So I travelled a bit when I was younger: Europe, USA, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Australia, NZ, Fiji. Then in 2016 I was lucky enough to be able to take my family on an incredible holiday in Tanzania. We saw some truly stunning places and wildlife. It’s a culturally rich and diverse country, and yet we also completely failed to experience anything beyond our tourist bubble and connect with anyone at all who wasn’t paid to be there for us.
That bothered me, and so when the opportunity to lead a team of student volunteers on a playground building project in neighbouring Uganda came up a few months later, I knew right away that I wanted to do it. Why on Earth wouldn’t I?!
After months of team-building, fundraising and preparation, the students and I flew out to a small community in Uganda just a few miles from the equator. Within minutes of our arrival, the kids were out in force to meet us. They just wanted to be around us, to stand and stare. Others wanted to know everything about us, our country, our homes and to tell us everything about themselves, their way of life. And my goodness, the smiles!
We lived and worked at the school where we were building the playground, sleeping on a piece of sponge on the concrete floors of otherwise empty classrooms. Solar-powered lights barely made a difference. Long drop squat toilets, bucket shower, no running water.
In the mornings we worked hard: digging holes with picks and shovels, mixing concrete, bolting things together, painting. In the afternoons, when the heat was up, we ran games and craft activities with the schoolchildren.
Most people in this part of rural Uganda own very little. Mud huts, no electricity. A handful of boreholes supply all water for drinking, cooking, washing; and even those have only appeared in the last 20 years. All of life is lived outdoors – cooking, washing, working, making things, playing – for most people there simply isn’t an ‘indoors’.
It’s a hard existence, with very little prospect for the next generation of doing anything different to the previous one. I felt as though people fully expected to grow up and spend the rest of their lives in the same community.
And I know that it’s very easy for me to say so with all the comforts and life chances that I have coming from the UK, but there was something very touching about that simplicity. Most of us spend our lives chasing money to pay bills, rather than supporting ourselves directly. And how many of us have the backup of an extended family and close community around us, really?
Unfortunately I had to return to the UK before the project was completed, leaving the students and the community behind. Leaving was hard, I’d become attached to the place and people, and I filled up as we drove away. How I envied the students who would be seeing the project through and then having that incredible moment of opening up the new playground for the screaming children.
Here’s what taking part in this wonderful project brought home to me. At home we constantly chase after the Next Thing; whatever gifts we already have, we seem to want more. Everywhere we went in rural Uganda we ‘muzungus’ (foreigners) were greeted with “Jambo!” and smiling faces. We met a lot of warm, open, friendly, genuine people. We left behind an awesome playground that will change the way the children play and give them joy for years to come.
We also had a lot of laughs, long evenings spent sitting outside chatting and chilling to the sound of crickets, the dancing trails of fireflies and a sky full of stars. The whole experience was inspiring, enriching and incredibly rewarding, something that I’ll never forget.
I think it’s impossible not to be changed in some way by an experience like this. And it’s definitely not just me: last week one of the students told me that she is applying to go back out there this summer and work as an intern with the charity. I can see why!
For more information on the projects please visit www.ntu.ac.uk/internationalvolunteering
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