Erin Burn - 2012 Program Participant

Elementary school students in Najjembe, Uganda

School in Najjembe

What inspired you to volunteer abroad?

I had just completed a master’s in health psychology and during the course had covered quite a lot on the health challenges currently occurring within Sub-Saharan Africa, and this had first stemmed my interest in health issues within this region. I have always been a curious and adventurous person, and I love to travel and explore new regions, particularly regions that are off the beaten path and not accessible to the average tourist. Getting to really know a region, its people, and its culture has always been a passion of mine, and therefore it seemed like a good time and opportunity to travel a bit more once I had finished my course, whilst gaining some valuable experience in my chosen career field.

Why did you choose The Real Uganda (TRU)?

I didn't know anything about the Real Uganda before I decided to apply to volunteer abroad, and I chose TRU because it was the best option that I found through researching many different options. I wanted to do a public health programme, as it tied into my masters and my interests. There weren't that many projects that I could find that lined up with exactly what I wanted to do, and similar ones that I found were really expensive and I couldn't really see where my money went. The project through The Real Uganda was the best value I found for what it offered, completely beating its competition by far.

I also liked that the Real Uganda was run by one person, and not a huge organisation. Leslie, the founder and director of the Real Uganda, is extremely passionate about Uganda and she really wants to share what Uganda has to offer with others. I could tell that I was going to have a more personalised and rewarding experience going through the Real Uganda than if I had chosen one of the larger gap year organisations.

What was your favorite part about your placement location in Uganda?

During my five months volunteering at the Real Uganda, I was afforded the experience of getting to experience many different locations within Uganda, and I got a rich experience of what life is really like. On the first programme that I volunteered with I stayed in the main volunteer house in Mukono, which I used as a main base and from there travelled out to local communities as per the needs of the health programme. Mukono is a nice town, and is perfect location wise for its distance between Kampala and Jinja, and it also has really good transport links. The town is medium sized in Uganda, but it has all the amenities that you could possibly need, supermarkets, banks, restaurants, bars, clubs, and even a hotel with a swimming pool (which is much needed on a hot Ugandan day).

Ugandan children showing off their clean hands

Clean hands after a hand hygiene lesson

I would say that my favourite part of the location though was the fabulous people who inhabit the town. It is a friendly town, and there is a really good community vibe. I remember that I had been out of town for a couple of days, and I bumped into someone that I hadn't met before, but who commented that they were worried as they hadn't seen me around for a few days and they were glad to see me again. It felt really nice that the town is always looking out for you and each other. I have been back to Mukono two more times since I first left and people still remember your face, and are keen to have a chat and see how you have been. The volunteer house is great and is equipped with all you need, and you will be well fed by Esther, who is a fantastic cook, lovely women, and has great stories.

For my last six weeks I stayed with the Luitaisire family in Lugazi (about 30 minutes East of Mukono) and the best thing is by far the family. Valence, his wife Doreen, and their two children, Joe and Beth, are some of the warmest and nicest Ugandans that you could hope to meet. Doreen also makes the best chapatis between Uganda and India. Again the location of Lugazi is fantastic, on the foothills of Mabira forest and near to Jinja and Kampala.

Why do you think your program was unique?

I think what makes the program most unique is the people. As I mentioned, the one thing I really didn't want was to come through a big unpersonalised organisation, and the Real Uganda could not be further from that. From the moment I arrived down in Entebbe airport Leslie was there to support me every step of the way through my Ugandan journey, and she quickly moved from being the leader of the organisation I was volunteering with, to being my friend. With some of the larger organisations, once you are in the country the support stops, but Leslie genuinely and passionately wants to be there for her volunteers and to share Uganda and her stories with them; she also loves getting to know her volunteers and learning what they can teach her too.

I remember being really touched that when I first arrived Leslie invited me out for dinner and to meet her friends. My experience of Uganda wouldn't have been as rich without her for sure. It's also not a large money making enterprise; Leslie vets each of the programmes regularly to ascertain that each of their satellite NGOs is delivering to the high standard that she expects.

Aside from Leslie’s amazing hospitality, how supportive was the local staff throughout your program?

The local staff were 100 percent supportive throughout the entirety of my program. As I mentioned, Leslie supported me entirely from the moment I arrived in the country to the moment I left (and still continues to), but on a day-to-day level the local staff were fantastic. The first program that I worked on was FREDA-Africa with Travis, who is a charismatic and charming individual, who is also keen to share his country and his culture with you, and who wants to ensure you have the best time that is possible in Uganda.

Sunset over the Nile River in Uganda

Sun setting over the Nile

My second program was YOFAFO led by Valence, and him and his family could not have made me feel more welcome, welcoming me into their home as though I was also family. Both Travis and Valence remain good friends of mine and we still keep in touch regularly.

The local volunteer house is run by Esther, who is quite frankly an inspiration. She is a funny and intelligent lady who is always willing to help you with anything you need. The fact that she is a mean cook too certainly adds to her charm.

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

There is actually nothing that I would have wished I could have done differently. If there was anything it was just that I could have stayed even longer. I originally was meant to stay only for three and a half months, but I extended it to five months as I was just not ready to go home. If I had my own way (and unlimited finances) I probably would still be there.

What was a typical day like for you as a volunteer in Uganda?

Every day was different, and that was what was so amazing about it, in that you really did get to experience a lot. I volunteered for two separate public health NGOs so I will try and give you a brief overview of what each programme was like:

  • FREDA-Africa. With this NGO we did a lot of community outreach. An average day would be going out to a local village where we would spend a few days accessing the needs of the population, developing health interventions, and providing health education on a variety of different topics. There were also office days, where I assisted in grants for funding and report writing
  • YOFAFO. Monday I assisted with the mobile health clinic provided by YOFAFO. During this time, I either conducted health assessments or pre-test HIV counselling and HIV-testing mobilisation. Tuesday to Thursday I worked within YOFAFO's two schools providing a health education programme to the local children and teenagers and developing a school health programme, where the children were empowered to address health needs that were pertinent within their community. Friday was an office day where I developed resources and tools to be used within the health education programme.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time most?

It was definitely travelling and getting to experience other parts of Uganda and East Africa. I was able to travel quite a lot during my time in Uganda, exploring the West, Lake Bunyoni and into Rwanda, the North, Murchinson Falls National Park and safari, and the East, Jinja, the Nile, and white water rafting. Everything is really accessible (and safe). The country is massively diverse despite being quite a small country, and each area has a lot to offer.

The program is very flexible and accommodating and I was given good travel advice before I set off. It is also easy to travel into Kenya and Tanzania, and even though I didn't do it during the program itself, I was able to visit both with ease when I came back to visit.

Happy children in Uganda

A beautiful country

Can you explain your accommodation during both placements a little more?

For the first three and a half months I stayed in the volunteer house in Mukono, which is used to house all the volunteers when they arrive and when they just want to kick back in town. It was comfortable accommodation with good amenities, and it was a good place to meet other volunteers. It had a good central location, about five to ten minutes away from everything you needed in Mukono, and was safe and always clean. The best bit by far was Esther who looked after the accommodation and us, and provided lovely food and conversation.

When I was in Lugazi, I stayed with Valence and his lovely family. I had a big private room off the main house and the house has good amenities, electricity, running water! The house had an askari (security guard) so it was always safe. The best thing by far was being welcomed into and becoming part of the family.

During Freda-Africa, I often stayed in rural Uganda. It was a bit of a mix where we stayed, and it was usually very basic; this was all part of the adventure though, and these trips were the ones that I cherished the most as I really got to see the real Uganda.

How has volunteering in Uganda impacted your life at home?

Once you come and volunteer in Uganda, live there, and open your heart to it, you take a big part of it away with you forever. It was truly a once in a lifetime, memorable experience, and one that will always stay with me. I loved Uganda so much that I have been back twice to visit and plan to keep going back when time and money allows it.

On a personal level, I learnt a lot about what is really important in life, learned a lot of life lessons, and I also made new friends for life. On a professional level, the experiences I gained were invaluable and have helped me as I progress on my career path. It is definitely a good interview story, shows flexibility, and adaptability, good communication skills, as well as many other transferable skills. It definitely put me above other candidates when applying for jobs.