the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other authors

The high points and pitfalls of volunteering overseas

on February 23, 2020

There is plenty to enjoy about my placement with VSO. The organisation has a thorough recruitment process, there’s excellent training before departure and throughout the onboarding period of preparing to leave the UK, I felt very well supported. On arrival in Uganda, there was a delay in arriving in at my placement, but I joined VSO team building in Mbale, had time to relax in Gulu and went on a river cruise and safari at Murchison Falls National Park.

I was appointed as a psychosocial and child protection volunteer at Bidibidi refugee settlement and joined an excellent team of experienced practitioners who support seven Early Childhood Care and Education centres in Zone 3. I love working with my colleagues and have learnt so much from them. One of the first learning points was to adjust my use of English to make it ‘easy to hear’ for host and refugee families. I copied my colleagues’ patterns of speech to make my utterances more like standard Ugandan English. The key is to speak slowly, emphasise key words and always avoid unnecessary language. For example, Ugandans say ‘you come’ rather than ‘can you come here?’ It is a language of imperatives. I enjoy this direct way of speaking and find some of the vocabulary charming. If you need a ‘short call’, you’ll be directed to the toilet or latrine. And ‘to pick’ is a high frequency verb because it means to choose, to collect, to take or to pick depending on the context: it’s the job of young girls to pick firewood on the settlement.  I also much admire the training my colleagues offer to a range of audiences. There is always humour in their delivery, time for laughter and a joy in sharing anecdotes.

My experience of delivering training to refugee and host community parents living on the settlement has been positive. Although the groups have been huge (over one hundred parents in some villages) I have been able to explain the need for parents to support the psychosocial wellbeing of their children (with the aid of interpreters). Further sessions are planned to focus on developing constructive patterns of talk with young children and the need to play with children to build family bonds.  Many of the parents on the settlement have known no other existence besides living in conflict and displacement. Their skills and confidence to parent effectively have therefore been diminished, sometimes due to the lack of good parenting they received. My input aims to break this intergenerational cycle. It is rewarding work.

The most difficult part of my placement is getting used to living in Yumbe. I don’t think I was adequately prepared for what to expect. There is very little information about Yumbe on the internet and although I asked everyone what they knew the place, I only ever got two responses: the road is very bad and it is very hot. Yumbe is a town with limited resources, poor transport links to other destinations and few social outlets. I guess this only to be expect – refugee settlements aren’t normally found in desirable locations. Other NGOs classify their projects according to the hardship of the placement. Refugee camps in Syria are classed as hardship 3 area. Yumbe falls just below this at hardship 2 category. This means that accommodation for staff and volunteers at some NGOs compensates for the hardship of the placement. Friends live in comfortable accommodation with air conditioning, a generator for a constant supply of electricity and water tanks to ensure the availability of piped water. Others (including two of my colleagues) spend Monday to Thursday in Yumbe then return to the relative luxury of Arua each weekend. This week I experienced a twenty-four hour power cut (which meant sleeping during the hot night was impossible without a fan) and photocopy resources for training sessions was problematic. There is a water shortage in Yumbe during the dry months of January and February. Although where I live has a water tank, for some reason it was not supplying water this week and I had no access to piped water from Monday to Friday. Fortunately, I was able to return to the hotel where I stayed during the initial period of my placement and used the shower facilities there. (I won’t go into details about the difficulty in living for that period with a non-flushing the toilet – too unpleasant.)

Food is also an issue in Yumbe. The market has a limited supply of vegetables with only tomatoes, onions and peppers readily available. Mini supermarkets have shelves which are sparsely stocked and devoid of anything I might want to eat. I tend to avoid wheat so none of the bread suit me although I must admit to scoffing the odd packet of plantain crisps which are delicious. The Ugandan diet rarely includes any sweet treats beside sodas and glucose biscuits (these are purchased as refreshments for anyone attending VSO short training sessions). I have seen sim sim (made from sesame) elsewhere in Uganda but not in Yumbe and even Ugandan peanut butter which is usually available in huge tubs doesn’t appear here. During a recent tour of the shops,  I discovered a new mini supermarket which has all sorts of delicacies. At last – something for me to eat! Fancy some stuffed vine leaves? You can have them for a price! And would you believe there are two types of mustard available? Who buys this stuff? There’s even Milo to please any Aussies in the area. I salivated over bars of Cadbury’s but as chocolate doesn’t travel well and often blooms in heat, I decided against a purchase. But I may be tempted back by meat balls in tomato sauce, sold in a tin straight from a factory in Greece.


3 responses to “The high points and pitfalls of volunteering overseas

  1. carolcmcgrath says:

    What a wonderful post. I look forward to the next post too. Stay safe.

  2. jim bates says:

    It’s wonderful to hear from you Gail. You are a true hero for what you are doing. My thoughts and prayers go out to you everyday in some small measure of support for all of the good you are accomplishing. Keep up the fantastic work!

  3. Janie says:

    Totally agree with you about not quite being prepared , despite the training . It is a huge culture shock in so many ways and while as you say rewarding it does make life and living much harder than it perhaps should be . As a volunteer , also in Uganda , I loved it but at times the living was much harder than the work . My advice ,build in as many breaks to Places with WiFi , electricity, running water , safety and showers and English speaking colleagues as much as possibles. It is so necessary to a long term well being . Well done but be kind to yourself .You are a stranger in a strange land you need to take it mpola mpola as they say in Kampala .

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