The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Feature - Voluntary Opportunities

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Ugandans return from abroad with crucial experience When Juliet Bavuga signed up for Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), all she wanted was international working experience on her CV to help her get better job opportunities. Little did she know that this was the opportunity she was looking for.

A returnee volunteer from India, Bavuga is the country director of Child in Need Initiative (CINI Uganda), an NGO she started with models copied from CINI India. Her story is a typical case of desperation that led to life-changing opportunities.

When her contract as a researcher for University of California San Francisco research collaboration in Mbarara expired, Bavuga started job-hunting. But all the organisations she approached wanted someone with international working experience.

Then she saw an advert seeking volunteers. Upon applying, she was taken through a series of interviews which she passed. And her life has not really been the same again.

VSO is an international development organisation that works with volunteers around the world. The organisation works in areas of health, education to secure livelihoods of the less privileged.

The organisation works towards causing change by providing food, infrastructure and machinery to overcome poverty. The recruited volunteers give their time, expertise and passion. They share their skills with selected partner organisations, ranging from grassroots groups to government ministries.

"You have to have a background that matches the need of the partner organisation we are sending you to so that you can share your knowledge and experience in the work field," says Len Heezemans, a marketing and communications expert VSO Uganda.

Lydia Nakandi, the programme administrator VSO Jitolee, the branch that recruits volunteers, says one must have a degree and at least four years working experience to qualify.

The organisation recruits doctors, nurses, midwives, health administrators, fundraisers, organisation development advisors, programme managers, business management specialists, environmentalists and agriculturalists.

"We are looking for someone who is committed and sensitive to the needs of others. Going out there is a serious issue and if you are not fully committed, then you cannot be recruited. Volunteers do not choose where they go; the most important thing is their commitment, open mind and willingness to learn and go out there to help," Nakandi says.

Because of her qualifications in project planning and management, Bavuga was posted in India at Child in Need Institute (CINI) as a projects coordinator to teach research skills to senior staff and develop a monitoring and evaluation system.

"I was not married at the time; so, it was pretty easy to go. It was also my first time overseas, so I was very excited. VSO catered for everything and CINI provided accommodation and meals. I was a bit scared because it was my first time to travel so far from my family," Bavuga says.

She was well received by her contact from VSO in Delhi, India. She was then taught Bengali, a language she would be speaking in West Bengal Kolkata for two years.

"It's a very remote village, more like Kisoro in western Uganda. It's not really that remote because for them they have tarmac roads but they have very poor people with street vendors dotting the streets selling anything and everything," Bavuga says.

Her life growing up in a village was no different from the new life she had been cast in; so, adapting was very easy.

"Many people in this village are illiterate and didn't understand English. When I went to shops, I had to do signs. Kids would follow me because they had never seen a black person. They called me a Nigerian or South African. At first I was scared but I realised Indians are actually very good people, they are hospitable and more helpful than [many] here in Uganda. In town, they asked: 'where are you from?' and I would say 'Uganda'; and they would say 'Oh! Idi Amin'," Bavuga says.

Through the arrangement, she was provided accommodation, food and a modest allowance of Shs 200,000 every month to buy the basics. VSO would also give her a stipend of Shs 300,000 per quarter. At the end of the year, I was entitled to Shs 625,000 gratuity.

She was attached to the HIV programme at CINI, an organisation working with vulnerable communities. Working with deprived communities, she realised that Kolkata's poor people were not different from ones in Uganda. She was taught how she could help change the lives of poor people back home.

"India is a country of contrasts, there is both good and bad. The caste system shocked me a lot. They say that you are what you are because God put you there. The rich are so rich and they say they are lucky. They say the poor are poor because God is punishing them. People live on the streets, get married and have children there because they believe God put them there; they will not change. Rich kids pour dirty water on poor people because they believe God put them there to suffer," Bavuga says of her experience.

When she returned, CINI India allowed her to start a branch in Uganda in 2011. The organisation works to improve health, nutrition, education, protection of children, adolescents and women in need. It recruits pregnant women and follows them through their pregnancies until they give birth.

"If VSO was not there to connect me to CINI to learn the skills, networking, I wouldn't be here; I would encourage anyone to join and learn people skills when they can implement them back home. It is a growing wealth of experience that I got in those two years. I have become more responsible for my community," Bavuga says.

Nakandi says the organisation recruits 80 volunteers every year. There are over 100 Ugandans serving around the world in Asia, Africa, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, China, Thailand, Guyana, Cameroon, Ghana and all over.

And when they come back, says VSO Uganda boss Peter Barnard, they contribute to the development of Uganda. Since 2003, about 300 Ugandan volunteers have returned home after serving abroad. Foreign volunteers coming to Uganda work with the mentally ill, young mothers, orphans and vulnerable youth, among others.

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