International ICS volunteer Annabelle Pemberton graduated from the University of Bristol in History last year and is working towards a career in International Development. She chose to work with Restless Development due to its focus on youth development. On her placement, she lived and worked in a town in the Kayunga District called Nazigo. She plans on returning one day and hopes to work with Restless Development in the future as a Team Leader!
Volunteering in Uganda was one of the best and most stimulating experiences of my life.
It sounds cliché and stereotypical but it could not be truer.
Before I went, people told me that I would come back a different person and in many ways that is accurate. Perhaps not in my personality traits or habits, but rather in my worldview and perspective on aid and development.
The dominant portrayal of African countries that we are shown in the media frequently contains images of destitution and extreme poverty. While indisputably there are many people who live in such conditions, it is far too narrow and unrepresentative a view.
Uganda is a country with wonderful people, music and culture. I made lifelong friends and danced at every opportunity (and there were many).
As with anything, my placement was not without its challenges. The misogynistic and what we would consider ‘old fashioned’ structures that are present in Ugandan society were hard to grasp and much work still needs to be done to combat such views. However, the people that I met were not helpless or without a voice. They were not dependent on aid from the West or incapable of empowering themselves.
I saw this in my host father, a man who came from a very poor background by his own description and is now a successful farmer, headteacher and the founder and CEO of his own charity, World Resilience Uganda. This charity promotes improving ‘people’s livelihood in the disadvantaged communities of Uganda’ through entrepreneurial and micro-cottage skills development, environmental conservation and human rights advocacy.
The schoolgirls I met during a debate we facilitated fearlessly challenged the patriarchal structures of their society by standing up for women’s equality without the support of any of their male classmates and won the debate.
I saw power in the partially blind girl who supported all of the events that we held and successfully made her own reusable sanitary pad.
I saw it in the young boy who was a loyal member of our youth group and a student at the school we taught in and has plans to set up his own tomato farming business.
In my team member’s host brother who, despite having a rare skin condition that set him apart in the community, is an amazing artist and runs his own printing business which assisted us throughout our work in the community.
I saw resilience In my host mother who, in a society which frowns upon working women, is a school teacher who farms alongside her husband, hosted me and the three other volunteers and raises three beautiful young boys all under the age of 7.
I saw it in the young men who run the local chapatti and mandazi stand, working every day with smiles on their faces and promoting and attending the events we ran, even getting themselves tested for HIV at our health day.
I saw it in the school teacher at our youth group who stood up for herself and her rights in the midst of a heated debate on gender-based violence despite being the only woman present.
In the hundreds of students who attended our in-school health event, so eager to be given the opportunity to freely discuss and inquire about their own sexual health and reproductive rights.
For all of these amazing people that I had the privilege of meeting, there are undoubtedly countless more in Uganda who demonstrate just as much resourcefulness and independence.
We were not there to be ‘saviours’ to these people or drastically transform their lives through our interactions. Rather, we were there provide access to the knowledge and tools they needed to maximise their own potential and empower themselves long after we left, knowledge and tools that we are all guilty of taking for granted in our own society.
Indeed, as much as I hope the people I worked with learnt valuable lessons and skills from myself and my team, I learnt so much more from them. The potential, natural leadership and initiative I saw in countless people, both young and old, was inspiring and a testament to their strength of character.
They are role models for us all.