Center for Community Engagement

Internship Postcards: Elizabeth Namugosa '14

August 2012—story by Jenny Morgan, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Namugosa ‘14. Namugosa, center, with her UWEAL colleagues

Although she’s never lived there, Uganda has always been home to Elizabeth (Liz) Namugosa ‘14.

Namugosa, who also calls Phillipsburg, New Jersey home, was born in the United States to Ugandan parents who moved to the U.S. for higher education. As early as the age of two, Namugosa began to join her mother on trips to visit family, often for a month or longer. For Namugosa, these formative visits represented the chance to get to know her relatives and her country of origin. Yet Namugosa found herself longing for a way to connect with this second home in a different context: she wanted to become familiar with Uganda’s culture and people outside of the familial lens. Namugosa got this exact opportunity through a summer internship with Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited (UWEAL), a non-governmental organization based in the capital city of Kampala.

As a sociology major, Namugosa has wondered how the ideas and problems she studies relate to her home country. During a spring semester anthropology course on gender, the question felt more pressing. “I learned about how women are economically disadvantaged and poor in a lot of places because of socio-cultural factors. Because I'm Ugandan, I thought it would be interesting to see the particular disadvantages or obstacles that women have to face in Uganda.” It was a suggestion from Namugosa’s aunt— who lives in Kampala— that led her to UWEAL.

UWEAL is a membership-based association that offers support to Ugandan businesswomen through networking, mentorship, and trainings. At UWEAL, Namugosa explains, “everyone is there to help everyone out.” Namugosa is quick to point out that the support UWEAL offers women isn’t only top-down. “They don't just give support as an organization; they allow women to connect with each other.” Namugosa cites UWEAL’s monthly breakfast meetings as the clearest example of how this works. “The meetings last for three hours. First, they’ll listen to a speaker, and then they network. They talk about how their businesses are doing or what obstacles they're facing. They share information with each other. You come into UWEAL as an individual, but you become part of a group when you leave it.” Although its main office is based in Kampala, UWEAL’s reach is national. The organization offers trainings in topics like marketing, financial management, and advertising to women across the country, and has had over 700 members join since it opened in 1987.

From beginning to end, it was a summer of firsts for Namugosa: her first solo flight to Uganda, her first trip not focused exclusively on family, and her first time working in her home country. “It was a great way to immerse myself in the culture completely, and from an entirely different angle,” she says. Perhaps most notably, however, it was working for UWEAL that offered the most significant first. Never before had Namugosa worked in such an egalitarian and supportive environment. “Everyone is friends…we’d all eat breakfast together in the mornings, and lunch together in the afternoons. It was an office full of women that are 10-20 years older than [I am]. At some points, you couldn't even sense the age difference. There was a lot of respect there.” Namugosa divided her time between developing an impact survey, a “knowledge databank” of UWEAL’s programs, and creating a kick-off event for a new project— a corporate and social responsibility program for at-risk adolescents. “The idea for the program is to inspire these girls by using UWEAL members [as mentors] who have overcome a lot of the same problems these girls face,” Namugosa says.

According to Namugosa, one of the biggest challenges facing Ugandan women in the workforce today is that it still remains very much a man’s world. “When [women] go to get financial support from banks or investors, a lot of them feel like they won't be taken seriously. I don't want to say they have to learn how to act like men, but they have to adapt very quickly to fit in to some of these business environments.” Part of the problem, Namugosa explains, is that there aren’t high numbers of women working in the business sector— and she got to witness this disparity every day at lunch hour. At UWEAL, eight of the ten staff members are women; yet outside the office, the numbers go the opposite way. “When we would go out for lunch, the [restaurants] would be filled with men. You didn't see a group of women out together after work or during lunch. It’s mind-blowing. UWEAL is the one office, in the entire district, that [is] primarily women.”

In spite of the many challenges facing women in the workplace, UWEAL has made significant strides in combating them. They’ve successfully fostered a wide-reaching network of women and continue to expand their training efforts. Now in its twenty-fifth year, Namugosa says the organization's impact is clear. "A lot of the older members, who are now on the board of directors, have extremely successful businesses. They are pretty accomplished women— they changed their income levels significantly because of these businesses they started when they entered UWEAL, some of them 25 years ago. It's really changing the scope a lot."

At times, Namugosa struggled with knowing exactly what was expected of her. Her work plan changed with some regularity, and, as is often the intern’s plight, she felt she didn’t have clear direction until the end. Still, she wouldn’t change a thing. Connecting with the UWEAL staff and the organization as a whole was, by far, the most rewarding part of her experience. Now that she’s returned to the United States, Namugosa has continued to work for UWEAL remotely, and she’s got an open invitation to return anytime. “It's been very rewarding, and it boosted my confidence in my work abilities.” Although she’s still figuring out her career, Namugosa knows that advocacy will play a role in her future— and that’s in no small part due to the transformative power of UWEAL’s work. “It doesn’t have to be gender. Maybe race or age. With this internship, I saw how much advocacy could, from one organization, change the scope of a country's future.”

This summer, 182 students interned in 13 countries, 12 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico through the Center for Community Engagement’s summer internship programs. Today's postcard is from Elizabeth Namugosa '14, a rising junior from Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Namugosa interned at Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association Limited in Kampala, Uganda.

Jenny Morgan is  a staff writer for the Center for Community Engagement. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.