You know what’s the biggest fear people have about volunteering and travel in East Africa? Health and safety. Which is hilarious as this place is safer than most American and European cities. Petty crime and theft are low. War and pestilence is the subject of novels. Don’t just take my word for it, read what some of our former volunteers have to say.
Since most of The Real Uganda’s volunteers live in a village setting, with local hosts, they are given a respect and support they wouldn’t be afforded as regular tourists. Further, Ugandan local food is fresh, whole, and cooked by people who feed their families everyday. There are over 35 million people living in Uganda – and while some do indeed pass away each year, our population continues to grow and thrive annually.
I blame negative marketing. Ugandans need to start telling their stories, rather than allow short term visitors and aid agencies to do it. What makes me qualified to comment? I’ve lived full time in Uganda since 2004. I gave birth in Kampala and am raising my son here. I became a Ugandan citizen in February 2017.
One of the main objectives of The Real Uganda is to share the successes and challenges of life in Uganda. There are a lot of positives out here. Today, I present 9 (totally obvious, yet for some reason, largely unknown) ways to easily stay safe and healthy while volunteering and traveling in Uganda.
1. EAT THE LOCAL FOOD
Ugandans know how to prepare their food. It’s cut or killed fresh, then steamed, smoked, or boiled for hours. It’s a preservative free diet. We buy food, cook it, and eat it. We don’t stockpile. We don’t require refrigeration. Just make sure it’s served hot.
2. EAT THE ROAD SIDE FOOD
Again, Ugandans are doing the preparation and consumption. All food is brought to the market fresh. It is cooked and sold quickly. If you see a roadside kiosk with many cars and trucks full of travelers buying snacks, get in line – it’s delicious.
3. KEEP HYDRATED
It’s hot here and you move quickly. You’ll be sweaty. Ugandans tend to move relatively slower and don’t hang around in the sun trying to get a tan. Since your body is used to a diet high in sodium and sugar, you’ll find supplementing helpful. Bring some electrolytes (oral rehydration salts) to add to your drinking water, and enjoy an occasional soda. Try to drink 2 litres of water each day. Or hydrate the Ugandan way – chew sugarcane and jackfruit!
4. TAKE YOUR ANTI-MALARIALS AND SLEEP UNDER THE MOSQUITO NET PROVIDED FOR YOU
Yes, I know it’s hot. Suck it up. If you take your meds and use your net properly, you won’t get malaria. However, if you don’t take your meds or use your net properly, and you DO get malaria – no problem. Uganda is the place to be when suffering from malaria. Diagnosis is quick and easy. The cure is cheap and widely available. We have an array of international clinics that can help you out. Malaria only kills you if you don’t treat it. At the first sign of fever, go for testing at any Lancet lab or International Medical Centre. They have branches in Kampala, Mukono, and Jinja.
5. NO EARBUDS/IPOD WHEN OUT WANDERING AROUND
As a pedestrian in Uganda, you do not have the right of way. You need to be alert to what’s going on around you. Trucks, taxis, cars, bodabodas, and bicycles will hoot at you as they come up from behind. That is your cue to step aside. If you can’t hear them, you’ll get knocked. It’ll be your fault. It’s not the norm for them to go around you.
6. WHEN YOU SEE UGANDANS RUNNING, DON’T ASK QUESTIONS, RUN WITH THEM
From time to time, Uganda experiences civil unrest. Since we’re not actually permitted to peacefully protest, teargas happens. Luckily, Ugandans only run in huge groups when they have to. Trust them and go with the flow. These events are normally very small scale and localized. Just remove yourself from the environment. This is not your fight. If you do get tear-gassed, pour some water (which you’ll be carrying, since you’re staying hydrated!) on a hanky or the bottom of your t-shirt/dress and flush out your eyes. It’s uncomfortable, but you’ll be fine. This is what it’s like when a government doesn’t necessarily represent it’s people.
7. BE RESPECTFUL
You’ll find treating everyone you meet in a friendly manner and dressing modestly will earn you respect and protection. Greet everyone you meet with a simple “How are you?” or “Jebale ko”. No one wants to mug the sweet mzungu living in the village. However, if you are too quiet, closed off, or seem to be judgmental – watch out. Ugandans are too busy to worry about someone who isn’t engaged and doesn’t respect local customs.
8. BE STREET SMART
Uganda is like any other country. Don’t carry your expensive phone in your hand. Don’t wear your camera around your neck. Know that some of the super friendly people approaching you aren’t 100% trustworthy. Use your head and don’t ignore red flags. Having said that, totally meet and greet strangers, and share a cup of tea. You won’t connect with a more welcoming, open, and interested bunch of people anywhere else! Some of your best travel memories will come from swapping stories with new friends.
9. IGNORE ALL ADVICE GIVEN BY THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN TO UGANDA
Your less traveled friends and family are normally the most outspoken and well-meaning, yes. But they’re poorly informed and perhaps jealous of your travels. Just nod and smile, and refer them to this blog! Know you’re about to embark on the most exciting (and generally safe and healthy) experience of your life. Not convinced? Check out these independently published interviews with former volunteers!
Want to put the above to the test? Time to volunteer! Once committed, all our volunteers receive a multi-page orientation document with details of how to live, work, and stay safe and healthy in Uganda. Should any civil unrest occur during your stay, know that it happens in Kampala, hours away from your village placement. We’ll let you know about it, but also advise you to relax and stay put. And be happy you’re supporting a country full of people who know their rights and aren’t afraid to fight for them.