Age: 28 years
My name is Annelies. I have been a volunteer for UPA now for three and a half months, and I planned to stay in Uganda for seven months. This is not the first time I am spending a long period abroad; I have travelled through Central America for five months in 2009, during which I spend one and a half month volunteering on two different projects. I found this period abroad to be a very good experience. This time it is different though, since I will spend a lot more time volunteering and a lot less time travelling around.
I decided to go to Uganda mostly because I wanted to see more of the world. After studying psychology in the Netherlands I had a job which involved working with youth. When I quit this job I saw this as an opportunity to leave the Netherlands for a longer period of time. I was ready for a new experience, and I reckoned this was the time to follow my dreams. Of course, I did not want this to be like my travels in Central America; I wanted it to bring me something in terms of an experience in working with youth as well. That is why I chose to volunteer for HEY-PI (Health for Youth with Parents Involved) (build link).
I made my decision in February 2011, just after quitting my job. Because it felt to me like I was standing still, I actually wanted to leave as soon as possible. I had travelled before, so the practical side of arranging my travels was not too much of a hassle. Leaving home for seven months still felt like a challenge though, and of course I was a quite excited in the weeks and days before leaving to Uganda.
Working at HEY-PI
I read some information about HEY-PI which gave me the impression that the organization was very much alive. Before I started working at HEY-PI I expected the organization to be really active and this was also the impression I had after the first days I worked there; we had a good meeting and did two school outreaches.
After some time however, the lack of structure, the lack of having a clear weekly schedule, at times became difficult for me to accept. I tried to adjust to the pace of work here in Africa, which is very different from the Netherlands. Having worked at HEY-PI for one month, I started to take matters more in my own hands. I proposed to have a weekly meeting on Monday to discuss the schedule for the week, tried to reorganize the office, and together with my colleagues tried to come up with some ideas for monthly themes and activities. Coming up with good ideas and suggestions is one thing however, but bringing them into being is quite another. And especially in a country where you are not familiar with the way of dealing with daily business.
My colleagues at HEY-PI and I decided to organize a sports day to bring all the local NGO’s together. Because I was, as I said before, unfamiliar with how to organize events here (which I can assure you is very different from organizing events in the Netherlands), this was quite a challenge to me. Working together with my colleagues we eventually managed to have a, in my opinion, very successful sports day.
Thanks to HEY-PI I was able to visit many interesting workshops around Kampala, and I met with many interesting people from diverse NGO’s. Working at HEY-PI has also been a challenge for me though. The working environment is different from that in the Netherlands, and I was often confronted with my own way of dealing with situations, which was at times very different from the way people deal with things here. The working environment is very informal, which can be a good thing, but at times it also means that there is little privacy. I learned that it is sometimes hard for me to accept that there are certain things that are beyond your control. I learned to let things go. I got really confronted with my own limitations as a person. Because you arrive here as a ‘Mzungu’ (a white person), people might expect you to bring some structure to their organization, a little bit of the ‘western’ way of dealing with things. It also works the other way around however. At least it did in my case. I started living like an ‘African’, became less strict with time and appointments.
Apart from that, it is challenging to work without things that we would consider as basic office equipment in the Netherlands; a computer, internet, a printer. This sometimes makes arranging things more difficult, or at least it is different from the way I am used to arranging things. All communications goes by mobile phone, or by letter (hardcopy letters, not e-mail). This can be very time consuming, which became very clear to me while organizing the sports day. However, the informal way of dealing with all these things also has its upsides. I have the feeling that it is much easier here to achieve things on a local scale because of the informal networks you can use to organize people. Contrary to the Netherlands, where everything has to be regulated and where it is easy to get lost in bureaucratic hassle.
Life in Uganda
When I arrived in Uganda, UPA organized the pick-up from Entebbe airport, which was nice. The guesthouse in Nansana, where I have been staying now for three months, really feels like home. When I arrived, I was the only volunteer in the guesthouse for a couple of weeks. It took me some time to get used to the daily life here. Street life came across as very chaotic.
In the guesthouse you will also be confronted with the ‘African way-of-life’; basic needs are being taken care of, but if we run out of toilet paper for example it may take a day or two before UPA provides us with new toilet paper. I would welcome more structure, but I know that this is my personality as well. I will just have to learn to cope with the confrontation with my own personality. At times this may be difficult, but I think the experience is also very rewarding.
Another thing that may be difficult to deal with is the fact that you are a ‘Mzungu’. As I said before, your organization might expect you to bring some ‘Mzungu’ mentality to the work floor. Being Mzungu, you will always stand out in the crowd, which sometimes leads to a special treatment. Some people want to become friends with you, just because of the fact that you are Mzungu. Taxi drivers might want to charge you a higher fee. It is hard to know who to trust and who not to trust, even after spending some months here. Overall though, I think the people are really friendly.
Returning to the Netherlands
I am not sure yet when I will return to the Netherlands. I still have to sort out what I still want to do and achieve here. I would like to get out of Nansana for a short period to consider the rest of my stay.
I am sure that returning to the Netherlands will prove to be very hard for me. My life is here now. I will miss the feeling of freedom that I have here. The combination of volunteering and experiencing life abroad I think is great. Africa and Uganda inspire me. I learned how much is possible in this country, but this experience has taught me about my own capabilities and shortcomings. It made me more realistic and down to earth.