Fr. Claude assists Ugandan university

By The Beacon | October 14, 2009 9:00pm

By Ona Golonka

Uganda. A place that entices you not to leave. A place so enticing that the Rev. Claude Pomerleau C.S.C. wanted to stay for more than one year.

Pomerleau, a political science professor at UP, went to Uganda last year to help establish a Master's of Arts in International Affairs program for Uganda Martyrs University, a small liberal-arts university similar to UP. He was the director of the international affairs pilot program during its first year. Pomerleau planned target groups of students, decided which courses to be taught and figured out which professors would teach the courses.

"It takes a lot of experience of failing and succeeding and knowing how universities work," Pomerleau said.

The Master's program, established in the East African School of Diplomacy and International Studies, is the first of its kind in East Africa. It trains people, specifically East Africans, to become specialists for United Nations agencies and other international organizations.

"Now, they don't have to come to the U.S. or Europe to get a degree," Pomerleau said.

Pomerleau has high hopes for developing nations.

"What I want to see for developing countries, what we have to give to the developing world, is 2,000 years of loving the life of the mind," he said.

One part of Pomerleau's mission at Uganda Martyrs University was to help set up a Holy Cross presence there. Holy Cross wants to "shoe-horn" its presence at the university by slowly, yet firmly, establishing itself there.

Though the main university campus is in Nkozi, Pomerleau lived in a Holy Cross community in the capital of Kampala, 82 kilometers away. He commuted to Nkozi by long bus rides.

While in Kampala, he bought a helmet and a backpack and rode around on boda-bodas, Ugandan motorbike taxis. According to Pomerleau, a lot of the boda-bodas are piloted by former child soldiers.

"I did tours of the city with them," Pomerleau said. "No one else in Holy Cross did - they thought it was ridiculous."

Pomerleau also spent his time with a fellow Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame, who spent the year teaching at Uganda Martyrs. They spent their days walking around Kampala and talking to seminarians, people going to Nairobi and Ugandans.

"It was an unbelievable discovery of a totally different world, but with human beings who are just like you and me," Pomerleau said. "The richest part of education is living in other countries, listening and talking to its peoples."

During his year-long stay, Pomerleau noticed the good relations between Catholics and Muslims in Uganda. Many Catholics and Muslims in Uganda intermarry.

"There is a strong presence of the Catholic Church, especially amongst the poor," Pomerleau said.

There are also a lot of Muslims and mosques in Kampala. Pomerleau heard the Islamic call to prayers every morning from his dwelling window.

He also grew accustomed to the sounds coming from the Kabala-Gala district, which was right below the hill of the Holy Cross community in Kampala.

"I heard all the music and dancing till 3 a.m." said Pomerleau. "I learned to go to sleep with the music."

Pomerleau said he was impressed by the enormously bright students of the university, some of whom hailed from the Congo or Tanzania. He fondly remembers one student who boldly introduced himself, saying "I'm big black Ben." Then there was the multi-lingual student who declared "I want to be the secretary-general of the United Nations" at the age of sixteen. By sixteen years he had already known five languages.

"They have such high hopes," Pomerleau said.

He misses Uganda and would like to return to teach there for one or two semesters.

"The tolerance, acceptance and hospitality of the Ugandans was just spectacular," Pomerleau said. "Traveling abroad is about discovering who you are and what your abilities are."