In a time of compromised, cancelled and delayed travels, I remember that about a year ago I was coming back from my 40 days volunteering trip in Uganda. A slightly crazy and improvised journey that helped me to get to know Africa a little bit more.
My first time in Africa is been in Tanzania, between sports tourism and volunteering with Compassion Italia. Mozambico, a couple of years later, had been a slow and relaxing stay in Pemba, with an all-female road trip to Mozambique Island.
Today I tell you about the first project I worked with last year: the NGO Shine’s Children Foundation in Masindi, western Uganda.
Volunteering in Masindi: Shines Children’s Foundation
Denis is the founder and director of the ONG Shines Children’s Foundation. The organization (which from now on we’ll simply call SCF), works mainly with children, teenagers and women, directly or through the community. The fields of intervention are many, including all the basic needs of the families of the area.
The project I followed the most has been the school. It includes two kindergarten classes and (in 2020) three primary classes. There are works running to be able to host more children in the future.
Before this school opened, the closest one was pretty far away. Uganda recognises education as a right for every child and it provides 7 years of free school. Nonetheless, around Masindi many children were learning neither to read nor to write. When SCF opened the first class had been complicated to convince families and children to attend them. There was this idea that “I’m already 9, why start studying now?”, especially between boys. Elementary classes are in fact mainly attended by girls, with a boy every 3-5 students. And the average age is pretty high (in my second grade, the children were between 7 and 10 y.o.).
The school is private, to be able to grant good teachers and a certain teaching freedom. But SCF asks the parents only a tiny fee, leaving to donations and the organization itself the main share. The fee included, besides classes, breakfast, lunch, uniforms and an open account to the local hospital for emergencies.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, consider that the salary for a teacher is around 100$/month. The school fee is 5-6$.
Parents that can’t afford a monthly payment are also allowed to help out at the school, giving their time instead of money. For instance, there’s a field that SCF owns that provides some of the food the children are given during breakfast and lunch.
Last year, the school kitchen was not ready yet. The cooks managed with some kind of portable stove. Ugandan women are able to do magic with those little things!
Microcredit and financial programs
SCF runs a financial basic training for parents that helps them to learn to handle their money and to save up. The participants are divided into groups of about a dozen and a microcredit system works within each group. More or less, it works as follows: each person saves up a little bit each week; if this month I’d live to buy hens to sell eggs at the market, I ask a loan to the group. In the following weeks, I’ll give it slowly back, with new savings.
I’ve been to a couple of these meetings and I asked what do people use the loans for. Some bought a pig, made her mate and sold the piglets. Someone else made works and improvements in the house. Others paid their children’s school fees.
Access to water is still a common problem for African families. Running water in the houses is definitely not given for granted, in Uganda. And even the families that do have a working sink or a pump should still filter and/or boil the water because it’s not safe.
I’m saying “should” because even though most know they have access to not drinkable water, they don’t necessarily do anything about it. I’ve seen people drinking water with very suspicious colours!
Here is an anecdote from a project in eastern Uganda, where I’ve been volunteering after SCF. My and my companion brought a water filter to the house that hosted us, one of those that you buy at outdoor gear shops. We’ve shown how to use it to the ladies of the house and they tested, filtering their first clean litre of water. One of the ladies stood on one side of the glass jar and looked at the other one on the opposite side shouting “Look how transparent it is! I can see you through it!!”.
A few years back, SCF installed two wells with a built-in filter in Masindi countryside. The water comes out transparent.
Programs for teenagers and young people
Teenagers are often the ones most at risk. In a high school in Masindi, in 2019 SCF organized a beautiful project for girls. Together with the Peace Corps, they taught sex education, women rights and personal hygiene. In 2020, a similar course was organized in SCF school (closed to normal classes because of the pandemic) for the young girls of the area.
Volunteering in Uganda with Shine Children’s Foundation
Denis is constantly looking for both short and long term volunteers to help out his NGO to function and grow. When I arrived in Masindi last year, a group of a dozen Poles just finished building the school’s super colourful playground. They also installed a rainwater cistern to provide the school with running water.
Once a week, an English mother tongue school teacher supports all grades with extra English classes. And during 2019 an American girl was coordinating the teenagers’ project I described before.
Denis looks for help on many volunteering websites and on his website there’s a page to contact him directly. I met him on Workaway, which is not really a volunteering website. But I suppose everything works when you’re looking for help!
What kind of help?
Danis and his NGO need a bit of everything. Whatever your talent is, Denis will be able to put it into practice. Like it often happens, to volunteer you need more time and will than any specific skill.
During the two weeks, I spent in Masindi, I and my companion fixed and updated the website, shot hundreds of pictures and edited a video, helped the second-grade teacher with her class and checked dozens of homework. We also tried to explain some basic time and resources management, which are really unknown concepts to most!
Free time in a Masindi
Masindi is a small town that expands left and right off the road coming from Kampala, one of the few properly paved. It’s definitely not the main tourist attraction of Uganda but, if you’re in the area, it’s worth a stop. It’s quiet, pretty safe and you’ll feel stared at (for the pale colour of your skin) less than in many other places in the country.
There’s a market, small local shops, a typical restaurant and a couple of banks. There are also a couple of nice hotels (which means they have warm running water in the rooms and a good internet connection) because Masindi is on the way to Murchison Falls.
Murchison Falls National Park is the hype of this region. It lays on both sides of the Nile River and offers beautiful safaris both on water and by car. You can visit the falls, hike, fish and go birdwatching.
Where to sleep and eat
Denis hosted me in his own house, offering me a room with a mosquito net and access to water. His wife is an incredible cook and the mother in law, who spent a week with us, is an amazing woman. The two children are pretty young, therefore they create a natural mess. But they are also absolutely adorable. When I was in Masindi, the younger sister in law was also staying with us, to be closer to her high school. A full house, busy, safe, with water, good food and a lot of good company!
Denis can’t always host his volunteers. It depends on the time and on the number. For instance, the Poles that worked at the school before I arrived, were definitely too many for Denis’ house! They stayed in a simple b&b, but they were still properly fed by the two women of the house!