Best volunteer abroad culture shock moments

Hey folks!

I’ve been polling our former vollies to collect their best culture shock stories from Uganda. These are always fun and often telling regarding the preconceived notions people have about foreign lands. There’s absolutely no way to completely prepare yourself to volunteer abroad. But once you get through that tough first week or so, you learn more about yourself and your new environment than you ever could have from the comfort of your own home. So, here’s to sharing and learning and traveling and growing!

Thank you to the following former (and current) vollies for contributing your insights, stories, great memories, and love of Uganda!

Volunteer in Uganda
Hannah peeling matooke

“After a few days in my new surroundings I was beginning to feel like I was quickly adapting to the things around me. I remember feeling quite numb after arriving. Having a game or two with the children, helping Aunt Liz with the chores, even the pit latrines weren’t a big shock. Although my body refused to let me poo over one of those for an unhealthy amount of time! The free range parenting shocked me a little though. Kids as young as five or six (who where I am from are still very much children) are lighting fires and dragging around machetes!” Hannah, 3 months, 2015.

“The amount of conversation on your way to work. Having people want to stop and learn about you and your day, and learning so much about everyone else in the neighborhood. Truly a unique and awesome experience. I got back to the US and definitely had some weird looks when I started greeting random people on the street out of habit!” Kat, 3 months, 2014.

random projects march 2011 012
Staci, teaching math in Buikwe.

“Rolex being a street food, not a fancy watch, and sooo much more useful and yummy!” Staci, 2 months, 2011.

“I found myself randomly remembering the little plastic baggies of gin the other day ….” Yvonne, 10 weeks, 2007.

“Honestly it was seeing two different ways of living so close to each other. You drive out of Mukono and there’s villages and people living in huts with very select amounts of food, with people who may never have even used a computer before. Drive back into the town and there’s cars, computers, bars blasting music, etc. Two very different worlds.” Harveen, 1 month, 2011.

jen with wine
Jennifer at the weekend. It’s not always about volunteering!

My first cold water bucket wash, brrr that took a little getting used to.” Jennifer, 2 months, 2014.

“Pedicures in the alley! Haha, one of my favorites.” Haley, 2 weeks, 2014.

“The food and the (seeming lack of) traffic rules” Hannah, 6 weeks – She’s here now!!

“Having to straddle my first outdoor pit toilet AND avoid stepping on a giant cockroach at the same time. Oh, also seeing a giant cockroach perched above me INSIDE the mosquito netting covering my bunk on the first night. I don’t like cockroaches.” Renee, 1 month, 2014.

NOBODY likes roaches, Renee.

“1. Having to poop over a hole in the ground (I never did get the hang of it and got constipated for 3 weeks) 2. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way!!! (Ummmm what?!?!)  3. People touch your skin and hair to see if you’re real” Ainsley, 6 weeks, 2015.

“Pedestrians not having the right of away, pooping in a hole….but not just pooping in a hole, pooping in a hole at an elementary school where children aren’t very good at it and the toilets are smaller. Also how friendly everyone was. It was a bit overwhelming the first day or two.” Ali, 2 weeks, 2015.

And how about some reverse culture shock? I hear it’s worse coming home to find nothing has changed but your own perspective!

“Water really can come out of a tap. And then there was soap in a bottle. So weird after living up country.” Kathy, 1 month, 2006.

Culture shock!
Kristen with Tony and Pauline. Village hilarity!

“Running [in Canada] on a cold day in June, with no children even considering playing in it… Also, no one running out of their home excited to see me and say hello (so disappointing lol)! Also, how much westerners complain.” Kristen, 1 month, 2015.

“I remember standing on the side of the road [in America] and not being able to see a single other human being anywhere. Everyone was either in their cars or in their homes or going between places. Not a single person was anywhere. It felt like the loneliest place I’d ever been and it still feels that way and that’s why I have to get out of here and back to Uganda where I belong, but being broke sucks.” Jeff Smith, 6 months, 2005.

“After spending time in Nakifuma, Butebe village, and even Mukono town, it’s always a reverse culture shock to go to Lugogo or Acacia Mall in Kampala. Realizing how much stuff we don’t need at all always gets me!” Ellie, 1 month, 2015 and back again right now!

“I felt I belonged from the minute I landed in Uganda. Returning to NZ I couldn’t feel the sense of community that I felt in Uganda. Kinda liked being called designer swagger by the ladies in the Lugazi market.” Zan, 3 months, 2014 and on her way back in August!

uganda waragi
Marissa’s 9 year old bottle of Uganda Waragi.


“I took a shot of this about three years ago, it was horrible and did nothing for me. And yet, it sits in the back of my frequently used liquor cabinet and I’ll probably always keep it.” Marissa, 3 months, 2007.

What culture shock – or reverse culture shock – moments have you had in your travels, volunteer abroad or work abroad experiences? I’d love to do another edition with more stories.

Want to create your own memories? Admittedly, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows when it’s happening, but I promise you volunteering in Uganda will have you telling stories for years! Check out our website for details. If you like what you read, fill in our online application form. We’re looking for volunteers ready to jump into new experiences and have their world view challenged and forever changed.

Oh! My culture shock moment? This. Every time.

culture shock


4 thoughts on “Best volunteer abroad culture shock moments

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