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Uganda: Soap paves the way to success

Most of us take soap for granted in our daily lives. Not so in the village of Lweza, Uganda, where only a third of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities and women face unemployment and economic opportunity challenges.

To address these problems, CALS genetics major Corinne Praska and gender and women’s studies major Mackenzie Carlson designed and implemented “The Soap Project: Women’s Empowerment & Sanitation in Lweza.”

Last year they traveled to Lweza, where they hosted workshops to teach women how to make soap inexpensively using local products and ingredients— and market it to local vendors. They also educated the community about soapmaking’s positive health impacts, which include sanitation, disease prevention and economic stimulation.

Four women from the community volunteered to lead a soap-making demonstration for the village, Praska says. “What was so neat was that they were talking to us in English, then presenting it to the community in Lugandan as they were doing things,” she recalls. “The community stayed involved that way, asking questions and giving comments and suggestions. It was a collaborative effort. They even made up a song to sing while they were mixing the soap. It was so cool.”

For their project, Praska and Carlson received a Wisconsin Idea Undergraduate Fellowship. The fellowships are awarded annually to undergraduate student projects aimed at solving issues identified by local or global communities. The semester- or year-long projects are designed by students in collaboration with a community organization and a UW–Madison faculty or academic staff member. Student recipients receive three academic credits and are invited to present their work at the spring Undergraduate Symposium.

“Assisting people at a community level to improve their health, while at the same time creating greater economic opportunities for them, is what development is all about,” says faculty sponsor and CALS biochemistry professor James Ntambi, who grew up in Lweza. “The project epitomizes what we hope for our students—connecting deeply with the community on issues that are important to them.”

The Soap Project has had a great impact on the community. Through the use of local products, it has boosted the local economy and raised awareness about proper sanitation practices. To ensure its future success, Praska and Carlson are seeking younger students to take it on and continue to work with the people of Lweza. A Go Fund Me account has been set up to help the soapmakers build a workshop.

“We just were blown away by the kindness, inclusivity and appreciation that all the people in the village showed,” says Praska. “When visitors come and the community really likes them, they invite them to be a part of it by assigning them clans and nicknames. We both got clans!”

To learn more about the Soap Project, contact James Ntambi at james.ntambi@wisc.edu or John Ferrick (CALS International Programs) at john.ferrick@wisc.edu.