The students call her “mum.”
Wendy Angst, a teaching professor and assistant management & organization department chair in the Mendoza College of Business, first traveled 8,000 miles to the rural town of Kalongo, Uganda, in March 2020. It would be her first of now four (and soon to be five) trips to visit the girls-only boarding school, St. Bakhita’s Vocational Training Center.
The origins of Notre Dame’s partnership with St. Bakhita’s date back to 2019 during Professor Angst’s Innovation and Design Thinking class. The foundation of this course, says Angst, is experiential learning – learning by doing. So when the parents of a former student demonstrated interest in endowing the efforts of a class that had so greatly impacted their son, Angst and 12 teams of students got to work.
After being named a Pulte Fellow, Angst became aware of the situation at St. Bakhita’s through a colleague. The school was not generating enough income to remain operational, making it a project fit for the entrepreneurial problem solvers of Angst’s class.
Angst and her team set a goal — for St. Bakhita’s to become self-sustaining within five years.
“Every project has this angle around ‘how do we optimize and give these young women the ability to learn a really valuable skill?’ And then also, ‘how do we generate income so that the school can be self-supporting?’” Angst explained.
An integral part of design thinking is having empathy for users and understanding their lives. To carry this out, 10 students, one from nearly each of the 12 teams, would make the journey to Uganda in March 2020, just days before the COVID-19 outbreak, to conduct ethnographic research for their ideas.
“(The trip) really changed the perspective of the course, what we were thinking about and how we were framing the challenge,” Angst says.
Overcoming challenges is no unfamiliar feat for the community of St. Bakhita’s. The school, originally founded in 2007 to provide educational and vocational opportunities to women captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group in Uganda, has a story that begins prior to its founding; it begins at 2:15 a.m. on October 9, 1996.
Awoken from their beds at St. Mary’s College, a boarding school in Aboke, Uganda, 139 girls were captured by the LRA. After a negotiated release of 109 girls, 30 would be held captive, serving as child soldiers and wives for the male fighters.
The following decade for the remaining 30 women was characterized by violence, sexual abuse and, above all, fear. Some women escaped and some women were later freed by the Ugandan army.
For Victoria Nyanjura, a 2020 Notre Dame graduate from the Masters of Global Affairs program, her time as a captive came to an end after eight years when she escaped with her two children, both born into captivity. Nyanjura, like all of the women, suffered immeasurable pain and losses, one of those being the loss of education.
Upon her return home, Nyanjura quickly decided that she wanted to return to school. She desired a sense of normalcy and to not let her past define her future. Nyanjura came to Notre Dame in 2019 and became involved with Angst and the rest of the team shortly thereafter, helping to revive and relaunch St. Bakhita’s.
In March 2021, Nyanjura visited the school, where she found a “challenging” situation — a school in need and, she said, “an opportunity to give back to my people.” In 2021, Angst hired Nyanjura as the headmaster of the school.
Education helped shape the uncertain, post-captivity road that lay ahead. “It helped me appreciate life,” she said.
Today, the school’s students are daughters and nieces of the abductees and other young women who have experienced similar traumatic situations.
This past November, the first cohort of 78 “Innovation Scholars” graduated — a reality that would not have been possible without the hard work of Angst and her students.
During the pandemic, Ugandan schools were closed for longer than any other school system in the world, and St. Bakhita’s funding issues — largely a result of the difficulty for families in rural Uganda to pay for their children, especially girls, to attend boarding schools — rendered hopes of reopening unfeasible.
“Tuition is beyond the means for these families that are living in such extreme poverty, and if there is money, the families would prioritize sending their sons before they’d send their daughters,” Angst said, explaining that the dowry families receive when their daughters are married off disincentivizes the education of women.
To help St. Bakhita’s achieve self-sufficiency — meaning that the school would no longer need to rely on money from tuition (which families cannot afford) or the endowments from the Notre Dame benefactors — the teams in Angst’s class each semester are tasked with generating ideas to implement in the community.
A tree farm to combat deforestation, bee hives for honey production, a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner to the community, a development center for the children of the young girls, a memoir about Victoria’s captivity narrative and life, a peanut butter business — these are the fruits of ideation, to name a few.
Each semester, approximately $15,000 is allocated toward the implementation, testing, refining and de-risking of the student ideas presented. These plans aid the community of St. Bakhita’s from two angles: They enable the school’s self-sufficiency by generating revenue streams, while also equipping the young women with valuable, employable skills so that they can continue to execute these projects independent of Notre Dame, becoming innovators and entrepreneurs in their own community for years to come.
During the most recent trip to Kalongo this January, the idea with the most traction and funding was Bakhita Butter — a solution that aims to generate revenue through the making and selling of peanut butter, a fan-favorite food in Uganda.
The idea came to senior Joanna Helm, a student in Angst’s course during the fall of 2021, through a conversation over Zoom with one of the girls at St. Bakhita’s.
“I had asked her what her favorite thing to cook was, and she said ‘boiled kale with peanut butter.’ That just got me curious about peanut butter and about how they consume it is different from how we do,” Helm said, adding that peanut butter is a popularly used flavoring in Uganda, meaning that it is needed in larger quantities and more frequently.
With this in the back of her mind, Helm paid her weekly Sunday visit to South Bend’s local market Purple Porch Food Co-op, where, for the first time, she took note of their peanut grinders and the machine’s simple process.
In Kalongo, peanut butter is purchased in small quantities from a small, local market or made by hand, a laborious and tedious process. The addition of the grinders would greatly simplify the task. Moreover, in-house production of peanut butter at St. Bakhita’s has the potential, the team hopes, to be a profit-generating operation for the school. A long-term goal of the Bakhita’s Butter team is to have a truck transport the peanut butter to surrounding cities (the closest being approximately 3 hours away) on a weekly basis.
In addition to peanut butter making and prototyping other business ideas, students and faculty on the trip also began work on a new community development center, a collaborative effort with the Notre Dame School of Architecture. The center will serve the broader community, including the children of the girls at St. Bakhita’s. Currently, there are 18 babies whose mothers attend the school.
Angst and the 13 students were accompanied by Associate Professor of Architecture John Odhiambo Onjyango, Ph.D., who led efforts to understand the social-cultural context, the technology and materials available at St. Bakhita’s for the construction of the center. Three architecture students will return to Uganda in the spring to present their renderings and designs to the community for feedback.
The process of ideation for all of these ventures is one that comes with several obstacles, one being the challenge that senior Abigail Hegarty describes as “a lack of knowledge.”
“We could only ask for what we knew we could receive,” she said, commenting on the obvious obstacles of working on the other side of the world, conducting research through Zoom and videos recorded by community members in Uganda. “We didn’t know all that we could do until we got there.”
Helm echoed this sentiment: “It’s pretty hard to understand through Zoom what their lifestyle is actually like. My whole perception was flipped upside down on the trip. Everything I thought I knew was completely wrong, and I would've never guessed what I saw and experienced there.”
To “learn by doing” and come to a more empathetic, holistic understanding of what community members’ preferences are and what daily life is like in Kalongo, students broke out into teams, spending an entire day conducting ethnographic research for the various projects underway.
“We were ideating solutions to their problems with a Western mindset,” Helm said. “Their society is built off completely different priorities. They’re still trying to procure basic human needs everyday — food, water, shelter — so we have to understand everything from that sort of mindset and framework.”
Senior and president of Innovation for Impact, Notre Dame’s on-campus club that works with St. Bakhita’s, Lynsee Ludwick, noted that the process of innovation is one of trial and error, commenting that there are many ideas that are “Westernized” or “normal” to students at Notre Dame that aren’t applicable to the students and community at St. Bakhita’s. “You have to come up with a lot of ideas to get one that sticks on both ends,” Ludwick said.
The trip to Uganda is not a short or easy journey — the most recent travelers embarking on a days-long journey of three flights and a 10-hour car ride, much of it on a bumpy, dirt road — but it is an integral part of Angst’s experiential learning model.
Over the past roughly three years, approximately 50 Notre Dame students have traveled to Uganda, and Angst anticipates more trips, projects and ways to get involved beyond the classroom in the near future.
An elderly man Hegarty spoke with during her research efforts in Uganda offered up pieces of advice to the team. “He told us to cherish our education and know the value of the education we are receiving at Notre Dame,” Hegarty recalled. “He was proud of us that we were already using our education to do so much good and to travel to Uganda … He said, ‘Come back and visit me!’ and really wanted to see us stay so involved in his community because he was so grateful for all of the things we were doing there.”
There are many ways for students to get involved with St. Bakhita’s. In addition to the Innovation and Design Thinking and Impact Consulting classes offered to innovation & entrepreneurship minors in the Mendoza College of Business, the Innovation for Impact club offers a way for non-minors to step in. “It’s a way for us to hold the doors of Mendoza open [to other students],” Ludwick said.
For junior Ellen Lavelle, majoring in biology and Spanish, the club was how she got involved, also making the trip to St. Bakhita’s this January. Lavelle recounted how different each day was, and how the country of Uganda was like nothing she had ever seen or experienced before.
“It was very beautiful; the people live in a very different way. It was just such a cool experience to see it all in the car while driving there,” she said.
Making friends who live halfway across the globe, says senior Grace Kamholz, made the trip well worth the trek. “The tears in the girls’ eyes as we drove away from St. Bakhita’s for the last time made the three-day journey all worth it,” she said.”You had made friends who live halfway across the globe from you and all they could ask was when will you come back next.” If any one of the Notre Dame students were asked to make the long trip again, she added, they would simply ask, “When?”
Students took the ample travel time as an opportunity to not only take in the Ugandan landscape, but also as an opportunity to get to know each other. “It was so long, you’d think that people would want to sleep, but I don't think I know anybody who slept for more than an hour, because we were taking in the scenery and bonding with each other,” Hegarty said. When they arrived at the school after over a day of traveling, it was pitch black outside. Students woke the next morning to the view of Mount Kalongo, which they later climbed with St. Bakhita’s students and staff.
The car ride was one of the “little moments” that Hegarty said made up her favorite parts of the trip. Other students cite an impromptu dance party that was a “perfect blend of cultures,” playing a mix of African music and songs like “The Cha Cha Slide” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe” through a giant speaker while drinking Ugandan beers under the stars. Others say it was the soccer game with the St. Bakhita’s students, when 200 people from the community showed up to referee, watch and cheer.
For many, what they will remember most is the connections formed with the St. Bakhita’s community. Ludwick, who traveled to Uganda in the winter of 2022 and again that summer, said she felt an instant connection with the girls.
“Despite any cultural experiences that we’ve had that are so different in our lives, there is that element of human connection,” Ludwick said, explaining that since the first cohort of Innovation Scholars began school that November, her team hadn’t had the chance to talk much over Zoom.
However, “When we arrived it was as if we had been talking to each other for years and years. We got out of the car and people were crying and we were crying.”
This connection, Ludwick believes, originates from a shared purpose: “We were all working toward the same goal, rooting for each other. We recognize within the girls such amazing, smart, strong, intelligent personalities,” she said, adding that seeing them become empowered over the course of this process has been a special part of her experience.
Approximately a year into the project’s five-year time horizon, up next for the St. Bakhita’s team is a trip over spring break in March, during which the first cohort of Innovation Scholars will hold their graduation ceremony that was postponed this past November due to an Ebola outbreak in surrounding areas.
Upon graduation, the 78 graduates were given microgrants of 100,000 Ugandan shillings, which is about the equivalent of $27 U.S. dollars, to deploy toward ventures of their own, putting their skills and knowledge learned from their year-long education at St. Bakhita’s to use. On Mar. 14, the scholars will attend an innovation fair at the school, pairing up with Notre Dame students to develop a pitch to receive additional funding and support to carry out their ideas. Angst and the team plan to select the top 10 percent for additional funding and enrollment in what she has informally termed a “new venture incubator” for these businesses. The women will also receive mobile phones to enable them to stay in touch with their Notre Dame contacts.
Despite thousands of miles between the two schools, Notre Dame and St. Bakhita’s remain connected, working toward a common goal.
“Walking around the village of Kalongo, you would see people wearing Notre Dame shirts, and even if they didn’t know what Notre Dame was, it was a uniquely Notre Dame moment to see people representing the Irish in one of the most remote places in the world,” said Kamholz.
“Even though St. Bakhita's is all the way across the world, there’s definitely a strong tie between Notre Dame and St. Bakhita's — not even just in the innovations but between individuals who work on the projects,” Hegarty said. “It’s such a cool project that deserves to be shared.”
Students who are interested in getting involved with St. Bakhita’s beyond the classroom should reach out to Wendy Angst (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Innovation for Impact club president, Lynsee Ludwick (email@example.com).