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.

AmFuture

AmFuture

“I am the future”, or “AmFuture” for short, is the name of a very special group of young people I’ve had the privilege to become friends with and lead over the last nine months.

I first got involved with them when a friend asked me to come along with my guitar one Saturday afternoon. After that first meeting, I was hooked. Hooked by their vibrancy and passion; their selflessness and generosity; and their sheer tenacity and overwhelming positivity. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to get them out of my head for a single day, for the whole of the last 3 weeks I’ve been in the UK.

When asked to speak at my church last Sunday, I couldn’t help but focus it on AmFuture. For me, they sum up a lot about my experience in Uganda, whether it be friendships, youth culture, Christianity or anything really.

Speaking at church on Sunday

Speaking at church on Sunday

So what exactly is AmFuture? And why is it so special?

Well, Uganda has the world’s largest percentage of young people under the age of 30 – 78% and a large proportion of these young people are uneducated and unemployed. In fact, Uganda has the highest youth unemployment in the whole of Africa.

Since March 2013, AmFuture has been meeting once a week in one of the leader’s homes to share stories, sing together and hear the word of God. Beginning with around 20 people, the group has now grown to over 50 regular members.

AmFuture meeting

AmFuture inspires, encourages and nurtures its members to believe that they are the future of Uganda, and that they have the potential to make positive changes towards their country, families and in their own lives.

Specifically, we believe that every person that attends AmFuture is special (especially to God), and that they have their own talent and something to offer. Our vision is to see young people making positive changes and believing that they can ‘pursue their dreams’ by offering them words of encouragement, a listening ear and a safe place to attend.

So what happens at AmFuture?

Every Saturday afternoon we meet as a group at one of the leader’s homes.  It’s a time for our members to hang out, listen to and play music, share food and talk, pray together and reflect on a topic introduced by one of the leaders (often this involves a bible study).

Lately, we have also been running regular movie nights and on a few occasions have taken some of the members to visit other youth groups and fellowships.

Songs learnt as a group have also been sung by some of the young people at church services within the community.

Why is it so important?

A lot of AmFuture members lead difficult lives, with family problems and youth unemployment affecting every single one of them. As a result, AmFuture doesn’t just serve a social purpose, but a family one too. AmFuture is there for the young people in a way that a lot of friends and family aren’t, and members support each other unquestionably and to the full. Already, a number of individuals have been given the courage and guidance to turn their lives around, and it’s an amazing thing to witness.

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In 2015, AmFuture’s vision is to help tackle youth unemployment amongst its members, by establishing projects such as a piggery, as well as providing funding and support for the young people to start up their own enterprises and businesses, using their personal talents and skills.

We would also love to purchase some musical equipment so that some of the members can grow their singing talent and perform in the wider community. In time, we believe that this group could find paid bookings at functions, restaurants and hotels in Kampala, resulting in funding for AmFuture and the young people themselves.

Kairos Music, Dance and Drama Day

Two AmFuture members awarded for exceptional music, dance and drama performances at their secondary school

Supporting AmFuture

To help AmFuture achieve its vision, please consider supporting one of our projects. Any contribution is very welcome and we will be sure to keep you updated on our progress.

(a) Donation towards the running of AmFuture

Help us to cover the cost of weekly meetings and additional events over the next year.

(b) Sponsorship of an individual to start a business (e.g. arts & crafts, tailoring, farming) –

£25 is enough to help an individual with a talent or idea to start a business. Closely monitored and guided by the leaders of AmFuture, these enterprises will not only teach them valuable skills such as book-keeping and management, but also provide a vital income for them and their families.

(c) Donation towards the AmFuture piggery –

Support our 2015 project by sponsoring a piglet! Starting with 4, we will slowly expand our piggery under the watchful eye of two of our young people with farming experience. The profits generated will go to those working on the project and AmFuture itself.

Each piglet costs £25 but all contributions are very welcome!

Finally…

For any more information on AmFuture, please feel free to contact me on emmabaker173@gmail.com, or go and check out the AmFuture facebook page – just click here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Amfuture/476703619089133?hc_location=timeline

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Thanks for reading!!

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.”

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.

Why?

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.

Ecotourism at Mabamba Wetlands

This blog post is a little overdue – sorry to all those people who are still wondering what I’m actually doing in Uganda (apart from enjoying the sights and sounds of Kampala and its surroundings!)

For me, volunteering in East Africa is also important for gaining experience within the environment and international development sector; discovering what the challenges and solutions are for a country like Uganda, which is blessed with an abundance of natural resources but still suffers from chronic poverty.

One of the biggest issues for Uganda’s Government and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) alike is the question of how to protect the country’s vast equatorial ecosystems (forests, lakes, grasslands, wetlands) and incredible biodiversity, whilst at the same time contributing to economic growth and supporting a rapidly expanding population in the capital (currently estimated at around 5 million but growing all the time).

environmentalalerts_logo

This is where Environmental Alert comes in, the NGO I’m volunteering with for the next six months.  For over 15 years, EA has undertaken research and piloted field projects to ensure that Government policy decisions reflect the priorities of the poor and promote the sustainable use of Uganda’s natural resources.  EA builds partnerships with like-minded institutions to scale up best practices, and strengthens smaller civil society organisations and local networks to engage in policy processes and hold duty-bearers accountable.

Currently, EA is focussing on halting the degradation of forests and wetlands by working at both Government and community-level to promote sustainable agriculture and livelihoods which help to improve the health of soils, increase food security and combat the onset of climatic changes such as low rainfall in the dry seasons.

So where do I fit into this? My task during my six months with EA is to research and draw up an ecotourism development plan for a wetland area called Mabamba Bay, about 50km from Kampala on the banks of Lake Victoria.  Part of the site was recognised as a Ramsar site in 2006 to offer protection to the 190,000 birds found there, the most notable of which is the globally endangered Shoebill, which I was lucky enough to see on my first visit there last week!

The Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) Mabamba is home to just 9 individuals out of 250 in Uganda

The Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) Mabamba is home to just 9 individuals out of 250 in Uganda

There are also important cultural sites in the catchment including 600 year old tombs, ancient forests and a cultural hill where people go to offer gifts so that they may give birth to twins (which are highly renowned in Uganda and considered a spiritual blessing).

Nansubuga Cultural Hill - offerings made for twins

Offerings made for twins at the top of Nansubuga Cultural Hill

But despite the numerous opportunities for tourism at Mabamba, so far the tourist numbers have been very small, with most visitors staying for just a couple of hours.  The community living at Mabamba hopes that with investment in ecotourism, they can afford to protect the wetland from destructive activities such as agricultural encroachment, sand mining, poaching and clearing of papyrus for firewood, which are already occurring on various scales.

I’ll be working directly with the community through an association of community members and bird guides committed to promoting ecotourism at Mabamba, who are all wonderful characters (more on these guys in a future post!)  For now though it’s back to work!

My Host Home: Sesame Street Kindergarten and Day Care

Sesame Street Kindergarten

Sesame Street Kindergarten

On Wednesday, I was taken to my host home in Makindye Division, the southeastern corner of Kampala. The house is joined with Sesame Street Kindergarten, a nursery and day care run by Madina, my host mother. Madina receives no support from the government or any other national body, so has to run the school like a business, relying primarily on school fees to pay for the rent for the land, and salaries for six teachers and a secretary. There are over 100 three-to-six year olds enrolled at the school, split into three classes: top, middle and baby, so as you can imagine it gets a bit crazy at break time with all the children running around the small playground.

Madina has four children of her own, between the ages of 4 and 8. She is intent on them getting a good education and doing well in life, so encourages them to speak English at home (much to my disappointment – they’ve been helping me learn Luganda!) But the kids are really clever and love asking questions about England, especially Fahd, the eldest, who has aspirations of living in London near his cousins, who he sees about once a year when they come to visit Uganda.

My host brothers and sisters: Fahd (8), Ark (7), Nassu (6) and Mohamad (4)

My host brothers and sisters: Fahd (8), Ark (7), Nassu (6) and Mohamad (4)

Madina employs two housekeepers to help her around the home and school, and they both bring their children too, so there are six little ones running around at home causing mayhem, which will increase significantly when the new school term starts in February (it’s still the Christmas holidays at the moment, the longest holiday period of the year).  Madina also looks after Dora, 12, and pays for her school fees in return for help around the house, especially with the children.  Dora’s mum had more children than she could afford to look after so without Madina, Dora wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to school.

Madina is not your typical Ugandan woman, juggling a school and a family of four kids, with almost no help from her husband, a polygamist who has just married his fourth wife.  But as the slogan for Sesame Street goes: “The struggle continues…”