Social media tells me that six years ago today I was on a plane to Uganda, and it’s got me reminiscing.
It’s a cliché, I know, but I was a different person back then. I was at the end of my first year of University. I was excited to see a part of the world that seemed so exotic compared with that to which I was accustomed, yet terrified at the thought of getting on a plane alone and not really knowing what to expect. Over the years I’ve become more used to travelling alone; I still feel slight jitters of intimidation around the unknown but I’ve learned from experience that it is almost always worth it.
I travelled out to Uganda to meet 40 fellow students from my University, some were groups of friends already but all were relative strangers to me. I remember the feeling of sitting on the aeroplane with emotions churning in my gut; the safety announcement starting in a language I didn’t even recognize (I was flying with Air Ethiopia) added to the sense of disorientation and wonder. This was it!
My month in Uganda remains- to this day- one of the highlights of my life, and I thought I’d take the opportunity here to share why! It all boils down to three words: Soft Power Education
“Soft Power Education is a British registered charity and Ugandan NGO working with communities in Uganda to improve quality of life through education” – source from their website.
A total of 80 of us from the University of Leeds travelled out to work with Soft Power Education in the summer of ’09, building three new classroom blocks at sites across the country and painting two more. It was backbreaking work in the African heat (you’re probably guessing by now, if you’ve ready any of my other posts, that I don’t handle heat well!). Between us we used a press to form interlocking bricks from clay, eliminating the need for cement and reducing cost of build as well as impact of the environment. We then plastered, in an incredibly slapdash fashion- it turns out I’m a natural at this 😉 We climbed rickety ladders and balanced pots of paint on our heads; we were working in ways that would make any EU regulated health & safety officer have a heart attack, but none of us suffered any work related injuries at all (one member of our group ran head first into the school bell whilst playing tag in the pitch dark one night, but I don’t think that counts somehow..)!
My group worked at two sites during our month there. Firstly we visited Kakora primary school in the Bulisa sub-county. We slept in the classroom during the night and built three new ones during the day, with expert builder supervision of course! Evenings were spent playing endless games of football or frisbee with the children- they were so energetic and fun to be around! We were welcomed into the school as the honorary upper class- P6- and were taught the schools and national anthem in order to join in with each morning assembly, we even got the opportunity to teach a class or two. After two weeks there was little else we could do to help with the build at Kakora, and so we moved to Nyamakuta primary school where we camped on the shores of Lake Albert (and, one day, woke up to the sight of a wild hippopotamus wading in the shallows!) and spent another two weeks painting a classroom block that was built by a group the previous summer
Looking back on this experience makes me physically teary with nostalgia. It was a life changing experience to be welcomed into communities where people had so little, and yet were willing to give so much. Much to my surprise, I didn’t miss electricity, or hot running water (we had to pump our own water from the local borehole and carry it in jerry cans for what felt like kilometres but was, in reality probably a 10-15 minute walk…). I didn’t miss reality TV, because I was experiencing reality. Uganda will always have a special place in my heart, because it was the first time in my life that I truly realised how enriching it can be to experience something so entirely different to our everyday lives.
Soft Power Education is an incredible charity that I would wholeheartedly recommend you to check out if you are looking to spend some time volunteering in Africa. It looks like you can volunteer for just a day, too, in case you are passing through Jinja and want a bit of a different experience.
Have you ever done any long term volunteering? I’d love to hear where you went and what you did!
Little Welsh x
P.s. I only actually have photographs from the first few days as, despite the fact that I was totally fine without electricity unfortunately my camera wasn’t, and my solar powered charger didn’t work. Bring spares, people!