I recently wrapped up a month volunteering in Uganda as a nurse in a refugee camp. As always, I returned home feeling like I learned just as much as I taught (which, in my opinion, is one mark of a successful service trip). Here are just a few of the many lessons Uganda taught me:
1. Ugandans are extremely welcoming people.
Everywhere I went, I was met with wide smiles and friendly greetings. I can’t say I was surprised, since I’ve had this same experience all over East Africa. I’ve never once felt unsafe or unwanted by locals, despite what the news might tell you.
What DID surprise me was Ugandans’ outstanding treatment of the refugees streaming into their country, who I had traveled there to care for (for background the refugee situation in Uganda, check out this post). The health centers where I volunteered served sprawling refugee settlements; over one million refugees from surrounding countries are currently being sheltered in Uganda. In contrast to the shameful way more “developed” nations treat immigrants, Uganda offers its neighbors a small plot of land and allows them to stay as long as they need. When I asked a local nurse how she felt about South Sudanese refugees flooding into her home town, she grinned and said, “Having visitors is a blessing!” America, are you taking notes?
2. Foreign volunteers get the glory, but local staff are the heroes.
When I volunteer abroad as nurse, the spotlight tends to get focused on me – but the local nurses I worked alongside have expertise, stamina, and dedication that I will never match.
At the health centers where I volunteered in Uganda, the local clinicians literally live on site. When I finished each shift, I got to go back to a fancy volunteer house where someone cooked me dinner and offered to do my laundry; meanwhile, the Ugandan nurses are on call 24/7 for any emergencies that wallk in. They can start an IV on a squirming, dehydrated child without missing, speak enough of several local languages to treat their patients, and do their jobs with a fraction of the supplies Americans use – all without complaint. They live far from their families (the refugee camps are quite remote) and work in basic structures in sweltering heat without running water or electricity. As a volunteer serving in a health clinic for a month, I’m not going to “save” Africa – but the local nurses are well on their way.
3. Africa Time is real.
When you agree to meet a Ugandan friend at noon, expect to see them any time between noon, 2 pm, and the twelfth of never. It’s not rude; it’s just the way things are done in many parts of Africa (thus the term “Africa time”).
In a place where transportation is unpredictable at best and impossible at worst, it’s probably the most sensible way to operate. No one gets bent out of shape if rain washes out a road and we miss dinner, or if too many patients show up at the clinic and the continuing education lecture has to be postponed by an hour. Things just happen when they happen. As a highly organized, to-do-list checking American, time spent in East Africa is a healthy exercise in patience for me!
4. Don’t hunt elephants.
Of course, I knew this one already because I’m not a monster. But I was sitting in the volunteer house very much looking forward to my upcoming weekend safari when I saw the news that Trump had reversed the ban on importing elephant trophies to the US. With so few of these magnificent creatures left, I will never comprehend why anyone would want to kill them for “fun” and then ship their body parts home to display on their walls.
I was incredibly lucky to spend that weekend at Murchison Falls National Park, where I watched stunning herds of elephants play, graze, and sweetly watch over their tiny calves. It’s impossible to explain the feeling of awe that elephants in the wild inspire. I could sit and watch them all day long, and still be sad to drive away.
Fortunately Trump eventually caved to popular opinion and the ban remains in place, but unless we do much more to protect elephants, it won’t be long before these extraordinary animals no longer wander the parks of Africa.
(Oh and by the way, Trump has quietly been allowing lion trophies to be imported since October. Feel free to leave a strongly worded comment for the Fish and Wildlife Service, the government agency in charge of these regulations, here. )
5. Human beings are incredibly resilient.
A month in a Ugandan refugee camp will prove to anyone the surprising strength of the human spirit as well as the body. I worked alongside a South Sudanese interpreter who fled her village when soldiers attacked and began shooting people without warning. She picked up and ran with nothing – not even shoes on her feet – and walked for five days with her two young children (and pregnant with her third), until she reached the Ugandan border.
You would never know it to look at her. In fact, I admit I was surprise to learn that she was a refugee since her bubbly personality contrasted in every way with the despondent faces I’d seen in the news. I rarely saw her without a smile on her face, and never heard her complain. The settlement was full to the brim with others sharing her same story: surviving unimaginable hardship and determinedly, even cheerfully, moving forward anyway.
And each day in the clinic, our patients defied the odds stacked against them. It is astounding what the human body can take and still keep on kicking. One day an eight-year-old girl with severe cerebral malaria was carried into triage, delirious and screaming and trying to bite anyone who got near her. I could hear her shrieking from the other side of the compound; she sounded possessed. It took six adults to hold her down and sedate her so she could be treated. Thanks to a few doses of IV antimalarials, she was herself again by the time I returned the next morning.
6. But get your vaccines anyway.
Pardon me while I step up onto my soapbox. At health centers in Uganda, women walk for miles to wait outside in sweltering heat all day in the hopes that life-saving vaccines will be available for themselves and their children. Those vaccines travel incredible distances over bone-jarring roads, and clinic staff overcome endless obstacles in order to keep them cold (and therefore effective) in remote places without reliable electricity or ice.
Then I come home to my hospital job in America and watch people turn up their noses when immunizations are offered to them. I guess it’s easy to ignore the facts when you’ve never seen a kid with polio begging on the street or watched a baby die of tetanus. But when my American patients turn down the extraordinary luxury of safe, readily available vaccines, I think of what Ugandan mothers would do for such an opportunity and I wonder how we find the audacity to be so ungrateful.
Ok, stepping off the soapbox now and moving on…
7. If you aren’t making sure your volunteer work is sustainable, you’re doing it wrong.
Every medical mission I go on (Uganda was my tenth), I have a day or two when I wonder: Does what I’m doing here even matter? Am I making a difference? Or am I just one more white girl making herself feel good by volunteering in Africa?
In Uganda, I tried to address those concerns by focusing more than ever before on making my work sustainable. As we were told during orientation, “The reason we have volunteers is not to bridge the personell gap. It’s to improve quality.” Meaning: I’m much more useful if I mentor local nurses than I am just treating patients on my own.
Sure, it’s tempting to just take care of half the patients on the unit myself and give the Ugandan nurses a break, but what good does that really do? When I go home in a month, nothing will have changed. Instead, I tried to keep myself glued to the side of the local nurses. I asked questions so I could understand how they do things here and why; I offered my expertise when they asked for it; we brainstormed ideas for improving patient care and I collaborated with them to set new protocols for the unit. I wanted to leave my Ugandan counterparts with more knowledge and skills to care for their community, not just elbow my way in and do their job myself so I could come home with a bunch of crazy stories.
Sustainability should be the rule for everyone who wants to volunteer abroad. If you really want to make a difference – not just take some photos that will get you lots of likes on Instagram – ask yourself if the work you’re doing will continue changing the community for the better after you’re gone. In fact, ask any volunteer organization the same thing. And if they don’t have a top-notch answer, move on.
8. You can eat a rolex!
Not the watch, silly. In Uganda, a rolex is the breakfast food of choice! Just roll an omelette up in a piece of chapati (delicious flatbread I’m absolutely obsessed with), and you’re good to go. Add a cup of tea and you’ve got a full Ugandan breakfast.
9. There’s literally nothing that African women can’t carry on their heads.
I mean, WHAT:
10. Buckle your seatbelt.
Road traffic accidents are actually the biggest threat to tourists in Uganda – so you can stop worrying about rare tropical diseases and imaginary kidnappers! We passed multiple crashes by the side of the road, and injuries from motorcycle wrecks were a common occurrence at the health center.
Drivers of boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) aren’t even required to take driving lessons, much less wear helmets. As a nurse I must officially warn you away from riding them, but I can’t deny I may have risked it a few times myself in the past – and yes, they’re just as fun as they are dangerous.
11. I have an incredible amount of privilege.
As a white, middle class American woman I entered this world with myriad advantages that I did absolutely nothing to earn. Nowhere is this disparity more clear to me than in a health center in rural Uganda. Clean water, reliable electricity, quality education, reliable healthcare, safe roads… The sheer number of privileges I was lucky enough to be born into boggles my mind. And these aren’t just perks, either – these things make the difference between wealth and poverty, success and failure, life and death.
Just to be able to travel to Uganda itself is a privilege. To soak up knowledge and inspiration from the local nurses is an opportunity I’m incredibly grateful for. It’s easy to get caught up in my everyday worries back home – luxury problems like having to pick up extra shifts for pay for my latest adventure. One of the many reasons I keep going on medical missions is that they re-organize my priorities and force me to focus on what really matters. They also remind me that it’s my responsibility to use my immense privilege to stand up for those who just happened to be born with less.
So thank you, Uganda, for a challenging, fascinating, and inspiring month! I’ll be back, for sure.
Get updates delivered straight to your inbox
Follow our Adventures!
Get updates delivered straight to your inbox