Volunteering abroad: my experience
If you've ever considered volunteering abroad, this writer has some recommendations.
This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of SpunOut.ie. It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for SpunOut.ie please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking back, it barely feels like I was away at all. It had taken a lot of planning, a lot of fundraising, a sizeable chunk from my bank balance and it all went in the blink of an eye. In October, I spent two weeks in the depths of Africa as a volunteer. Was it worth it all? Absolutely!
I have far too much to say to write into one piece, so for easiness I’m going to divide this up into the different segments to the experience. Here we go…
How did it begin? Well, volunteering is something I’ve done in the past, enjoyed and always meant to return to. Unfortunately, it had been about three years since my last volunteering efforts (final year of my degree, a masters and a fledgling career got in the way) so it was long, long overdue. A friend of mine had travelled to Uganda in 2013 with Nurture Africa and it looked amazing. Not completely sold, I went about a bit of research… and decided yes, this looks good. And so it began! I roped my cousin into coming with me and the plans took off. First, we had to book flights to guarantee our places on the programme. I won’t get into the nitty gritty but that did mean beans on toast for a while. Still, looking back it was worth it! Next on our list: fundraising. We were committed to raising €1,500 each - €3,000 in total. It was a tough slog and we didn’t quite manage it but we weren’t too far off. Then came the jabs (again, beans on toast for a while) which to be fair were a bit of an investment. I’m sorted for Yellow Fever ‘til 2024 so I can’t complain.
Fast forward a few months and away we go. On the morning of October 10th, we apprehensively, excitedly, naively boarded a plane from Dublin to Entebbe, via Istanbul and Rwanda. What felt like days later, we eventually collapsed into beds at 6am local time, too exhausted to take in our surroundings. The following afternoon we woke up and after the initial “where am I?”, walked up the streets of Nansana to Nurture Africa’s local HQ. That’s when it really hit home, I think. It was probably 25+ degrees celsius, the roads were dusty, the locals stared, children chased after us shouting “Mzungu, mzungu!”. Surreal, to say the least!
After we settled in, the work got going. I was in the general skills category (as I’m neither a teacher or a nurse) so I got to do a good mix of things. Week One involved building, library sessions, home visits and more. The locals on the building site inadvertently made me feel ridiculously lazy, despite working as hard as I’ve ever done. While we managed half filled wheelbarrows full of bricks, the locals rushed past us with twice what we had - and more - in their barrows. The library sessions were great. We read to the children, encouraged them to ask questions and then got them outside for some games. They were ridiculously polite! I never got used to being called “teacher”. The home visits were probably the most grounding of all our tasks. We visited families who were very, very welcoming. We heard heart-breaking, inspiring and astonishing stories of why they were on the charity’s programme. It was difficult to imagine what it was like for them but the positivity of the families blew me away. Now, we hit the halfway point: our weekend off.
We spent those few days on safari in Murchison Falls National Park. I initially felt guilty, having this little weekend away when I was supposed to be volunteering, but I have to say; after an intense week it was a much-needed trip! I didn’t realise ‘til we got there how tiring, physically and mentally, the volunteering had been. The weekend was amazing and by Sunday night we were back in our respective houses, ready to take on another week of volunteering. The last week was much like the first - building, library sessions, some painting and business visits this time. What I loved about this week was that we got to see a finished product on the building site - between the volunteers (and the local builders, of course) we completed two water tanks for the bathrooms at St Joseph’s Primary School. The sense of achievement was great - and knowing it would make a difference for the hundreds of pupils was really satisfying. Before we knew it, it was time to leave. It was strange. It both felt like we’d been there for ages and that we’d barely been there at all - but we had to pack up, say goodbye and head off.
There’s no way around it; I’m going to sound like a cliché. It was an amazing, inspiring trip and one that I’ll never forget. Over the course of the two weeks, we got to see first hand the amazing work that such a small organisation can make to a community. We got to know some of the staff and volunteers in Nansana and see the difference Nurture Africa makes in their lives. It’s certainly fair to say that we got so much more out of the trip than we could ever give back to their community - but to see how happy and welcoming they were to us was more than enough.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. It stressed me out in the build-up, it went by in the blink of an eye but it was without a doubt the best trip I’ve ever done. Now that it’s all over? I’ll have to find a local organisation to volunteer with and keep it up. After a three year hiatus from giving back to society, a few weeks in Uganda was exactly what I needed to get back on the horse. If you ever even think about volunteering abroad, I urge you to follow through with these thoughts. You won’t regret it for a second. I know I don’t!