Innovative business solutions revitalize a struggling school dedicated to educating women in rural Uganda
Victoria Nyanjura was 14 when she was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army from her school, Saint Mary’s College, in Aboke in northern Uganda. On that night in October 1996, soldiers abducted 139 girls before one of the school’s nuns convinced the kidnappers to release some. Nyanjura was not among the lucky ones. Instead, she would spend eight years as a captive of Joseph Kony’s notoriously violent cult. She would be appointed the wife of a rebel commander and have two children.
Nearly eight years later, in the chaos of a failed attack, she escaped into the night with her baby and toddler. She was eventually found by government troops and returned to her family.
But the escape did not have a happy ending — this was just the beginning. Nyanjura had to rebuild a life, and that life would look different from what she imagined at 14.
“I thought I would become an engineer, but that dream came true,” she says. Still, she believed the school would offer opportunities to heal and start fresh. She enrolled at Kyambogo University in Kampala and began courses in humanities. She graduated and joined a local NGO to work with other women transitioning from captivity. There, she met interns and alumni from Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, who encouraged her to apply to the master’s program.
She is applying to join the 2018 cohort for the MA in International Peace Studies. In 2020, Nyanjura returned to Uganda, an official graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She started Women in Action for Women, an initiative focused on women’s economic empowerment, but then Notre Dame professor Wendy Angst came knocking.
Wendy Angst joined the Mendoza College of Business in 2010, where she teaches courses in entrepreneurship, consulting, and innovation.
“Coming from industry, I have always valued experiential learning projects as part of my teaching. So when I started teaching innovation and design thinking, we would do projects with a range of different organizations, from Fortune 500 companies to local nonprofits,” she explains. “The projects have always been structured around the students doing hands-on work, collaborating with the client and then going to the client’s site and presenting the testimonial, and then the project will be finished.”
In December 2019, she was at a meeting for the Pulte Institute for Global Development, where she had recently been appointed as a fellow, when someone mentioned a school in Uganda, Saint Bakhita Vocational Training Center, which was struggling to determine its future and wanted Notre Dame’s help . Angst seized on the idea and quickly designed his course in the spring of 2020 as requested by Saint Bakhita.
“We started the innovation and design class in the spring of 2020 with the question, how can we reimagine vocational education for girls in Northern Uganda?” Angst explains. She and the students began brainstorming and conducting preliminary research with the intention of a full immersion and ethnographic study over spring break. In March, Angst and 12 students boarded a series of flights that took them to Kalongo. Here, reality hit.
“We got on the ground and … we realized that everything we had read hadn’t prepared us for exactly what extreme level of poverty this community was in. The average income here is just over a dollar a day. And this region of Uganda was right at the center of the God’s Resistance Army conflict. The school was founded in 2007 to give girls who have been abducted a chance to get an education and have skills that will allow them to provide for themselves and the children they have,” says Angst.
“We got on the ground and … realized that everything we had read hadn’t quite prepared us for what an extreme level of poverty this community was in.”
The school, named after the patron saint of human trafficking, offers courses in tailoring, agriculture, hospitality, catering and information technology. But in 2020, there were only 10 students left, so Angst had to find out why.
“Part of what we’ve learned is that families often don’t understand the value of that one girl getting an education. Girls play a large role in helping with child rearing, fetching water, helping with sustenance and other household tasks. The other critical part is that families do not have enough money to send their children to school, and when they do, the education of their sons is prioritized over that of their daughters,” she explains. “We came back from that experience and rethought our work, saying, how can we give these girls an opportunity for a better life and how can we help the economic prosperity of this region?”
Just days after returning to the US, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Notre Dame’s campus closed, as did St. Bahita’s school. But Angst wastes no time; with the generosity of the Pulido-Walker Foundation, she spearheaded efforts to refresh all of Saint Bakhita’s buildings with renovations, new roofs and fresh coats of paint, to install 80 solar panels to power the school, and to build mitigation hand-washing stations of COVID. Donors also donated a 40-station computer lab to facilitate ongoing collaboration between students at Saint Bakhita’s and students at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame students also continued to work. Angst divides his two classes into 12 teams, each of which will formulate an idea that can help fund the school and help the local community. One idea—planting charcoal trees to be harvested for fuel and fruit trees to serve as an additional source of food and income for the school—offers the added benefit of mitigating Uganda’s deforestation crisis. With the help of crowdfunding, Saint Bakhita’s planted 20,000 seedlings in May 2021 at their aptly named Innovation Acres. Angst estimates that once mature, the trees should also generate significant revenue to offset operating costs for the school.
In the past, Angst had changed her partner organization for innovation and design courses every semester, but with Saint Bakhita’s, she wanted to build a lasting relationship with a lasting impact, giving Notre Dame students the opportunity to build their ideas and put them into action. She decided that each semester would offer a new angle of engagement with the school and community.
The class’s popularity skyrocketed, so Angst also started a club in a similar model, Innovation for Impact, which boasts 150 members. Students in the club work on entrepreneurial ideas such as Bakhita Butter, a spread made from ground nuts; a community internet cafe run by catering students; and an e-commerce site which sells garments made by tailoring students. Some of these clothes will also be available at the Hammes Notre Dame bookstore. The students also launched a weekly e-learning program with Saint Bakhita students.
The Pulido-Walker Foundation has also agreed to support training in the form of a work-study model for 78 Innovation Fellows aged 15 to 26. Of these, 65 percent already have children, which led to the creation of a dormitory for nursing mothers.
As St. Bakita’s Vocational Training Center gained momentum, Angst needed a new school principal, so she called Nyanjura.
Nyanjura was reluctant. She had just started her own venture and settled in Gulu. But Angst spoke of Saint Bahita with such love that it was contagious. Nyanjura went to visit him and found herself captivated by the spirit of the place.
“She’s good at persuasion,” Nyanjura laughs. “She just made it seem like this is what we can do together.”
Together, Nyanjura and Angst are powerful and unafraid of lofty ambitions. They have set themselves three main goals: the school will be self-sustaining within five years, become among the best vocational schools in Uganda, and help achieve economic prosperity in the region.
It’s early, but the signs point to a positive trajectory. Nyanjura notes that the real collaborative effort is how and why progress has been so positive.
“One thing I like about the collaboration with Notre Dame is that it’s not forced, what you want us to do … every time, it’s an interaction,” Nyanjura says. “We interact, find common ground and then implement accordingly, so everyone learns in the process and we all move at the same pace.”
She hopes they instill that spirit of cooperation and willingness to do good in the students as well.
“We are Family. We do it together,” Nyanjura says. “Our hope is that even these young mothers don’t keep it to themselves, they have to extend it to their families, their communities.”
She chose this mission to be a conduit for good from her time at Notre Dame, she says. Now he hopes he can pass that on.
“Notre Dame really prepares you to do good. You see it, you test it, and you feel like you have to put it out there.”