Headed off to a semester in Uganda? Here is a head’s up on what to expect the minute you get off the plane.
Visiting another country is always an adventure: the food takes some adjusting to: the culture is different, and now you're living in a country that is missing a few things you took for granted while you were living in the United States.
But all of these differences and changes make the entire experience … after all, how fun would traveling be if every city in the world was exactly like the one you grew up in?
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We’ve talked to @kelsey.leblanc who is currently volunteering in China with ILP, but recently spent some time in Africa to help us get you ready for your own semester here:
- Things To Expect
- Things To Pack
- Know A Bit About The Culture
- How It’ll Change You
Things To Expect
Your New Nickname
A bit of background on Uganda: since there are dozens of local languages spoke, English is used to help unite the country. You’ll see signs in English, and will hear it on the street, along with a few of the local languages.
Get ready to be called “Mzungu” which means “white person” — you will hear that shouted at you all of the time! The locals are eager to chat with you and help you out, but since they don’t know your name but want to get your attention … they shout out mzungu!
It’s warm in Uganda, with a touch of humidity, and some rain to keep things nice and green all year long. You’ll typically find that temperatures hang around 85° (plus or minus a few degrees). It can get warm in the afternoon, but the evenings cool down to be absolutely perfect.
Welcome To Kampala’s Traffic
ILP volunteers will live in a suburb of the capital city of Kampala. Your neighborhood will be quieter and smaller, but you’ll definitely need to experience the bustling world of the capital city. Expect lots of motorcycles zipping in between vans and buses, and pedestrians walking on the roads. You’ll typically see bumpy dirt roads in most places in Uganda (apart from some paved roads in Kampala).
Kampala is also home to gorgeous markets, incredible historical sites, and museums … plus some of the most intense traffic! You’ll want to be patient when living in Uganda, because it tends to take quite a while longer to arrive somewhere than you’d be expecting.
A Different World
Living in Uganda will be different in a few ways compared to the life you’re used to now. Like many developing countries, you’ll find dirt roads, trash in the streets, and homes without electricity or running water. That’s particularly common in Uganda: You’ll see families out carrying plastic jugs around to carry water from the local spring back to their house.
ILP Volunteers will actually have the chance to help out with providing those springs and wells in their neighborhood so their community will have access to fresh drinking water (like the well pictured below). Here’s a bit more about the service you can help with in Uganda, outside of teaching English.
Your ewakka (“home” in one of the local languages”) is set up with running water, drinking water, electricity, and WiFi, which is a huge step up from the amenities your neighbors have. That being said, it’s not going to be like home in a few ways! You’ll probably come home from your ILP semester grateful for hot showers, paved roads, and reliable WiFi, among other things.
Things To Pack
Before leaving, volunteers get a full packing list with more details in your Go To Guide, but here are a couple of suggestions to help you be prepared for Uganda:
When It Comes To Clothes
The entire country of Uganda is rather conservative; in the smaller towns and villages, you’ll find people wearing traditional clothing with bright, colorful prints. Ladies, packing up skirts (rather than shorts) will help you fit in better with the culture and help you stay cool. In general, nothing low cut, too short, or revealing is a good thing to be wearing in Uganda. Your basic tee shirts (plus a skirt or a pair of longer shorts/pants for the guys) should do the trick.
For the weather, packing up a couple of layers, and lots of lightweight clothes to keep you cool (plus a rain jacket) will prepare you for anything.
With no washing machines around, there isn’t a gentle cycle for your delicate clothes! Most laundry is done by hand, so pack clothes that can wear well and wash out easily. Neutral and dark clothing will hold up to the red, dusty roads ... and help you blend in on the safaris in Uganda you'll be taking on the weekend.
A Bit On Shoes
Like most of the locals, you’ll get around mostly by walking. You’ll want comfortable shoes to wear pretty much every day. And since you’ll be walking on dirt roads, “adventure type sandals like Chacos/Tevas will save your life” according to Kelsey. From the knee down gets pretty dusty and muddy from all the walking, so shoes you can just rinse off in the shower are nice to have.
Kelsey mentioned bringing snacks from home: 3 meals a day will be provided to ILP volunteers, but you will want some things from home. You can shop in Kampala, and there are a few convince stores in your little neighborhood, but things like granola bars, trail mix, jerky, and other ready to eat snacks are ideal.
Sunscreen and bug spray is another thing you’ll want to pack. It’s hard to find there — your best bet is in Kampala which has some imported supplies, but it’ll be more expensive and tricky to find in country. Like our other schools in more tropical climates, packing up a pop-up mosquito net help cut down on bug bites during your semester.
Know A Bit About The Culture
Don't Pack Your Watch
Well, at least don’t expect things to happen on time. The country is extremely laid back and relaxed, so there really isn’t a rush on most things. If you grab something from a sit-down restaurant and place your order, plan on having your meal arrive in an hour or so! More time to chat with your group and swap stories about your cute kids in class, right?
Uganda Is An Extremely Conservative Country
You will rarely see women wearing pants and almost never see women wear anything above the knee or anything really low cut. In the cities, this tends to be a little less true, but in the more rural villages, your Ugandan neighbors will probably wear traditional African clothing. Ladies, you’ll feel more comfortable (and cooler!) if you wear long, flowy skirts unless you’re hiking or playing a sport on your semester.
Uganda is also very religious (a melting pot of quite a few major religions). It’s embedded in the culture, and you’ll find sayings like “God Loves You” on the sides of restaurants, buildings, and in school houses.
Name Your Price
It’s common for outdoor markets and other more informal shopping markets to not have set prices, which means you can work with the vendor to figure out and price you’re willing to pay, and they’re willing to sell for. This will most likely apply to all the souvenirs you have your eyes on, like colorful fabrics, hand woven baskets, hand-stretched drums, carved figures, jewelry, etc.
It also applies to things like taxi rides: never take the first price you’re offered! You’re getting offered a higher price because you’re a foreigner. The best thing to do is to ask a local how much they would pay and then get it down to as close to the price as you can. Usually if you say “no “and walk away when you get too high of a price, the driver will give you the price you’re asking for.
How It’ll Change You
We are just going to quote Kelsey here:
“I can honestly say that Uganda completely changed my life. The absolute love of the people there and just the happiness that they are able to experience, even among hardship that we will never really be able to comprehend is extremely humbling. The stories from people that were shared with me and the strength that I saw was inspiring and I don't think that I will ever be able to look at the world with the same perspective I did before.
“You have to focus on the individual people that you are helping and realize that if you are able to reach and better one persons life, it was worth all the hard work. [Africa} is a great opportunity for you to disconnect from the rest of the world and really focus on serving others and thinking outside yourself because you will have so many opportunities. Take them and let those experiences teach you to appreciate what we have in the United States.
"I can't even begin to describe the kindness and love showed to me while I was there and it taught me a lot about what love is and how it can be shown to others.”
Hungry for more?
We thought so! You can get a more in-depth look at what volunteering in Uganda is like, or just by sending in your application.