Nina’s note: This next couple of weeks is going to be a busy time for me, both with work and in my personal life. In the meantime, while I’m getting my act together, here’s a guest post from Max, who went to Uganda as a volunteer back in 2008.
I have always been interested in the prospect of doing some voluntary work in a third world country. But only when I turned 18 did I realize that it was now the time to make this aspiration real. So I did some research on the matter and looked it. A family friend put me in touch with an charity that operates in Uganda. It’s called ‘Watoto’, which means Children in Swahili, and the aim of the organization is to basically look after Ugandan orphans. The volunteers that travel to Uganda, work on community projects, such as building homes for the Orphans. I was immediately attracted to Watoto, because I remembered the name from a Ugandan youth choir that had come to my old High school several years back.
Even though it was back in 2005/2006 that the interest came to me, because I had to finish my final year of high school in 2007 (Year Twelve), I left any kind of organizing for the trip pretty much to a couple of months before leaving. I was so eager, that I began looking for a job during my Exam period and started working immediately after finishing the Exams. I worked a couple of different jobs, shortly finishing one to concentrate on the other. It was a charity fund raising job, which conveniently suited my reason for funding myself. (I have recently gone back to work at this call center in which we raise money for Children suffering from Cerebral Palsy – Yes we get paid to fund raise, but we do have to be very passionate about the cause).
Typical Ugandan Street Scene
I also organized an exhibition to take place, where I would attempt to sell my artworks in order to raise some money for the mission. The night was quite successful and I sold five paintings, which was also an achievement for my personal art life. Preparing for the trip, I got ready such items as torches, bug spray, mosquito nets, sun cream, malaria pills, and other medical and toiletry items. I took along about 20 cans of tuna, as an emergency supply, which after all I didn’t end up needing at all. Also just as a token of friendship I took about 100 of the little Australian koalas to hand out to children I was to meet – A great little gift – I think it really made a lot of kids days.
And on the 29th December, I left the Airport, arriving in Kampala, Uganda on the 2nd of January. The group of people I was with there, was a mix of different people from various parts of Queensland – The Victorian group was full up already. In this group, we built together a school house for the orphans. In our other times, we visited the orphanage, learned about traditional culture and connected with the local people. Not only were there the direct benefits of us being there, such as the project which we undertook, and the inter cultural relations we built, but also indirect benefits such as a benefit to the local economy because of spending money used and the ability for everyone to meet people, there wouldn’t be a chance for otherwise.
On the days we were working on the building, we would wake up at 6, leave at 7, and arrive at the site at 8 to start building. We would work alongside local builders and tradesmen, where we would talk for the day sharing information and stories about each other’s countries. We would finish at about five pm with two eating breaks in the middle. I grabbed the opportunity during these eating breaks to mingle with the Ugandan builders group, to share very traditional meals. Which also brings to mind, an afternoon that we had scheduled for us to have a very traditional lunch in a Ugandan village. The food was from my opinion, perhaps best said to be ‘Interesting’, but the hospitality was of the highest class. Every opportunity I had to delve into the local atmosphere I took, as I know it’s not everyday one goes off to do charity work in the middle of Africa.
I found Uganda to be an extremely hospitable country. I was actually expecting there to be a fair degree of hostility and aggression particularly aimed at foreigners, because of just how very poor the country is. Regardless of that, most people seem to be fairly content with what they have, and what the people lack in material things, they seem to make up with the things that money can’t buy, such as strong family relationships and certain cultural passions. I must say that the Ugandans seem to be particularly friendly people. Most of the times when we passed children on the street they would come running up very enthusiastically to say hello. I even felt comfortable to walk around on the street by myself, or with just another friend at night time. But that’s probably also due to me being a bit too adventurous. I would say that most of the rumors you’d hear about a country such as Uganda just aren’t true, or at least not fully. It’s very different being in a country oneself and seeing everything firsthand from the small details to the major issues.
Perhaps I should quickly share some particularly stunning memories. Just after arriving in Uganda, civil turmoil broke out in Kenya, with political rivals Rwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga in dispute about the election. About 700 people were going to be killed the next week in Kenya, however luckily, the situation barely impacted Uganda, besides its economic impact – being a major trading and supplying country for Kenya. Well to the point – we were a bit surprised at the guest house when we had a knock on the door on our first full day in Kampala by the American embassy. They requested that our guest house be the safe haven for two American refugees fleeing from Kenya – their Hotel in Kenya was burnt down including everything they had brought to Africa. So that was an interesting welcome to Africa.
Having lunch with the builders
The other memories are not so dramatic, and happened more often. Such as the Muslim prayer time five times a day, including a very loud song from a Mosque on the hill at five in the morning, which served as some kind of wake-up call. Animals such as dogs, goat and cattle were left to wander many urban areas, much of the time without ropes. A lot of the time, this also extended to small children who would walk around with no parents in sight. When we saw monkeys, they behaved very human like, and ate the lollipops I gave them. Religion was everywhere, be it Protestantism, Islam, Catholicism or Hinduism. Nearly every car had a religious creed painted on the front and back.
Oh, and when I was in at the baby’s orphanage, I held and played with a toddler who was called ‘Dr. Moses’, a very funky name. I really like being with children, and especially this little guy, but I didn’t want to make any kind of connection too strong for fear of making someone sad when leaving. Anyway, I left the orphanage the first day and Dr. Moses was kicking up a bit of a storm. But after the second and final time I was there, I could tell Dr. Moses was desperate for me to adopt him! I had to try to tell him and myself somehow that I was far too young and incapable of adopting a kid! He was a cute little guy though, and I’m sure boys like him will grow up to be happy and successful due to the very positive atmosphere of this orphanage.
Max with Dr. Moses
So that was Africa for me. A place of many extremes, controversies, conflicts. But also very humble and welcoming. I think that I’ve personally learnt a few very important lessons from the experience. When you read about a great deal of absolute poverty and then see it for yourself, and reflect on it a bit – I think it changes your view on every day life. It just seems that the kind of problems people complain about in a Western country would be spilled milk compared with global problems. It’s also been quite apparent that human nature is human nature, and Ugandans and Australians and American and Filipinos or whoever else – we all have human nature, because we’re all inherently human and are biologically related whether we like it or not. Putting groups of people in boxes may prove something – good or bad, but individuals can always prove to be themselves very different from the groups. Well, in a few years I’ll be back in Africa – I don’t know where or what I’ll be doing – but I know I’ll be back. What can I say, I loved the experience.