Nandini Singh - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

As an undergraduate student studying public health, I have gained experience working with issues like poverty and its effects on health and education inside the United States. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of these issues as I plan on pursuing a career in public health. I felt like volunteering abroad with a program that specifically dealt with these issues was one of the best ways to expand my understanding and community engagement experiences. I wanted the chance to implement the lessons I learned through my past work in my local communities in a way I had not been able to. I wanted to complete work alongside an NGO that would prove to be a fulfilling and eye-opening experience for me and, hopefully, a rewarding and engaging one for the people I would work with.

Volunteer gardening with locals in Uganda
Making way for a new garden with one of the women's groups!

Why did you choose to volunteer abroad with The Real Uganda?

I chose The Real Uganda for many reasons, the most important being that Leslie (the director) does not focus on "saving" Uganda, but on creating rewarding volunteer opportunities full of cultural exchange and locally based need. She accomplishes this by partnering with local NGOs run by Ugandans who are passionate about their work. Her partners know exactly what their organizations need from their volunteers, so the volunteer work is focused and necessary.

Leslie places you with an organization that focuses on an area you are interested, and I was interested in working in a public health setting. Upon my initial inquiry and application, she explained in full detail a few of the public health related NGOs she partners with and genuinely cared about my opinion and what I was interested in doing during my time in Uganda. I chose to work with an NGO that helped run a government funded clinic, and also reach out of my comfort zone to teach at a local school and work with women's groups. The chance to work in so many different aspects of Ugandan society excited me, as I would be able to learn so much about the country I would be living in for six weeks.

Leslie takes everyone's wishes for their volunteer experience into mind and did a great job of figuring out a great volunteer placement for me. This candid direct contact made a great first impression on me, and her care did not stop after I committed myself to going. Leslie was my lifeline during my time in Uganda, and I'm glad chose to work with an organization that displays respect and care for their volunteers!

What was your favorite part about your location?

I lived in Lugazi Town, Uganda for six weeks with the director of my local NGO and his family. While this has been said many, many times by travelers, I would have to say my favorite part about Uganda was the people. Every person I had the pleasure of meeting was unimaginably sweet and helpful. There are so many times during my first few weeks where the locals of Lugazi helped me without my asking them! Walks down the street to the supermarket were always filled with conversations as I stopped to grab some street food or as I walked by the school kids on their way home. Community is the culture here and I didn't just have one host family, I had a host community.

By the time I had to leave, I felt like I was leaving home. I was so lucky to have experienced this care for one's neighbors and fellow human beings that seems to be increasingly diminishing in the western world.

What made your experience abroad unique?

The cultural exchange I was able to be a part of during my time in Uganda definitely made my experience abroad very unique, as I felt like I had begun to truly understand and join a culture that I had previously known nothing about. Living with a local family provides many opportunities to learn about the local way of life in a way that would have been impossible if I had stayed elsewhere. For six weeks, I lived like a true Ugandan; I filled up on the fresh, local cuisine cooked by my amazing host, spent the evenings playing the neighboring children's favorite games, and joined the family dynamic of a Ugandan family.

It was a jam-packed, amazing learning experience. 
Person rolling chapattis dough
Learning how to make chapattis, a local staple!

The cultural exchange didn't stop there though. My work with the women's groups taught me even more about the local culture as I spent time working in the gardens, making arts and crafts, and cooking with them. The obstacle of the language barrier (the local language is Luganda) provided me with another learning opportunity. I took it upon myself to learn as much conversational Luganda as I could, and by the end of my stay, I was surprised at how much I had learned.

Being able to converse with the women (and other locals) in their language did not come naturally, but was rewarding and served as a connector between us. I learned so much from my time with the women, such as how to make homemade chapattis, how to make the local basket crafts, and a few local dance moves and songs! I didn't feel like an outsider, but rather another member of their (amazing) group that could also bring my skills to the table. This openness and mutual respect allowed me to make really strong connections that shaped my time here and helped me understand Ugandan culture in a whole new way.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

Leslie, the founder and director of The Real Uganda, was incredibly helpful throughout my time in Uganda. After arriving at the airport, I was picked up by her driver and taken to her house to spend my first night. The next day, she took me around her town to help set up my local phone and explain the logistics of life here (i.e. food, transportation, and volunteering tidbits).

Even after I left to live at my project, she was a constant source of support and care. She came to visit my project three times during my six weeks. During her visits, she would come to volunteer with me wherever I was working. Leslie takes time to visit all her volunteers and ensure that they are happy with their placement with her partnering NGOs, which is greatly appreciated by all her volunteers. Her house (about thirty minutes from my home in Lugazi) remains open to any of her volunteers, and going to visit her was always great! Any questions I had were quickly answered and she regularly checked in on me with a quick text to make sure everything was running smoothly. It was really great to have someone looking out for you, and it is clear Leslie really cares about all her volunteers.

Tell us more about your placement experience.

The NGO I worked with, Hopeline Organization, was started ten years ago by a local named Tony, who remains its director to this day. I lived at his house with his family for my six weeks. I went to work every morning and afternoon with Tony, who runs the many different projects that Hopeline focuses on (some being the health clinic, the women's groups, and primary schools). Tony was incredible to work under. Everything he planned for me was organized and effective. I never felt like he was giving me something to do as busywork to pass the time. Any question or request I had was met with a quick response, and he was extremely willing to take into account what I wanted to do in terms of working at the many different projects. He truly respects his volunteers as workers and as real people.

In addition to being an excellent (and inspirational) director of Hopeline, Tony has become a friend I know I will have for the rest of my life. His happy energy and positive outlook on life makes living and working with him a great pleasure. Tony's family also welcomed me with open arms. Not once did I feel awkward, uncomfortable, or unwanted. Tony's wife made me feel right at home with delicious home cooked meals, fun tea-time conversations, and her constant aid while I tried to fit into daily life in Uganda!

I will never forget her teaching me how to properly hand wash my clothes; it took me about ten minutes to clean just two shirts (for reference: she can scrub an entire load in ten minutes), but she was so happy that I wanted to learn a few normal routines in her daily life. Tony's nieces and adorable son contributed to the welcoming and supportive vibe I felt throughout my time with them. I knew I had a family that I could rely on, and leaving them was definitely the hardest goodbye.

Primary school students in Uganda making cards
The primary six class decorating their thank you cards to their teachers, friends, and family

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

Easy, I signed up to stay for six weeks (June 15th to July 27th). I could have come earlier, and I wish I had! The six weeks flew by and I found myself wishing I had more time to spend in Uganda with these wonderful people.

What was a typical day like for you in Uganda?

A typical day with Hopeline Organization (the NGO I was set up with through The Real Uganda) varies from day to day, as Hopeline runs many different projects. Breakfast was always at 9 a.m. (a late start compared to my college classes!) and I would head out to the villages for work right afterwards (on a boda-boda, which is a small motorcycle driven by Tony).

As I am interested in public health, I worked at the government funded village health clinic three to four mornings a week (from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Each day at the clinic, I would assist with testing for HIV/Aids, Malaria, and other diseases, help keep medical records, and hand out prescriptions written by the doctors.

The mornings that I did not work at the clinic, I taught at the local school. I worked with Primary 6 and 7, and taught a few public health lessons while also bringing in some supplies for arts and crafts projects. The kids loved them! Lunch would be around 2 p.m. every day back at home in Lugazi.

Around 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., we would head out for evening work with the women's groups. Hopeline works with two women's groups, so Mondays and Fridays were spent with one group while Tuesdays and Thursdays were spent with the other (I had Wednesday evenings off). The work I did with the groups varied greatly; we started a new garden, built mud huts, and crafted baskets and bags to sell on the market, only to name a few things. Our work would usually end around 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. with a few songs and dancing! Then, I would head back home for the night for dinner and playtime with the compound's many children!

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I had free time on Wednesday evenings and on the weekend, and I loved to explore Uganda with that time! Wednesday evenings were usually spent exploring the local shop market or visiting volunteers stationed at nearby NGOs.

During the weekends, Leslie's other volunteers and I would often travel to different places together! This was doable as all of the partnering NGOs are located within two hours of each other, so everyone could easily travel back on forth on local transport. We spent a weekend white-water rafting on the Nile in Jinja, and another traveling to Eastern Uganda to hike around the beautiful Sipi Falls. My favorite weekend was spent traveling to Murchison Falls National Park with two other volunteers to go on a three day safari! I loved how both Leslie and my host encouraged me to travel and see as much of Uganda as I could!

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

I lived in a home in Lugazi Town that was situated right off the main highway that runs from Kampala (the capital) to Jinja (another busy city). My director's house was a part of a compound with six other houses; the compound was secured and had a locked gate. I had my own bedroom for my first three weeks, when I was Hopeline's only volunteer, and shared it (very comfortably) with other volunteers who arrived later into my stay. I had all the essentials (a bed, a mosquito net, nearby access to clean water) and a few luxuries (electricity, a toilet, and delicious meals!).

Aside from the wonderful people I lived with, my favorite part of my living arrangements was the ease of getting around. Being close to the highway allowed me to figure out and take advantage of the local public transport (large taxis that fit about 18 people). I also loved walking around Lugazi and making friends in the supermarkets and small shops that I always stopped in.

Medicine and medical supplies laid out on a table
Getting ready for a morning of work at the village health clinic

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Before volunteering at one of The Real Uganda's local partners, you should be prepared to be flexible with your time. Ugandans are not as stressed about time or the concept of being late, as Westerners are, which can lead to a lot of down time and some confusion about when you are supposed to be working. While this did not lead to any direct problems for me, I know I sometimes felt as though I did not accomplish all that I wanted to in a certain time frame.

My advice is to relax; different cultures mean different ways of life, and the slower moving pace of the day in Uganda is something that comes along with living there for a few weeks or months! Your time is important, yes, but so is being happy and enjoying your time spent with others!

Now that you have returned home, how would you say volunteering abroad in Uganda has impacted your life?

I have now been home for almost one week, and I am finally settling back into the normal bustle of life in the States. I think it's safe to say that I'm a really stressed out person; I'm always thinking about what's coming next and how I can deal with it long before it's practical to do so. 

During my time in Uganda, I found myself not stressing about everything (college, work, family, the future) for the first time in a long, long time. I remember telling my mom on the phone that I hadn't been this stress-free since I was 12. While it was meant as a joke, there's definitely some truth in that. Part of life in Uganda is learning to handle every day and being happy with the good things that come out of each one. After just a week there, I found myself thinking in those same terms.

Transitioning back to life back home has challenged that mindset a lot, as it is a lot easier to get wrapped up in stress (and self pity) from the comforts of my home and university. I learned many things (from practical gardening skills and Luganda phrases to traditional Ugandan dancing and interesting cultural practices), but I think what will stay with me most is the general happiness, openness, and love that I was surrounded by for six wonderful weeks. And I'm making a promise to hold onto that in my daily life in the States as best as I can!

Would you recommend The Real Uganda to others? Why?

No question about it; this is one of (if not THE) best decision I ever made. Throughout this interview, I think I've touched on everything that would help me explain why I would recommend The Real Uganda to others. But to recap:

  1. Working with the locally run NGOs who partner with Leslie allows your volunteering to be effective and necessary to the environment you work in.
  2. Living with your director and their family provides you the irreplaceable opportunity to truly integrate yourself into the community and experience Ugandan culture.
  3. Everyone, from Leslie to your neighbors who will point you in the right direction when you're lost, are incredibly helpful and caring. You’ll never be alone, and will ALWAYS have people who have your back!
  4. Volunteering at the grassroots level allows for unprecedented cultural exchange, valuable friendships, and an unforgettable experience.
Volunteer with The Real Uganda; you won't regret it!