The Real Uganda has been hosting international volunteers for 10 years now. We’ve had over 750 people from all over the world pass through our doors. It’s been incredibly fun and eye opening for everyone involved. While volunteering abroad affects people in many different ways, there are some universals. Here are 10 moments everyone who volunteers in Uganda will experience:
1. The Traffic Freakout: The 70kms between Entebbe and Mukono give all new comers a wonderful welcome to our traffic chaos. Cars and trucks overtake you around blind corners FAST. Taxis speed by hooting their horns. Bodabodas flit around like mosquitoes. If you stay long enough, you’ll get used to it. But those first few hours in the country freak out even the most experienced drivers. You don’t really have to worry though, most of us know exactly what we’re doing. The general rule while driving in Uganda? Don’t make eye contact.
2. Squatting over a hole really isn’t so bad: The first time you use a long drop pit latrine is something else. The smell. The flies. The quivering thighs as you balance over a small hole. The anxiety of missing that hole. After a few times, though, you realize it’s kinda nice. Natural. You leave everything outside, no muss, no fuss. Just remember to always cover your nose with your tissue and never, EVER shine your flashlight down that hole at night.
3. You will never blend in, and that’s part of the fun: Most of our volunteers are not of African decent. Even those who are – you’ll be pegged as foreign in seconds. You walk fast, dress funny, talk loudly, and have messy hair and dirty feet. International volunteers stand out, but are appreciated intensely. You’re labeled “mzungu” and will be greeted, called to, proposed to, and generally escorted everywhere you go. Volunteers generally enjoy the attention and love. They know they’ll be nobody again when they leave this place.
4. You’re home country has a lot of unnecessary rules and regulations: Everywhere you go in Uganda, there are huge holes at the roadside. Kids are carrying around machetes. Motorcycles are ridden without helmets. Razor blades are used at school to sharpen pencils. Open fires abound. And guess what? People don’t die by the dozens. Ugandan eyes are open. People are aware. No one gets sued. It’s actually quite nice to be a part of a society that trusts its citizens not to do stupid things.
5. Everyone is welcome in Uganda: As soon as you get to your placement, someone will hand you a baby. That baby will fall asleep on you, totally comfortable. People who don’t have much will serve you a MOUNTAIN of food. You’re invited to weddings, graduation parties and burials for people you’ve never met. You know in the back of your mind that this wouldn’t happen in your country. Relationships are far more important than business in Uganda. Volunteers work, but also dance, cook, laugh and bond with a lot of people.
6. People are the same the world over: When you volunteer, you’re really immersed in local culture, activities, and hopes and dreams. It’s almost scary how much myth surrounds “us” and “them”. A major volunteer light bulb moment happens within a week of being here. The realization that people in Uganda want pretty much the exact same thing that people in any country want. A roof over their heads, people to love, and interesting things to do to keep their minds active and bodies busy. People are people the world over.
7. I am so exhausted!: You wake up with the roosters (who crow before sun-up, by the way). Work all day in the heat. Walk the streets attracting the attention of everyone. Come home and play with the kids in your compound. Volunteers have to be “on” all the time. You are representing your country, your culture, all things not Ugandan. Basically, you are in demand. It’s exhausting being Bratt Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It becomes a pleasure to pass out before 9pm most nights.
8. Development is not all about money: Before coming to Uganda, it’s easy to think it’s about money. How do I get money to build a school, sponsor a kid, or start a small business for a single mum? But once you’re here, and experience everyday life, volunteers start to see that it’s about self-esteem and lack of exposure to new ideas. Instead of giving money, volunteers see firsthand how they can impact communities by encouraging behaviour change and subsequently spreading Ugandan voices around the world.
9. It’s just so safe!: It’s generally believed that the relatively less developed conditions in Uganda result in high danger and crime. (I’m working hard to change that!) After a few days on the ground, though, most volunteers exclaim about how safe it is. They realize it’s not poverty that creates crime, it’s disconnection. And people here are connected. Most Ugandans would rather be your friend than mug you (barring late night Kampala bodaboda riders!).
10. It’s not home, but it sure could be: Life in Uganda is lived at a different pace. Ugandans live with their environment, not at odds with it – no one is trying to control things for future comfort. We live for today. And why not? There’s 12 months of sunny warm weather. The food is whole and largely organic. People take time to spend with one another. Children are allowed to be children. There’s no need to disappear into your phone for entertainment. There’s music and dancing everywhere everyday. When volunteers slow down and stop focusing on doing and, instead, try to just be, they never want to leave this place.
What would you add to this list?
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