Mid Returns From Year in Uganda
By MCSN Michael Croft, Trident Staff
Midn. 2⁄C Katherine Voigt, center, poses with members of her third grade class. Voigt
spent seven months in Uganda teaching math and basic English to third and fourth grade
She wanted to change the world, but what she changed was herself.
Midn. 2⁄C Katherine Voigt wanted to travel to Africa. She had a strong desire to
do something to help others, and believed that was the best place for her to go.
There was only one problem. She was a United States Naval Academy
Midshipman, and she had a choice to make. She could leave the Naval Academy
at the end of her Third Class year, but there was no guarantee she would be
allowed to return. Voigt took that chance, and it paid off. Armed with little more
than a desire to help others, she embarked on her personal mission.
Voigt raised the money herself and traveled to Uganda, a small landlocked
country in eastern Africa, to live and work for seven months. While she was there,
Voigt taught math and English to third and fourth grade students in a local school
during the day, and worked in an orphanage at night.
For Voigt, one thing that was hard to get used to in Uganda was the lack of
creature comforts that most Americans take for granted. Voigt lived in a small
two-room hut with no running water or electricity and cooked all her food on a
little fire outside.
‘‘My hut was nicer than the average hut,” said Voigt. ‘‘My toilet was just a hole in
the ground out back and my shower was a bag of water that I filled up in the well.
The only electricity we had was on the weekends at night if the town 10
kilometers away remembered to turn it on. I remember sitting around on a Friday
night waiting for it to come on so I could watch a movie, and then got
disappointed when it wouldn’t come on.”
Living conditions were not the only thing Voigt had to get used to. The local diet
was something of an eye opener as well. According to Voigt, the locals didn’t eat
dairy products because there was no way to keep them from spoiling.
‘‘They don’t eat a lot of meat,” Voigt added. ‘‘Meat is only served when they have
guests because it is so expensive.”
Voigt said one of the biggest challenges she had while teaching was how to
discipline the children. Corporal punishment is generally accepted in Ugandan
culture, but Voigt wasn’t comfortable with that.
‘‘During class when someone would act up I wasn’t going to beat them, so I had
to come up with effective ways to discipline them,” Voigt said. ‘‘One way was to
draw a circle on the chalk board and make them keep their nose in the circle. All
the other kids laughed at them and it worked well.”
Voigt also struggled with accepting the vast differences between educational
standards in Uganda compared to what she knew of the American educational
‘‘The biggest challenge for me was [to] really get them to understand the
knowledge because for them it’s just so much so fast,” said Voigt. ‘‘We would go
through multiplication, division, addition and subtraction all in a month, and it was
hard to understand that they had no concept.”
Other experiences were more somber. Voigt said her first visits to the orphanage
were horrific. The home housed children who were abandoned or whose parents
died. The orphanage was not well-equipped or well-staffed.
‘‘I went over there with the mindset that I was going to change the world and
save lives, but easily saw within the first week that it was me that was going to
change,” said Voigt.
After seven months, Voigt returned home, and discovered that her time in
Uganda had definitely had an impact on her.
‘‘The cultural shock was way worse coming back than going over there,” said
Voigt. ‘‘I got sick on any kind of fried foods and had a hard time talking with
anyone when I came back. Over there if you don’t have anything to say you stay
quiet. After I got back here I would think to myself, ‘I could add that to the
conversion,’ but realize it wasn’t that important and keep quiet.”
Voigt realized other differences as well. She said that Ugandans value many
aspects of life differently from most Americans, and it was hard to come back and
see how much Americans have and how much they take it for granted. However,
Voigt views her time in Uganda as a growing experience.
‘‘[This trip] gave me confidence in who I am,” said Voigt. ‘‘I have a greater
respect for the value of life and personal relationships. I had a company-mate die
while I was gone and when my Senior Chief told me it hit me pretty hard.
‘‘I remember being so overwhelmed because death is so common over there but
it’s never supposed to hit the home front,” Voigt said. ‘‘When it hit me it made me
realize how much I take [life] for granted here and how much I don’t value my
friendships and take the time. I feel like now I can stop and enjoy the day-to-day
and not worry so much about changing the world.”