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:

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 🙂


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

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.

6 Months in Uganda

Next week will mark six months of volunteering in Uganda, and guess what? I’ve decided to stay for another six!

The time has really flown by but I’ve loved every minute so far, and can’t imagine leaving yet. Life has become routine for me now, seeing friends, going to church, playing music and having fun with the kids at home. My Luganda is improving rapidly and no-one dares try and cheat me anymore, or offer me a ‘muzungu price’!

So what’s new? (Stole ki? in Luganda!)

Well I’ve finished my volunteer contract with Environmental Alert and I’ve moved onto a new organisation called the Uganda Carbon Bureau (www.ugandacarbon.org), the pioneers of carbon finance in East Africa. It’s a bit of a leap from the ‘grassroots’ work of Environmental Alert, as these guys are involved at the highest level, actively participating in climate change negotiations and discussions around the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’, under which high-polluting countries finance emission-reduction projects in developing countries (click here for more information: https://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/mechanisms/clean_development_mechanism/items/2718.php).

The Carbon Bureau’s first project under the CDM is distributing improved cookstoves to women in East Africa, which consume less fuel and release minimum emissions, helping both the environment and the health of the women in the kitchen. Check out this video filmed in Northern Uganda:

What else is new? I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of my younger sister, Jane, who is coming to visit me for a couple of weeks and to share ideas with Madina at the school about teaching. Let the adventures continue!

3 months in Uganda

Three months ago today, I was having one last coffee and cake with my family at Heathrow Terminal 5, before setting off on my East African journey.  I had no idea where I would be living, what I would be working on, or even when I would be coming back (!) so needless to say I was feeling a little nervous, but excited all the same.

These last three months have been an absolute whirlwind. For the first few weeks, I felt like I was in a dream, trying to adapt to new sights, sounds and smells (and no, it wasn’t just the side effects of the malaria tablets!) but there came a point around the middle of March, two months in, that I suddenly felt completely comfortable with everything here: the culture, food, language, people…

So today I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve learnt since arriving in Uganda, both about the country and about myself:

1) Ugandans are very friendly!

This is said a lot about African cultures, especially East African, but even so I am constantly surprised by the friendliness and generosity of people, and their ability to strike up a conversation absolutely anywhere.

One day for example, I was walking along a busy road in the middle of the day when I heard a voice call out behind me, ‘Hello!’ I half turned around, replying wearily, ‘Hello, how are you?’ I thought it might be one of the beggars who congregate along that road, holding out their hands for money, sometimes even following you down the street, but when I turned round I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a young guy in low-slung jeans, shades and a snapback cap, but he was draped head-to-toe in ladies’ underwear! It’s a common sight to see hawkers wearing as much as their stock as possible, trying their best to entice passers-by with a sale. But this guy didn’t try to sell me anything; he just wanted to tell me that it was dangerous for me to be walking on my own as a white woman and could he pay for me to take a boda boda?! Without waiting to hear my answer, he turned and hailed a passing driver, stuffed some money into his hand and said ‘Take this madam wherever she needs to go!’

Street hawkers in Kampala (ityafrica.net)

Street hawkers in Kampala (ityafrica.net)

2)  That leads me onto my second observation: Ugandan’s are extremely polite (and that’s saying something coming from a British person!)

Men and women are always addressed as Ssebo or Nnyabo, or in English, Sir or Madam. Greetings are very important, so you must always ask someone how they are before you say anything else, even if you’re just asking for directions or where the nearest toilet is!

It’s also common to thank someone for their work, or after a meal to thank your host for cooking. Other unwritten rules that probably have more to do with culture than politeness include: never eat while walking, never publicly show affection (this includes hand-holding between couples, but for some reason it’s fine between friends of the same sex!) and always avoid confrontation or arguments, even behind closed doors.

There’s a Ugandan proverb, “Ombra dra ni” which translates as ‘Anger is death’ (meaning that anger can lead to disastrous situations)

3) Sharing is caring.

That means when you have money, you are expected to share it, and when you don’t it’s acceptable to ask friends and family to help you out. But in my experience, nearly everyone here has problems of some kind and these usually come down to a lack of money, yet it’s only very few who expect to solve their problems themselves; the rest just rely on those around them to support them through the tough times.

And this relates to something I’ve learnt about myself:

4) No matter how much I want to help everyone, it’s not physically possible to do so. As a “muzungu” (white person) I am automatically labelled as ‘rich’, despite being a volunteer, so it means people are constantly asking to borrow money from me. Notice I said ‘borrow’ – the intention is always to pay it back, but I have no idea in what time-frame they are expecting!

5) Patience is a virtue and slowing down is good.

“Africa time” can sometimes be a struggle, especially when plans are pushed back so much you wonder if they will even happen, or someone calls to tell you they’re on their way but don’t show up for another two hours. However, now I’m getting used to it I’ve discovered how much more relaxed it makes me, possibly because of the freedom and lack of expectations about time-keeping.

And I’m even starting to understand the patterns of “Africa time”, for example if you make plans for early in the morning or around lunchtime, you will find that food is the priority, followed by conversations and catch-ups with people, before any thought is given to where you are supposed to be. Similarly, if it’s rush hour or the rainy season, then all plans go out of the window completely!

Rush hour in downtown Kampala (matoketours.com)

Life in the big city

Living in Kampala is not at all like how I thought it would be.  With my expectations based almost solely on my previous trips to Sierra Leone, I was woefully unprepared for the glitzy shopping malls, fast food chains and huge supermarkets of Uganda’s capital city.

Of course it was necessary to try out a few of these luxuries, so without too much detail here are a few of the highlights I’ve enjoyed so far:

  • ‘Terrific Tuesdays’ buy-one-get-one-free pizza at Nandos takeaway;
  • Watching The Hobbit 2 in a 5D cinema with free popcorn and soda;
  • Joining an orchestra and choir at Kampala Music School;
  • Swimming at Rainbow international school;
  • Making burgers with Michaela, an American volunteer also living at my host home; and
  • Going to La Bonita theatre with my host mother on Valentines Day to watch the Ebonies theatre group.
Burgers - American style!

Burgers – American style!

It took a while to discover this side of Kampala, however, as my host home is in one of the cheaper ‘suburbs’ of Kampala, about a half hour taxi ride from the centre.  Our house has ‘drop toilets’ or pit latrines, water comes from a standpipe so you shower with a jerry can (usually in the dark if you wash in the morning or evening) and all the food is cooked on a tiny charcoal stove just wide enough to hold a kettle or a saucepan (but not both so everything is cooked sequentially, which can take hours!)

That being said, at least we have electricity and proper iron beds – I’m always glad for the extra height when I wake up to suspicious rustlings in the night (so far I’ve found a large cockroach and a medium-sized lizard chilling out under there!)

And on a volunteer’s budget, it’s not really practical to indulge in Western luxuries, which can cost more here than in the UK and often leave you disappointed – like the time Michaela bought a wafer chocolate bar which looked and tasted more like stale bread than any chocolate I’ve ever eaten!

The Ugandan street food is much better in my opinion and ridiculously cheap: fried chapattis, half cakes, doughnuts, sticks of cassava, packets of groundnuts (peanuts), or fresh fruits like pineapple, mango, watermelon, bananas and jackfruit sell for 200-500 Ugandan shillings (around 10p).  If you’re pushing the boat out, yoghurt and ice cream are also found nearly everywhere for a little less than 50p per pot!


chapatti stall

I usually buy my breakfast from these stalls on my way to the office, which is a half hour walk from my house (45 mins if you go at Ugandan pace!)  I could take a taxi or boda boda but I find it more interesting to walk, greeting the stall holders setting up for the morning, chatting with kids on their way to school and dodging the cows/goats/chickens along the way!

And I’m not lying about the cows…