Research & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2014

by Sumru Erkut, Ph.D.

Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women; she served as an Associate Director from 1995 to 2014. Her research has encompassed variations in the course of child and adult development, women and leadership, and educational program evaluation both in the U.S. and abroad.

In June 2014, I had the good fortune to be invited to visit the African Rural University in Uganda, commonly referred to as ARU. There I saw the translation into action of an African system of values, Ubuntu—“A person is a person through other people,” or said in another way, “I am human because you are, and you are because I am,” which emphasizes the co-creation of humanity through interconnectedness. Mwalimu Musheshe, a co-founder of ARU, brings Ubuntu home to ARU’s core values saying, “When you work for the happiness of your village, you help yourself; when you help yourself, you work for the happiness of your village.” ARU, in its mission, core values, and above all in the ways its curriculum effectively integrates theory- and field-based practice, and traditional wisdom exemplifies humanity’s inter-connectedness. During its pilot phase and since receiving a Provisional License in 2011, students work closely with members of the rural community to help fulfill their vision for a better life. The students pass on their learning to community members to empower them to create prosperity and wellbeing. In turn students add to the evolution of the knowledge base of rural transformation and achieve their own fulfillment.

I found that many aspects of ARU are uniquely responsive to the challenges of higher education in Uganda: the typical university curricula fail to address Uganda’s needs where 85 percent of the population is subsistence farmers; there is overcrowding at major higher institutions of learning; and the teaching environment does not necessarily favor females. ARU, located in rural Kagadi in the Kibaale district in western Uganda, admits only women, and offers a course in Technologies for Rural Transformation to the 30 students who are admitted annually. Unlike most universities across the world—where the curriculum is designed by faculty—students who entered ARU during its pilot phase played an active role in developing what is to be taught and how it is to be taught. Traditional wisdom specialists (men and women who are repositories of traditional knowledge) were also instrumental in the codesign process of the curriculum.

ARU, which operates as a financially independent private university, was launched by the Ugandan Rural Development and Training (URDT) program. URDT is an award-winning nongovernmental organization founded by three visionary leaders, among them Mwalimu Musheshe, the current director of URDT, who believed that women, by virtue of their role in society and upbringing, can be effective rural transformation agents. As stated in the institution’s Senate document, “ARU draws on the intrinsic value of a woman leader as a teacher, a mother, a coach, a guide, peacemaker, social integrator, intuitive and rational manager. Women perform integrated work at the family, household, and community levels. These strengths need to be tapped and nurtured for community and continental development.”1

ARU and all other institutions affiliated with URDT, which include the co-educational URDT Institute for Vocational Training and Youth Leadership, a community radio station, and the URDT Girls’ School all operate in accordance with the “Principles of the Creative Process.” In the words of Robert Fritz, who with Peter Senge, influenced URDT’s founding ideology of rural transformation, “The principles of the creative process involve envisioning the outcomes people want to create, in contrast to traditional approaches of trying to get rid of problems.”2 Visioning serves as a method for developing the motivation to create change. It quite simply asks students, families, and communities to visualize what outcome (improvement in their lives) they want, and then to identify the steps they need to take to achieve that outcome in five or ten years. This creative process is practiced at ARU through integrated systems which reinforce each other toward the mutual goal of sustainable rural transformation. The idea behind the integrated systems approach is that one cannot just change one thing, such as water. While water is a key ingredient for agricultural success, there is also the soil condition, the quality of continued on next page fall\winter 2014 7 the seedlings, the nutritional value of the crops grown, the need to add value to harvested crops post-production, finding markets and effective distribution channels, and the like. Thus, the ARU curriculum encompasses not only the visioning methodology, but theoretical and practical knowledge that combines traditional wisdom with scientific approaches necessary to move a community from subsistence farming to sustainable entrepreneurial activity.

On my first day visiting ARU, Jacqueline Akello, the University Secretary (which is the top administrative leadership role at ARU), explained the visioning approach at the Foundations Course. The Foundations Course takes place every day from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. and is led by different speakers (I was asked to be the speaker the next day); all URDT and ARU staff are expected to attend. As Akello explained, ARU students learn how to develop a vision of the improvement in their lives and the lives of their community that they want to achieve, and compare that vision with the current realities. The difference between where they are now and where they want to be generates a creative tension that motivates them to take action and convince others to take action until the envisioned outcome is achieved. Examples of what can be envisioned are made concrete on the URDT campus where ARU is located, there is a model homestead with a garden that people can envision living in; through this visioning process people are encouraged to draw a picture of their aspirational visions.

According to the URDI leaders, the need to launch ARU became evident as students at the URDT Girls’ School were completing their secondary education. The additional knowledge, training, and leadership qualities needed to take up the role of transformational leader in the communities surrounding the school called for the creation of a university. The four-year curriculum, which offers 60 percent theory and 40 percent practical experiences in three years, culminates in a year-long internship during which students live and work in a rural community.

By the time they complete their studies, ARU graduates are ready to take on their roles as transformation agents. URDT hires its graduates to serve as “Epicenter Managers.” Epicenters are a collection of several contiguous villages within a one -or-two hour commuting distance from the campus where ARU graduates assist farmers to engage in sustainable entrepreneurial agricultural practices, lead women’s empowerment groups, and disseminate information on health, education, and wellbeing, while they continue to receive supervision from ARU faculty and carry out action research. The ultimate, long-term vision of URDT is that every village in Uganda— and ultimately Africa—has at least one woman leader, a specialist in rural transformation, putting Ubuntu into practice—working with the community to achieve its vision of a better life, thereby improving her own life.

I found that ARU, because it is a young university, offers many opportunities for partners to work with the institution on staff development, research management, publishing, and leadership development. At the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) there is close alignment between ARU’s core values and our commitment to advancing gender equality in the pursuit of social justice and wellbeing for all, locally and globally. We have some knowledge to share with ARU, accumulated over our 40 years of research, theory development, and action programming. ARU, venturing forth with a well-articulated goal of empowering female students to become rural transformation agents, has much to teach us and the rest of the world in envisioning, developing, and implementing social change effectively. I look forward to realizing ways WCW can work together with ARU on research projects, staff development, and on new initiatives we are able envision with our WCW strategic plan, for example, through a research-based certificate program. We envision that partnering with colleagues such as those at ARU can help WCW further shape a better world for women and girls, families and communities.

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