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Life-changing memories and powerful impact: volunteering in Uganda

Maria Casey from Co. Kerry volunteered as a Teacher Educator with VSO Ireland in Karamoja, Uganda last year. Here she outlines her reasons for volunteering in the first place and why she encourages other educators to follow suit.

Maria Casey with VSO staff members Amina Abdirashid and Jean Molly Ameru and fellow volunteer Farai Kaitano at Kasimeri Primary School in Moroto, Uganda.  

Why I chose VSO Ireland

I jumped at the chance to volunteer with VSO Ireland as I truly believe in their mission. I had been on several overseas volunteering placements before, but they had been mainly in schools, and I wanted to experience more of a multiplier effect. The overall purpose of my VSO placement was to improve the quality of education in Uganda through working with head teachers and college tutors. Every week I gave a training course for head teachers on methodologies and classroom management. With 90 children in some classes, this was an interesting eye-opener! The strong influence and positive impact of volunteers is so important and I saw this first-hand in Uganda with VSO.

Initial thoughts

Life in the capital city of Uganda, where I spent my in-country orientation is chaotic, hectic and magnificent. The traffic is crazy and sometimes it is a wonder that anyone gets to work on time, however despite this, Kampala is full of life and vibrancy. I was based ten hours from the city in a rural part of Uganda called Karamoja, where VSO are working through volunteers to upskill local teachers. It was amazing to see the contrast between the modern city life and the traditional way of life in the countryside.

So my message to teachers and principals reading this is: If you can do something, why not do it? It's such a privilege to be able to help others through VSO.

What struck me most about education in Uganda is how poorly teachers are valued in society. Many principals struggle to motivate their staff as they often do not get paid for months on end. What lifted my spirits was the fact that these teachers still really wanted to make a difference in their communities and truly believed in the value of education. It was very inspiring to meet such characters at our VSO training sessions and hear their personal stories of hardship and tough lives, but also to see their focus on positive change and a ‘can-do’ attitude. I think that seeing their work valued and supported by VSO was important to the school staff and they also loved the chance to share ideas with teachers from other schools.  

What I love most about Uganda are the people. They are so friendly, open and genuine. Uganda is known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and there are plenty of activities and excursions to do. My personal favourites are Murchison Falls National Park, Sipi Waterfall and Jinja, which is a town where you can go rafting on the River Nile and horse riding through banana plantations. During my time with VSO in Uganda, I was lucky enough to take a weekend away with other volunteers and returned to my placement refreshed and revitalised.

Personal and professional rewards

Maria's experience on placement with VSO benefitted her both personally and professionally, and has led to a teaching role at Mary Immaculate College.

Teachers should volunteer with VSO because high-quality educational skills are in such demand in developing countries and teachers from Ireland have these in abundance. The feeling of goodwill and gratitude from teachers, parents and children when they see VSO volunteers is indescribable and one which filled me with pride every time I was welcomed to a school as a VSO volunteer. The rewards on a personal level are impossible to count: the smiles of pupils when their teacher tries a new active-learning strategy, the ‘thank-you’ from parents after a VSO information evening about the importance of education or simply a principal showing how the training has paid off in their school. I learned so much professionally too, both from the training and from the teachers themselves. Working alongside these teachers who have little or no resources made me realise how fortunate teachers and pupils in Ireland are. I definitely developed as a teacher by having to think outside the box: in one particular school, the teachers had one piece of chalk to use per day, in other words he had to cover all subjects with the same piece of chalk, since the school’s budget didn’t stretch any further. A stark contrast between that and the situation in Ireland where we might get annoyed if the interactive whiteboard or wifi fails to work!

I didn’t decide to volunteer with VSO because I was looking for a return. However, my experiences in Uganda ended up enhancing my life in so many ways. My enthusiasm for education grew even more and I’m now spreading the knowledge of global issues to B.Ed. students in Mary Immaculate College.

I hear people say 'I wouldn't be able to do that' or ‘What could I possibly offer?’ but we all have our gifts and talents and VSO really need teachers to help in areas like Karamoja where education is needed the most. You could be the difference in helping a child to read because you’ve trained his teacher in phonics or high-frequency words, or you could be the reason a learner with SEN is included in lessons because you’ve explored inclusive learning styles with her teacher.

Recommendations to other educators

So my message to teachers and principals reading this is: If you can do something, why not do it? It's such a privilege to be able to help others through VSO.

I strongly believe that the way VSO trains and sends volunteers is a fantastic way to encourage development worldwide. It really is great to see the learning that takes place between teachers from Ireland and Uganda, and other countries that VSO works in. I highly recommend that anyone who is thinking about taking a career break to give VSO a call as there are always opportunities arising. Volunteering with VSO is one of the most professionally and personally rewarding things I have ever done and it truly has a lasting effect in the communities you work in.

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