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First person: Energized in Uganda

A winter break of building and learning across the world

Spring/Summer 2014 | By Anna Meding

Editor's note: Anna Meding, a junior majoring in environmental studies and German, was among a team of UW-Madison students who traveled to Uganda in January, helping to construct a biogas system at the Lweza Primary School.

Their trip, funded by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, was an extension of an undergraduate environmental studies service-learning course examining domestic and international dimensions of renewable energy technologies. 

UW students partnered with peers from Uganda’s Makerere University to design and build a biogas system that will convert a mixture of latrine, food and animal wastes into a clean-burning source of cooking fuel and organic fertilizer – providing the school’s 700 children and 20 teachers with improved public hygiene and a reliable source of renewable energy. 

Drawing on her experiences, Meding prepared this journal report.

January 9, 2014

UW-Madison student Anna Meding in Uganda
Environmental studies major Anna Meding dances
with Lweza Primary School students
in Uganda.

“Keep Up!” Dorothy calls over her shoulder. I am briskly walking through the stalls of the main market in Kampala, Uganda, each space crowded with clothing, jewelry, electronics, and most of all, people. Due to lost luggage, I am still in my sweaty travel clothing and am drawing countless stares from market-goers. Dorothy ducks into a small store and I follow. 

My head lifts and my eyes travel around the small room. It is stacked so high with jeans that I do not notice the store owner standing right in front of me. Surprised, I break my upward stare. He is short and stylish, wearing jeans, a printed T-shirt, and a thin gold chain around his neck. I feel his eyes appraising me as I look questioningly at Dorothy.

In that instant, numerous pairs of jeans begin to be stacked in my hands without having said a word. I try them on and they fit perfectly. I walk out of the dressing room in a form-fitting pair of skinny jeans and Dorothy declares in her Ugandan accent,“You are getting those.” I had only met Dorothy that morning at breakfast, my first breakfast in Uganda. 

Four other UW-Madison undergraduates and I had arrived in Uganda the previous evening. Four months earlier, my travel companions had been unknown faces in a Nelson Institute environmental studies capstone class on anaerobic digestion, a renewable energy technology. The class was instructed by two Nelson Institute Ph.D. students, Aleia McCord and Sarah Stefanos, who conduct most of their research on small-scale anaerobic digestion in Uganda. Together they had received the Baldwin grant and selected five Nelson undergraduate students from the capstone to accompany them on their research trip over winter break. 

Walking into the class on that first day, I knew very little about anaerobic digestion. Academic articles, field trips and guest lectures guided our studies as we learned the process of placing organic matter, such as cow manure, human waste and food waste, into oxygen-free conditions, allowing microorganisms to digest it, and creating biogas, a gas largely composed of methane. 

"I would never have believed
that one class could take me
so far beyond the borders of
the classroom, so greatly
influence the areas in which
I hope to continue my education,
and create such a strong
network of global connections."

We researched the differences in the technology across the world, from systems that take the manure of thousands of cows in the United States and produce electricity with the biogas, to small-scale systems in the developing world, where the biogas is typically used for cooking or lighting. 

This type of micro-scale system is what we were working on in Uganda. It was being installed at Lweza Primary School in Mukono, Uganda, to replace their pit latrines, which would eliminate the need to repeatedly build new latrines when they become full, as well as provide methane gas instead of firewood for cooking school lunches. 

A few weeks before departure, each of the UW-Madison undergraduates were given a task for completion on the trip and partnered with a Ugandan undergraduate student. I was partnered with Gideon Monday, who already had been working with the Lweza school for a number of months. Gideon and I were assigned to create an educational workshop for the students, so they could learn how to care for their new digester. 

January 16, 2014

My body feels lighter knowing I have completed the educational biogas workshop. In the hot Ugandan sun, I have a chain of children grasping my hands as I try to move over to a bench. We had spent the past hour dancing in the courtyard of Lweza, and I honestly just need to sit down and rest. I find a seat along the side of the school and instantly have young girls on either side of me and one in my lap. They chatter away, mostly in Luganda, of which I understand none. Their speech and their continuous smiles keep me more than preoccupied. 

The past week and a half had been spent planning presentations, creating visual games, encouraging our fellow university students to participate in skits, compiling a packet of information for the Lweza teachers, and organizing a fantastic lunch. During the course of the same week, my undergraduate colleagues worked on multiple projects that brought other aspects of our semester-long capstone to life, from engineering a solid and liquid separation technology for use in the digester, to performing interviews and waste audits around the community. 

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When the sunny day of our workshop finally arrives, we all crowd into the white van and traverse the bumpy roads to Lweza. Attendees begin arriving slowly; by the time the workshop begins, the main hall contained a few hundred pairs of eager eyes watching and learning about their new anaerobic digester. 

The first presentation by Gideon explained what biogas was and how it would be used for cooking at their school; next came the skits where American undergraduates performed tasks that would be made easier with biogas, such as no longer needing to carry firewood, then finally came a game where we displayed images of different waste types and asked the children if those materials could enter an anaerobic digestion system. The children shouted out the answers, and it was great to hear a few hundred voices loudly cheering “biogas!” 

January 25, 2014 

I am sitting in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, completing homework. I decide to take an email break, and I find a message from my Ugandan partner in this project, Gideon. We have kept in close contact since my return to Madison. His email says that the Lweza digester construction will soon be completed and they hope to have their first gas generated within the month. 

Gideon is now working on another feasibility study for an anaerobic digester, just as the UW-Madison students continue to work on independent study projects with Sarah and Aleia concerning anaerobic digestion. 

I lean back in my comfy red chair and reflect on my entire Ugandan experience. I would never have believed that one class could take me so far beyond the borders of the classroom, so greatly influence the areas in which I hope to continue my education, and create such a strong network of global connections. I found all that and more in my Nelson Institute capstone. 

I read the last line of Gideon’s email: “…otherwise, you can’t imagine how I am missing you Anna! Send my regards to Mammy and Dad. Blessed weekend. Yours, Gideon.” And then I contentedly return to my homework. 

Slide show photos and captions courtesy Anna Meding.

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