Africa in Our Lives: Kate Hamoonga

From Zambia to Tanzania to South Africa, Study Abroad Advisor Kate Hamoonga has had diverse experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and now helps UW-Madison students do the same.

“Be flexible. Be open-minded. Sometimes the most meaningful achievements were never a part of the list in the first place.” – K. Hamoonga (Submitted photo)

Field of study: Education
Hometown: Madison, WI

What brought you to Madison?

I moved to Madison from the UK with my family when I was 5. I grew up here. I moved away to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA for my Bachelors of Fine Arts, and afterwards joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in South Africa. I’ve been back in Madison now for 11 years. There’s no place like home.

Tell us one interesting fact about you.

I spooned with a warthog. When I was camping in the Maasai Mara in Tanzania, my friends and I pitched our two tents next to each other. In the middle of the night I felt a rubbing against me from outside the tent and I assumed it was my friend in the tent next to mine, moving around in her sleep. When I woke up, I planned to joke with her about it. I stepped out of my tent and noticed that there was actually a good 3 feet of space between our tents. After swallowing a lump in my throat, I asked the rangers if there were any animals in the campsite overnight. He mentioned that a warthog had spent some time between our tents. Thankfully, he was a good big spoon!

How did you make the decision to join the Peace Corps?

Right after completing my undergraduate degree I joined a small non-profit organization that was looking for volunteers to work on health and sanitation projects in rural Zambia. I signed up and spent six months in Southern Province, Zambia working with local communities on building hand wash systems and sharing preventable disease campaigns. Six months flew by and I couldn’t bear to leave. Once I returned home, I knew I didn’t have my fill of Sub-Saharan Africa and I submitted my Peace Corps application with a preference for Africa.

Zambia - 2001
Hamoonga poses with feathered friends in Zambia. (Submitted photo)

What did you learn during your Peace Corps experience that still shapes you today?

During my time in South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer as well as my time in Zambia, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how each of us, as individuals, are just one small piece of this huge diverse planet. I soaked up language, culture, and personal friendships like a sponge. I learned to appreciate a sweet potato fresh off the coals, the feel of a bucket bath with one gallon of boiling water added to it rather than ice-cold, and I even learned to love the smell of human bodies without the added unnatural smells of deodorants and perfumes. I knew I wanted to pursue a career that allowed me to continue to feel the excitement and newness of exploring and learning from new cultures.

What is one of the favorite parts of your job?

As a Study Abroad Advisor I have the pleasure of working with a portfolio of study abroad programs, many of them in Africa. While I don’t spend my time jet-setting, I really enjoying working with students who are considering study abroad options, who are eager to learn about the program and the cultures they will visit, and who begin to reflect on the way their international experience can enhance their future personal, academic and career goals. It’s exciting to develop relationships with students, as well as with host country colleagues. I like the broad goal of preparing students to have meaningful international experiences, and also like the individual relationships I am fortunate to form through the process.

What tips do you have for students when they talk with their families about studying abroad?

I think families can be nervous about sending their students far away, and rightfully so. I’m a parent of three young children myself, and as a parent you want your children to be safe and cared for. When I talk with students who have concerned family members, I always suggest that they learn as much as they can about their program, so that they can answer questions confidently. Selecting a program that clearly meets their goals makes it easier to explain why a study abroad program is a natural fit into their Wisconsin experience. Know who to contact in case of an emergency and share this information with loved ones. The more you know and can explain, the more confidence your family will instill in you to prepare for this unique and challenging experience.

What advice do you have for students who are exploring volunteer or study abroad opportunities in Africa?

Africa is an incredibly diverse continent, and the types of programs and opportunities available on the continent are equally as diverse. I would encourage students to form some goals for their experience and then see which programs or opportunities might meet those goals. After a program has been selected, make an effort to leave some wiggle room in the list of goals. Be flexible. Be open-minded. Sometimes the most meaningful achievements were never a part of the list in the first place.

Where in Africa would you still like to travel?

I’d love to go to the world renowned jazz festival in Senegal, and explore the West African coast. I’d also like to go back to Southern Africa with my three children. I want them to experience life in the rural villages that I did, pitch a tent on the Lake Malawi ferry, and taste the spices in Zanzibar. I hope they might also have the opportunity to spoon with a warthog!

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