Making Lives Out of Nothing, Volunteer Life in Uganda

Uganda - The Volunteer Life - By Karen Graaff:

Making Lives Out of Nothing, Volunteer Life in Uganda

So it’s been a busy couple days out this end (in a nice contrast to recent weeks!)

The rundown of events: I ran a (brutal!) 10km race, went to visit some local orphanages, started coaching fitness to local kids, braved the Ugandan public transport system again to get to Mbarara, visited a UNHCR refugee camp at Nakivali, crossed the equator twice, briefly popped into Tanzania (and almost got arrested coming back into Uganda!), visited the Millennium Village project at Nakuyanda, and got abandoned by my roomie Tara, who moved to a new project in Kampala.

So for those of you who know me even a smidge, you’ll know that a trip out to one of the refugee camps is something I’ve been keen to do since long before I came to Uganda! Somehow, out of the blue, a Dutch girl I met (she’s volunteering at the health centre where I give classes to mothers once a week) had got the number of a doctor who works out in Mbarara (the closest town to the refugee camp), and who knew some people who worked there and who could potentially organize some volunteer work for her. Needless to say, I jumped on her bandwagon pretty fast! So last week we hopped on the bus to Mbarara (considering my past experiences with Ugandan buses, quite an achievement all by itself!!) and headed out. After a relatively painless trip, we got to Mbarara and met up with Dr Martin (the local contact). He works at the millennium village project out in Nakuyanda (sp?) – he was really good to us – had us staying at his house the whole time we were in Mbarara (don’t worry – no shady intentions, we hung out with his fiancée a whole whack too!), drove us all around the countryside to all the different villages and camps, and basically put up with 2 useless mzungus for a whole weekend!

On Saturday we headed out to Nakivali, which is a refugee camp run by UNHCR and GTZ – it mainly houses refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Congo (they had a lot of Rwandese, but they were mostly repatriated recently). Even just driving through the camp was pretty intense. People there have lost pretty much everything, and are living in these tiny little houses – UNHCR gives out tents, but they’re seriously tiny one-person tents. So people tend to use them as a roof, and build little mud huts to actually live in. You can hardly believe one person would be able to live in there comfortably, let alone whole families – often with 5-10 children!

We went up to the health clinic and spoke to one of the doctors there. It seemed like a pretty intense task! What really struck me through talking to him is how people are having to make do with so little, and in conditions that are designed to be short-term and temporary. But some of them have been living there for over 10yrs now, with no real expectation of going home in the near future. And, considering these are all refugees from war-zones, what exactly would they be going home to? So they live in temporary, makeshift shelters, relying on food aid (since none of them expect to be around long enough to be doing any farming); seemingly all the nationalities are kept separate – they each get placed in their own area in the camp, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much mixing, which I guess makes it pretty impossible to form any sort of community. Also, no one can really set up stalls (again – no one expects to be around long enough!) unless they’re locals probably. The refugees are allowed to go into the towns to work (provided they get the correct work authorization), but if the government decides to repatriate them, then they have to go back to their home country. They had stories of the repatriation of some of the Rwandese – they were being rounded up with weapons and herded onto trucks. Some of them jumped off the trucks on the way, and died from the jump.

But what was also striking is that people are at least trying to make something out of the temporary nothing that they get. A whole bunch of the mud houses had these really cool paintings on the outside walls, and people had picked up pieces of scrap metal and wood to block up holes where windows would be – what was funny is that a whole bunch of houses had found pieces of metal with “USA USA” stamped all over it – so it looked a bit like a seriously patriotic American small town!

What also hits you as you drive through Mbarara is just how many international NGOs are set up in the country. Every 100m there’s a signpost to a different organisation – UN, Ugandan government, international governments, food programmes, HIV programmes, Right to Play, women’s groups, health groups (eg. MSF) etc etc! It kinda makes you wonder what people in that area think of all the international groups – whether they’re just seen as handouts that people are entitled to, or whether there’s some kind of sensitization about empowering locals to be able to take over the projects and make them sustainable in the future. I got a semi-answer when we went out to the Millennium Village. Basically, the idea was to set up model villages in places of extreme poverty and unemployment in a whole bunch of developing countries. I think there’s about 10 in Africa in different countries. The villages focus on providing access to all the things covered in the 8 millennium development goals (eg. Healthcare, food, education etc), so a whole bunch of businesses, health centres, schools, agriculture, banks and loans centres etc are funded by UNDP (and some foreign governments) – the aim is that, after some time, the development will be sustainable, and the international funders can pull out, leaving the local village able to continue at that level on its own. Note: this village was chosen as the best in Africa, and specifically extended for a further 5 years, so you’d assume it’s going well. But when I asked some of the staff what the local people thought about it, and whether they actually understood the concept of the long-term sustainable nature of the project and the goal of empowerment, they basically said that some of the local leaders do know; but that the rest of the population basically see it as a string of handouts from international organizations, and they expect it to last forever. Apparently the idea is to spend 3yrs setting the project up, and then to engage in sensitization about the aim of the project. Seems like the sensitization hasn’t even begun yet.

Either way, the whole experience was pretty intense – just seeing the two different communities (one actually feels like a permanent village community, the other almost feels like what it is – a bunch of destitute people surviving from day to day, as best they can) – but seriously worthwhile. Gave me so much to think about, and was just so hectic to finally be able to actually visit one of the camps, so I’m really happy I made the trip!

The actual camp aside, the whole weekend was quite an experience in itself! We popped across the border to Tanzania. (We drove along next to a river that starts in Rwanda – apparently in 1994, it washed a whole lot of bodies into Uganda – happy thought.) We parked at the border post, and basically just wandered across, briefly chatting to the two border officials. We walked across, had a quick drink in a bar on the Tanzanian side, and came back (Kili beer – it’s been a while since I last had that!).

On the way back though, we bumped into a super pompous guy, not even in uniform (though the NRM t-shirt with Museveni’s face emblazoned on it might have been a give-away!) who gave us some hassles. Basically, Nicole (the Dutch girl) was being too friendly to everyone, and the guy probably thought he could score some bribes off the mzungus. So he asked for her passport (thankfully asking her, not me – since I didn’t even have mine with me!), started paging through, and asking why she didn’t have a stamp from the Tanzanian side (because there was no one at the Tanzanian border post!!) For a while I was worried we were going to end up spending the night in a Tanzanian/Ugandan jail (things only got better when Nicole asked him why he wasn’t wearing a uniform!) but thankfully he got over the powertrip eventually and we headed off.

The other excitement was just getting to the camps and back! After relatively uneventful bus trips, the dear doctor gave our mzungu nerves a good run for their money – seems his best response to stressful situations is having a dop or 5. Stressful operation in theatre? Have some drinks! Need to drive for 90mins on really poor dirt roads in the dark? Have some drinks! More accurately, have 2 x 500ml beers, and 3 x 150ml plastic sachets of whiskey. Needless to say, me and Nicole were more than a little nervy on the drive back, but to his credit, we did get there and back in one piece (again, with the nerves slightly shot!)

Otherwise, the main excitement is I started coaching fitness to some local kids as a holiday programme which is really fun actually – there’s something incredibly satisfying about dealing with kids who’re too out of breath to talk back! But I’m enjoying it a lot – forgot how much I like coaching! Also, other big news is my parental are arriving in less than 2 weeks for some visitation – yay J so looking forward to that! But my roomie Tara moved out, which kinda sucks – so now it’s just me in the volunteer room (kinda weird after sharing it with 3 ppl for so long!) It’s super quiet here now, and will be for the next 2 weeks – the next volunteer arrives on the 15th (just before I head off again basically!)

Anyways, so hope all’s fun with everyone! As always, will try be in better touch at some stage, but I make no real promises for now!

Written and contributed by Karen Graaff via Global Volunteer Network