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.


Living with a Host Family

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.


1. Learning

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?”

Cooking hamburgers for the family

Eating hamburgers for the first time

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!

Ark's birthday party

Celebrating Ark’s birthday at the local swimming pool with all the family

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.

With Madina and Ark on EId

With Madina and Ark on Eid

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.

Tribes, Traditions and Life in the Village

One of the first things I noticed about Uganda is that it is a country extremely proud of its cultural heritage, customs and traditions. With a rich diversity of over fifty tribes and over forty languages spoken in a country just smaller than the size of the UK, I think that’s justified! Ethnographic map of Uganda Each tribe has its own identity, customs and unwritten rules, so there is a lot to learn if you’re staying in the country for any length of time. Luckily Ugandans love to teach visitors about their way of life, and are rarely offended when you get something wrong or ask an awkward question! Kampala is part of the central region of Uganda, where the Baganda tribe originate, but being the capital city, it’s actually a melting pot for all tribes and cultures. Most people living in Kampala make the effort to learn Luganda, the language of the Baganda, however, as it’s very difficult to get by otherwise!


On the way to the village

One weekend when my host mum, Madina, was going to the village, she invited me and Michaela along, the other volunteer I’ve been staying with here. We went with Madina’s husband, Mohamed, and the three eldest boys, to visit the family of one of Mohamed’s other wives who sadly died a few months ago during childbirth. Her little baby survived and is being taken care of by Mohamed’s sister, who also looks after the house while the older boys work the land.


Michaela with baby Swabra

It’s a hard existence, living miles from anywhere in a poorly constructed mud house, with the nearest water source a half hour bicycle ride away. Every day is the same routine and I felt sorry for the teenage boys who have had to accept that life for the time-being and the foreseeable future.


My extended host family’s home in the village

When we arrived it was almost dark but we had timed our visit with the full moon, so the whole place was dappled in a beautiful pale glow which was almost as bright as my wind-up torch! It’s part of their culture to kill a chicken for guests – usually they take the live chicken to the visitor to inspect before they kill it, but they spared us this privilege! – so while it was cooking I asked Mohamed if he would be offended if I didn’t eat it (as I’m trying hard to be a vegetarian in Uganda!) I knew Madina wouldn’t mind but it’s the men that hold all the power here and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her husband. Unfortunately, after at least half an hour of discussing the pros and cons of vegetarianism, Mohamed still couldn’t see my point of view, so I gave in and ate the chicken in the end (it actually tasted very good!)


Some of the congregation outside the village Catholic church on Sunday

The next morning we walked to the village church for the morning service, which turned out to be in their tribal language, Runyankole, so we didn’t understand a word of it but we loved the music, which used traditional drums and shakers. No one had any words of course, but everyone knew the songs and the liturgy off by heart.

We left the village in the afternoon and finally made it back to Kampala around 10pm, in time for Madina to fry some goats meat that she’d brought back for everyone before bed (I managed to abstain this time!)