Researcher Alumni Spotlight: Paige Balcom

Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of life in different placements. This month, Samantha Steiner, a 2017 ETA in Argentina, talked with Paige Balcom, a 2016-2017 Researcher in Uganda. 

1. Why Uganda?

During my sophomore year of college, I traveled to Uganda for two weeks with Engineers Without Borders to work on a clean water project. I loved Uganda and wanted to go back, so I applied for a Fulbright grant.

2. How was your grant location different from the U.S.?

I lived in the village of Lukodi in northern Uganda, and it was so different from the U.S.! I lived in a mud hut with no electricity, fetched water from a borehole daily, washed my clothes by hand, used bodas (motorcycle taxis) for transportation, wore long skirts every day, used a latrine and bucket shower, cooked on a charcoal stove, and lived and worked outside all day. Village life is very agrarian, so I helped with planting, weeding, harvesting, and winnowing crops frequently. Ugandans have close, vibrant communities and are extremely friendly and generous. People invited me to their homes all the time and always shared whatever they had. Dancing, singing, and drumming are also important parts of Ugandan culture and are beautiful to watch and so much fun to join in! I was never able to match the Ugandan’s natural grace and rhythm though. The food is very different from American food. The Ugandan diet is very starchy, and since I lived at a school, the diet was even more limited. We ate boiled cassava (a starchy root vegetable) with tea every morning, beans and posho (maize flour cooked to a firm, dough-like consistency) for lunch, and the same for dinner, often with a vegetable added. On Saturdays, we feasted on goat! All the food is extremely fresh and wholesome, and the fruit is amazing! During mango season, we collected the fresh fruit and ate basins full of delicious juiciness.

3. Tell us about your research project.
My project involved researching the technical, cultural, and economic feasibility of aquaponics in Uganda. I spent time with the founder of the Africa Aquaponics Association located in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, but I mainly partnered with ChildVoice International, an NGO which runs a vocational school for child mothers traumatized by civil wars in northern Uganda and South Sudan. The school is located in the village of Lukodi, and I lived there and built two aquaponics systems for their farm. It was challenging to design and build a system without electricity or easy access to suppliers for parts. I tried to blend local aquaculture practices with western aquaponics methods to create a user-centered design. From a research perspective, I built two systems to compare the results of growing plants in gravel versus sand. I found the sand was a better medium because the rocks retained too much heat from the scorching equatorial sun.

I took on a second project at the school to improve the health of fish in the school’s three existing fish ponds. I got a lot of helpful advice from the District Fisheries Officer and a local aquaculture masters student and was able to improve the dissolved oxygen levels in the ponds, source higher quality fish fingerlings, and begin making our own improved feed.

4. What does a typical weekday look like for you?

Each day was so different and never went as planned, but it always started and ended with prayers with the students. I woke up with the sun, sometimes went for a run (I’d often pass lots of smiling children walking to school, and they’d laugh at me and often run with me, or we’d kick their soccer ball made of tightly wadded plastic bags), then headed down to the farm to check on the fish. Everyone stopped working and had tea at around 8:30 in the morning. Sometimes I spent time reading about how to design aquaponics systems or run a fish pond, and other days I worked with the farmers mixing fish feed or measuring and harvesting fish. I spent a lot of time testing water and experimenting with different sands for the aquaponics plant-growing medium. Once we started building the aquaponics systems, I was always down on the farm helping with construction or debugging problems like clogged pumps. When I needed to use the internet or find materials, I traveled a half hour to the town of Gulu.

Everyone had lunch together at 1. It was always nice to take a break from work, sit in the shade, and chat with the staff. If I wasn’t too busy, I visited classes and learned with the students—my favorite was bakery! Many afternoons, the girls had sports or dance, and I loved to join in their football (soccer), netball, and volleyball games or traditional dances. I wasn’t a very good dancer, but we all laughed together.

In the evenings, I joined the girls working in their gardens, fetching water from the borehole, washing clothes, and cleaning the huts. If we had time, I loved to sit outside our huts to watch the sunset, laugh, play cards, listen to the radio, cook, and have fun together. The generator ran for a few hours every night, and everyone gathered for prayers in a large open hut under the light. We sang, danced, drummed, and prayed together. No matter what challenges the day had brought, this gathering was a beautiful reminder of faith, community, and love.

5. How did you connect with your community outside of the classroom?

Since I lived at the school, I was with the students and staff all day long. We connected because we did everything together. Sometimes the language barrier was challenging, but I found that joining in activities, laughing at my mistakes, playing with their kids, and just goofing off with the students helped us connect. Outside of the school, I met people at church and made friends with Ugandans in Gulu town through a friend from the U.S. who lived there. People often invited me to their homes to share meals together. I visited refugee camps, attended a Ugandan wedding, marched in a Woman’s Day parade, and made paper beads with a Ugandan friend.

6. What were some of the challenges you faced during your grant term?

I contracted typhoid fever twice while I was in Uganda. The first time it was difficult to identify the proper medicine (different strains respond to different treatments), so I visited a lot of hospitals and was sick on and off for three months. It was frustrating to feel so weak and be unable to work or participate in activities with the students, but it was also beautiful and humbling to be cared for so well by my Ugandan friends.

I also faced a myriad of challenges with the aquaponics systems. I often felt clueless and doubted I could accomplish the project. I was an engineer—I didn’t know anything about fish! I struggled to find the proper pumps, source large enough catfish, and find fish feed ingredients. There were delays and difficulties working with suppliers and technicians. The liners leaked, pipes clogged, the sun scorched the plants, the dissolved oxygen was too low, and the goats ate the vegetables. However, I learned from each setback and now better understand how to work in a developing country. It was also difficult being away from my family for nearly a year, especially during the holidays.

7. What were some of the highlights?

The people were definitely the highlight! I didn’t think it was possible to come to love people so much so quickly, but by immersing myself in every activity and living in the community, I became deeply connected. I loved daily prayers, dancing with the students, playing football, enjoying meals in friends’ homes, and hearing their stories. Attending school graduation and a Ugandan wedding were special events, and riding bodas over dusty, bumpy roads was always exhilarating. Sunrises, sunsets and the starry night sky were always spectacular. I also really loved learning from the farmers, and it was exciting when the aquaponics systems were successful. Harvesting and eating the fish and vegetables we grew was so rewarding!

8. Why should prospective grantees apply to Uganda?

Because it’s the best country! Uganda is extremely beautiful, the culture is rich, and the people are truly special. Their lives are pictures of strength, resilience, hard work, and triumph over pain, and yet they are so warm, friendly, and welcoming. Living among Ugandan people will change you.

9. How has living in Uganda changed you?

Living in Uganda changed me in so many monumental ways. I miss the people, culture, and country so much; I dream every day of going back. After I finish graduate school, I hope to move to Uganda and work in engineering and international development. Ugandan culture taught me to value community more and remember that people are the most important part of life. I realized the importance and joy of simple things like taking time to watch a sunset or chat with friends. I learned to enjoy life at a slower pace and not stress when things are delayed or plans change unexpectedly. After visiting refugee camps where people have absolutely nothing, their blank, hopeless faces staring at me are forever etched in my mind. I heard stories from my Ugandan friends of how they were abducted as children and forced to become soldiers or how they watched family members be killed by rebels or how they survived famine and genocide, and my heart continually breaks for them. When I think of Ugandan children who can’t afford to go to school, or people I know without clean water or an adequate amount food, or my friends’ kids who died from malaria, I question why I was born with so much. The ChildVoice matron always started nightly prayers with, “Thank you Lord for keeping us safe through this day because there are many who have died and not made it to this night.” I am now more aware of and thankful for the things I often take for granted—family, health, food, clean water, education, electricity. I desire to exert all my effort to help others access these basic needs. While I am deeply saddened by the poverty and injustice I saw in Uganda, I am also inspired by the people’s joy, tenacity, perseverance, and hope for the future.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Not all Fulbrighters to Uganda or African countries live in rural villages like I did. Most live in the capital or large towns and travel to the remote regions when doing field research. While living in the village of Lukodi made it more difficult to accomplish work, I think the cultural experience was richer. I truly enjoyed living in a village and am thankful for the opportunity to experience the community, daily life, and struggles of the majority of Ugandans. I think living at the school and spending every minute of every day with the people there helped me more fully grasp the culture and history of Uganda, understand the realities of village life, and form friendships as strong as family bonds. However, I know Fulbrighters who lived in large towns made great cultural connections and friendships as well.

Paige Balcom is from Londonderry, New Hampshire. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and is now pursuing her M.S./PhD in Mechanical Engineering with minors in Development Engineering and Design at UC Berkeley. Her graduate research focuses on transforming plastic waste into roofing tiles in Uganda. 

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