This week, I present to you an essay written by Haley Barnhart. She volunteered with us for 2 weeks in June, 2014. At the time, she was a second year Social Work student, in Texas. During her short stay in Uganda, she lived and worked in a village boarding school/residential home in Mukono District. She learned a lot about herself, her stereotypes about “Africa”, and what she can accomplish under pressure – totally out of her comfort zone. I remember her first night with us, nervous and exhausted. By the end of her stay, she was so excited about what she did and learned. Quite a transformation. Haley tells me she’s set to graduate in May 2016 and will work abroad for a year or 2 before entering grad school. Her time in Uganda was a stepping stone on her way to personal and career development.
Here’s what she has to say about pursuing your passion and getting out of your comfort zone:
“About a year and a half ago I was discussing my future goals, career path, and passions, with my mum. In high school, I had all these dreams of traveling the world and becoming “cultured” but really didn’t know where to start with my humble bank account. We asked ourselves, how can I accomplish my goals and dreams on a budget? Volunteering was the immediate answer we came up with.
My amazing mother agreed to cover the expenses of my trip as she, too, saw this as an amazing opportunity. I had four months to plan everything from plane tickets to vaccinations and what to bring, and learn a little about Uganda, before my trip. However, nothing could really prepare me for my first solo travel experience. It didn’t really hit me until my boyfriend was dropping me at the airport and we were saying our goodbyes. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared and I didn’t cry. Even though I knew I’d be gone for only two weeks, it was intimidating. At the same time it was also very exciting!
The flight was long and tiring. I arrived in Uganda at midnight and that’s when it really hit me. Holy crap, I’m in Africa, alone. The air was hot and thick. The airport was tiny and somewhat run-down, nothing like American airports. There was no air conditioning and countless bugs were flying and swooping through the facility. I gathered my belongings and went upstairs to exchange money and catch my ride. However, when I walked over to the exit of the airport there were over 50 men shouting and holding signs like an auction for cab rides. I stood there in amazement/fright wondering what to do or how I was going to find my driver.
Needless to say, I was very uncomfortable and I hadn’t even been in Uganda for twenty minutes. Then, out of the crowd, I heard my name and did a dash towards the man calling me. He grabbed my luggage and guided me to his vehicle. Since it was so late, I was going to stay at a hostel for the night; another first. I felt so relieved, nervous, excited, terrified and blessed all at the same time. Jet lag probably had something to do with me being so emotional as well. But, gosh, I was really in Uganda! No turning back now. I had completed the first step in my amazing journey.
The next day’s ride to the village, where my host school was located, was one of the roughest I had ever encountered. The roads were all dirt and filled with pot holes. My head actually smacked and bumped against the windows, seats and ceiling the entire way. It was definitely a change of pace to be the minority. Villagers stared and children yelled out “mzungu!” every time they caught site of me and my fellow volunteers. Over here, we were the exotic ones, we were different and interesting.
Upon arrival at the boarding school/residential home, the children immediately began to crowd our vehicle, trying to take a peek at who would be living with them for the next two weeks. There were so many little faces looking up at me as I stepped out! For a few brief seconds of silence, I felt scared and unsure of what my purpose was here. And then I heard Vincent (The school’s Director) behind me say, “Well… Welcome her!” Just then, children started hugging me, fighting for my hands, and showering me with love and acceptance on a level I’ve never experienced. I can’t even begin to describe the peace and comfort that came over me in those moments. I had never felt so welcomed or wanted anywhere else. This place was no longer scary.
The kids then took my luggage to the volunteer house and showed me around. Most of them had few belongings, tattered clothes, and many had no shoes. They all had clean shaven heads and slept two or three to a bunk. Yet, they were happy children! Smiles and laughter never stopped. I was to learn they often danced, sang, or played some kind of sport when not in class. Kinda like kids back home.
The volunteer house was roomy and comfortable, but had no running water or electricity. Most nights after dinner we drank hot tea and did dishes in buckets on the concrete floor, using only the light from our headlamps. The restroom was a hole in the ground down the hill. We fetched our water from a well in the middle of the grounds. We became a normal part of life at school.
Out of class time, the children were free to walk and play and climb at their own leisure with little to no supervision, some as young as two years old. While talking with them, I realized that many had lost either one or both parents to AIDS, violence, or other cause of that sort. I expected them to cry or become sad when talking about this, but it didn’t phase them. This was just everyday life for these kids. The kids enjoyed talking about their religion. I learned that it hardly matters what religion you practice, as long as you pray. If you don’t, be expected to answer questions as to why not and be invited to church.
Daily work was teaching and having some fun with crafts in class. However, in my first week’s stay I was able to go on home visits with a Ugandan social worker, named Immaculate. She worked for the residential home. I wasn’t even aware that they had social workers in Uganda! Since I was studying social work, I asked the Director if I could shadow Immaculate for a day. I don’t know a lot of people in my university classes that can say they’ve had such an opportunity.
She took me to the homes of local parents or guardians, who could not afford to send their children to area private schools and wanted to enroll them at our school. Immaculate spoke first in Luganda and then translated for me once they were finished. It was crazy to see the parallels in home visits I’ve encountered in America compared to Uganda. It was the same concept; finding out what your clients’ needs are and how to best assess them. The only difference was the setting. Here in America, I am invited into a home or apartment with a couch or chair. In Uganda, they pull up a wooden bench or hand woven mat outside in their lush, green compounds.
My experience in Uganda won’t be forgotten and I could go on for days about the things I saw and learned while there. I saw beauty and I felt love. I heard countless stories of perseverance and pursuit of happiness. I also saw extreme poverty and heard stories of tragedy and hurt beyond my understanding. This was a place completely foreign to where I am from. It made me realize that visiting and experiencing places out of your comfort zone is great education. I learned more in Uganda than any textbook or documentary could ever teach me. The irony is that I was there to do and teach, and ended up being the student. You never really know what life holds for you until you step out of your comfort zone.”
Thanks for reading about Haley’s journey. Her experience volunteering continues to affect her daily life in America. She still tells anyone who will listen about her time here. She’s now more interested in global issues, not directly affecting her life. Hayley no longer takes a narrow view of things unknown. She wants to educate people and knows the value of having to create a “new normal” outside of her comfort zone.
I hope everyone enjoyed reading words other than my own once again. I’m working on more posts like this one. I think everyone here knows my philosophy regarding volunteer abroad programs. So, I’m waiting for a few promised submissions from other former vollies!! Anytime now, people….
If you’ve been wondering about the positive and negatives about volunteering abroad please peruse this blog and keep reading! We’re trying to give people the right tools to make a success out of international travel and volunteering. Of course, if you do want to volunteer in Uganda, check out our website. If you like what you read, fill in our online application form. We’re looking for volunteers interested in building themselves and everyone they meet – not saving starving brown babies. Speak again next week!