5 Tips on How NOT to Be an Idiot Abroad
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 still a kid (although I was very sure I already knew how the world worked 🙄) and I'd never left American soil before, so you can forgive the laundry list of idiotic things I did and chalk it up to inexperience, right? …Bueller?
It wasn’t until I'd travelled to Uganda again two years later in 2014 and spent more time with my Ugandan friends that I realized just how offensively "Mzungu" I'd looked and acted during my first 2-week "volunteer" trip.
Now that I’ve been traveling back and forth to Uganda for several years, thinking back to the things I did and said actually make my head spin. But in the spirit of service to humanity, I am sharing these embarrassing stories and photos of myself with the hope that you don't make the same mistakes as I 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 (and post) SELFIES WITH OTHER PEOPLE'S KIDS WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION.
I’ve worked at an Elementary school for the past five years. I can tell you with 100% certainty that if a foreign volunteer came in, 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 social media with the caption, "My new best friend! #Volunteering #WorkingHard #ThesePoorKids" WE WOULD SUE THEM. So what makes international "volunteers" 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.
Today, when we take a group out to visit our primary school, Global Leaders Primary, in Amolatar district, Uganda, we make it very explicit to our team that you are NOT to take photos of or pick up/hug/physically touch ANY child unless A) You've met and talked to their parents in person, and they (and their child) give consent and B) You know their name and can ensure that our organization has signed photograph permission waiver from a guardian to take pictures with/of that kid. Instead of taking photos with kids at all, why not take photos with their incredible team of Teachers? Or take fun selfies with the hard working local ADULT staff at the organization you’re with and promote their awesome work?
Next time a friend of yours travels to Africa and takes photos with a group of kids, ask them to name every child in that photo. Ask them about their relationship with those kids' guardians. 99% of the time, they won't have a damn clue who those kids are. Before you decide how many followers your cute photo is going to rake in, think about protecting their identity and respecting their right to privacy.
In Summary: Just don't be a creep and take photos of kids you don't know.
#2: DON'T MAKE PROMISES YOU CAN'T KEEP.
When you travel to Uganda for the first time, you will meet someone or have an experience that changes your life. I'm sure of it. I always tell my family that once you see Uganda, you're going to WANT to go again and again and again. It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world. But just because you WISH you could travel there every year, doesn't mean you will be back next year. In fact, you might not be back for several years — if ever.
If you’re a teacher, an educator, or qualified to work with or engage with children in any capacity, try to consider how building a strong relationship with a child might affect them when you never come back to visit them again. If you’re volunteering at an “orphanage” or a boarding school in Uganda, the likelihood of these kids having experienced the loss of a parent, being neglected, or even abandoned may be high depending on the organization you’re with. Because 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 lasting relationship with their family or community.
During my first trip, I took a photo of a girl I didn't know from the neighborhood I was staying in because her pink dress and the rubble she was seated amongst made for a beautiful photo. (WTF WAS I THINKING!) I learned from my volunteer coordinator that she was being raised by her grandma and not able to afford school fees. I told her then that 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 likely 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 when I can because I am able to thanks to what I do for work. Most of the time it’s really a financial struggle for me to scrape together her school fees, but I made a promise to her several years ago and I intend to be less of an idiot and at least keep the promises I make.
Side note: This experience helped me realize the absolute dangers of 1:1 child sponsorship. At any moment if I lost my job or couldn’t afford to pay Tracy’s fees, she has to drop out. Unbeknownst to me at age 20, by signing up for a 1:1 sponsorship, I was directly contributing to a cycle of dependency that it creates. I’ll be 28 when Tracy graduates from high school.
#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 now Co-Founder, Collines, and visiting her village. My second week in UG was spent with a volunteer organization where I was assigned to "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 division in my head) NOR DO I HAVE ANY PROFESSIONAL TEACHING EXPERIENCE. Why I thought I would be able to teach MATH of all things at an elementary school remains one of the great mysteries of 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 (a white foreigner) was teaching their class (and poorly, at that). At that point in my life I was probably only qualified to play hopscotch and pass out lunches to these kids.
Before you THINK you’re going to go and build a school 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 or a nurse? 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 there immersed in the culture, learning about its dreams for the future, uplifting local leaders 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, some of which even grew up in Namasale where we work.
#4. DON'T PEE ON SOMEONE’S VEGETABLE GARDEN.
In case it’s news to you--there isn't going to be an abundance of porcelain thrones in the village. At least not in my experience. 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 quickly flush away your sh*t. Other times you are going to be using the pit latrine just like 1.77 billion other people in the world do.
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 I wouldn’t be able to “take the smell” in there (I truly can not believe I’m publicly admitting this). My friend Collines was graciously patient and told me, "go in the bushes at night, because honestly you're not going to like the latrine..." so that's what I did. Peed in the bushes. (WTF?!) The likelihood of me peeing on someones vegetable garden is probably REAL high and the idea still makes me want to die.
Okay so, no, pit latrines don't smell like your bathroom at home BECAUSE ITS A F*CKING PIT LATRINE, FELICIA. 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 person that has the privilege or talent of peeing 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 for over a BILLION PEOPLE — 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 remember how damn lucky you are to have been born into a home with access to running water.
#5. FOR GOD'S SAKE LEAVE THOSE ZIP-SHORT SAFARI PANTS (or elephant-print harem pants) AT HOME.
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 being the idiot 19 year old I was, I 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 definitely 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, sis). That outfit does not make you look like an experienced traveler, 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 blonde box braids that they got while on their "volunteer mission". And don’t even get me started on coordinated “team t-shirts” or the iconicity bad “MY NAME IS NOT MZUNGU” tee.
Always bring your normal clothes that you’d normally wear on any given day. Always. Because someday 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).
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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, but not by much) 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 IS hope for us and room to grow when we can take ownership for our mistakes and deeply LISTEN to the perspectives of our Ugandan friends who live in the country we are privileged to travel to. 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" or “do”. 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.
If you do have the opportunity to visit the Pearl of Africa, I recommend immersing yourself in the culture by practicing a new language, spending time with locals, asking your friends if they’d bring you to see their family’s village and learn about the history of the region, trying new foods, visiting historical sites, supporting small businesses and spending some of your USD investing in wildlife preservation by visiting a safari park. If you need more ideas, or are interested in traveling to Uganda on a Cultural Immersion Trip with Far Away Friends, you can reach me at Team@farawayfriendsglobal.com.
MORAL OF THE STORY: Please, before you sign up for that "volunteer trip" to Uganda and board the airplane, heed my advice--leave your elephant pants and plans to "change a child’s life" at home and spare the world of another idiot abroad.