EMMA IN UGANDA
My name is Emma and I have been volunteering for 6 months with a local NGO called Environmental Alert.
MY PROJECT- ENVIRONMENTAL ALERT
Environmental Alert is a local NGO based in Kampala but with programmes covering the whole country. For over 15 years, EA has undertaken research and piloted field projects to ensure that Government policy decisions reflect the priorities of the poor and promote the sustainable use of Uganda’s natural resources. EA builds partnerships with like-minded institutions to scale up best practices, and strengthens smaller civil society organisations and local networks to engage in policy processes and hold duty-bearers accountable.
Currently, EA is focussing on halting the degradation of forests and wetlands by working at both Government and community-level to promote sustainable agriculture and livelihoods, which help to improve the health of soils, increase food security and combat the onset of climate change such as low rainfall in the dry seasons and flash floods during the rainy seasons.
MY ROLE IN ENVIRONMENTAL ALERT
My task during my six months with EA was to research and draw up an ecotourism development plan for a wetland area called Mabamba Bay, about 50km from Kampala on the banks of Lake Victoria. Part of the site was recognised as a Ramsar site in 2006 to offer protection to the 190,000 birds found there, the most notable being the globally endangered Shoebill.
EA has been involved in conserving and managing the wetland ecosystem along with the local Government, other NGOs and the community living next to the wetland. One of the practical methods of conservation that was agreed upon was to develop ecotourism activities such as bird watching in order to generate income for the community and fund conservation efforts.
Based in their Kampala office but with frequent travel to the wetland site, I was tasked with developing the plan, through consultation with the local community and other stakeholders. Reporting to the Executive Director of EA, I was in charge of the project budget and organising ‘exposure visits’ for some of the community members. These included World Wetlands Day and trips to other eco-tourism sites in different regions of Uganda
A TYPICAL DAY FOR ME IS…
Arriving at the office at 8:30am, having bought breakfast on the way from one of the many street sellers. Greeting everyone and chatting over morning tea, then getting down to work on my laptop (the office used to have desktop computers but they were stolen and never replaced).
Lunch is eaten together (8-10 of us) in the boardroom and consists of traditional food prepared by an on-site cook/housekeeper. We usually eat rice, beans, matooke (steamed banana), greens, avocado and sometimes even fresh pineapple for dessert!
Afternoons may consist of a staff meeting, which I’m also invited to, to share progress on the various programmes of activities, or share information about a specific event. Otherwise I might report to my supervisor on the work I’ve been doing, plans for my next visit to the wetland, and to ask any questions or help I need. The day finishes at 5pm and I walk home, via the local football pitch where I go for a run to work off some of that huge lunch!
WHAT I’VE BEEN UP TO WHEN I’M NOT VOLUNTEERING
When I’m not volunteering I can usually be found at the Kampala Music School, where I play in the jazz band and sing in the choir, or at the local swimming pool or beach with the children from my host home. I teach them to swim and then we relax with ice cream or fizzy drinks, me sunbathing and them listening to my iPod and singing along to the Beatles (now their favourite band!) On Sundays I go to church and lead the worship music with a group of other musicians, and I’ve just started my own live music night on Saturdays in a nearby restaurant too!
I’ve taken advantage of the long weekends (Uganda has way more public holidays than the UK!) and Easter holidays to travel around the country and visit Kenya too. I’ve been white water rafting on the River Nile, on safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park and spent a weekend on a tropical island on Lake Victoria. I’ve also enjoyed cultural ceremonies and occasions with my host family: visiting their ancestral home in the village, going to the mosque together on Eid, and attending a traditional wedding and funeral service.
THE MOST INTERESTING THING ABOUT LIVING & VOLUNTEERING IN UGANDA IS
Living like a local and discovering that I can live very happily without all the luxuries we are used to back home. I love learning about the culture, speaking the local language, eating local food and making friends from all different walks of life. Uganda is a melting pot of people from various countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, DR Congo and South Sudan so I also get to learn about their cultures too!
Living with a host family gives you the opportunity to experience the ‘real’ Uganda, not the one that most tourists or visitors experience. My preconceptions about Uganda were turned upside down when I first arrived, but after spending a longer time here, the complexity of the living situation began to emerge. For example, from the outside Kampala might look like a modern city with skyscrapers, expensive hotels and fancy restaurants, but the reality is that most people still struggle to earn a living selling vegetables in the market or cheap Chinese electronics on the street, living in a one-roomed house without electricity or running water. Diseases such as measles, typhoid and HIV are rife and some families survive on just one meal a day, leading to severe malnutrition and a low immunity to other infectious diseases such as malaria and even cholera.
At the same time, the middle classes and social elites or ‘socialites’ are enjoying their buy-one-get-one-free pizzas, driving around in expensive 4x4s with blacked out windows, and dancing the night away in a VIP section of one of the many nightclubs in Kampala. As in any country, the inequality is there beneath the surface, but you only really understand it when you live in a Ugandan home with a host family.
FROM MY VOLUNTEER PLACEMENT I LEARNT/GAINED
In the last six months I have learnt a great deal about myself, particularly how I adapt to situations and respond to problems or challenges. I have learnt the importance of having an open mind and giving time to people because you never know what they might have to offer.
Of course, the well-known ‘Africa time’ phenomenon has also had an effect on me; I am much more relaxed about timings and less stressed about running late or rushing to finish something… tomorrow is another day!
Interestingly, my religious beliefs have also been strengthened. The presence of death is very strong in Uganda, as people die for a great number of reasons including traffic accidents, infectious diseases or simply because they didn’t manage to access medical treatment in time (due to distance, overcrowding or financial reasons). As a result, many people put their fate and fortune completely in the hands of God. This is a refreshing attitude that I have not experienced before, which led me to question and explore my own religious beliefs, stimulated also by the church I attend here.
I have also gained a huge amount professionally, from my placement with Environmental Alert. Not only did it give me crucial on-the-ground experience, it also added greatly to my CV and enabled me to build a network of contacts in this sector, both in Uganda and internationally. During my placement, I was given opportunities to attend national events and celebrations, and to represent the organisation at information fairs and conferences. It was at one of these environment fairs that I made an important connection with the founder of a carbon finance company that wen on to offer me an internship after I had finished my placement with Environmental Alert.