A professor gets a firsthand view of economics and daily life in the developing world.
Phil Davies was living in a run-down neighborhood in Kampala when he realized that all those documentaries about poverty in Africa do not exaggerate the crisis. If anything, they don’t show it clearly enough.
“You see photos and you see films, but none of it conveys how desperately poor so many of these people are,” says Davies, an assistant professor of finance in the Tippie College of Business who spent three weeks this summer teaching finance and economics at universities in Uganda. "Traveling in Africa makes you see the world from a different perspective. You realize how fortunate we are to have a great education system, but more importantly, it inspires you to help out in any way that you can."
Davies visited Uganda as part of a program that brings volunteer teachers from the developed world to Uganda. His challenges were many: textbooks were a luxury, classrooms often had no electricity, no ceilings, no windows and no blackboards. Still, he found his students were desperate to learn, often staying late to pick his brain about the finer points of economics, microfinance and stock markets. They wanted to know more about the world’s financial crisis, and how it was affecting their own country’s economy.
“The crisis is having a huge impact on developing economies like Uganda, and could set them back decades as far as development is concerned. British and American companies that were planning to invest in large infrastructure projects such as oil extraction and mining have cancelled, citing the global recession and falling commodity prices,” he says.
When he wasn’t teaching in universities, Davies volunteered to teach in primary and secondary schools.
“Working with 5- or 6-year olds was quite a challenge, especially when half of them didn’t speak English,” says Davies. “I was taken to a classroom and asked to teach anything I wanted. Fortunately, I carried a soccer ball everywhere I went, so we played ‘catch’ in class and worked on basic arithmetic at the same time.”
While in Uganda, Davies lived in a township just outside the capital, Kampala, in a bungalow with only sporadic electricity and running water. He helped carry water in buckets from a community well, and spent much of his free time playing with the ten children who lived in the neighboring bungalow.
“Living in a township was a challenge, but great fun—I had no idea just how heavy water is until I had to carry jerrycans full,” he says. “I got to see and experience firsthand the lives that typical Ugandans lead. People face many challenges every day, but there is a tremendous sense of community. ”
The overall experience was so profound that he hopes to return in December to try to establish a way to help Ugandan students access high-quality education at an affordable price.
“Education is very expensive for the typical Ugandan family,” Davies said. “The gross domestic product per capita is $453, while the cost of attending university is approximately $300 to $400 per semester. Anything we can do to help lower costs while improving quality will make a big difference to many students.”
By the time Davies next returns to Uganda, his only hope is that his favorite soccer team, Derby County, will have raised their game.
“In Uganda they love to watch the English Premier League,” Davies explained. “Sadly most Ugandans support Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, or Liverpool. When they found out I supported Derby County, they all burst into laughter and reminded me that Derby are one of the worst teams to have ever played in the Premier League.”
Story by Tom Snee; portrait by Susan McClellen
September 7, 2009