The plan was simple, spend two weeks volunteering at Amari Community Development Organisation in Uganda, a week touring the country and then two weeks with our husbands in Cambodia for a holiday.
My sister, Julie, and I had never really travelled together before, and this wasn’t just any trip. This was spending time with some of the poorest children in the world, in a remote location without all our creature comforts in a country with a troubled past. What were we thinking?
Before we left, a lot of people asked us why we chose to go to Uganda to volunteer and how we picked Amari. (I’m pretty sure the subtext to that question was “why the hell are you going to Uganda, is it safe?”)
So let me try and convey what we went through, and how my sister and I ended up in Uganda.
Julie had wanted to volunteer overseas for more than 20 years but with kids and everyday life getting in the way it was something that was constantly being put on hold, saved for later in life.
About two years ago she felt it was finally time, the kids were all grown up, and long service leave was approaching.
When she asked me if I would go with her, I didn’t hesitate. I was very keen to volunteer overseas – a year working at World Vision Australia and travels through Africa had revealed the hardships many people face overseas. And besides, Ade and I will pretty much travel anywhere!
The decision of where to go and what to do wasn’t as easy as I had expected it to be. There are hundreds of websites out there offering volunteering opportunities. I’d already looked at a variety of these sites over the years and had read all about the moral dilemma of voluntourism.
Julie and I also spoke to various people we knew who had volunteered, read up as much about different volunteering experiences as we could and I’d read the Lonely Planet book Volunteer for good measure. We were well researched.
And yet, still it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Do we go to Africa or Asia, do we work with kids, on healthcare programs with animals, or women in need? When do we go? Do we go with a trusted organisation and if so which one, how can we be sure our money will support the community we want to work with and not just the agency arranging the volunteer program? And how can we ensure our time spent volunteering will actually be helping those in need?
After reading what felt like hundreds of websites, we narrowed down our search to working with kids, either at a school or an orphanage somewhere in Africa. We wanted to the experience to be meaningful to us, so wanted to do something that was close to our hearts.
I had been to Africa a few times, it’s a place that really gets under your skin. Our general impressions of Africa come from the media, which generally focuses on the negative. You never hear about the amazing scenery, the beautiful people or the community spirit. Sure, bad things can happen but bad things can happen anywhere. And besides Africa is a huge continent – you wouldn’t not go to Paris because there was trouble in Serbia…
I digress but as Julie was also keen to go to Africa this made things a little easier and after making that decision things really started to ‘click’ for us. Once we had decided to go to Africa to work with kids I told Julie about Marita Simpson, a family friend of Ade’s.
We use the term inspiring women a lot these days, but with Marita, the term is definitely well deserved. Marita grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. She travelled to Africa, to Uganda, some years ago to teach in a local school. While she was there she was so moved by the place and the people and felt a real calling to help the local community. While most of us might donate money or begin a child sponsorship, Marita felt she could do more so she established the Amari Community Development Organisation.
According to its website “Amari was established in 2008 to help relieve the effects of poverty through education, development and welfare programs in developing countries, principally Uganda”.
The first stage is a school to help educate and support orphaned and vulnerable children.
Amari is in Buliisa, a remote area in western Uganda close to the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is about eight hours drive from the country’s capital, Kampala, and not far from Murchison Falls National Park.
I had met Marita previously and we regularly donated to Amari with Ade’s family so I knew the work she was doing quite well and felt that it could be a great fit for us and that we could be quite useful to Marita. Julie agreed.
Marita’s response was very promising, we could come for as long as we wanted, stay at the complex and help with a range of things – from public relations work, to helping with computers and varnishing buildings; who knew exactly what we would be doing, but we knew we would be helping the local community directly.
After making that decision, things started to snowball, somewhere along the way we decided to organise a fundraiser for Amari – something neither of us had any experience in.
We can’t say for certain where the idea came from, neither of us will own up to it – though I’m pretty certain it came from the myriad of expressions of interest in helping us along the way and was championed in the beginning by Julie.
People inherently want to help others; after all study after study shows altruism actually makes us happier. So it seemed natural that we would bundle up that enthusiasm into a single event and try to raise money.
Marita suggested that if people wanted to give something to the community they could donate money to help educate the children and to support medical needs.
Of course we never do things by halves, so we held the fundraiser just two days before we flew out. There’s nothing like a bit of last minute pressure.
We also wanted to provide little gifts from Australia for each of the kids – all 160 of them.
So as we were trying to decide what to pack for Africa and Cambodia, book tours (after all you can’t go all the way to Uganda and not take a sneaky side trip to see the gorillas or go on safari), wrestle with visas and how to manage our money there, we also found ourselves wrapping raffle prizes, arranging items for auction, finalising attendee numbers and food dishes and working out speeches and donations.
And as we prepared to head off on our amazing adventure we were busy counting money, thanking all those who contributed, sharing a wrap up of the event with all who attended and sorting out what to put in the kids’ packs.
On the night we raised almost $8000 and helped spread the word about Amari and the plight of children in Uganda. And while it was so overwhelming to combine a trip and a fundraising event, it helped us channel our energy and excitement before we began our amazing journey.
And yes, it probably helped take our minds off that underlying question – but is it safe?