Immersion – Two Short Term Volunteers’ Reflections in Anecdotes | Culture Shock, Volunteering & International Development

The Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM) matches the best opportunities between our overseas partner organisations’ needs and those of our volunteers through our Long Term (1 year+) Volunteer Programme and Short Term (4 weeks to 6 months) Volunteer Programme. We have been placing volunteers to serve, learn and share with marginalised communities overseas for 50 years now, having just recently dispatched our 111th volunteer group.

Volunteering: Immersion into a New Culture

Volunteers Eilís McDonald, Jean Byrne and Marie Walsh settling in, Fort Portal, Uganda

In this blogpost, we can take the opportunity to immerse ourselves into the short term volunteer experience of culture shock, learning and reflection of two of our recent short term volunteers, through their voice. Here Al and Jean share with us their reflections and insight as they develop through their volunteer placement, engaging with a new culture while taking on a new task, in a new setting, with a new community and its unfamiliar traditions.

Volunteering: Personally Contextualising Globalisation & the SDGs

We will take a look over their shoulder and into the conscience of two first-time overseas volunteers; green and new to the experience. Their freshly observed anecdotes, underline the immediate, exciting and wonderful shared-experience of immersive cultural exchange through volunteering. From this perspective, with new eyes, two professionals document glimpses of the real-life-contextualised, learning curve that is coming from the Global North and trying your best to suddenly understand not only local language, custom and politics but also how one might see and work within the international, economic structures and bias that is our modern, globalised world, from this, now the more challenging “wrong side of the tracks”. And from there, how to proceed? How best then to function in your placement from this new realisation and perspective?

Volunteering: Working for Global Justice at Local Level

Volunteers at the equator, Uganda

VMM Volunteers Al Vondra, Jean Byrne and Eilís McDonald at the equator, Uganda

Through VMM’s partnership approach with local community organisations in Africa, this blogpost also serves to provide an insightful peep into the personal impact of giving back on the volunteer by not only working for, but working with, vulnerable communities. Ultimately, it is a brief visiting view-in-words of Uganda, of personal mission to community, global justice, Christian and humanitarian values and of broadening the horizon of one’s world view through volunteering.

Jean and Al: VMM Short Term Volunteers

Jean Byrne is an Organisational Development Manager from Glasgow on placement at Bishop Magambo Counsellor Training Institute in Fort Portal. Al Vondra, a retired Forensic, Corporate Investigator from Cleveland, Ohio, volunteered with Rwenzori Centre for Research and Advocacy (RCRA), also in Fort Portal, western Uganda. Both have previously volunteered locally and are keen bloggers on LinkedIn. And both have kindly offered to let us take a peek at their VMM volunteer experience. Read their personal journey through short reflections and anecdotes:

Al and Jean’s Volunteer Observations:

New Exposure

Al_Vondra_On_a_Mission_to_Uganda“Many of the people I have met were forced to flee their homelands due to civil war and persecution. Many were subjected to unspeakable torture. They were children of all ages who often spent their entire lives in refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda before being fortunate to get refugee status in the United States.” [Al, On a Mission to Uganda]

“The journey from Glasgow was long and fairly uneventful. I was picked up by Sam, the driver, and my two housemates at the airport. Then it was exposure therapy to a busy and, what appeared to me, slightly chaotic environment.” [Jean, I’ve Arrived]

“I quickly realised that Uganda is a much poorer country than I had realised. People’s homes, along the roads en route to Fort Portal, were largely unlit – electricity is expensive. Rubbish everywhere. Guard dogs howl throughout a lot of the night. And, of course, the mzungu (foreigner) is seen as wealthy – not difficult to see why.” [Jean, I’ve Arrived]

Volunteers dining at home in Fort Portal, Uganda

Volunteers enjoying the comforts of a home in Fort Portal, Uganda

“My trip was organized through Volunteer Mission Movement that does important work in Africa. I left behind my family, my home and my comfortable way of life to live in Kasese District, a mountainous area in Western Uganda, a [developing] country of poverty, disease and poorly-distributed resources.” [Al, On a Mission to Uganda]

“The teachers in the staffroom expressed surprise because they think I am always in a hurry. The topic of Brexit also came up. They expressed the view that a mistake we made was to take the decision in a hurry. The mzungus are always in a hurry – whether we walk, make decisions, whatever … people here walk more slowly and deliberate for much longer.” [Jean, Empaako]

Volunteers Jean Byrne and Marie Walshe, Fort Portal, Uganda

Volunteers Jean and Marie arrive in Fort Portal, Uganda

“Tonight, after cooking dinner and while we sat around, we had what seemed like an invasion of flying moths. I had to go outside briefly. When I stepped back into the house – a tiny frog jumped onto my leg and off again! I have done so much screaming tonight …”

“I quickly realised that Kampala would not be an easy city to drive around. It was absolutely ‘heaving’. Cars, bodas, taxis (matatu) – all vied for space on the busy roads, alongside people selling fruit, windscreen wipers, shoes … Absolute chaos.” [Jean, Murchison Falls]

“A few days ago, we also had quite a big earth tremor which scared the holy smokey out of me. Apparently, there had been a tremor the week before, but I didn’t feel it at all.” [Jean, Life in Fort Portal]

“I consider it a blessing to immerse myself in the Ugandan culture even if it is only for a few short months. The first week of my stay has been an amazing learning experience and very humbling.” [Al, My First Week]

Jean Byrne at market, Fort Portal, Uganda

Roadside local market stalls, Uganda

“Makeshift shops and dwelling places along the side of a broken and dusty road sell their bananas, tomatoes and basic household items. Goats chomp grass at the edge of the street. Signposts tell you to try prayer, to trust in God. ‘He Cares Driving School’ just further emphasises the impression that this is a warm and caring society.” [Jean, Life in Fort Portal]

“I walked past two women when I came from school. They were both carrying a pile of long sticks on their heads. I expressed my view that this was difficult and heavy work. They reassured me it wasn’t heavy. They looked so graceful and content as they walked along the very pot-holed lane.” [Jean, Ugandan Mass]

“Today it started out very warm indeed. So warm, in fact, that the quilt we washed is almost dry. Then in the mid-afternoon, the skies darkened, thunder rumbled above us and everyone knew that the rain was about to start. The rain is quite predictable.” [Jean, First Day]

Al_Vondra_My_First_Week_In_Uganda“I have experienced many moments of joy where I see something beautiful — a smile, or a wave of a small child, a glance of a caring mother protecting the baby on her back, the sound of soothing voices and drumbeats of music in their churches, or the sight of unselfish labour of someone walking along a dirt road, balancing a large container of water or food on their heads.” [Al, Poverty and Joy]

“The potholes on the way back (or should I say craters) did a good job at breaking the exhaust on the 4-wheeled drive vehicle that we were travelling in. But we got back safe and sound and felt thankful and blessed for having had such an experience.” [Jean, In The Mist]

“One of my housemates had her feet attended to yesterday in a local beauty salon. Interestingly enough, it usually appears to be men who paint the toenails. I passed a parking lot with several lorries. One had the door open and I saw a bare foot extended outwards. There was a man standing outside; he took a hold of the foot, cleaning and pumicing it!” [Jean, Poor Feet]

“It has been very difficult for me to adjust to the level of poverty I have seen, and the seeming waste of human potential and the lack resources for them to flourish. I know I never will. I am overwhelmed by the depth of human need. They are unable to afford most things – living on subsistence farming – a term that was foreign to me until I arrived.” [Al, Poverty and Joy]

“Later in the afternoon, I strolled into the town and passed a small cemetery housing the graves of several notables of the church or royalty. Most people bury their dead in the back garden if they have one, under a stone block. I have also been told that people have coffins with a window on them so they can be sure that it is indeed their loved one inside!” [Jean, You’re at the Equator]

Volunteer Jean_Byrne_lunch_at_St_John_Mary_Vianney_Schl_Fort_Portal_Uganda

Lunch in the staffroom

“On my way to school this afternoon, the sun was shining as the gardener at the cathedral cut the hedge with his machete. The little old lady sat on her stool at the corner selling her craftwork and the boda drivers scooted up and down the hill ferrying passengers to and from Virika Hospital (‘We Treat, God Heals’ the tailored grassy verge reads).” [Jean, Empaako]

“I know they are extremely poor, yet I feel a generosity and kindness of the people beyond measure. They come up to me and greet me, thanking me for being with them. What little they have, they give. Large groups of little children, of which there are many, surround me, their eyes wide open just staring. Some moving closer attempting to touch my white skin without me noticing.” [Al, Poverty and Joy]

“We closed the shutters and the doors and got the students to come. Nobody seemed to mind that the sheet was not completely flat, but was wavy and distorted the picture. Even more surprisingly, nobody complained when the sound was too faint to hear anything. It was an afternoon at the silent movies. Luckily ‘Paddington’ is very visual with a lot of slapstick. Then the rain came. And with it, a power cut. That was that. We had to stop. There were no groans – everyone accepted that it was over! There were a few requests to see it at a different time. My heart went out to them.” [Jean, Paddington]

boda bed delivery, Fort Portal, Uganda

Bodaboda bed delivery, Fort Portal, Uganda

“Delivering a bed to our house – we are having someone else move in and need an extra bed. How best to transport it than on the back of a boda!” [Jean, Paddington]

“There were no desks in the cement-slabbed classrooms, one book for each class piled high in the corner, and no hand washing facilities. I was moved to buy desks so they don’t have to learn on the floor. You would have been moved too. They are $13 each.” [Al, Poverty and Joy]

“There is a gentleness here that is difficult to describe. People are warm and respectful and nobody is in a rush – except, of course, for the mzungus! As I sat in our garden later on speaking to my son on WhatsApp, I watched a mouse and a couple of yellow breasted weaver birds compete for some food on the grass.” [Jean, Tooro Botanical Gardens]


Volunteer Jean_Byrne_Empaako_lunch_at_St_John_Mary_Vianney_Schl_Fort_Portal_Uganda

Volunteer Jean Byrne in John Mary Vianney School staff room

'Akiki' of 'Friend' is Jean's nickname

‘Akiki’ or ‘Friend’ is Jean’s pet name

“Uganda has a vast population of young, with over 48 percent below the age of 15 among its 45 million people.  Educating young children is a priority and the hope for the future, but most do not finish high school or even grade school, and many cannot afford tuition. The cost of public education is the equivalent of about $27 a year.” [Al, My First Week]

“I asked someone how I should expect to be addressed. Was it ‘Miss’ (which I don’t like) or ‘Miss Jean’ (which was used in Palestine when I taught there) or something else.  I was told ‘Akiki’ would be suitable. This is a pet name and means ‘friend’. Apparently, this is a respectful name for the teacher. I’ll be happy with that.” [Jean, Ugandan Mass]

“My first Day. The skies were beginning to darken and that meant rain. So I thought I had better hurry. I got out of the house fast, caught a boda and scooted along to the school just in time to avoid the most torrential downpour. The corrugated roof made it hard to hear what anyone said. I then realised it would be difficult to teach when it was raining.” [Jean, Ugandan Mass]

“I am finding the teaching a challenge. There is no printer or any equipment in the school. The book the class uses was first published in 1965 and the ‘new edition’ was in 1972. So just imagine what type of English the students are being taught. I find this a big challenge. Very ancient textbooks with little or no imagination. In any case, I have been spending a lot of time trying to prepare what I do in class and it doesn’t always work – that is the exhausting part.” [Jean, The Challenge for Me]

Wet day at St_John_Mary_Vianney_Schl_Fort_Portal_Uganda“Today, it started to rain when I was finishing class. The next teacher made no attempt to go to class until it had abated a little. I was told that they don’t compete with the rain. The corrugated roofs make it impossible to be heard.” [Jean, Empaako]

“One of my class asked me when we were going to do the play! I had mentioned something about this possibility when I met them first. I have since been told that to mention something is virtually to guarantee it is going to happen.” [Jean, Poor Feet]


“5-6 cases of torture or defilement of children are reported each week in this district and this is only the tip of the iceberg. The reporting doesn’t happen often as people don’t have the money for transport to get to the police station to do it! The case [is] dropped if there is no money for the police to transport the [parents] summoned to the station. Nobody has money to do anything.” [Jean, Betty Mujungu]

Challenges to Empowerment

gorillas trek, Jean Byrne, Bwindi, Uganda“The maternity ward is used to deliver hundreds of babies a month in the two small rooms. The health centre III (no capability to do surgery) serves a community of some 40,000 mountain dwellers as far as the eye can see.  But many mothers use traditional birth attendants, or TBAs, and deliver from their ‘homes’ because of the cost and long distances to the health centre.” [Al, Poverty and Joy]

“We passed by people from the Batwa tribe, an endangered Pygmy tribe who live in the area. They are now considered illegal squatters in what used to be their own land.” [Jean, In The Mist]

“They live mostly in rural areas on roads that are virtually impassable, at least by my standards. Even mosquito nets to avoid contracting deadly malaria, is a cost beyond their reach. Water sanitation is a major problem. No electric wires are in sight. They lack even the minimal amount for school fees so each child can continue learning.” [Al, Poverty and Joy]

“I was trying to work out why there were so few students in class yesterday. A teacher explained to me that they had been sent home in order to get their school fees for the term! Many hadn’t paid them yet and the term was marching on. The students in the school pay approximately 120,000 ugx (£26.62) per term, inclusive of their exam fees. Yet many of them can’t afford it.” [Jean, Paddington]

crafts Ride4aWoman partner org. Uganda

Crafts earn cash at ‘Ride 4 A Woman’

“At Ride4aWoman women earn money for making their products in an environment where they can speak with each other freely and gain the means to help support their families. We were treated to a wonderful cultural display of dancing and music. I also had the opportunity to sit down with the women and join in their singing practice.” [Jean, Ride for A Woman]

“There is really very little I can do to help in this country of mostly children. I keep telling myself, one person at a time. But I came here to experience and try to offer assistance in any way I can. Something… perhaps that same inner voice I mentioned… drew me here to see, and listen, and try and understand.” [Al, Poverty and Joy]


Volunteers Keeping the Faith, Fort Portal, Uganda 2“The noise in that place was incredible – we think it was the born-again Christians singing their hearts out through the loudspeakers all day and it sounded as there was a festival going on. Apparently, this is quite usual on a Sunday. Schools don’t start for another week and I will use this time to acclimatise and prepare.” [Jean, I’ve Arrived]

“I decided to start my day by attending Mass Ugandan-style. Everything was in Rhutooro with a few words of English. The music was exquisite and had great rhythm. I loved the harmony and the clapping. Everyone sang along with the choir who were accompanied by drums, keyboard and tambourine. The main celebrant welcomed the visitors and mentioned Me! I had to wave and acknowledge it. The nun beside me turned to me and thanked me for sharing prayer with them. It was lovely really.” [Jean, Ugandan Mass]

Signs of God, Tooro Botanical Gardens, Fort Portal, Uganda“The depth of belief is very strong here. It is evident everywhere – the notices on the streets, the names people give to their businesses, messages on cars, the things people say, even the music in the staffroom on Friday – songs of praise. In the churches I suppose I have been expecting something very loud and physical. What I have experienced so far has been gentle, melodious and very gracious indeed.” [Jean, Keeping The Faith]

“Juma was my guide. Like many Ugandans, he had lost his parents early on and was brought up by grandparents. I was very interested to hear that he has a sister a nun (not surprising here) and that he is a Muslim! I asked how that was and he explained that at 18 years of age, people make up their own minds about what path they take.” [Jean, Tooro Botanical Gardens]

Volunteering Fun

Volunteers at Murchison Falls, Uganda

VMM Volunteers Eilís McDonald, Marie Walsh and Jean Byrne visit Murchison Falls on safari

“It is raining very heavily just now and the thunder is rumbling overhead. But importantly, we have booked ourselves onto a last-minute safari trip. There will be lions, elephants, hippos, leopards, buffalos, hyenas, warthogs and various antelope. We will also be taking a boat trip on the River Nile, forced through an 8m² wide cleft in the rock at Murchison Falls. Wow! It is great to do this before I go into classes and it is a wonderful introduction to the beauty of Uganda.” [Jean, Weekend Safari]

“We saw huge numbers of elephants including one whose trunk had been cut by a trap laid by poachers. It was really so sad to see. But the elephant was just getting on with it.” [Jean, Murchison Falls]

“I landed myself at a stall selling some fabulous scarves/shawls and got entangled with a clever young woman who knew how to sell. After haggling, a marvellous thing happened. She folded the scarf around my head in various shapes and showed me different ways to wear it on my head – just the way Ugandan women wear it! I loved it.” [Jean, At the Market]

gorillas Bwindi, Uganda

A visit to gorillas in Bwindi, Uganda

“We saw six of them including the big Silverback. I heard one of the security guards growl and turned to ask what he had said. He was simply communicating to the gorillas the notion of ‘calm’. It was a wonderful way to spend an hour of my life.” [Jean, In The Mist]

“We paid a visit to Mugusu market, the biggest market in western Uganda and people come from far and near to buy clothes here every Wednesday. We had a lot of fun looking around for pieces of material to help make a sensory rug for some children in a special needs centre. So we tried our hand at our bargaining skills.” [Jean, Mugusu Market]

“I noticed a lot of goats in one place and ventured over to find out how much they cost. I think the gentleman thought I was going to buy one because he started to agree a price with me!” [Jean, Mugusu Market]

gorillas trek, Jean Byrne, Bwindi, Uganda 2

Craft souvenir gorillas of Bwindi, Uganda

This is not the full extent of Al and Jean’s story. To read their blogpost observations and experiences in full, you can read their journey from start to finish by visiting Al Vondra and Jean Byrne‘s LinkedIn pages.

Mugusu market, Fort Portal, Uganda

Mugusu market, Fort Portal, Uganda

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