How NOT to be an Idiot When Traveling in Uganda
I was 19 when I visited Uganda for the first time. Before then, the furthest I'd ever travelled away from home by myself was to attend a conference in San Diego for a few days. I was a kid and I'd never left American soil, so I think some of the idiotic things I did can be forgiven, right? Bueller?
It wasn't really until I'd travelled to Uganda again two years later and spent more time with my Ugandan friends that I realized just how stereotypically "Mzungu" I'd looked and acted during my first 2-week "volunteer" trip.
Now, several years and trips to the Pearl of Africa later, I am sharing these embarrassing stories and photos with the hope that you don't make the same mistakes as I once did and the world can be spared of another American idiot (not a Green Day pun) traveling thousands of miles for 2 weeks to "work" in Uganda.
1. DON'T TAKE SELFIES WITH OTHER PEOPLE'S KIDS WITHOUT PERMISSION.
If I walked into a primary school here in the US and crouched down next to (OR WORSE, PICKED UP AND HELD) a random kid and took a selfie, then proceeded to plaster that selfie all over my social media with the caption, "My new best friend! #Volunteering #WorkingHard #ThesePoorKids" I WOULD GET SUED BY THEIR PARENTS. So what makes international "volunteers" at a primary school in Uganda think its alright to do the same thing there? Because this child's parents *probably* won't sue you? Because they *probably* will never see it since they don't have access to Facebook in their village? Because in Uganda it's somehow OK to hold another person's child without their consent? NO. NO. NO, PLEASE GOD NO.
When we take a group out to visit our primary school, Global Leaders, in northern Uganda, we make it very explicit to our team that you are NOT to take photos of or pick up/hug ANY child unless A) You've met and talked to their parents in person B) You know their name and can ensure that we have photograph permission from a guardian to take pictures with/of that kid.
Next time a friend of yours travels to Africa, or any developing country for that matter, and takes photos with a group of kids, ask them to name every child in that photo. Ask them if they know those kids' guardians. I guarantee they don't. Just don't be a creep and take photos of kids you don't know. It's beyond uncool.
2. DON'T MAKE PROMISES YOU CAN'T KEEP.
Everyone that travels to Uganda for the first time will meet someone or have an experience that changes your life. I'm sure of it. I always tell my family once you see Uganda, you're going to WANT to go again and again and again. But that doesn't mean you will be back next year. In fact, you might not be back for several years.
Before you go "work" at an "orphanage" or with children in any capacity in Uganda, try to consider how building a strong relationship with a child might affect them when you never come back to visit them again. Many children in this country have been abandoned, neglected, or lost both of their parents. As a result of that kind of trauma, its not okay for you to spend time with a kid and tell them, "I am going to send you letters every month/sponsor your school fees/come back next summer and see you" unless you're ready to commit your life to building a friendship (in our case, a school) or becoming a mentor to that person.
During my first trip, I took a photo of a girl I didn't know from the neighborhood because her pink dress and the rubble she was seated among made for an interesting photo. I learned from my volunteer coordinator that she was being raised by her grandma and not able to afford school fees. I told her I would help her go to school. And then a year passed and I'd done nothing. I made a promise that I'd forgotten about when I got caught up in my life at home, meanwhile, Tracy was thinking, "What happened to the American who took my photo and said she'd help me with school?"
When I finally realized how damaging what I'd done was, I started sponsoring Tracy to go to one of the best boarding schools in the area and I visit her in person once a year because I am able to thanks to what I do for work. Sometimes its really a financial struggle for me to scrape together her school fees every three months, but I made a promise to her several years ago and I intend to be less of an idiot abroad and keep the promises I make,
3. THINK FIRST: DO YOU ACTUALLY HAVE THE SKILLS THAT THIS COMMUNITY IS IN NEED OF?
When I went to Uganda my first time, I spent my first week hanging out with my friend and visiting her village and my second "teaching" a first grade class at a local private primary school. I was supposed to be teaching math. If you know me, you know that I am neither good at math (I still can't do simple multiplication in my head) OR a trained teacher. In fact, I was only in my first year of college when I went to Uganda. Why I thought I would be qualified to teach MATH of all things at an elementary school is one of the greatest questions in my life.
I'll never forget the teacher who actually taught that P.1 math class (now a close personal friend) sitting at the back of the room trying to hold in laughter when I couldn't get control of the ten giggling first graders I was trying to "teach" because they were too distracted by the fact that a MZUNGU (foreigner) was teaching their class.
Before you go and build a fence, or dig a well, or even worse, teach a class, ask yourself, "Do I have experience in construction? Am I an engineer that can offer advice on digging a well? Am I a teacher? Do I have the skills and experience that this job requires?" If the answer is "No" to your questions, then you probably shouldn't be volunteering in that capacity.
In my opinion, the MOST HELPFUL way you can assist the community you choose to work in is to spend your entire time learning about its needs and considering ways you can use your voice to partner with that community to get those needs met. Your own voice and the way you use it to educate others about what you've discovered is the most powerful way to make an impact. At Far Away Friends, we saw a need for well-paid, motivated primary school teachers. Instead of bringing them from the US as volunteers, we hired local professionals through our program, OperationTEACH.
4. DON'T GET UPSET WHEN YOU PEE ON YOUR FEET.
In case its news to you--there isn't going to be an abundance of porcelain thrones in the village. At least not where I've been. So that leaves you with the good ol' squatty potty. In some places with running water, the squatty potty is going to be a beautiful ceramic bowl in the floor equipped with a chain to flush away forever the scary S%#@ that just came out of you (thanks Imodium). Other times, usually in the village, you are going to be using the pit latrine.
On my first trip as the idiot abroad, I didn't use the pit latrine because I was too nervous that I would "miss" and pee on my feet or that it would be smelly in there or something (because God forbid if it doesn't smell like a Bath and Body Works). My friend told me, "go in the bushes at night, because you're not going to like the latrine..." so that's what I did. Peed in the bushes. (WTF WAS I THINKING?! I PROBABLY PEED ON SOMEONES CROPS).
No, pit latrines don't smell like your bathroom at home--bring some lysol if your nose is too sensitive. Yes, you WILL pee on your feet the first time you use a pit latrine (unless you're a guy or a girl that just SLAYS AT LIFE and can pee standing up, too). It's okay to not be used to using a toilet that doesn't flush. Let it bother you a little, it should. Because this is how life is lived in most of the world--without flushing toilets. You are the minority when six out of ten people in the world don't have access to the kind of potty you grew up with. So wash the pee off your feet and laugh about it.
5. FOR GOD'S SAKE LEAVE THOSE SAFARI PANTS (OR elephant pants) AT HOME. OR BETTER YET, IN THE TRASHCAN.
As I was doing my research for my first trip, I read on a blog somewhere that you should "leave your 'good clothes' at home and bring only loose clothing and things you could do without since the red soil will stain everything you own," So, the idiot 19 year old I was literally went out and bought a PACKAGE OF HANES WHITE TEE SHIRTS and KHAKI LINEN PANTS/MAXI SKIRTS to wear the whole duration of my trip.
Okay, so you probably don't want to wear booty-shorts and a spaghetti strap top to your friend's grandma's home in the village because that's not culturally appropriate (you probably shouldn't wear that outfit to any Grandma's house, generally), but you certainly do not have to restrict yourself to frumpy tops and Elephant-print maxi skirts (unless you feel most comfortable that way then all the power to you). That outfit does not make you look like an experienced traveller, it makes you look like a sloppy American. There is nothing more embarrassing then sitting at your gate in the Entebbe airport with 30 other young, western strangers who look just like you in their printed harem pants, wrinkled oversized tee shirt, proudly donning their new corn-rows that they got while on their "volunteer mission".
Always bring your normal clothes. Always. Because some day you're going to be showing someone your photo from your trip of you standing next to your Ugandan friend whose outfit is on point and professional, thinking WHY THE HELL DID I WEAR THAT?! (See photo above).
* * * * *
Thankfully, the model of sending young American kids to "the third world" (which is btw a pejorative term and an idiot thing to say--'developing country' is slightly less offensive) is starting to change for the better. We are learning together. Even after several years, I STILL make idiotic mistakes and fly home thinking, "that was really stupid of me to say/think/do", but there's hope for us Mzungus and room to grow. More and more organizations are now inviting supporters and volunteers to come visit their projects and learn from their partners on the ground rather than try to "teach". The NGO community is slowly realizing bringing 19 year old kids like me to Uganda for cultural immersion and education is *surprisingly* much more impactful than asking an unskilled teenager to play teacher for a week (wow can you believe it?!).
So before you sign up for that "mission" to Uganda and board the plane, heed my advice--leave your plans to "change a kid's life" and your harem pants at home and don't be the idiot I was. You're welcome.