December 12th, 2011
By Guest Blogger: Renee Vuillaume, author of Renee on Ugandan Time
Why do we volunteer? Obviously we volunteer our time to help a cause that we’re passionate about, to make the world a better place and learn a little bit along the way. But let’s look at it emotionally: I think we volunteer to feel good. There’s a difference between “doing well” and “doing good” – and the latter just feels better.
Everyone expects a positive outcome from their volunteering experience. While the net emotional gain will undoubtedly tend toward positive, it’s likely that a few curve balls will be thrown your way from time to time. My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda sure hit me with a few: at one point during my year and a half of service I encountered anticipation, anxiety, animosity, apathy, agitation, and many other “A” nouns.
Consternation is obligatory, especially when volunteering abroad. Being transplanted into a new community in a new country without your old cultural crutches is terrifying! What will you eat? Will the population speak English? Where will you live? Will you pick up some mysterious pathogen that turns your tongue blue and your hair grey? And critically: will you be qualified for the work? Luckily, you can be fairly well-prepared by reading up on the country, searching for bloggers who write from there, and, in the end, garnering your mental fortitude and embracing your submission to the whims of your host country. This is your chance to take a leap of faith, and that in the end will provide terrific dividends.
Nor is it uncommon to experience bouts of irritation. Public transportation in developing countries can often be an unfortunate cocktail of rickety vehicles, hazardous infrastructure, harried locals crammed past capacity, extreme temperatures and long delays. You did not sign up for this! And even worse: this combination can make your temper rise. All of the small successes you’ve accumulated to that point can be shaken with one swift outburst at a bus full of gawking host-country nationals. My advice: never leave home without headphones, a book and a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off your brow.
And being away from home can be challenging in and of itself. Even if you’re only away for a few days, homesickness can set in. I remember feeling it ten minutes after my parents dropped me off at the airport. Luckily communication with family and friends is important to people in every culture, and they will always understand if you need to take an hour or so to just listen to your parents’ or friends’ voices. Globalization truly has shrunk the world; internet and cell phone service can be found in the middle of the jungle and in the depths of caves. This will also help you stay in touch with newly acquired friends from your voluntourism experience, once you’ve returned home.
Most Ugandans have never seen a white girl, and most Africans, Asians and South Americans will get a righteous kick out of any foreigner, enjoying nothing more than greeting you every time you pass by. For me, for example, there is constantly a chorus of “muzungu, muzungu, muzungu, muzungu” trailing me wherever I go. “Muzungu” means “traveler” in many Ugandan dialects. This can make for an entertaining two mile bike ride to work each morning; however it can also precede a surprising lapse into cynicism. Being an oddity, knowing that every move is observed and judged by someone within your community, even after the novelty of your arrival ought to have ceased, is quite wearying.
I was unprepared for this frustration; my outlook was unabashedly idealistic from my pre-departure position in the Western hemisphere. But I tried not to be disappointed by “failures”, slow progress, a lack of initiative or a lack of excitement towards new ideas. You must adapt to any role you’re needed to fill. Be a chameleon. For me, I learned to fill the role of an older friend/advisor to many of my students. I was not really viewed as a teacher and I was more than okay with that. Sooner or later, you may reach the point in your service when you realize that “Give! Give! Give!” is just as appreciated by the community as “Give Sometimes and Do What You Want the Rest of the Time!” So instead of getting frustrated travel a bit, read Dickens’ “Bleak House” (a book no one attempts without a load of free time or an assignment in an English lit class) and play with the kids whenever possible – because I guarantee you’ll miss them after you’ve left.
This is not an attempt to deter those stricken with the volunteer spirit, but rather to serve as a comfort. Because one of the most overwhelming emotions I found myself swept up in was the universal Ugandan contentment; a contentment so pure and infectious that communities the world over, with little more than happiness to give, are eager to share the magic of contentment with anyone wiling to open their mind, spirit and heart to them. Sure, sometimes it manifests itself in a lack of concern for work or eating, but it can also surface as a happy-here-in-the-now attitude. Some of the best ideas and experiences come from the times you decide to cede and acquiesce to let the wind take you where it will. For example, the power went out before a computer lesson I was supposed to teach and instead of holing up in my room, I played trivia games with the kids.
I’m confident these will be the memories I retain for years to come; and that the negative will quickly be forgotten.
Renee Vuillaume is a monthly field reporter and served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Southwestern Uganda from 2010-2011. As an economic development volunteer, she taught IT at a rural secondary school, educated teens on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS and helped construct a permanent water supply for her local community. Renee currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, USA where she is preparing for a career in public policy. Check out Renee’s first blog for Getinvolved.ca.