Ellie Messham studied Economic and Social Studies at The University of Manchester. She took part in a volunteer gap year project with Students Partnership Worldwide in Uganda, East Africa. After a two week project in Uganda I decided to take a gap year.
Choosing a charity was important
While I’d been in Uganda I met someone who recommended SPW as being a good organisation. The fact that SPW are a charity endeared me to them as I knew that their accounts would be checked, so they couldn’t be making a massive profit out of me as other gap year schemes can.
The real Ugandan experience
SPW also find local volunteers to work alongside you in their home country for the duration of the project. Having met Ugandans I was keen to work in partnership with them as I knew that I’d be helped to get through the culture shock and would know that I’d had a real Ugandan experience rather than living an ex-pat lifestyle.
Funding the Gap Year
I funded my gap year by working for a few months and saving up. I also took the opportunity and did a sponsored tandem skydive. It was fantastic and I would highly recommend it. An elderly neighbour was also very generous and I had a grant from a trust related to Uganda.
One month training & seven months on placement
The project involved one month of training followed by seven months on placement. Day-to-day it involved planning and leading lessons about health particularly AIDS prevention in a primary school. I also collected water, cooked dinner on a charcoal stove, washed clothes and led extra-curricular art clubs.
A truly great experience
We rode on the back of motorbikes to visit organisations who delivered workshops in the local language, organised a community health awareness day with drama and gave speeches, yes there were lots of speeches!
I went cycling around the nearby area, was invited into people’s homes for dinner and ate an amazing amount of maize-meal and beans, some yummy, some not so good. I ate mangoes, pineapple and mini sweet bananas nearly every day and loved staying indoors during the short bursts of rain.
Workshops on HIV/AIDS
The most rewarding part of the experience was seeing local leaders come to a workshop on HIV/AIDS facilitated by a Ugandan in the local language and hearing afterwards that many myths had been quashed. It took a lot of organising and was such a success.
Lows as well as Highs
There were certainly lows that came alongside the highs that even my rose-tinted spectacles can’t erase such as not knowing if the AIDS prevention lessons, I and my Uganda counterpart were leading were having an impact.
I do know that the two Ugandan volunteers we worked with learnt a lot and have both gone on to keep raising awareness of HIV/AIDS which is great.
Volunteering helped me with my degree
My time volunteering helped me with my degree and I also got involved with the Student Stop AIDS Campaign at university because of my experience in Uganda Both have helped me to get jobs in the voluntary sector.
My advice to other students and graduates considering volunteering would be to speak to someone who’s done the project you’re thinking of doing to find out about the organisation that way.
Any organisation can sound good over the phone and have a good website but the support they give you and the work that you’ll be doing can end up being quite different to what they say.
SPW is great at involving returned volunteers in selection days so you can hear first hand how things are.