Long-term Volunteering, Lifelong Impacts

Long-term Volunteering, Lifelong Impacts

This is an article I recently submitted to the ICYE international newsletter, on the theme ‘Assessing the impact of long-term international youth volunteering’…

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”  – William James

All international volunteers make an impact during their placement – sometimes negative but mostly positive – on their host family, project, community and on their own lives. However, it is assessing these impacts that is the difficult part, and the reason why international volunteering is often negatively represented in the media. In my experience, volunteers contribute and gain two broad sets of skills: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are teachable abilities or skill sets that are easy to quantify, such as IT proficiency (e.g. setting up e-mail accounts and basic websites) or language ability. As a long-term volunteer in Uganda, I learnt the basics of the local language, Luganda, whilst helping others to improve their English. This was done very informally and mostly within my host home, where the children were eager to teach me new words in their language and correct my pronunciation. Through regular interaction and conversation with me, their English progressed significantly, whether they realised it or not.

An informal IT lesson in Sierra Leone (2012)

An informal IT lesson in Sierra Leone (2012)

Soft skills, on the other hand, are much more difficult to measure. Also known as “people skills” or “interpersonal skills,” soft skills refer to the way you relate to and interact with other people. I gained a great deal of soft skills during my volunteer placement, including teamwork, communication, flexibility, creativity and patience (a much needed attribute when working on “Africa time”!). I also recognised that I promoted and shared other soft skills with my host family, workplace and community, such as motivation and respect for the diverse needs, feelings and views of others. My Christian friends, for example, were amazed at my willingness to join my host family in the mosque for the celebration of Eid, yet I found it an honour and privilege to be asked.

Soft skills are not only difficult to quantify, but also to measure and evaluate the impact of, as they manifest themselves over time in the lives of the volunteer and their host community. When I arrived at my host home for the very first time, I remember my host mother, Madina, recounting how each of the volunteers she had received annually since 2007, and the particular impact each one had made on her family and the small nursery school which she owned. The skills they had imparted ranged from teaching swimming and first aid, to establishing a reading culture and the importance of learning through play. However, the common element of all of them was their overall impact on Madina’s attitude to life and decision-making. Despite the age difference, she was very open to learning from the young volunteers, believing strongly in collaboration and asking the opinions of others.

The beginnings of 'Buddy Reading'

The beginnings of ‘Buddy Reading’ (Uganda, 2014)

To look back, seven years on, and see the difference that these young volunteers played in her life, and no doubt she in theirs, it is not an exaggeration to say that volunteering changes lives. Although many volunteers will pass on hard skills and soft skills, and pick up others, the overwhelming impact of long-term volunteering can be labelled as simply ‘life experience’. For although life experience is very difficult to measure in terms of its impact and outcomes, volunteering experiences do make a difference in shaping people’s lives and life choices, in the next seven or even seventy years to come.

One month to go…

Ok so this post is a little late, as there’s just 3 weeks to go now, but I’m still finding myself asking ‘Where have the last 11 months gone?!’ It’s been a crazy year full of surprises, fun, laughter, tears and long-lasting memories.

Special thanks to ICYE for getting me here, and to all my new friends and ‘family’ for keeping me here! Check out my feature on ICYE’s website to find out more about what I was doing in my first 6 months in Uganda and thoughts on volunteering:
http://www.icye.org.uk/portfolio-item/emmain-uganda/

So what’s next?

Well after spending a month at home for Christmas, I’ll be boarding a plane back to this wonderful continent, this time heading to South Africa to start a Masters at the University of Cape Town! (Of course I’ll be keeping in close contact with Uganda, which is not too far away!)

Thanks to everyone for reading, following and supporting my journey this year, it really means a lot. I’ll leave you with a video of one of my songs, ‘Hold Me’, performed at a wonderful little church in Mbale, Eastern Uganda. Enjoy 🙂

 

A-Z of Ugandan Food

A-Z of Ugandan Food

In case anyone thinks I’m starving here in Uganda, think again – when it comes to food, the ‘Pearl of Africa’ doesn’t fail to disappoint…

A – Avocado

Known locally as Ovacado, the most delicious I’ve ever had!

B – Bananas

Uganda is the second largest producer of bananas in the world after India, but did you know bananas come in many forms: sweet yellow bananas, savoury matooke (below), fried gonja (also below) and even banana beer!

C – Chapati / Cassava

Uganda’s most popular street foods (Cassava best eaten fried!)

D – Doughnuts

Another popular street food (known locally as mandazi) – these should come with a health warning!

E – Eggs

Sold hard boiled with a pinch of salt or in the dubious form of an ‘egg roll’ (like a scotch egg but fried in doughnut batter – another heart attack in the making!)

F – Fish

I’m not usually a fan of fish, but even I can’t resist fresh Tilapia from Lake Victoria… it beats English fish ‘n’ chips hands down!

G – Groundnuts

AKA peanuts – boil ’em, roast ’em, cook ’em in a stew seems to be the motto…

H – Hot pepper

Warning: Seriously hot!

I – Ice cream

The Ugandan equivalent of the ice cream van, complete with ring-tone style music (most commonly ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’)

N.B. This ice cream is best left to the kids – I don’t see the resemblance myself!

J – Jackfruit

The craziest fruit I’ve ever seen – weighing up to 100 pounds, jackfruits grow on trees and have a sweet, sickly taste. The inside is so sticky that it is recommended to grease your hands with something before you eat them.

K – Kalo

A type of millet bread, commonly eaten by people in northern, western and eastern Uganda. (I’ve never tried it but I’m told I’m not missing anything)

L – Luwombo

A traditional ‘royal’ dish created in 1887 by the Kabaka’s (King’s) personal chef and traditionally eaten at Christmas. Featuring fried meat/chicken, mushrooms and onions in a stew or groundnut sauce, cooked in banana leaves.

M – Maize

One of Africa’s staple foods, in Uganda maize is used for a variety of purposes: making Posho (see Ugali), porridge, popcorn and even in the beer industry. But of course it is best eaten as corn on the cob, cooked on the side of the road!

N – Nile Special

Talking of the beer industry, the Nile Special, brewed at the source of the Nile, is one of Uganda’s most popular beers (especially with international visitors) but doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to health – I’ve certainly experienced some bad headaches the next morning, probably caused by their ‘extra’ ingredients…

O – Oranges

Ok so they’re actually green, but still taste good (if a bit sour!)

P – Pineapple

Hands down the best fruit in Uganda (in my opinion!) and the most accessible – sold whole or cut into pieces from men selling from their bicycles or wheelbarrows on the side of the road.

R – Rolex

The tastiest street food going: a rolled chapati with eggs, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage. Sold at nearly any time of the day from pretty much anywhere (it’s not uncommon to see 2-3 of these stands next to each other, so they must be getting good business!)

S – Sim Sim (i.e. Sesame)

Used particularly in the north, roasted sesame paste is mixed into a stew of beans or greens and served as a side dish, or in Kampala, mixed with groundnuts to make a killer peanut butter. Also found as a sweet ball made from mixing roasted sesame seeds with sugar or honey.

T – Tea (Chai)

The nation’s favourite drink, taken black with lots of sugar and spice, or as ‘African tea’ – made with hot milk instead of water.

U – Ugali (Posho)

Called Ugali in Kenya, Posho is made from maize flour and is the most common food given to school children due to its relatively cheap cost and nutritional benefit. Living in a pre-school, I’ve eaten my fair share of posho but I still can’t say I like it; the texture definitely puts me off!

W – Waragi

Popular with Ugandan men, Waragi is a strong type of gin, triple distilled and made from millet. According to wikipedia, it is known as the “Spirit of Uganda” – at 40% ABV, I don’t think they’re talking about witchcraft…

Y – Yams

Last but not least, yams are hard, starchy vegetables that can be cooked in a variety of ways: boiled, mashed, roasted or fried. More common in West Africa than East, I’ve been lucky to escape eating yams on a regular basis (they’re definitely in the ‘acquired taste’ category for me!)

Awkward British situations you won’t find in Uganda

After a few ‘heavy’ blog posts, I reckoned it was time for something a little more light hearted, so here it is: Awkward British situations you won’t find in Uganda (please forgive me for the Buzzfeed style format, but everyone loves a good list!)

#1 Awkward greetings, especially with someone you’ve never met…

In Britain greetings can be a scary thing: Do I kiss them on the cheek (and if so, how many times?) or give them a hug? Or shake hands? And when is it appropriate to do so: when saying hello, when saying goodbye or when you haven’t seen them in a long time? It gets so complicated that most of the time we wait for the other person to act first, unless they are using the same trick, whereby we both end up awkwardly standing in front of each other, slowly turning red in the face but trying desperately to play it cool and pretend that was our intention all along!

In Uganda, it’s simple: shake hands. If you’re a young person you can fist bump (known here as ‘bonga’) and if you’re meeting a Muganda or a friend you can give them a hug. But no greeting at all is just plain rude!

With my good friend Ibra

With my good friend Ibra

#2 Awkward eye contact in the street or on public transport…

I once got yelled at by a girl on the bus on the way to school just for looking at her. Instead of standing my ground and replying with ‘So what?’ I turned bright red and stared profusely at the floor until I reached my stop. Even if you have never experienced a confrontation like that one, pretty much every British person can identify with the problem of where to look on buses, trains (especially the opposite-facing seats of the Picadilly line!) and even when walking down the street, to make sure you avoid eye contact and therefore the possibility of causing any kind of offense or rudeness.

In Uganda, no-one cares. Your business is everyone’s business and people unashamedly stare at you (especially if you’re a muzungu!) It doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable though, I usually greet someone if I find them staring at me for more than a minute or two, and that breaks the ice sufficiently to start a conversation or shock them into looking away/carry on with what they were doing.

#3 Running for the bus (and potentially missing it)…

Almost an everyday occurrence when I was in secondary school (due to a certain sister holding us up every morning!) Whether you make it or you don’t, it’s embarrassing either way: fumbling for your oyster card in front of the driver while panting heavily and trying to hide a triumphant smile, or sitting dejectedly at the bus stop, annoyed with yourself for leaving 30 seconds too late and more so with the bus driver for not stopping for you when he could clearly see you in his rear-view mirror!

In Uganda, I don’t think it’s even possible to miss a taxi (bus) – drivers want to fill their seats so badly that they wait for as long as it takes for the person to amble up to them, and even reverse backwards down the road to pick up someone they’ve seen in the rear-view mirror. They frequently stop for people who have no intention of boarding and spend the whole journey beeping the horn and hollering out of the window at passers-by, ‘Kampala! Kampala!’ or whichever destination they are going to. And if you do manage to miss one for whatever reason, the good thing is you only have to wait another one or two minutes before the next one comes thundering down the road towards you.

A taxi conductor in Kampala Photo: Red Pepper

A taxi conductor in Kampala. Photo: Red Pepper

#4 Awkward queuing…

Of course, the British are known for their queuing habit, and the passive aggressiveness that comes out in a collection of sighs, mutterings and throat-clearing when someone skips in front of you or holds up the line for longer than is socially acceptable.

Well in Uganda there is virtually no queuing, even in supermarkets people tend to stand side-by-side around the counter until they get served. The only time I witnessed proper queuing was for the parking machine at the international airport, where the Ugandans were shamelessly pushing in front of bemused and annoyed international tourists who were trying to work out whether to stay in their line or just push in front too. Luckily I was with a Ugandan so I didn’t have to make that choice!

 

Any more suggestions? Feel free to leave a comment below…

Nja kukuba

“Nja kukuba!” The words ring out almost everyday at home, and are usually followed by the sound of running feet as the child in question decides to flee from the scene as quickly as possible. “Nja kukuba” means “I’ll beat you” in Luganda, and it’s by no means an empty threat. One of the hardest things to stomach as a volunteer in a host family or school environment is the disciplinary methods of parents and teachers. Although beating in schools is technically against the law in Uganda, it is not seriously enforced, and there is no law against corporal punishment being used in the home either.

According to the latest Unicef report, published last week, about two thirds of children worldwide between ages 2 and 14 (almost 1 billion) are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis. And yet, only about one third of adults worldwide believe that physical punishment of some kind is necessary to properly raise or educate a child. In another report by the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, more than nine out of ten children in Uganda (93.3%) reported having experienced physical violence including caning, slapping and pinching. Of those who experienced physical violence, 16% said it occurred at least once a week and 15% said it occurred daily.

In a survey involving 3,200 children in eight districts in northern Uganda, corporal punishment in the home and at school was identified as one of children’s major safety concerns: 79% of children said they felt unsafe or scared due to beatings at school and 90% said they felt unsafe or scared due to beatings at home. When asked to draw something that made them feel unsafe at home, at school or in the community, more than half of the participants drew pictures of teachers beating children, and children in all regions drew pictures of corporal punishment in the home (WarChild UK Child Safety Report Card: 2012 Regional Report).

But how did the situation get like this? Of course, culture plays a big part in the raising of children, and the pride that is associated with it means that it is not a topic that can be discussed easily. Tradition also makes it difficult for a culture of beating to be abolished, when adults continue to follow the behaviours of those who went before them. An anonymous Nigerian summed this up well in a comment on blog I was reading on the issue, saying, ‘transferred aggression is all too common in our society. Teachers and parents are not exempted and adults in authority tend to abuse the privilege since it is considered rude for a child to talk back or contradict an adult.’ I have definitely experienced this in Uganda, and felt extremely sorry for the child who is beaten for a crime they didn’t commit, or for a silly accident that they already feel bad about (e.g. spilling their hot tea all over themselves).

Women are most likely to use physical punishment on children, but is it just because they are the primary care-givers, or as the anonymous commentator suggested, is it the result of ‘transferred aggression’ from violence/abuse from their husbands, or even their own parents? It shocks me that teenagers and young adults are also quick to use physical punishment on children, sometimes using worse methods such as a stick or shoe in order to inflict the most pain. It’s clear that they are only reinforcing the view that beating and corporal punishment is a ‘privilege’ for those in positions of power over others. Of course, the sad part is that children are suffering across the world because of these practices. One fifth of homicide victims globally are children and adolescents under the age of 20, resulting in about 95,000 deaths in 2012, and slightly more than 1 in 3 students between the ages of 13 and 15 worldwide are regularly bullied in school. Furthermore, the effects of violence against children can last a lifetime, as exposure to violence can alter a child’s brain development damaging their physical, mental and emotional health.

So can this cycle of abuse ever change? It’s hard to say, but at least this latest report from Unicef has succeeded in exposing the hidden truths about the extent of physical violence against children worldwide, and putting this uncomfortable topic on the map to use as a starting point for global transformation. In the words of the UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake, “Violence against children occurs every day, everywhere [but] it is not inevitable. It is preventable — if we refuse to let violence remain in the shadows. The evidence in this report compels us to act — for the sake of those individual children and the future strength of societies around the world.”

Introducing a Ugandan Wedding

Weddings are one of the biggest cultural ceremonies in Uganda. They are usually attended by hundreds of people who all know the bride or groom in some way, or just love an excuse to party!

Almost as important as the wedding itself is the introduction ceremony, where the bride’s family and the groom’s family are ‘introduced’ to each other. It normally takes place a week before the wedding, at the bride’s ancestral home.

I was lucky enough to attend an introduction with Madina, my host mum, and Thea, another volunteer from Denmark who was staying with us for a month. Although we didn’t have the traditional gomesi to wear, Thea and I put on our best clothes and set off with Madina to her village, a three hour drive away in Mukono District.

After driving on dirt roads for at least two hours, we noticed they were getting gradually smaller and smaller, until we turned a corner and found ourselves in a large compound full of cars and trucks, with huge white tents rising up behind them. There were people everywhere but somehow we managed to find Madina’s brothers almost immediately.

After greeting them, they took us straight to the food tables where huge portions of rice, potatoes and meat were being dished out. Looking around, everyone else was using their hands to eat but a few minutes later they had found a couple of forks for the muzungus (much to my relief, I still haven’t mastered eating rice with my hands!)

The food queue

The food queue

The tents themselves were set up in a rectangular shape, with the bride and groom’s families occupying opposite tents, arranged behind the parents and direct siblings in the front row. There must have been over 500 people in total; by the time the ceremony started people were still arriving and finding themselves standing at the back, watching the screens that were showing real time footage from two cameramen who were circulating in the space in the middle.

The whole ceremony was meticulously planned by an organising committee, but it was clear tensions were running high when an argument broke out between two men in the bride’s family, one of whom was sitting in the wrong seat. We couldn’t understand much of the argument as it was in Luganda, but we realised it was serious when a woman went to intervene and was knocked on the floor in response!

It was over five minutes later, however, and the ceremony got underway without any further interruptions. The ‘introducing’ part involved a series of processions of the bride’s family members, starting with the youngest and going up through the generations, dancing into the space in the middle, then kneeling down (if they were children or women) to introduce themselves. In return, each one received a gift from the groom’s family.

This went on for an hour or more, until it was the turn of the bride herself to come out, dancing with her bridesmaids and cultural dancers, and accompanied by a live singer.

After that came some speeches from the groom’s mother and father, the local chairman and finally the imam (as it was a Muslim wedding).

Then came the gifts (dowry) from the groom’s family. I’ve heard friends and colleagues joking about the dowry part of weddings, as traditionally cows or other animals were given, but these days it can be anything from a TV to a car. The bride’s family request the items they would like to receive, and the groom’s family usually add a few more as a goodwill gesture. On this occasion, it was a whole dining set of tables and chairs, sofas, a TV and a huge water tank, as well as some extra bags of sugar, flour and crates and crates of fizzy drinks! We couldn’t believe our eyes as all of these things were carried out of the back of a truck by the groom’s family, then passed by a chain of about ten men until they were all safely inside the house.

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By this time it was getting dark so we decided to head home. Madina assured us the only part we were missing was the cake, which was distinctly overshadowed by all of the huge gifts that had been produced! We spent the journey home marvelling at the whole thing, Ugandans certainly know how to put on a show!

International Youth Day 2014

On International Youth Day, I couldn’t help but write from the country with the most youthful population in the world. Uganda has the world’s largest percentage of young people under 30 – 78% – according to the 2012 State of Uganda population report (UN Population Fund) and more than 52% of Ugandans are below 15 years.

So what does this mean for Uganda and its development? According to most media reports – both global and national – a youthful population lays the foundation for unemployment, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and even terrorism.

But rather than look at it from a negative perspective, as a major challenge that needs to be managed, how about we look at the positives of having such a young population?

Young people have energy, entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility to adapt to changing employment opportunities in our globalised world. I haven’t yet met a Ugandan youth without a Facebook page, and most are accessing it on their smartphones, when they’re not on WhatsApp or Snapchat. A huge number are university graduates with relevant degrees such as IT, accounting and finance, medicine, environmental management etc.

So what’s holding them back? In my view, it’s a political system that’s saturated with the older generation who care more about the contents of their own pockets than investing in the young people of tomorrow. On paper, there are countless schemes to develop youth entrepreneurship and innovation (e.g. The Youth Venture Capital Fund; Youth Livelihood Project) but despite the billions of shillings that have apparently been invested over the last couple of years, no measurable results have emerged as yet.

Although it’s frustrating, it’s difficult not to lose hope when the young people around me are so full of ambition and determination. For the last few months I’ve been part of a youth group in Kampala that goes by the name of “Amfuture”. Started by a passionate youth leader from my church, it’s a friendly, open group of at least 25 dynamic 16+ year olds, who meet every week to discuss different topics: money, family, studying, relationships, Christianity etc, and share ideas and advice with each other.

I am constantly impressed and inspired by the maturity and independence of these young people, the majority of whom are still in school or university. They all face challenges in their lives – big and small – from school fees to family problems, but what is remarkable is their attitude to overcoming them. For example, there’s one brother and sister (both in secondary school) who rear rabbits, chickens, goats and who knows what else in their backyard, to raise money for their school fees. They can tell you off the top of their heads the market price for the different breeds, sex and sizes of all their animals, their current turnover and their aspirations for growing their operations. Now just imagine that spirit harnessed and nurtured on a larger scale, across Kampala and the whole of Uganda…

That’s what I call youth development.

Amfuture youth members