On May 10th, I embarked on my journey to Mbale, Uganda, where I volunteered with an organization called HELP International. HELP International is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has volunteer programs in multiple locations across the world, but has had volunteers on the ground in Uganda for the last seven years. My volunteer experience lasted for six weeks from May 12th to June 23rd. I had a lot of individuals try to discourage me from traveling to Uganda because of the danger they associated with living in Africa, but I was determined to empower Ugandans in their fight against poverty.
I will never forget the six weeks I spent working in Mbale and the lessons that the truly amazing local men and women taught me.
A problem to solve
One of HELP’s most important partnerships was with an orphanage in the Sibwala Village that is home to 300 orphans. The most immediate problem that faced the orphanage was its failure to be sustainable if HELP International no longer provided funding. One of the most vital lessons I learned during this internship is the importance of sustainability when doing developmental work. The most effective form of developmental work is providing individuals with knowledge and the ability to be sustainable without any outside intervention. This is why I felt it was important to immediately tackle the failure of the Sibwala Orphanage to be sustainable.
The quality of the buildings in the Sibwala Orphanage was horrific. Since its construction in 2015, two buildings had already collapsed and others were not far away. I was given a $1,000 budget to work with, and it was not anywhere near enough to solve the poor infrastructure issues of the orphanage. Thankfully, the main donor for the orphanage, Keven Jensen, was going to be in Uganda the following week and wanted to discuss our options. He asked me to get an estimate on how much it would cost to permanently fix the buildings as well as how much it would cost to ensure that they would last just one more year. I created a spreadsheet and determined that it would cost 30 million shillings (roughly $8,500) to make the buildings permanent. This was far more than he expected, but it was critical that we took care of this because the children were in danger in their current living situation. I was told not to do anything else until I met with Keven in person and talked to him about the problem. There is nothing more frustrating than being told to wait when you want to help individuals in need, but being forced to wait a week was not only a valuable lesson, but also a blessing in disguise.
When Keven finally arrived in Uganda, I was ready to get things moving with the orphanage. However, there was a big change of plans when Keven arrived and my wish was not fulfilled. While it was frustrating at first, I know the decision Keven and Carolyn made will be smart for the future of the Sibwala Orphanage. They decided that they would be starting over with the orphanage and buying a new plot of land closer to the city of Mbale. While this meant that I would not see construction begin before I left Uganda, I have no doubt in my mind that this is an amazing decision for the future of the children.
Learning to listen
My time in Uganda taught me what is critical to being successful in developmental work. You must be willing to listen to people’s problems instead of assuming you know what they are. You must stress the importance of sustainability and never write someone off because you assume you know more than they do. Ugandans showed me what it means to be resilient, optimistic and loving regardless of the poverty or situation you face. Their compassion and gratitude have changed the direction I want to take my career and I believe I have found what I was put on this earth to do.
I will remember the lessons I learned in Uganda for the rest of my life and they will, without a doubt, impact the direction in which I take my career in the future.
This story by Jeffrey Quinn originally appeared in Mays Impacts.
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