The story of Bonny Ogwal

The ABF has made possible all that I’m having now. I can help people to better their life and make the difference.
Bonny Ogwal, Uganda, MSc Environmental Sciences

'I grew up in the part of Uganda that has suffered from 20 years of war. People are redundant, they don’t know what to do, they don’t know what’s really going on in the world.

My parents are subsistence farmers, mainly producing cotton for the market. My father left school at junior six, my mother never went to school. My mother worked harder than my father; my father also drank. It’s only because of my mother that I went to school. Going to university was made possible by of a government scholarship. These are hardly ever awarded to students from my area, but to pupils of well thought-of schools in the cities. So my parents couldn’t believe it when I got this scholarship – and me neither.

I did my best at school because I did not want to be like everybody else. People normally quit school at some point, get married, start farming, and wait for the government to come and help. 80% of the people is like that. Why? People are frustrated, in their opinion the government has a hand in their problems. They also drink a lot, because of this frustration, and don’t establish books and a school uniform for their children as priorities. They are born in the district, grow up in the district, marry in the district and die in the same district. But I can’t sit and wait for the government. I want to help the government. I came to understand what ‘the government’ actually entails: I am also the government. If I wait for the government to come, I have to wait for myself. The government is everyone. Most young people don’t think about this kind of subjects. I think this is related to exposure out of the community. How else can you start to realise that people can do something different? You feel fine when you’ve never experienced something else.

I studied environmental sciences and got my bachelor diploma early 2014. Then I got a voluntary position at a ngo in North-Uganda for board and lodging. I did fieldwork on environmental health and sanitation, where water points had been drilled. My role was to educate people: how to keep the water pumps and the area around it clean, how to safely store the water, and how to come to a sustainable use by discussing the maintenance of the water point and if they could start a fund to which they contributed every month to pay for the necessary maintenance.

Six months later a friend told me about a Dutch student who needed help with her research in Uganda, if I was interested. She did a master in sustainable development at the University of Utrecht and did a research on how is ensured that water points function the whole year round. SNV offered me an internship to assist her. She came in February 2015, and I helped her for four months.

When she inquired after my plans for the future, I said I wanted to help to make people not to harm the environment. Then she advised me to go to Wageningen for a master. I took her advise and applied. To my surprise I was admitted within a week. Then the question came: where to get the money from? 22.000 euro’s a year, for two years.

I had been turned down by the NFP. This made me sad, I didn’t know what to do. In this period, the Dutch girl contacted me again, and said let me see what I can do, although I don’t promise anything. And after 2-3 months, in November 2015, I got a message from the ABF. It was good news: they offered me a full scholarship! I couldn’t believe it. It really took some time before I came to believe it.

The study here is way better than back home. My bachelor was quite theoretical, it focussed on the history of the environment. We were taught the same as 20 years ago; same books, same exams. How could they be preparing us for the future? It didn’t shed light to what is really going on the environment, and no chemistry was involved for example. In Uganda everybody keeps to the beaten track. Is the problem outside this scope, you can’t do a thing, you’re not trained to think outside the box.

In my masters I focus on environmental technology, environmental systems analysis and the economic part of doing assessments. In the end I want to be able to do an assessment of environmental problems before policy is formulated and implemented.

After graduation I’m planning to return to Uganda and work close to my community, so I can reach them and tell them what they are missing. I hope I can find a job at a ngo, or else establish a consultancy firm. A friend of mine, who has done the same bachelor as I did, also got the opportunity to study in Wageningen. She studies integrated water management. We could make a good team.

If I am a role model? Well, in the sense that everybody is now looking at me, yes. My friends asked how I managed to get to the Netherlands. It’s extraordinary that I’m here. My parents have never sat in a plane, and now I’ve even travelled to the Netherlands.

In my case, the ABF has made the difference. The ABF has made possible all that I’m having now. I can help people to better their life and make the difference. It’s also better to train us and not send foreigners. As explained, in Uganda people think that if there’s a problem the donors are going to come. If there’s a war, the white people are their saviour. But we need to stand on our own. The best way for us is to stand up, to get people who can visit them and understand them. Training people is better than donators coming and giving food.'