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Uganda programme visit - reflections

Earlier this month I joined our Programme Development and Grants Manager Rebecca on a programme visit to Karamoja, Uganda, a region I’ve talked about endlessly with colleagues and prospective volunteers over the last couple of years but never had the pleasure of visiting. Until now! Armed with mountains of VSO photography consent forms, sun-cream and all-important DEET, we arrived in Kampala on Friday 6th April, soaking up the bustling vibes of the city before embarking on the long, bumpy car ride north to Karamoja.

Background to VSO’s work in Karamoja

Karamoja is one of the most marginalised regions in Uganda, which is reflected in very poor health and education systems. VSO Ireland’s previous inclusive education programme, funded by Irish Aid, was based in Karamoja for this reason. Over the course of three years, Irish and national volunteers helped to upskill local teachers in using child-centred methods, leading to a 20% increase in literacy outcomes and 10% increase in numeracy outcomes by the end of 2016.

With Rebecca and Issa before travelling from Kampala to Karamoja.

While this was very successful, the programme did highlight one issue – the huge discrepancy between education received by boys and girls in Karamoja. Girls frequently do not get the chance to finish primary school education as they are expected to perform domestic tasks, work to increase their families’ livelihoods or forced into early marriage. Shockingly, research from Dr Pauline Faughnan, a VSO volunteer from Dublin, actually showed that girls who trade traditional dress and domestic duties for a school uniform and textbooks are seen as lazy, immoral ‘prostitutes’ who invite assault, early pregnancy and HIV.

Using this information as a basis, we developed a new girls’ education programme and were delighted to receive funding for this from Irish Aid in June last year. Volunteers on this programme are working with school leaders and communities to help make schools more girl-friendly and address the barriers that prevent girls from getting the education they need, such as early forced marriage and pregnancy. This is being complemented by our maternal and neonatal programme, also funded by Irish Aid, which is focused on improving healthcare services to young mothers in particular and their babies.

The scenery in Moroto is just stunning!

A long way to go

Throughout our trip, we were met with constant reminders of the extreme poverty local people face and how much their lives are impacted as a result. We saw children brewing beer in vats at the side of the road, and were shocked to learn that this is used as a food substitute by those who can’t afford anything else. Teaching is one of the most poorly paid professions, demonstrating the lack of importance placed on education in the area. All teachers at Kakingol Primary School, which we visited in the hills outside of Moroto, were male, a trend that is the norm in Karamoja. It’s hard to imagine how schools will become more girl-friendly when they lack female role models and leaders to run them. I also met a 14-year old girl, Clementina, who was captured by the police after running away from home to escape early forced marriage. Thankfully she had been placed as a boarder at Kasimeri Primary School but the trauma this experience instilled was obvious.

A training guide on the wall of the NICU at Moroto Referral Hospital.

Visiting the Moroto Referral Hospital NICU was perhaps the biggest eye-opener. The NICU held a baby that weighed under 1kg, struggling for breath in an incubator, as well as another newborn who suffered brain injuries when his mother had a road accident trying to get to the hospital in time to deliver. She was travelling from the Kenyan border, illustrating the massive catchment area this tiny hospital serves. The NICU itself only has space for five cases so the nurses refer babies with life-threatening injuries as far as 220km away – that’s a very long distance for a newborn on the brink of death.

Working together to support sustainable change

But that’s not to say that there is no hope. What was perhaps most rewarding about our programme visit was hearing local people gush about the skills they had developed through on-the-job mentoring by VSO volunteers. The nurses at Moroto Referral Hospital talked about the newfound confidence they felt in the NICU since receiving training from a previous VSO volunteer Deborah. They are now comfortable carrying out routine procedures and using the NICU equipment to save babies' lives. Instead of funding or new equipment, they urged us to send a neonatal nurse volunteer to help them upskill further. Similarly, teachers at Kakingol School outlined the great benefits collaborating with another VSO volunteer, Lisa Barrins from Sligo, has had for the school, primarily through the introduction of health and debating clubs. It was wonderful to see first-hand how effective VSO’s “sharing skills, changing lives” mission is, which will definitely inspire my day-to-day work in the Dublin office.

Shout out for health and education volunteers

Primary school teacher Lisa Barrins from Sligo is currently volunteering in Moroto.

I’m going to share more insights from our Karamoja trip over the coming weeks but for now I’d urge you to please spread the word about VSO’s volunteering opportunities in Karamoja with your friends and family. We’re looking for health and education experts to volunteer out on the programmes I mentioned above over the next three years. These are fantastic opportunities for teachers, nurses, midwives and community development specialists to develop their professional skills, increase their long-term career prospects and make a real difference to those who need it most. We already have a lovely cohort of Irish volunteers living in Moroto, as well as a newly founded local VSO office, meaning there’s a great support system in place for new volunteers. We also provide all volunteers with flights, accommodation, medical insurance and training, both pre-departure and in-country.

Here are our current vacancies in Karamoja: 

If you know someone who might be interested in experiencing incredible Ugandan culture and making a real difference, tell them to get in touch!


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