After weeks of discussion about the future of the trip, President Brian Rosenberg and Provost Kathy Murray announced the cancellation of the Projects in Global Health course’s study trip to Uganda. The memo, released on Monday by Rosenberg and Murray, cited the increasingly dangerous situation in Uganda that developed as the result of an anti-homosexuality bill signed into law earlier in the year.
“Given the explosive rhetoric of Uganda President Museveni around the recently passed anti-homosexuality legislation, as well as evidence that visitors are being lured into dangerous situations, we believe that the potential risk is simply too great to allow the trip to go forward,” the memo read. “This has not been not [sic] an easy decision or one that we take lightly. We imagine that many of you will be deeply disappointed.”
Uganda has a history of anti-homosexuality discrimination and anti-American sentiment, which have both increased in recent months due to the partial success of a bill that severely criminalizes homosexual conduct. The country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act originally included a clause which would punish “aggravated homosexuality” with the death penalty. That component was eventually dropped, but the final bill, signed by President Yoweri Museveni this February, still punishes homosexuality with life in prison.
The law applies to both locals and foreigners in Uganda. While the U.S. State Department has not released an official Travel Warning for American citizens, the agency is advising all citizens “to carefully consider their plans in light of this new law.”
An official Travel Warning would have automatically cancelled Macalester’s trip, as the school prohibits students from traveling to countries with such advisories. Many countries, including the United States, have cut back foreign aid to Uganda since the Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed. According to Murray, Ugandan nationals have been disguising themselves as pro-LGBTQ activists, hoping to entrap foreigners into publicly opposing the bill, which is also cause for arrest under the law.
“It just didn’t seem safe to send a bunch of students and have that risk be out there,” Murray said. “They’re very easily identifiable, a majority of them, as foreigners.”
Growing concerns over trip
A few weeks ago, one of the class periods focused around discussion of the law and its implications. While initial discussions raised some concern about the future of the trip, initially students didn’t expect the trip to be cancelled.
“None of us really thought it was going to be cancelled [at first] because it didn’t seem bad enough,” said Kira Downey ’16. “That was the prevailing attitude until the last week.”
Asad Zaidi ’15 echoed those thoughts, saying that he did not assume the concerns would lead to cancellation at first.
“We weren’t sure what was going on. There was no evidence that Americans or foreigners were being mistreated, so we didn’t think it was something we had to worry about very much,” said Asad Zaidi ’15. “A lot of us thought it was that Macalester was worried about having ties to a country with such a bill.”
The possibility of cancelling the trip intensified two weeks ago, when Ugandan police raided an American-funded HIV/AIDS research clinic on the grounds of promoting homosexuality. The lab in question, at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, had ties to biology professor Devavani Chatterjea, who planned to lead the trip. In previous trips to Uganda, Chatterjea had worked at the lab, and she hoped to use the lab as one of the sites that the class visited.
“One of the things that surfaced from this is that this lab provided services to LGBT individuals, and they had, for example, included men that had sex with men in their studies. They were targeted as a group that was supporting or promoting homosexuality,” Chatterjea said. “We are going to be at universities and these clinics, and it does seem the potential risks that might take on were too many.”
The risk associated with sending students into such a dangerous environment, combined with the impending date of departure and a need to purchase plane tickets, led to the trip’s cancellation.
“We had already made the decision, but when [the raid] happened, we just said, this is a completely unpredictable set of circumstances, and it would be inappropriate to send students beyond that setting,” Murray said.
Reaction to the trip’s cancellation has been mostly disappointment, but some recognize that the situation was too dangerous to allow the trip to continue.
“It’s a difficult decision, and it’s disappointing, truly, because students have been putting so much of themselves and doing excellent work preparing, and we’ve had all our collaborators in Uganda working with them,” Chatterjea said. “But this is the situation, and we have to be cognizant of bringing students into situations we can’t really predict.”
Zaidi said he was disappointed by the cancellation, but accepted the fact that safety concerns outweighed all other factors when deciding whether to continue the trip.
“A lot of what we’re working for is to go there and show that this is what we did,” Zaidi said. “I was disappointed. Everybody was disappointed. But a lot of people think that our safety might have been at stake, so this might have been for the better.”
Rosenberg and Murray deliberated for some time about whether to call off the trip. Murray recalled that Rosenberg was greatly opposed to letting the trip continue, saying “he was really worried about them.” Recognizing that the cancellation would be difficult for many of the students to process, Rosenberg and Murray invited any of the students affected by the cancellation to meet with them and process through their thoughts.
“I think this is the only decision, to cancel this,” Murray said. “I know the students and faculty are deeply disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? They’ve been working toward this for more than a semester. I wish it weren’t this way. These are never easy decisions to make. A lot of peoples’ work and lives are hanging in the balance. I feel very comfortable we made the right call.”
Downey echoed these thoughts, adding that it was frustrating that the outbreak of violence and hostility would prevent Ugandans from receiving proper health care.
“It’s important that we don’t direct our frustration at the school, but we direct our frustration at the situation.” Downey said. “The situation is so dramatic and it’s frustrating, more for the people there, than for us, as violence throws a wrench in their ability to access health services.”
Course adapts to changes
Projects in Global Health is an intensive, research-based course that is part of the Community and Global Health concentration.
Taught by Chatterjea and chemistry professor Rebecca Hoye, the small, application-only course allows students to work hands-on solving global health problems. This is the second time the course has been taught, and much of the work in the class is done as preparation for the trip.
“We want students with solid, strong training in the physical and natural sciences who get this look into how basic research interfaces with global health challenges in a non-US context,” Chatterjea said.
This year, the nine participants of the class focused their research around four areas of global health: HIV, breast cancer, rabies and other zoonotic diseases, and neurological issues. Students have spent the semester developing projects related to those areas and were planning to present their findings to community partners and researchers at Ugandan clinics.
Along with a collection of Macalester professors, the class’s nine students were scheduled to spend two weeks in Uganda after classes ended in May. In addition to presenting their findings, they were planning to visit a wildlife sanctuary, a chimpanzee rehabilitation center and various hospitals. There were additional plans to conduct a traffic study.
Those projects will likely continue, according to Chatterjea. The students will hopefully find alternate methods to share their findings, short of traveling to Uganda.
“We’re fairly well into the semester at this point,” Chatterjea said. “One plan is they’re going to go ahead and write the white papers into the hands of the collaborators. We can’t just go there and bring it to them.”
Downey said the class is still hoping to publicly present its findings on a more local level, perhaps in conjunction with the University of Minnesota. Chatterjea also made contact with a group that was interested in developing a rabies outreach program for rural Ugandan schools, and thought that the class could work with them for the rest of the semester.
“That project may actually morph into something the students might work on…it’s not something we planned on doing this semester,” Chatterjea said, adding that it would be “fairly challenging” and ultimately up to the students to decide whether to take on the project.
According to Chatterjea, discussions on the class trip taking place in future semesters will occur after this semester, and no decisions have been made as of yet.