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Introduction to Uganda for ‘Rookies’ August 2, 2007

Posted by Mike O in Introduction.
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This post is for you, if you are planning to visit Uganda to do charity and/or religious work for the first time and have no clue what you are getting into. Pay close attention, especially if you’ve never been camping or hated it when you did,

Packing: To be the most useful, be darn sure to pack to the maximum weight allowed for travel and figure on getting back with just your personal clothes (and normally not even with all of those). Be sure to consult with trip veterans on what to take to help. And pack a jacket, unless you are going in the hottest part of the year; it actually does get cool enough for them, especially after rain. One of the biggest requests I get from the orphanages is for sweatshirts and jackets. If nothing else, throw in nice used clothing (I generally use such as packing material for other things). Almost everywhere dealing with kids can make use of over-the counter medicines (cough and cold, asthma, pain relievers, antibiotic ointments, etc.). Pens, pencils, hand-cranked flashlights (torches, they call them), art supplies, calculators, etc. are useful. Even your now-empty suitcases are highly useful; plan to leave all but what you need to get back home. But, whatever you do, do not show up without being ‘fully loaded’ and ready to work.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Personal Hygiene: You are in for some significant culture shock. First: finding a standard flush toilet in Uganda (outside of the downtown Kampala area) is rare. Underground plumbing and running water doesn’t exist in 98% of the country. If you are lucky, you’ll have access to a latrine (often quite smelly) with a seat. However, the majority of the facilities are slit latrines with nothing to sit on; you squat and aim at a slit normally 8 inches by 24 inches. Bathing without plumbing is with a big plastic pan and a jerry can full of water; only if you’re lucky will the water be heated. Washing clothes is always by hand, using a type of bar soap; I personally have never seen a standard washing machine in all of Uganda. Energy is way too precious to waste when labor is that cheap. Washing of hands is also done out of jerry cans as well. Ugandans are an amazingly clean people, given the conditions, but the environment is hardly to Western standards. And a big bottle of hand sanitizer just won’t change that (and will drop you from the ‘Aid worker’ class to the ‘safari’ class real quickly).

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Mother Nature: There are bugs; lots of them, and you will get bit. If you can’t live with Mother Nature, please do not go to Uganda. The mosquitoes are probably no more prevalent than in Houston, Texas in the summer (plentiful enough); it’s just that the ones in Uganda have a far higher percentage of disease-carriers. Malaria is more common than the flu there; do NOT forget to take your medication, since it is a far more serious disease for the typical Western than the Ugandans (Malaria alone kills tens of thousands of Ugandans every year). However, I have actually met one Norwegian who has never taken malarial medication for several years and never come down with it (a natural immunity). Then there is yellow fever; be sure you are vaccinated for it. The rest are rare enough events that- if you use your mosquito netting and common sense- you should be fine. Proper control is possible; at my favorite bed and breakfast, I have had a total of two mosquito bites in my 15 days or so of living there in two trips.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Health: If you suffer allergies or other conditions requiring medication, be sure to bring lots of everything you could possibly need for them; I also suggest packing a little bit of benedryl, in case you find some new ones. One volunteer developed a serious peanut allergy while there (it could have as easily happened in the States); if I hadn’t brought benedryl for the orphanage clinic (which I didn’t my first trip), she could have been in serious trouble. If you are bothered by air pollution, you will suffer tremendously in Kampala; half of all vehicles on the phenomenally crowded roads belch visible smoke. This mixes from wood fire smoke from cooking and brick making, along with trash-burning smoke.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Travel is pure unorganized chaos in Kampala; you will see some of the most frightening traffic on earth (monthly traffic fatalities in Kampala typically are in the 150-200 range). The number of people per vehicle is higher than anywhere on earth. Boda Bodas are motor scooter taxis that weave through the tightest of traffic with heart-sopping maneuvers; cheap and often the fastest way around. Regular taxis are 14 passenger vans (often with 18 aboard). ‘Specials’ are the Western concept of taxis- normally hired for a day- and are far less common. There are no street signs to help you here and getting around will normally require a guide of some sort. Outside of Kampala, dirt ‘roads’ are the norm; normally these are closer to jeep trails than roads, since rain runoff drainage systems are limited.

Have I scared you yet? Then click here.

Food: Ugandan food is normally very starch heavy and bland. Rice, beans and matoke (a very bland banana fruit, normally steamed). Fruit is plentiful and the pineapple is the best on the planet. Chicken cost twice what beef does; the taste of the beef is somewhat different. Fish (talopia) is also available.

Going as a church worker?
Let a secular worker (who highly respects your work) ask a favor of you; go there and plan to put in as much effort for the body as the soul; more would be better yet. Ugandans are- for the most part- a highly religious people; many will know more hymns than you do, and in multiple languages. But they need far more physical than spiritual support. Bring the bible; but also the mosquito nets. Personally, I just wish they could spend just a fraction as much time in health and agricultural pursuits as they do in Biblical pursuits; living longer and healthier makes for even better parishioners.

Prices: I’ll try to update this section regularly.
Current exchange rate fluctuates between 1,600 and 1,700 Ugandan Shillings to the dollar. Generally, you cannot get Ugandan currency in Foreign exchange locations outside of Uganda; in Kampala, I normally got the best rates at the Grand Imperial Hotel.

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