A Whole New World

“A whole new world
A new fantastic point of view
No one to tell us no or where to go
Or say we’re only dreaming”

The truth about volunteering overseas is difficult to describe from this desk in my front room. The truth about volunteering…. Well, the truth is not as impressive as you might think. We left Ireland hoping to bring something, other than the finance we raised, to the people of Nansana. Secretly, however, we knew that as well as sharing our own skills, we would have countless life-altering experiences. The biggest fear as a volunteer is that you receive much more than you give and that fear is often the reality. But rather than wallow in our own guilt, we accepted that reality. For every HIV positive patient we helped, we learned so much ourselves. For every book we read in a local school, we gained so much experience and confidence. For every wheelchair or walking aid we provided to a child in need, we felt the warmth of giving. The reality of volunteering is that, over the course of an overseas project, personal development is just as prominent as global development. Personal development is inevitable. It should not be a source of guilt. More importantly, it should not overshadow the impact a volunteer can have in a local community. If every volunteer could accept and remember this, we would be taking a major step towards the eradication of the new phenomenon that is “voluntourism”.

Every successful aid distribution story has two core elements. 13 years ago a man set out on a journey with those two very fundamentals; an inspired idea, and capital. That man’s name was Brian Iredale. That idea was Nurture Africa, a sustainable way of improving the quality of healthcare provided in Uganda. The source of capital was the generosity of the Irish people. 13 years later, I, along with hundreds of other volunteers, can attest to the impact that one idea has made.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” 
Lao Tzu

Our project in Nansana was split into 5 areas of focus. Primarily, the health clinic at Nurture Africa specialises in the treatment of HIV positive patients. General medical treatment is also provided, just like any other health clinic, but the prevalence of HIV in Uganda was very much a key factor in its initial establishment. So we spent a large portion of our time working alongside Nurture Africa doctors, nurses and pharmacists. The second element of our project was the running of a physiotherapy camp for patients, aged 2 mths to 14 years old, with a range of disabilities. These children were screened and assessed during the first week of project. We provided tailored physiotherapy treatment to the kids and monitored their progress over the following 3 weeks. At the end of the project we allocated our funding to each child, providing them with equipment that would improve their circumstances. Some families received wheelchairs, walking aids or simply toys for stimulation.

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” — Mother Teresa

But here’s the thing. You can give a family a wheelchair and their child’s life will be made slightly easier. You can provide treatment and ease a child’s pain for a week or a month. But what good is a chair, if a child doesn’t believe they deserve to live a normal life? What good is pain relief, when a constant psychological pain torments a child whose only crime was being born in Uganda? In a country that is steeped in misperceptions about disability, do we not have a duty to free these unfortunate children from the chains society has bound around them? I like to think that we made some of these children feel like people again, and more importantly taught their parents that they are not alone.

Along with this we also went on library outreach trips to local schools, reading with kids from 5 years old to 14 years old. We gave educational talks to parents and students, focusing on first aid, nutrition and general well-being.

There are many other activities we performed, but I feel it’s important to avoid giving you a CV-like “list of achievements”. Rather, I hope you can understand the impact we had on the local people and sense the immense impact the locals had on me and my team.

You can probably already sense my unease when it comes to overseas volunteering. Is it a selfish act or a selfless one? The jury is still out. All I can really go by is the immense and acute impact we made in a small town in Sorthern Uganda. Our western world perpetuates money, revolves around it. So I argue, why not use a little of that money for a journey across the globe to connect us to a world different from ours. Why not risk being a tourist when there is a chance, however big or small, that you could effect someone’s life so positively? In the current economic climate, the people of Nansana won’t be visiting us anytime soon. However, I’d gladly sell my iphone, my car and trade my glorified, materialistic lifestyle to visit them one more time.

As I sit here, a vivid memory of an austere school in the Ugandan countryside comes to mind. It’s amazing how one moment can completely change your perspective on things, or how one child’s answer to a simple question can open your eyes to reality. When one little boy told us he wanted to become a pilot after finishing school, we asked why. Why a pilot, when he was surrounded by future doctors, teachers and policemen? He replied with one short sentence, “So I can fly away from this place”.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” 
Jackie Robinson

And to you future volunteers out there, people will tell you you are brave and kind-hearted. You might be brave, but don’t ever forget, you are lucky. Lucky to have been born here, and not in a poverty-stricken developing country. Lucky to have the chance to travel across the world. Lucky to be welcomed by the local people you will meet. Lucky to have the chance to affect someone’s life. You might not save anyone’s life, or change the world dramatically. But you will utilize your fortunate circumstances to help even out the stark inequality in the world, however slight an impact you might have. You are lucky to get that chance. I have seen the generosity of the Ugandan people, despite the constant storm of deprivation and sorrow that torments them daily. If they were half as fortunate as we are, the world would be a kinder, more charitable and fairer place. We are lucky ones, never forget that.