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If you are interested in doing volunteer work in Africa, I can really recommend the volunteer experience with Soft Power Education in Uganda. If I can do it, anyone can! Just do it! (Has someone said that before?) I promise you that you will have the time of your life.

Take a look at the Soft Power Education website http://www.softpowereducation.com then email them with your questions, do some fundraising or raid your savings, check on your passport and vaccinations, book your airfare (the most direct route from Australia is via Dubai from where you can fly to Entebbe, Uganda), pack your bag AND BEGIN YOUR ADVENTURE.

You can volunteer for 1 week, 1 month, 1 year or whatever you wish. More ESL teachers would be fantastic but this does mean a commitment of at least 2 or 3 months or more. English is the official language of Uganda and the students are taught in English once they are in senior or high school. Primary schools too are supposed to teach in English after the first 3 years. However most Ugandans speak their tribal tongue using English or Lugandan (the most common tribal language) to communicate with those of other tribes.

To view a Youtube video on volunteering with Soft Power Education, click here

Several people conspired to make 2008 the year marked for me to have the experience of a lifetime. And I thank those co-conspirators immensely: my ex-employer for making my job of 10 years redundant; my nephew for rekindling my love of travel over the previous 2 years; two of my friends for sparking the idea of working as a volunteer in Africa; the charity Soft Power Education for enabling me to follow the dream; my partner for his wholehearted support; and last but not least the people of the beautiful country of Uganda.

Early in 2007, I found out about the non-denominational British charity, Soft Power Education, from a friend who had recently traveled through Africa. After I received my redundancy pay-out and despite the doubts of family and friends whose only knowledge of Uganda was Idi Amin and the movie, The Last King of Scotland, I traveled to Uganda together with my 17 year old nephew. We spent 4 weeks with Soft Power doing volunteer work painting at a pre-school. When we arrived back home we both realized that Uganda had woven a “spell” around us but neither of us could quite explain the most amazing time we had experienced and we found ourselves determined to do something different in our lives. My nephew decided to go back to school to finish his studies. I decided to do a course to teach English as a second language. If only I hadn’t waited until my 50’s to discover the joys of teaching conversational English!

Listening to my heart and inspired by words I’d read on a greeting card: “The best discoveries are made outside your comfort zone”, in May 2008 the “spell” drew me back to Uganda to work with Soft Power Education once again. I was very much out of my comfort zone - traveling alone and taking on the task of implementing English lessons for women in the rural villages of Kyabirwa and Bujagali, near Jinja, Uganda.

The people of Kyabirwa and Bujagali welcomed me into their homes and hearts and for 4½ months I shared in their lives. These people have so little but willingly shared everything with me, inviting me into their homes, giving me items of food by way of thanks for my teaching, and most wonderful of all, giving me their friendship and love. I really felt at home and the lack of life’s little luxuries seemed very unimportant compared with the genuine feeling of happiness I enjoyed during my time in Uganda.

My usual world is so different to life in these villages. Not just the rural/urban differences but the differences between living in poverty or so-called wealth. Most Australians are wealthy by comparison. The villagers live in small houses with walls of sticks and mud, a roof of tin and flooring of compacted dirt. Some are lucky enough to have brick walls. I could afford the relative luxury of living in a campsite next to the Nile River with electricity, except when there was one of the frequent blackouts, a shower and a flushing toilet.

The women have the daily household chores of working in their gardens where they grow most of their food; fetching water in jerry cans from the river or the pump in the village; washing the family’s clothes at the river; collecting firewood for cooking; and, if the family is fortunate, tending their goat, pig or cow. And we think the male/female imbalance exists in our households! There are no mod cons here and walking is the usual mode of transport. Children often help their mothers with the chores and it is not unusual to see young children carrying heavy jerry cans filled with water from the river to their homes. There are so many children and the large families often include orphans living with their grandparent or aunt or uncle.

I enjoyed many a meal with families in the village. Their diet is simple, without much variety and mostly vegetarian, so I always knew what would be on the menu. Instead of a bottle of wine or chocolates my contribution was milk or sugar or salt.

Every day some thing would happen to touch my heart: a child waiting for a cuddle on my way to lessons or a young boy calling me his dahdah (grandmother) or walking with a young girl carrying a load of firewood on her head through the rain and mud.

The success of the English classes was both rewarding and humbling. I felt proud of myself for achieving something so meaningful to the wonderful women I taught but I felt prouder of these women as I watched them, not just learn English, but blossom and grow in self-confidence. I gained so much more from them than I could ever have given them; it surely was the experience of a lifetime!

Now, just a few months later, I find it hard to believe I am that woman who rode into town on the back of a boda boda (motor bike), who was covered in red dust or mud every day but kept smiling, who formed amazing friendships with women half a world away, and who was overwhelmed by the gifts, letters of thanks and heartfelt farewells.
With the help of a young Ugandan named Silagi acting as postman I am continuing the friendships through letters. The beautiful country of Uganda and its warm, genuine people will be in my heart forever. When I return, it will be very much into my comfort zone and I am sure the “spell” of the red soil, the green vegetation, lots and lots of children, and friendship will draw me back some time sooner rather than later.

I can wholehearted recommend the experience of working as a volunteer with Soft Power Education.
In every way I had the time of my life in 2008.
(Written January 2009)