To build a library
Kendra Smith hopes to leave a lasting legacy when she departs next summer from the Ugandan village that has been her home since the summer of 2012.
Her goal is to build a small library out of recycled materials and supply it with books to encourage literacy in the rural community of Omungari.
The village is about 100 miles west of Lake Victoria in the East African country of Uganda, which lies between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Smith, a 2005 Hudson High School graduate, is a Peace Corps volunteer.
She’s been working as an HIV/AIDS and malaria educator over the past year and helping out at the Engari Health Center, where HIV-positive individuals come for support, counseling, free cell-count checks and medication.
Smith’s home is two-room house on the health center compound. It doesn’t have running water or electricity, but it does have a pit toilet.
“The people in my community are extremely friendly and welcoming,” Smith wrote in a lengthy email message to the Star-Observer. “Most people are very curious about mzungus (white people). Even though I have been living in my village for 15 months, people still stop what they are doing to watch me.
“In a way, I realize what it is like to be a celebrity with all of the constant attention. The children are especially curious, and I often find them looking in my windows to see what I am up to.”
Smith had to travel 35 minutes by car to the city of Ibanda, the district capital, for Internet access to send the message.
There’s now a tarmac road lined with electricity poles between Ibanda and Omungari, she said, but things change mpora, mpora (slowly, slowly) in the village. The power poles were put up in April, but nothing has happened since then.
Smith contacted the Star-Observer by email to request publicity about her library project. She’s asking for donations of books and money to buy books for the library.
One of the things her Ugandan supervisor told her when she arrived in Omungari was, “If you want to hide information in Africa, put it in a book.”
“It struck me hard because I love reading and it has helped me pass the time a lot in this country,” Smith wrote. “I could not imagine never experiencing that feeling of getting lost in a book and letting it take you somewhere else.”
It became her goal to pique interest in reading among the people of Omungari before she departs next summer.
“Even if I saw the results with a few people, hopefully, those people would encourage others to read, creating a snowball effect, eventually causing this small village to have a reading culture,” Smith wrote. “Change in Uganda happens slowly, so I will most likely not see the results of my work, but at least an effort has been made in the right direction.”
Smith will receive grant funds for the materials to build the library.
It will be about 20- by 40-feet in size, and located next to a primary school that her Ugandan supervisor is building in the village.
The plan is to use recycled plastic bottles filled with trash in the construction of the walls, which will save money and help clean up the community.
“I am hoping to have the students and adults help with the actual construction process of filling the bottles with trash and placing them into the building, since it is a fairly simple process,” Smith wrote.
“The hope is that the community will take ownership of this library and take interest in caring for and maintaining it, as well as utilize the resources available for years to come.”
Because most of the grant money will be used to build the library, Smith is seeking donations to supply it with books.
She has created an account at www.gofundme.com/51x6h0 that people can use to donate money by credit or debit card. She said checks shouldn’t be sent to Uganda. If people want to write a check, they should communicate with her by email at email@example.com.
Smith is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. She hopes current students and the university will contribute books for the library. Her family lives in the Hudson area and will arrange a spot where the books can be dropped off, she said. Again, contact her by email to make arrangements.
Books can be sent directly to her at: Kendra Smith, PCV, P.O. Box 806, Mbarara, Uganda, East Africa.
Smith is the daughter of Dana and Jeanne Smith. Her father managed Bob Smith’s Sports Club in downtown Hudson for many years. Her grandfather started the bar and restaurant more than 53 years ago. The family recently sold by the establishment.
Smith’s interest in overseas travel was sparked the summer before her junior year in high school when she traveled to Malta, Italy and France with the People To People organization.
She entered UW-River Falls, and later transferred to UW-La Crosse, with the idea of pursuing a degree in archaeology. But she discovered that most archeologists focus on one society, and tend to be professors, neither of which interested her.
A guidance counselor at UW-La Crosse suggested that she look into the Peace Corps after learning about her interests in travel and culture. She returned to UW-River Falls and participated in three study-abroad programs (Belize, China and Europe) before graduating in 2010 with a degree in sociology and a minor in anthropology.
During her study abroad in Europe, Smith volunteered at homeless shelters in London and Malta.
After graduating from UW-River Falls, she attended Century College for certification in phlebotomy (blood drawing), which she thought would be helpful to her as a Peace Corps volunteer in the health sector.
Smith also went through training with the Minnesota AIDS Project to be an HIV/AIDS community educator, and used the training to work with chemical dependency groups. She went to health fairs, youth events and the gay pride parade in Minneapolis as an AIDS educator, too.
In addition, she received training through the Minnesota Literacy Council to teach English as a second language, and put the training to use at the Rondo Library in St. Paul.
Smith worked at the Hudson Physicians Clinic lab from August 2011 until her departure for Uganda in May 2012.
Jeanne Smith said she misses and worries about her daughter, but knows she is following her passion and admires her courage.
She said Kendra’s Peace Corps supervisor has complimented her for staying positive despite difficulties.
“She’s a great kid,” Jeanne said. “She’s always laughing — always has a smile. Her friends all say that she is wonderful to be with. I can’t wait until next year when she can come home.”
Mother and daughter talk weekly by cell phone.
Kendra Smith in her own words
Editor's Note: Below are excerpts from Kendra Smith’s reply by email when asked to write about the community in East African nation of Uganda where she is serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.
I live in a rural village in southwestern Uganda, to be more specific Omungari Village in Kiruhura District. My village is so small it is not even on a Ugandan map.
My organization is called Life Child Initiative (LICHI). It was started by my Ugandan supervisor, Solomon, in 2001, along with a few other funders. Solomon was born and raised in this village and wanted to give back, so he started this organization. LICHI partners with two health centers and I stay at one of them, Engari Community Health Center. The other health center is in Biguli, which is about a three-hour drive on a narrow (at times barely seen) dirt path, and is even more remote than Omungari.
I have a two-room house on the Engari Health Center compound. I have a living room that is also my kitchen and a bedroom with a little bathing area.
I do not have running water or electricity, and I have a pit latrine for a toilet. I have to take bucket baths, which is exactly like it sounds — literally a bucket or basin filled with water, often cold, to bathe myself. Ugandans just use their hands, but most Peace Corps volunteers use a cup to help wash hair and everything else.
The previous Peace Corps volunteer at my site had three rainwater harvesting tanks built on the compound, which have been amazing to have. But this past dry season, all of the tanks were drained and we also discovered two of the tanks were not working properly.
As part of one of my projects, I had four 20,000-liter rainwater harvesting tanks built — one on my health center’s compound, and then three on the Biguli health center compound since they have little to no water sources available for the health center and community.
Also, there had been some short-time volunteers at my site that helped to add on solar panels to the Engari Health Center, so then I was able to get solar for my place, which has been amazing.
…The community has a small trading center with little dukas (shops) where some essential things can be found, but I travel to the bigger town of Ibanda to shop for my needs — especially fruits and vegetables.
Many of the locals who own dukas live behind them. Others live around in mud huts or brick houses. This is not a very rich area, so most people live in mud or brick homes.
…In my village there is a large hill just a short distance from where I stay that has an amazing view of Omungari and surrounding areas. Also, it is a great way to exercise and get some alone time. The southwest has many rolling green hills and lots of cows.
The region where I stay is part of the Ankole Kingdom and the tribal name is Bahimba. What makes the tribe distinct is that the men are very tall with slim noses, and the women are tall and large. Large women are prized and it means their husbands are rich, because they can afford food. Bahimba are a cow-herding tribe, so milk is plentiful in this region.
Women — not just in my region, but in general — are the hardest-working individuals in this country. In my village and most others, women are the ones that dig in the garden, make food for the family, wash the laundry, clean the house and take care of the children.
There was one woman that had been digging in her garden all morning, then came to our health center that evening to give birth to her baby.
Some of the men have jobs, but there are a lot of men that sit around in the village, and some spend their day drinking.
…Even though women at times seem to hold this country together, the ideas about how a woman should behave, especially toward men, puts Uganda about 50 years behind the U.S., and unfortunately, I don’t think they will catch up within the next 50.
My daily activities are not always very exciting, and vary from day to day. During the rainy season, whenever it is a sunny day, I spend a good part of the day washing laundry, which I am not very good at. But I have a newfound appreciation for washers and dryers.
I help out at my health center with outreaches into the villages, as well as with HIV/AIDS clinic days, where HIV-positive individuals come to the health center for support, education, counseling, free CD4 counts and medication.
I have little to no Internet access in my village and sometimes can access some Internet when I climb a large hill behind my place. So I tend to leave every week into the next biggest town for Internet access and a cold drink of any kind, because they have electricity. It’s the little things here that make your day bright.
Appreciates home more
Peace Corps has been one of the most intense roller coasters that I have ever been on. I have had some amazing experiences and made some great friendships with Ugandans and fellow Peace Corps volunteers.
It has definitely had its challenges, but it has made me realize I will be able to handle anything after this experience. On my bad days, I realize that it is the little accomplishments that are made each day that make all of those bad days so worth it.
For instance, having people in my village call me by my name instead of mzungu (white person) or Jesse, the previous volunteer, is such a wonderful feeling.
I have had my fair bouts of sickness here, too, and every time I do I always wish that I was at home with my family, but usually a call home always makes me feel better. I do appreciate America a lot more than I did before, but I also realize that there is so much more to be done in terms of humanitarian work.
After Peace Corps, I plan to wait a year, then apply to graduate school to get my master’s in international public health and look for jobs with organizations such as UNICEF and World Vision.