On Sunday, September 9th, I was picked up at my hostel by Sam, the director of UPA (Uganda Pioneers’ Association), where I would volunteer for the next 3 weeks. UPA is an NGO that started in 1989 and that organizes lots of community projects, work camps and international exchanges. Their motto is “Together we shape the future” and they have lots of local branches all throughout Uganda. They do lots of projects to sensitize people about HIV, gender equality, democracy and peace building.
I had applied for a project called “International work camp on farming and life skill training in Gulu district”, organized by the local UPA branch of Gulu. Gulu is the biggest city in northern Uganda and it’s an area that had been highly affected by the rebels in Uganda until 2002. The aim of the project was to sensitize the communities (schools, church goers) on good practice of farming and teach life skill to youth. The expected outcome had been to sensitize communities on importance of enough food in the family, open farms at 4 schools, 2 communities and 2 churches, open some gardens for UPA Gulu and plant crops in some farms and selected school farms.
Reading this project description now at the end of the project, it actually seems quite ridiculous!
When I arrived, Sam told me that unfortunately we are only 2 international volunteers and that, therefore, the money isn’t sufficient for 3 weeks of project and so it will be cut down to 10 days instead (including 2 weekends where we wouldn’t work). This was a huge disappointment to me, a) because I think that 250€ is way too much money for only 10 days of volunteering, b) because we would not be able to do the things that were in the project description.
The other international volunteer, Mason, only arrived on Monday and we had to stay at UPA headquarters in Nansana (just outside of Kampala) until Wednesday. This was a bit stupid because, if I had known that, I would have stayed a day longer at the Nyege Nyege festival or at the Fat Cat hostel, but never mind. In this place, there were many volunteers, because about 10 German volunteers had just arrived and stayed there just as long as us, until they were going to their host families where they would live for 1 year to teach in local schools. They were all much younger than me and after a couple of days of festival, I honestly just wanted some quiet and peace and so I spent most of my time in my room or working in some quiet corner for my university, avoiding the crowd. In the headquarters, we got a short introduction about the Republic of Uganda and UPA from Claire and that’s also when we met the local volunteer from Kampala, Sauda.
Uganda was called “the Pearl of Africa” by Churchill because of its central location and I agree, it’s a wonderful country; it has a very diverse nature, nice people and lots of wild life. It is surrounded by Kenya, South Sudan, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Rwanda and Tanzania and it has a population of about 40 million people. It was colonized by Great Britain and received its independence in 1962. The country is mostly flat with lots of very fertile, green areas and with savanna, but it also has some mountains and valleys to the south-west. Uganda has a tropical climate with 2 dry and 2 rainy seasons. When I was there, in September, it was supposed to be rainy season, but with the climate change, seasons here have changed a lot and it was very dry. They are hoping that the rain will come in October. Most people in Uganda are Catholics, but there is also a big group of Anglicans and a small group of Muslims. The South of the country lies on the Equator line and it has access to a huge lake, the Victoria lake, that is shared by Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya. The main sources of income in Uganda, apart from tourism, are the industries of sugar, beer, cigarettes, cotton, cement and steel. Fishing and mining (gold, copper, cobalt, oil) are also very important for Uganda. Sadly, they have recently discovered that there is oil in the Murchinson National Park and they want to start exploiting it… Fortunately so far it seems they don’t have the permission to destroy the park because of the oil resources.
On Wednesday, Mason, Sauda and I took a 6 hours bus from Kampala to Gulu and we arrived quite late in the evening. James, the manager of UPA Gulu, picked us up at the bus station and accompanied us to his house where we would be staying for our 10 days project. Him, his wife and children welcomed us to their house and they had already prepared some nice dinner for us. They were very nice and welcoming. We also met Ivan, a local volunteer from Gulu who would be the leader of our project and who also stayed at James’ place.
James’ place was pretty nice, they even had a TV and running water just in front of the house where you could fill your bucket without having to make any effort to get the water! 😊 We had 1 room for us girls and 1 room for the guys. The first night, I shared the space only with Sauda, but the next day, Sandra, Sophia and Joyce joined us and we all shared one room.
The next day, the local volunteers, Ivan, Sandra, Sophia and Innocent, showed us the most important places of the city, like the market and the supermarket. We had a good time together and liked each other instantly – except for Sauda and Mason; from the first day, I quite disliked them. Sauda reminded me a lot of Ines, the girl from my work camp in Togo, someone I didn’t like. She was very lazy and always took my things without asking or thanking me. Mason is what you would call a stereotypical American: a moron who thinks he knows everything, but doesn’t know anything; always talking bullshit and believing he says only smart things… That afternoon, we planned our tasks, or better, James and Ivan presented us with a plan that sounded quite nice. Since the duration of the project had been changed, they also changed the program. Instead of doing any sensitizing in schools, churches or local communities, we only worked on one field for UPA Gulu: we digged it up and planted cabbage, onions and tomatoes. It was very hard work and I had blisters all over my hands and my back didn’t like the work either… It got better though; after a couple of days I felt that I was getting stronger and more resistant to hard work in the hot sun.
In the field, Ken, Sandra’s and Sophia’s brother, and Joyce joined us whenever they were free. Every day, 2 people had kitchen duty and spentd their day cooking for the others. My kitchen partner was Sophia, my “partner in crime” 😊 Usually it was the girls on kitchen duty, but I complained time and again to Ivan that it’s unfair that the guys never help to cook or to clean dishes and at some point this changed.
The field was pretty far away from home. James had told us that it’s only like 4-5 km and that we should walk back home, to get some exercise. When he told us this the first day, it seemed quite a nice idea and we agreed, but after our first day at work with hard digging in the hot sun, we were all super tired and it actually took us 2 ½ hours to get home, so I guess it’s a bit more than 4-5 km. We were all completely exhausted by the time we got home and I told James that we would NOT WALK home again! I mean, come on, we paid a hell load of money, at least they can provide the transportation to and from the work place!
The thing about the money is, that we international volunteers are the only ones paying; the locals don’t pay anything and so we had to pay for everyone’s food and accommodation. Just like in Togo, local volunteers here also expected us to pay for all of their stuff: when we went for a beer or something, they never even took out their wallet… It’s not that I mind paying more or inviting locals for a beer, but always paying everything and not even get a “Thank you” for it sucks. I would have expected at least a little bit of gratitude or a “hey, let me pay this time”. One time we went to a bar and James called Joyce to ask where we were. She told him that we are at the bar and he told her to already order a beer for him. I thought it was a joke, so when he arrived he ordered his own beer, but when we left and they asked him to pay for his beer (I had paid for ours before he even arrived), he was absolutely shocked! This is the one thing I can’t stand, local people benefitting from our money and instead of being grateful, being angry when we don’t pay something.
The same thing happened when we planned a day-trip to the Murchinson National Park. Mason and I absolutely wanted to go and so we asked James about our options. He organized a van (with open roof) for us and told us about the different prices. He told us, the local volunteers would like to join but they couldn’t afford the car. Since we had to pay the car anyway, being 2 or more, we accepted to invite them. At some point, James told us that we were too many people for the van with open roof and that we would have to take a matatu – no open roof, small windows – and I told him no. I was not going to pay for everyone and then get a shitty car; someone would have to stay home. Finally, James decided that he would stay home and even though he seemed a bit annoyed, I didn’t feel guilty at all. Also, in the car, I insisted on having a good seat – not all were comfortable, because we were at least 2 people too many in the car – and on sitting on the roof during the game drive. In the park, Mason and I also paid for the ferry that took us all to the waterfalls even though I’m sure they could have paid themselves. Well, never mind, we wanted to go and so we didn’t have any choice since otherwise we wouldn’t have gone thereat all… All of this was ok, but the fact that none of them – except for Sauda – ever thanked us for inviting them is something that I didn’t like very much.
Anyway, it seems like this is a very common problem in Africa and, having experienced this already in Togo, I was only slightly surprised.
Apart from the issue with the money, I had a great time in Gulu and a lot of fun with my coworkers. During the day, we teased each other, the people in the kitchen always chasing the people digging out of the relax zone, making fun about how lazy the other one is. I was always complaining to Ivan about something, not because I had something to complain about, just because it was fun.😄
The only time I was truly upset was when, the second week, James refused to send a car or bike to pick us up after work. I was furious to pay so much money and having to walk back home for 2 ½ hours or having to pay for a ride extra. For those who know me, I’m a very honest and transparent person and nobody failed to notice my anger. The next day, we were picked up again 😉
When we were not working, we were usually doing stuff together as well. In the evening, we cooked and had bonfires, on Sunday we went to church and then walked around town, once we went to a bar (Smiling Panda) and on our last day, we visited the Murchinson National Park and, in the evening, went out to a club.
The Murchinson National Park was gorgeous! We arrived there at 7AM, just when the park opened, and we took a guide who did a 3-hour game drive with us. Mason, Sophia and I were all the time sitting on the roof of the car, admiring the magnificent breathtaking landscape and the wild animals we saw: elephants, lots of giraffes, antelopes, warthogs and buffalos. We were even lucky enough to see a group of lions and a group of hippos.
When we wanted to have lunch at the river, we got attacked by a stupid baboon who suddenly ravaged through our car! That’s when Mason and I decided to take the group with the ferry over to the other side of the river to see the Murchinson falls. They were pretty big and the view over the falls and the river flowing through the park was magnificent. We had a wonderful time together and it was great to finish our work camp like this. Even though we all were tired, we still went to a club that night and talked, drank, smoked shisha and danced a lot.
UPA is a nice organization and they have great projects. In matters of intercultural exchange, it was a very good work camp, it was just less useful in matters of community work than I had hoped. Still, the revenue of the plantation we created will pay future expanses of the organization and so they will have more money for useful community projects. We have thus contributed indirectly to the community. 😊