The trials, tribulations and treasures of field work in Africa

Africa. A history of corrupt warlords and dictators, wild safaris with feisty cats and gentle elephants... The perfect place to get some industry experience! UNSW Engineering student James Gore takes us on a journey of peas, bees and personal growth. 

I’ll be honest, I knew little about Africa before arriving in Uganda for the UNSW-Gulu Transformative Student Exchange (so-called "Summer School"). After three flights, dodgy airport sleeps and a day of travelling across the country, we (myself and nine other engineering students) were ready to get down and dirty with three weeks of agricultural work ahead of us. Little did we know then, the adventure would involve everything from waiting four and a half hours for dinner (#firstworldproblems), to running from a hive of aggressive Africanised bees (#thirdworldproblems).

Arriving in our temporary home we were met by our lively hosts: the students of Gulu University in a cultural evening of introductions, dancing and singing – not the dangerous Africa we’d foreseen! It’s always a warm feeling to find a home away from home, and being surrounded by welcoming and happy faces did just that. The only frightening part was our attempt at joining the boogie. But, after a long celebration, it was time to get down to some work.

We split into pairs to work on the local farms; planting seeds, bagging rice, spraying cattle, cutting grass, and hours of hoeing the fresh soil – it was safe to say the hoe life chose us. As a privileged, middle class Sydney kid, I’d had considerable experience doing these activities in Minecraft over the years, so I assumed the real-life equivalent would be quite similar. It wasn’t. In the beginning, we tried our best not to look too hopeless and gave the work our best shot. Unfortunately, despite our fervour, we simply couldn’t keep up with the local farmers and students, and our soft Mzungu hands were worn out with cuts after a full day’s weed slashing. (Mzungu is a friendly word for foreigner in some East African languages).

Despite us being fairly useless initially, the Gulu students didn’t write us off. They were inclusive, encouraging, and went out of their way to help us understand the work we were doing so we could make a real contribution. I’m still impressed at how knowledgeable and hard-working many of the students were, all the while humble and sporting a beaming smile. It was this encouragement that helped us to pick things up very quickly, and feel at home with our new friends.

Although the farmhouse is different to the office, there’s certainly something to be said for acceptance and tolerance in being part of a functioning team. We experienced first-hand being the weakest link, and it was the good-natured support from our teammates that got everyone over the line.

We learnt the ropes and made progress each day. Sometimes in slow, baby steps – planting pea seedlings and watching them grow. Sometimes in not-so-baby steps – assisting with a violent porcine mating procedure. Not a day went by that didn’t involve both an encouraging learning experience and a chaotic episode that wouldn’t be out of place in Tropic Thunder.

We developed an appreciation for growing things and living off the Earth. We also developed blisters all over our hands from days of hoeing.

We got to work with interesting local people who were so happy and kind despite their hardships. We also got to work with the piggery, washing God-knows-what off big stinky hogs.

We got to experience the food, music, arts and friendships of a culture that was so new to us. We also got to experience the resulting gastro from said delicacies. (Although I have to say they were genuinely delicious).

I could say this was an experience with many ups and downs, but that wouldn’t do it justice. At the end of the day, the blisters healed, the nasty tasks became doable, the runs ran out and what we were left with was a collection of amazing lessons and memories to take home. The harder times are testing, and it can be easy to give up or shy away from difficult opportunities. But learning how to stay positive, accept a challenge and overcome it is an invaluable skill in both your professional career and life in general.

There are so many insights to gain from exposing yourself to somewhere so different to home. You get a real view into the nuances of different societies and how they work – not just on an economic level but on a human level as well. Living in Gulu, albeit a short stay, I got the chance to meet wonderful people and make great friends – both from Uganda and UNSW, that I know I’ll keep for the rest of my life. Your differences really do disappear quickly and the common traits of friendship, willingness to help, and genuine interest will bring down any barriers. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to apply the skills I’ve learnt to make a real impact on the lives of other people.

There are so many opportunities out there: with UNSW programs, internships and other university trips offering chances to traverse the globe and build your career and yourself. I have to stress: “It doesn’t matter who you are. Take a step outside your comfort zone - get out there and try something new, somewhere new. Curate your own experience.”

What are you waiting for?

If you would like to express your interest for next year's trip, please contact Professor Julian Cox at

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  • Mr. Okeny Michael - Proud farm owner
  • Ryan trying to get the 4x4 back on the road
  • Typical lunch on the farms - fresh maize
  • Feeding the dairy cows
  • Oink
  • Learning to build beehives
  • Preparing to cook lunch
  • This cow was stuck in a river stream. We got it out
  • Drying feeds