5 Things You’ll Never Expect from Volunteering in Uganda

by Leslie Weighill

I think much of the volunteer abroad marketing is a bit off. Organizations seem to want prospective volunteers to think people in developing countries are sad and desperate, and in dire need of help from strangers. This sounds somewhat out of touch, if you ask me.

Take Uganda for example. Many newcomers think our people are sitting idle, unable to figure out how to improve their lives. However, after spending a few weeks volunteering in Uganda, most volunteers realize that the majority of Ugandans appreciate what they have and are building their lives using the resources around them, on their terms, at their pace. 

Volunteers weeding carrots on a communal farm
Volunteers weeding carrots on a communal farm

The reality of many international volunteer placements is actually very mutually beneficial. People in developing communities want you to come and share their daily lives, enjoy your time in the country, put in some sweat equity, and gain as much as you give. In an effort to prove this, I’m going to share with you five AWESOME things you’ll never expect from volunteering in Uganda

1. How much you’ll dance.

Ever hear a favourite tune playing in the supermarket and it starts you movin’? Well, while volunteering in Uganda, you’ll never receive a sideways glance for your rhythmic two-step. Ugandans LOVE to dance. No power? Every village has a battery powered radio. Dead batteries? This jerrycan makes a great drum.

As a volunteer in Uganda, you won’t just witness spontaneous road-side dance parties, you’ll be an integral part of them. When you see how happy it makes everyone, you can’t help but jump in. Tight, unpracticed hips, notwithstanding.

Ugandans aren’t glum about their economic situation. Instead, they enjoy life every day.

Volunteers learning how to make traditional Ugandan pancakes
Volunteers learning how to make traditional Ugandan pancakes

2. How much they’ll feed you.

Forget the one-carb rule. On the table you’ll find a bit of everything: matooke (steamed banana), yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, kalo (pounded millet), rice, pumpkin, and posho (maizemeal). For the relatively well-heeled, there’s beef, goat, chicken, and fish. For the vegetarians (full disclosure: I’ve not met a Ugandan vegetarian in my 12 years here) you’ll find g.nut (peanut) sauce, beans, peas, and sautéed greens. Food is love and Ugandans eat BIG when they can.

When volunteers struggle under the weight of their dinner plate, it’s hilarious. What’s awesome is that Ugandan food is largely organic, fresh from the garden, and steamed inside banana leaves over a wood fire for hours. The resulting taste has a depth you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

Uganda has a 365 day growing season. We are NOT starving.

3. How much attention you’ll receive.

Many international volunteers in Uganda are not of African descent. Even those who are, will be pegged as foreign in seconds. You walk fast, dress differently, speak loudly, and generally have messy hair and dirty feet! International volunteers may stand out, but they are appreciated immensely. You'll be labeled mzungu, and greeted, cheered at, proposed to, and generally escorted everywhere you go. My advice is to soak up all the love and attention you will get while volunteer in Uganda. While it’s absolutely exhausting to be "on" all the time, enjoy that time as Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. You’ll be  somewhat of a nobody again once you get home.

Ugandans love meeting new people. If you’re different, you’re infinitely interesting.

Nihan and Vivian making mud to construct an energy efficient stove
Nihan and Vivian making mud to construct an energy efficient stove

4. How safe it is.

It's generally believed that relatively less developed countries, like Uganda, are dangerous and crime-ridden. I’m here to challenge that assumption! Since many international volunteers live in a rural setting with local hosts, they are given respect and support they wouldn’t be afforded as regular tourists. It only takes a few days in Uganda before most volunteers grasp just how safe it really is. You’ll realize it's not poverty that causes crime, its disconnection.

Understand that people here are deeply connected. Relationships will always be more important than business or money. Honestly, Ugandans would rather be your friend than mug you, any day.

Volunteers learn quickly that material wealth is not what most Ugandans strive for.

5. It’s not what you do, it’s HOW you do it.

People around the world often believe Ugandan problems can be solved with money. If only Ugandans had money to build a school, educate their children, or start small businesses, they’d be sorted. Or, they think they don’t possess the hard skills needed in our communities and question the validity of a volunteer trip. But once volunteers arrive, and actually experience everyday life, they see that development is more about building self-esteem and gaining exposure to new ideas.

Instead of giving money or providing specialized skills, volunteers see firsthand how their positive attitude, work ethic, and openness impacts communities. International volunteers lead by example, encourage behaviour change, and learn appropriate Ugandan stories to share with the world.

Volunteering in Uganda is not easy, but it’s definitely worthwhile if you have the right attitude.

Women making handicrafts for sale in local markets
Women making handicrafts for sale in local markets

Dear future volunteers headed to Uganda...

Let your focus be on cultural exchange as much as it is on service. Live locally. Eat the food. Get out in the community. Dance. Discuss issues freely. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Have fun. Recognize that volunteering in Uganda is about helping Ugandans work to improve their lives, on their terms. No pressure. You are most welcome.

This article was contributed by The Real Uganda, a registered non profit organization established in 2005. The Real Uganda is committed to placing volunteers in local, community-led programs in south central Uganda, with the ultimate aim of mutually beneficial, cultural exchange.