Are you currently researching your volunteer abroad trip to Uganda? Or have you always dreamed of volunteering in Africa, but are a little nervous about actually taking the leap? Not sure how to plan, what to bring, or how to act once you arrive? What happens after you leave?
There is indeed a lot to know before committing to such an adventure. It’s not easy to navigate the negative media about Africa, deal with comments from people who have never been in Africa or Uganda, or feel totally prepared to board that flight. Understanding local cultural norms and keeping expectations in check while volunteering, is also a challenge. Saying good-bye at the end can be done in a way that preserves the relationships you build, without creating dependence.
As a volunteer in Uganda, you are in a unique position to help local people improve their lives, on their terms. But it’s never a bad thing to be prepared. Here are 7 things to know before you go volunteering in Uganda!
Before You go Volunteering in Uganda
Dont Bring Too Much Stuff
- Travel light. You’ll learn valuable lessons about how little you need to be happy and healthy. Also, plan to buy things here and support Uganda’s economy! Here are the absolute essentials:
- Bring 3 tops and 3 bottoms that coordinate with each other. 4 pairs of undies are enough. Ensure all clothes are loose fitting and easy to hand wash. Jeans are not your friend here. Daily temperatures range from 26C to 29C, so you don’t need a jacket. But one long-sleeved t-shirt is handy. Know you’ll likely spend time in a local market during your stay. It’s fun to buy a new dress or shirt while you’re here.
- Bring a sturdy pair of hiking sandals for the street, and a pair of flip-flops for around home. A sunhat or bandanna will help keep the dust and sweat off your hair.
- A small medical kit containing anti-malaria pills, oral rehydration salts, anti-bacterial cream, and ibuprofen is essential. It’s not easy to find cosmetics and hair products for non-Africans. Bring a small kit containing your personal travel-sized favourites.
- Uganda has rolling power outages. A headlamp and power bank for your phone will be invaluable during your stay.
- Your smart phone will help you keep in touch with new friends and people at home. Ensure it is not locked to your current service provider. Getting a local SIM card in Uganda costs less than $1. Monthly internet data packages start at $10.
- Mosquito nets are widely available in Uganda and cost less than $5. Don’t waste the space in your luggage. Get one here.
- If you want to bring something for your volunteer program, ask your program directors what they need before assuming. If you can, plan to buy supplies on arrival. They are often cheaper and more appropriate than what you’ll bring from home.
- PRO TIP: If you don’t have a specific plan for an item, leave it at home.
Dont Worry, Volunteering in Uganda is Safe!
From the moment you were accepted into your volunteer program, you’ve been subject to family and friends’ fears, regarding Africa. As your departure date looms closer, try not to take those fears seriously. Almost everyone has an opinion on Africa, even if they’ve never been. Understand that thousands of tourists fly in and out of Uganda monthly. International hotels and businesses keep offices here. You are not some crazy person, but rather, a very lucky world traveler!
You are welcomed into a community when you volunteer in Uganda. You are respected and appreciated by your co-workers and neighbours. Your hosts would never bring you into their homes, if it was going to cause trouble. Plan to relax, open up, and dive into life. Everyone you meet will want to know just as much about you, as you want to learn about them.
While Volunteering in Uganda
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
You won’t see Ugandans wearing short skirts or shorts in the village. Ugandans don’t eat in the street. They never sit down on the curb. Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Everyone greets properly before asking for anything. No one refuses food. Relationships are more important than business.
Look around for patterns of behaviour and mirror them as well as you can. You are the weird one here. Making an attempt to fit in and learn a little local language is highly appreciated. Your volunteer work will be taken more seriously when you do.
PRO TIP: African time is a real thing. A meeting happens because everyone is present, not because it’s 10am. Generally expect things to get going 2 hours later than planned.
People are People
While Ugandans are not materially rich, they are deeply connected and generally quite happy with their lives. Remember this when interacting with people in your community.
View everyone as your equal, not as victims, less fortunate than yourself. Respect and support local leaders and jump into whatever work is happening. Appreciate what is being done, rather than focusing on what you think should be done. Your skills are not necessarily transferable. In order to remain sustainable, changes must be locally-led and locally-paced. By enjoying the work, art, food, and music, you’ll learn that Ugandans want the same things you do: a safe home, a loving family, and engaging activities to keep their bodies and minds healthy and busy.
There is So Much to See!
Your hosts will want to be with you 24 hours a day. You are their esteemed guest. However, do yourself a favour and get out of the village! Uganda is home to some amazing experiences. You can easily go white water rafting on the River Nile, zip-lining in Mabira Forest, or on a day trip to the Equator.
With a little higher budget, you can plan a wildlife safari, primate tracking, or a bird watching trip. Uganda is easy to travel using public transportation or private tour companies. There are hostels and hotels for all wallet sizes. Uganda has many stories to tell. You would be cheating yourself if you stayed at your volunteer placement full-time. Besides, Ugandans want you to take a balanced view of this country home with you.
PRO TIP: Spend a weekend partying in Kampala. The nightlife is amazing.
After Volunteering Trip In Uganda
Understand that your program has hosted volunteers before you and will host more after you. They were doing great work in their communities long before you came along. They will continue to do so into the future. Your volunteer time has ended.
Do keep in touch with the people you met while volunteering. However, please don’t take on their problems from home. Rushing to everyone’s aid is not your responsibility. Not only will it stress you out, it will reduce the relationships you built into mere transactions. Empathise and contribute, but don’t feel the pressure to save. Ugandans are resilient and will carry on despite daily challenges. Do what you can, but don’t make promises you can’t fulfill.
Updating Your Friends and Family About Volunteering Experience
Now is your chance to bring some reality to the international view of Uganda, and Africa in general. Don’t just tell everyone how “nice” Ugandans are, but present a 3 dimensional view of life and culture in this relatively obscure country.
Yes, Ugandans live without many modern comforts, but they are not technology addicted. Yes, the local diet is limited, but it is made up of organic and nutritious foods. Yes, there are many people who struggle to make ends meet, but the streets are bustling with life!
Volunteering in Uganda is by no means easy. But it can be incredibly rewarding and eye-opening if done with the right mindset. Think of volunteering abroad as a way to travel deeply and meaningfully. Learn as much as you teach. Take as much as you give.
And tell the world all about it when you get home!
Written by: Leslie Weighill, Leslie is founder and executive director of The Real Uganda, a non-profit that sources international volunteers and funding for locally-led community-based organizations in Uganda. Originally from Canada, she has lived in Uganda full-time since 2004. She loves her job introducing volunteers to Uganda, through partnerships with Ugandan leaders empowering their communities. Besides running The Real Uganda and working on an MBA, Leslie is mum to Lucas, her 3 year old son, whom she is proud to be raising in Uganda.