Saturday, April 11, 2009

Part 2 - Volunteering @ ACF - Final

(April 10th, 2009)

It has been 3 weeks I have not wrote anything about what I have been going through, and trust me, it was not because of laziness or even lack of time or internet access. I truly thought I should take some time to digest everything I have experienced in order to be able to provide you all with real facts instead of only my personal feelings.

As you all saw on my first post about Volunteering in Uganda Week 1, things were pretty tough and overwhelming. I did not really know if I was going to be able to go through with my plans, but all the ideas and support I got from many of you made me start thinking more strategically than emotionally. A three days break in Entebbe, being taken care of and assisted by Stiva and Jimmy, Darlene, Christine and Anna was also a great deal breaker. But seriously, Jessica’s arrival, an American girl from Portland – OR, who came to volunteer for 2 months at the African Child Foundation, was the real reason I survived for 3 more weeks in Katebo Village.

So, March 25th, Rev. Jim picks me up at Stiva’s house and we head to the Entebbe Airport to greet the new volunteer. Jessica and I have talked only once, for few minutes on the phone, two days before I left USA. The only thing I knew about her was that she is 26 years old and it was going to be the first time she was going to travel outside of United States. The only thing she knew about me was that I was taking six months off to explore more of this world of ours.

She gets here, with a “lost look” on her face, tons of beautiful tattoos all over her body, and says HI. Once we get in the car, she turns to me and say: DUDE, I want to know about everything and I’m so excited to be here. At that moment, despite of the DUDE, I knew we were going to get along very well and we sure did!

The last three weeks in Katebo volunteering for ACF...

Once we picked Jessica up, we went back to the village. I knew that it was going to be very difficult for me to go back since I was not only feeling depressed but also putting a huge pressure on my shoulders to start and hopefully finalize all the projects I had in mind for ACF.

In the next morning I sat with Rev. Jim and discussed all the things I was going to support the foundation with, based on all the brainstorming I went through and all the donations I got.

Step 1: Taught basic hygiene standards and provided them with means to follow the rules. (Cleaned the “restrooms”, added covers to the pit latrines, got rid of all the insects that were always around, brought containers to have clean water accessible for washing hands after using the toilets).

- I did it all and I truly hope they will continue with what I started.

Step 2: They got a donation from USAID with enough food supply for 4 months for all the kids at school, but had the shipment in Kampala and did not have budget to bring it to Katebo. That problem was solved when I paid for the delivery but I realized that so much more had to be done in order to have those kids not only eating but actually doing it in a “safe” and “sanitary” way. The kitchen was taken over by termites and other interesting insects. They were eating with their hands (dirty hands) and using their classrooms for that.

- I brought the food, rebuilt the kitchen, got proper containers for drinking and washing hands water, got spoons and cleaning props, and turned a former “storage” room ( just old woods full of termites were left there) into their new cafeteria. The new structure is now available… the continuous challenge will be to make sure they all understand the importance of it.

Step 3: Because of lack of appropriate building structure at the school, all the props they used during the day, and they are so MANY (books, notebooks, all type of containers, cooking materials and supplies, etc), were picked up by the kids every morning at the Rev. Jim’s house and brought back at the end of the day. Not only things were most of the time extremely heavy to be carried by the kids, but also the amount of time they lost during the day working on this activity was just mind blowing.

- I decided then to finalize the construction of the “main” building they had started putting together quite some time ago. The building will be now structured as the follow: an administrative room for the teachers that will be also used as storage, a workshop room for the widows to get together and work on sewing and handcrafts, and a library for the kids to have more access to the books, musical instruments (I also got), charts and maps, and more). After 3 weeks the construction is still not finalized but I’m sure it will be in the next couple of days. HOPEFULLY!

Step 4: Provided the group of widows with means to start producing more handcrafts and other products to sell in order to generate some income. I got a sewing machine, sewing supplies, and brought some sample of new things they could start making as well. I also bought enough fabric to make uniforms for all the kids at the school since they all wear the same clothes everyday to go to school, to play, to sleep, and so on.

Step 5: Donated funds to start a big garden to provide food supply for the school and for Rev. Jim’s family. After three weeks, the land is still being cleaned up… even though it is raining season now and definitely the best time of the year to start planting…

Step 6: Provided them with financial assistance to fix the water system that will provide clean and drinkable water to the entire Village. Once again, after a month there, it is still being fixed…

Step 7: Gave them a lot of ideas to start working closely with the local community and get them involved with ACF projects, such as having them working on the plantation and teaching gardening to the kids in exchange for food that could be use by their families or trading. Have the widows teaching handcraft, arts, and music to the kids in exchange of full access to the workshop and support with their crafts sales. The bottom line is that the kids need to learn more than English, Math, and Social Science. They need to start working on different skills that will help them to move forward and have a decent future.

The whole experience in Katebo was extremely difficult and frustrating most of the times. I do know we all have different cultures and backgrounds; particular timing and ways of doing things, but it is just so hard for me to handle lack of willingness to take full advantage of opportunities that are in front of you.

It was such a challenge to make them work as anyone back home would, it was pathetic having to teach them stopping thinking that because I’m white (a musungo) I have money or can be taken for granted, and literally impossible to explain that they should not be victims of their situation since it won’t change or improve anything in their lives. But well, I guess we all learn from our experiences and I’m sure I did and they did as well.

In addition to all the stress I had working on these projects, I must say that the most difficult part of the whole thing was actually living there. It got to the point I could not take it anymore. Yes I can be a princess, but I can also be exposed and open to hardcore environments and experiences.

After 3 ½ weeks there, not going to the bathroom (seriously), not eating the food anymore (oil, oil, and more oil), not standing all the animals we had inside the house (11 dogs, 7 chickens, tons of bugs, billions of toilet flies), and asking for the Rev. Jim’s help and understanding to my fears and concerns but not seeing any initiative to work on solutions to provide me with basic but adequate living conditions, we ended up having a serious talk and I decided to leave the village and spend my last week in Entebbe with some friends I have met before.

Before coming to Uganda, I did not have much information on ACF’s structure, but the one I had, mentioned clearly that even though the village was very poor and conditions were tough, they were going to provide us, the volunteers that they totally depend on, with all the necessary arrangements to make sure we were safe and comfortable with the circumstances we were living at. I guess after we talked, and accordingly to him I was the first person to point the real problems out, he will work on all means to guarantee his volunteer guide book’s promises will be fulfilled from now on. I guess we all learn through hard times and I believe this is one more example that this saying is true.

YES, I got very disappointed with Rev. Jim, his family and ACF but I do not want to say bad things or generalize the work that they have been doing based on my experience. At the end of the day they did take those kids out of the streets and are trying to provide them with some support that will definitely help them in their future.

Maybe I’m very particular in the way I live my life and do things I believe and feel that are right, or maybe they need to work harder on improving their structure and be really appreciative to their supporters. Whatever it is does not really matter now. What matters is that everyone that feels like volunteering and making a difference in peoples’ lives, should definitely do a very detailed research, get testimonials from previous volunteers, and try to get a best possible sense of what they will be doing. That is definitely my advice!

Learning the two sides of a Volunteering Experience…

I just want to share one more thing that I realized, in a very painful way, during my volunteering experience. When we decide to be a volunteer and make a difference in other peoples’ life, we all think we will only bring great things to their lives. I must confess I learned that this is not necessarily true.

After a month in Katebo, loving, teaching, playing, and helping in many different ways all the kids they have there I realized on the day I left, I also hurt some of them badly. I got very close to about 8 kids and I swear I still feel like crying every time I think about the time I had to say good-bye to them. What happen is that I became part of their lives for that period of time and they totally opened themselves up to me. They loved me, they trusted me, they learned from me, and unfortunately, they also felt on my last day there that I was abandoning them.

I do know I added to their lives, I loved them and they loved me, I taught them and they taught me, but I also know I truly upset them when I left. They are all orphans that have already felt “abandoned” at one point during their lives, and I was devastated when I realized they were feeling that again.

I did not expect to face this side of a volunteering experience. It was indeed a crashing moment for me, but I still think it is a wonderful thing to do and I wish we all could be part of great projects like that more often. I did have to list down all the good and the bad things that happened during the last month, and I can honestly say that I’m so happy I did that and will definitely do it over and over again, in many different ways, as long as I’m around.

Exploring Entebbe…

So, after all that happened, Jessica and I decided to go to Entebbe for the weekend. Actually I was going to stay there till I had to leave and she was going to go back to Katebo after few days but since it was close to the Easter holiday here, she ended up staying the whole week with me there. We took a ride back to the city with Anna, an amazing Italian friend I met during my first staying in Entebbe, who has been living in Uganda for almost a year (she also decided to take a career break and chill for some time), and went to Katebo to visit the village and see what we were doing there.

We stayed most of the time at Anna’s house and she sure did take such good care of us. She took us to a different NGO that is doing an incredible work with kids and families around Entebbe and 3 other cities (communities) around Uganda (SOS Children Village). It was so good to see another example of what different foundations are doing in the country.

Jess and I also explored the sightseeing places around Entebbe. We venture off in boda- boda (moto taxis) to the markets, to the zoo, to the botanical garden, and surely to all the bars and clubs that were spread out through the city. We met great local and foreign people around and had a blast with them.

The hardest part of my staying in Entebbe was to witness the disturbing prostitution environment around the city. There were TONS of girls, probably between 12-20 years old, selling themselves for less than US$13, and definitely getting (and spreading) sexual illness and becoming pregnant most of the time. I truly wished I could do something for them. Who knows, maybe start some educational projects, help them to get income from different activities, teach them about self respect and perhaps the beauty of being a woman and living life in a more possible and decent way. But I guess that will be a project for the future…

What do you always get by travelling?

Life’s fulfillment! That would definitely be my short answer to a question like that. It does not matter if you go through bad or good times, if you enjoy few or many moments, if you get shocked or surprised with what you witness, if you meet amazing or annoying people, if you are able or not to try something new, if you change or not some of your perspectives and beliefs. Travel exposure and experiences will always add to your life at the end of the day.

Much Love, Gi


  1. Wow G, I am overwhelmed by your latest blog and so proud and in awe of you that you selflessly took on so much to help others. I can only imagine how tough it has been but for your tim there you have left and indelible mark on not only the children but the entire company. Enjoy and respect yourself for the time and energy you have given. Again I am so proud of you and can't wait to catch up in the US. Big kiss and hug, D

  2. Oi Gi! Não sabia das suas aventuras! Vou passar a acompanhar esse blog... Eu tô vivendo agora a minha maior aventura; ser mãe!! Um beião pra vc. Fabi Marques