Memory Lane Monthly: Volunteering in Uganda

Memory Lane is back! This time as Memory Lane Monthly, a monthly addition to our present journeys in and around Korea. There is still so much that I have to share with you regarding my past travels and obviously we haven’t even begun sharing Oli’s solo travels.

Now, the reason I finally got my butt in gear and got this much loved feature going was because I received a comment from a reader, bringing my attention to the fact that I have never written about my experience volunteering in Uganda.

So, lovely readers of our brand new self-hosted blog, let’s delve down memory lane once again, to see where my dreams of teaching English first began…

The wonderful kids in Bunyonyi, Uganda
The wonderful kids in Bunyonyi, Uganda

When Becky, my first ever travel partner in crime, and I were planning our big 8 month adventure, we knew that we wanted to volunteer at some point. But, considering the vast and varying number of volunteer opportunities worldwide, we had no idea where or who we wanted to give our services to. Luckily our travel planning was being helped along by the very capable travel experts at STA. And when our travel agent suggested that we add a 4th continent and 11th country to our ever growing list and venture to Uganda to work in rural schools, we didn’t need much persuading. The fact this particular position was on sale at the time may have swayed our decision.

The location couldn't be more lovely
The location couldn’t be more lovely

And I am glad that we didn’t pay any more than we did as, unfortunately, when we got to Uganda and spoke with our hosts and the owners of the charity, we found that an extremely small proportion of what we paid for our volunteering experience went to them. And not a penny was seen by the families and children we were volunteering with.

Becky and I are both so grateful for the lengths STA went to in helping us plan our trip and do not regret a penny we spent with them, however this particular section of our trip made us realize the importance of doing your own research.

I-to-I, the company hosting the position, offer great schemes, and we would never have travelled to this little visited, incredible destination if we hadn’t signed up with them, but these kinds of large, and expensive, organisations are not the only route to volunteering. Although it may seem that almost every volunteering placement will set you back a decent sum, there are many great places where you can volunteer for free, or simply for the cost of a bed and a few meals. I am not against paying to volunteer, but I know that when I do something like this again in the future, I would like to put my money in smaller, grass-roots organizations who will benefit from every penny. When something as important as volunteering is concerned I think the least we can do is make sure that what we are doing, and any money we are giving out, is actually helping.

For more information I highly recommend checking out The Volunteer Travellers Handbook, written by none other than this year’s National Geographic Traveler of the Year! You can buy her book from her website, here.

But like I always say, although something may not seem all that great at first, while travelling it will usually turn out to be an incredible experience. And Uganda was a case in point.

Our three weeks volunteering in Uganda were spent almost entirely on the shores of Lake Bunyonyi, a lake in the south west corner of the country, which owes it’s remarkable shape to the result of volcanic activity. Like a cartoon splash of water, but entirely more intricate, Bunyonyi is made of hundreds of little islands and peninsulas that criss-cross over the calm lake. Some islands hold little villages, others schools, while at the other end of the spectrum are resorts, and even ‘prisons’.

Just a slither of stunning Lake Bunyonyi
Just a slither of stunning Lake Bunyonyi, unfortunately taken on a cloudy day
The view from one of the lakes impressive resorts
The view from one of the lakes impressive resorts

Bunyonyi is beautiful, and peaceful, and was the perfect place to spend our last three weeks in the big wide world before heading home to go to university.

The organization we volunteered with was Edirisa and they have a hostel base in Kabale, the town through which you go to get to the lake, and then the volunteer housing by the lake. They call it ‘the heart’.

The heart
The heart, as seen from a dugout canoe

The heart of their charity, it is located right on the shores of the lake and a few hundred metres from Bufuka school, where we volunteered. The buildings are simple, a few huts, a common room, dining area and a small kitchen, alongside a scattering of self-sustainable squat toilets!

We felt at home right away, and who couldn’t when this was the view from the adorable little cottage we stayed in…

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The routine was simple – Each Sunday the team of volunteers discussed who wanted to work where (the nursery, the school or a second school across the water) and with what grade.  Two people would go to each class and you had a choice of teaching in the morning or the afternoon. The scheduling also included who would cook and when. We all pitched in to buy food on a Saturday and then 2 different people would cook every day, once for lunch and once for dinner. All meals where enjoyed together, which meant we all became pretty close in such a short time.

Lake view through the kitchen window
Lake view through the kitchen window

For three weeks, this was our life. Add to that a handful of trips taking dug out canoes to the resort for beers and a game of pool, swimming in the lake (and washing in it!) and playing games with the kids after school and you have a recipe for volunteer perfection. We had responsibility, but we weren’t out of our depth. We were busy, but we had a lot of time to relax. We had the children, and we had our new friends. And I can tell you, sitting with a cup of tea each morning, looking out over the glistening lake and pondering on the day ahead, undoubtedly full of cuddles from cute kids and hilarious games of Simon says, I could not have been happier.

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But it wasn’t always the simple life, sometimes things got extravagant. Becky and I had been looking forward to a few weeks off the booze and partying, our main activities from the previous 7 months, but that was unfortunately not what Uganda had in store for us. Each Friday our little group, which included us two 19 year olds, a 60 year old Australian women and a mother and daughter, hit the town of Kabale and partied hard with the locals! The one club, Match and Mix, was a hilarious and unexpected highlight of the trip- because even hard working volunteers have to let their hair down after a week of cuddles and storytelling… right?

Now, I know I have gushed on for over 1000 words but I wouldn’t be giving an accurate description of our trip if I didn’t describe two more must-dos. Firstly, if you head to Bunyonyi, you are bound to head through Nkozi and while there you get to see something pretty special- the equator. Here you can take silly pictures of yourself straddling the line and get a cute demonstration of the whole ‘toilet-flush’ phenomenon, for which I won’t give away the surprise!

The equator signs
The equator signs

The final necessity involves none other than my favourite thing; food. Uganda isn’t much for great cuisine, which is why cooking for ourselves was such a blessing, but they do do one thing right and that is rolexs. Not the flashy watch kind but the salty, oily, less than $1 egg, tomato and onion filledchapati kind! These street side snacks are perfect for just about any meal time and are especially satisfying post-Match and Mix.

Hold on, make that 3 must dos because sitting across from the hostel in Kabale is a totally out of this world, and rather out of place, bakery! Try their cookies and you won’t be disappointed.

If you feel that rowing to school in a dug out canoe, washing in a lake, planning and teaching your own lessons and being overwhelmed by cute Ugandan children is right up your street then head on over to… and send an email to… And then once you’ve been, come back and tell me all about it!

Our transport to and from one of the schools
Our transport to and from one of the schools
A young girl and her adorable baby sister
A young girl and her adorable baby sister
A beautiful sunset that we rowed away into one night
A beautiful sunset that we rowed away into one night

Have you ever volunteered? Where was your experience? And how was it?

4 Responses

  1. Shannon O'Donnell
    | Reply

    Thanks for the shout-out of my book. So sorry to hear that you had some rough spots on your trip, but it sounds like it turned out overall positive! 🙂

    • Journey Count
      | Reply

      Absolutely! It’s such a great resource 🙂 And yes, it turned out wonderfully. I’d actually love to go back!

  2. Jessie
    | Reply

    Looks like it was an amazing place to volunteer! Friendly people and a good balance of work and play! 🙂 I volunteered for a day at an English school in Cambodia, not long enough although we had to leave, but just seeing how excited all the students get from us simply taking the time to teach and get involved is so rewarding. Really makes you feel part of the global and universal community people often separate themselves from. We are all one! Thanks for sharing that story Jade!!! :))) Peace and love!

    • Journey Count
      | Reply

      It was really special! I can only imagine how rewarding working with kids in Cambodia would be- they are ridiculously cute!

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