One of the best parts of the volunteering experience has to be living with a host family. Yes it can be daunting at first, as you have no idea whether they will speak English, what kinds of food they eat and, most worryingly, the toilet/bathroom situation(!) But in my opinion, it’s the best decision you can make and one that all volunteers should seriously consider if they’re going to a new country or culture for the first time.
If you really want to learn about the customs and culture of your host country, then a home stay is really the best way to go about it. From food and drink to learning the local language, ‘total immersion’ can teach you much more than any professor or non-fiction book can. Late night discussions and the freedom to ask questions about anything you find surprising, curious or puzzling, is one of the most rewarding aspects of living in a host family.
And of course, the opportunity to share stories and answer questions about your own country and culture is another amazing feeling. Most of the questions I get from the kids are about aeroplanes funnily enough – the most common one is probably, “is it one person per plane?” (they do look very small from the ground!), closely followed by “how do you go to the toilet on an aeroplane?”
2. Settling in
As a volunteer, you are a funny mixture of tourist and resident. For me, the easiest way to settle in quickly is with a host family. Learning how to move around, making friends and establishing a routine are made much easier by having a permanent address and trusted people around to ask for help.
I love the feeling of belonging to a community and, wandering around our little neighbourhood in Lukuli-Nanganda, where most people know me by name, or at least by sight, it’s easy to forget that I’m actually a foreigner with another home and family on the other side of the world!
3. Meeting inspirational people
For anyone who read my blog from volunteering Sierra Leone last year, I’m sure you can’t fail to remember the effect my host mother, Ramatu, had on me. A truly remarkable and inspirational woman who, despite not having any formal education or English proficiency, taught me a great deal about life, relationships and the real meaning of the words ‘kindness’ and ‘selflessness’.
Well, Madina, my host mum here in Uganda, is another incredible woman and I will soon be writing another post on her struggles and accomplishments in her life so far. She has taught me so much and I feel privileged to be a part of her home and family.
Of course, as in any family home there are ups and downs but I see it as all part of the experience, particularly in terms of understanding the challenges that arise and how people respond to them. Moreover, I’ve found that going through problems together forms stronger bonds between you and the family members, so that when you make it to the other side your relationships are closer than ever.
And this leads me to the hardest part of all, not the cockroaches, pit latrines or jerry can showers, but saying goodbye to people that you’ve come to know and love as your own family. It was heart-breaking leaving Sierra Leone and I know it will be the same when I finally leave Uganda, but one thing makes up for the sadness of saying goodbye: knowing that, for both sides, the experience has been a fully rewarding and worthwhile one, that will live on in our collective memories for years to come.