the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

The high points and pitfalls of volunteering overseas

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.)

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Safari in Murchison Falls National Park

Although it’s never been one of my burning ambitions to join a safari, I’m very glad I did. Murchison Falls National Park is about three hours drive from Gulu and while Sjarlot and I had time off from our roles as VSO volunteers over the Christmas break, we made the trip along with Helen, Sjarlot’s daughter.

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We visited the national park three times and I was amazed each time at how the outlook changed according to the time of day. Sunrise gave a pastel hue and the chance to spy a small herd of elephants.

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Later in the morning, there was a hint of blue as a bird took rest on the back of a water buffalo.

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The evening light gave a honey glow that made our guide convinced there was a lion resting in this tree. He even went off road to check but in the end we saw no lions.

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Elephants plodding along made me laugh.

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And giraffes were endlessly elegant in their manoeuvres (apart from when squatting for water).

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At the campsite, there was even a chance encounter with a grazing hippo!

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So if you find yourself in Uganda, the national park at Murchison Falls is a great way to spend a couple of days.

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Now we’re in Kampala joining training in communications and media. Here’s a photo of the sunrise.

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About the Nile

I have long wanted to go on a boat trip along the Nile, but not where it’s like this:

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Here is a picture of Murchison Falls, where the Nile crashes over rocks as part of the tributary in Uganda. This was the destination of our boat trip which started in calm waters near the Paraa ferry crossing. From here we were able to see crocodiles, including this sunbathing beauty.

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And Water buffalo gathering.

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And a range of wonderful birds I couldn’t catch on camera, including the iridescent flash of Kingfisher feathers.

Along the river, you could spot hippos …

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… and our guide was so keen for us to get a better look, she directed the boat to steer really close.

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The disturbed hippos fled but this left us grounded on the river bed. All passengers had to congregate at the stern and rock it by leaping from one side to the other until the boat eventually slipped free.

When we began to see spume spotting the river, it was an indication we were approaching the falls. We were put ashore for a two-kilometre hike that brought us to the top of the falls. We were refreshed by the spray and treated to rainbows.

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Given the many features of the Nile, I thought it appropriate to add a few facts here:

  • Although the Nile is mainly associated with Egypt, it flows through ten other countries – Tanzania, DCR, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda!
  • it’s thought to be the longest river in the world at 6,695 km, but some dispute this arguing that the Amazon is longer
  • the two main tributaries, the White and the Blue merge at Khartoum in Sudan then the Nile travels north to the Mediterranean Sea
  • At Jinga in Uganda, water pours over the Ripon Falls and there’s a narrow opening which is said to be the source of the Nile

Of course, the Nile is crossed in many places but it was at Paraa that we went backwards and forwards from our accommodation to the national park on the other side. The crossing itself was an adventure, with a line of cars queuing to cross each day.

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And there was ample entertainment watching vehicles rev, scrape and bounce aboard owing to the rudimentary boarding platform!

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Keep an eye out for a future next blog post where I’ll be sharing stories from my safari in the Murchison Falls National Park.

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