, in spite of the tragedy that’s taken place in Uganda — it’s like an oasis, it’s the opposite of what I expected,” Engel said.
“There’s so much joy in everything they do,” Laizure agreed.
“Even when we were helping in the clinic, people who needed medical treatment would come up looking very serious, but the minute you smiled and greeted them, they’d break out into these beautiful smiles. Everyone was very kind,” Stricklin said.
In spite of moderate difficulty with language and cultural barriers, the students said their efforts teaching classes were very successful with the help of Sr. Rosemary.
“Domestic violence is a big problem in Uganda. Even in Christian communities polygamy is common and violence of wife-on-wife is a common criminal offense,” Laizure said. “The LRA isn’t active in Uganda anymore but sexual violence and unrest is still very present. They did a lot of damage there and it’s the women and girls who are suffering the most.”
“Sister Rosemary helped us teach the classes and it went very well. Law students who visited before us saw a need for that, and we’re hoping future students can elaborate on this project,” Engel said. “We had to speak more slowly, but Sr. Rosemary was helpful and the students were very receptive.”
In instigating discussion about domestic violence, the students were able to grasp the bigger picture it creates for Ugandan women and help the women of St. Monica’s understand how they can respond.
“Their definition of domestic violence was very different — they considered abortion domestic violence and female children being sold into marriage as domestic violence,” Stricklin said.
“Just defining the concept of domestic violence and abuse was important — it’s not a novel concept but I don’t think everyone in that community has the resources to address it or talk about it constructively and once we got them talking about the impact on the community, we saw a lot of lightbulbs clicking on,” Laizure said. “They see the connections and need for more resources and conversations and that was encouraging to participate in. Ugandan women are incredibly powerful.”
Though the students felt they were able to make a positive impact through their efforts, their week at St. Monica’s shed light on a continued demand for women’s rights projects to which law students could contribute. Traditional beliefs and social structure have created much difficulty for female landowners in Uganda, and land ownership can make the difference between feeding a family and forcing them to migrate elsewhere.
“Attorneys have so much to offer there and we were able to lay groundwork for future women’s rights efforts, and we’d really like to see law students continue that,” Engel said.
Though basic comforts like electricity or hot water were not a part of their week, each student returned having had the Spring Break of a lifetime.
“I talked to friends who complained about how much fast food they ate over spring break, while I helped kids who were so hungry they ate insects on the playground — I feel like my week was a lot more satisfying,” Stricklin said.
“It reminded me of why I want to be a lawyer in the first place,” Laizure said. “I wanted to see the physical results of work — law school is a lot of test-taking and grades but that’s abstract. I wanted to see something I’d done take shape, I wanted to feel the community pull and I did. It was amazing.”
“You can’t talk enough about the personal fulfillment, it can’t be described. It was life-changing,” Engel said.
For more information on Pros for Africa and the St. Monica Girls Schools, visit www.prosforafrica.com.
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