HENRY David Thoreau made the infamous quip “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves”. Recently, I decided to get lost in Africa with a two-month volunteering trip.
At this time of the year, many people are looking forward to Christmas but they’re also evaluating the year that has passed.
Perhaps they’re looking towards 2019 and thinking of various plans or the inevitable New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps volunteering is something that has never crossed their minds?
For me it was around this time last year that I first started thinking about taking a mini- sabbatical. I wanted to stretch my brain in a different way. I wanted to try something completely different, to step out of my existing world and step into sunshine, dusty roads and warm, smiling faces.
It wasn’t about travelling, it was about volunteering.
I spoke to friends and one suggested Uganda. I started researching and found an organisation called ‘The Real Uganda’, a grassroots organisation that put volunteers into different programmes depending on their interests. I liked it because I’d be living in a community with people, not protected from them, not living in a compound, but exposed to the realities of their everyday existence. I chose a public health programme that incorporated working in a HIV clinic, a pre-natal maternity clinic and of all things, building clay ovens in the heart of a village.
Having secured time off work (a combination of unpaid leave and holidays) with my very understanding employer, I booked the tickets and headed off.
From the moment I landed in the airport I was thanked for choosing Uganda as my destination. I quickly adapted to living without running water or electricity. I ate mostly rice, vegetable, some meat and matoke (savoury banana) served with a sauce made from peanuts. I walked everywhere or took ‘boda bodas’ which are taxi motorbikes. Working in the heart of the community I made some great friends but was astounded at the poverty before my eyes. In ways, it was like walking back in time as people in the more remote communities lived as they did 100 years ago, they cooked over fires outside. They lived in sparsely or unfurnished basic homes with no electricity. The only glimpse of modernity was on the odd logo on a t-shirt or a pair of plastic crocs and of course, the fact that most people had mobile phones (which they charged on solar powered power banks).
The work was varied and interesting. I was working a lot with my hands in the outdoors or in the clinics handing out drugs to treat H.I.V or meeting patients.
People were kind. They had time for each other. They walked with ease even when carrying wood or water on their heads! Community living is of the utmost importance to Ugandans, that and their families. That’s more important to them then the accumulation of wealth. It was great to experience this first hand as in Ireland, community life is something we need to hold on to.
Apart from volunteering five days a week, I did things I never thought I would like zip-lining high over a rainforest which really set my adrenalin going! My boyfriend joined me half way though my time there and we trekked in the forest of Bwindi to see the mountain gorillas, getting to spend over an hour observing these beautiful creatures up close. We went on safari and slept in tents listening to the sound of monkeys and crickets in the middle of a game park. We took trips down the river Nile watching fishermen make a living in the hot sun but all too soon the experience was over. I left the warm sunshine, the dusty roads, the impoverished villages. I got on my flight and landed in Ireland. I walked through the shiny corridors, drove my car on proper roads and went back to work.
Soon I had settled back to work but what had I learned? First, I learned to keep things in perspective. Whatever drama is happening in your work or life, it’s nothing compared to another world a few hours away.
I learned that there is a pervasive stress underlying our culture. It begins with the drone of morning news and traffic updates and ends with commuting, multi-tasking, dinner making and family life. It is hard not to participate in that kind of culture as everyone is trying to survive but every now and then it’s important to step back and make time to live as well, to enjoy small moments of happiness. I learned that I’m adaptable and resilient, most people are.
I learned that we don’t need as many things or clothes as we think we can do.
I found an inner confidence that you get from flying solo to a country where you know no one and coming back with friendships and relationships you’ll have forever.
Sometimes if I’m working on a problem or driving in the car I’ll conjure up the feeling of the sun on my face, or the warm smiling friends that I made and I’m grateful for the rich experience that it was.
If you are interested in volunteering in 2019 here are some tips!
1) Go with an open mind and have patience, when you’re volunteering you need to go at the pace of the country you’re in and respect the culture you are living in.
2) Buy the books and do the research, it gives you something to look forward to.
3) Talk to your employer and see if you can be facilitated.
Perhaps there’s a career break programme you can utilise?
4) Start the vaccination process early, check with your health insurer, sometimes they are covered, mine came to over €500 but I won’t need another vaccination for about ten years!
5) Break down your bills, one month I booked the flights, the next I paid for the volunteering, spread it out so that you’re not worried about finances.
6) Buy a good camera and a first aid kit!
7) If you’re going to a warm country, make sure you drink enough water every day and take your anti-malaria tablets.
8) Don’t feel you have to stay in touch with everyone all the time, social media can be handy your loved ones will have an idea what you’re up to.
9) When you come home, don’t forget how lucky you have been to have had this experience. It is something you will have forever. Don’t forget what you learned and what you saw.
10) Bring a powerbank for your phone and a headlamp and torch
11) Make sure you get lost from time to time.