In this, VMM’s 50th anniversary year, we will be serialising some of the personal insights and tales of adventure from volunteers over the years, which have been captured in the ‘VMM Stories’ book, launched at our commemorative, Gala dinner in Dublin last September. A second commemorative event is due in September this year, in Liverpool, with more information to follow. In the mean time, to get your own copy of this collective memory of VMM’s first 50 years, you can email us at: and to sample more volunteers in their own words you can visit our volunteers’ blog page. In the first of these selected instalments from ‘VMM Stories’, we will read the memories of Marie O’Meara, who was the first Irish VM sent overseas, with Group 2 and established VMM in Ireland.
Volunteering in Uganda, An Eventful Start
I was one of the early VMs sent by Edwina to Uganda in 1970. I was going out to teach in St. Joseph’s senior secondary school set up by the White Fathers in the village of Mwera, in the district of Mityana.
It was a great adventure for a 25-year-old who had only once before been outside of Ireland and Britain, on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The adventure started soon after boarding the plane run by African Safari Airways. It developed engine trouble and landed in Benghazi, Libya, where we stayed for the next fifteen hours. We were allowed off the plane eventually and waited in what looked like a glorified shed, where no one would accept our money and the toilets were taken over by wild cats. Security was extra strict, because the only other plane parked on the tarmac beside ours belonged to Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, who was visiting Gaddafi at the time. Parts were flown out from London, work was done on the plane, and we were on our way – a day late.
I spent about a week in Kampala, because my school was closed for Easter and there was no one there to welcome me. I set off for the Bush and when I finally arrived, I was greeted by Mary Donnelly from Liverpool who had been sent out by Edwina Gateley of VMM. I was to take over from Mary who was accompanying her Congolese husband to Congo. My first house was about a ten–minute walk from the school and I shared it with one of the local primary school teachers and his family. I had a bedroom overlooking the kitchen and a sitting room overlooking the front garden beside the road. I usually kept the sitting room door open when I was at home during the day, the better to enjoy the colourful traffic of people walking to and fro on the road outside.
Fun and Games Acclimatising to Local Custom
Mary gave me some items to help decorate my quarters, pictures, posters, plants etc. One day, after I had made my sitting room cosy and hung pictures on the walls, I noticed a lot of people were stopping outside my room. Many were coming as far as the door and looking in. Each day more people came until there was quite a crowd peering into my room. I thought they must be very curious about this Mzungu or European who had just arrived. So, I tried to make conversation. However, I soon realised that they were not interested in me at all but kept pointing to the picture above my settee and then covering their faces and running away. Mary had given me a picture of the young Kabaka or King of Buganda to put on my wall. At that time, he had been exiled to Britain by the president, Milton Obote, and, unknown to me, people had been forbidden to show images of him or even to mention his name in public. Mary had played a trick on me. I later found out that, when the local people saw that picture, they had hopes that I had come to restore their beloved Kabaka to them. The picture quickly came off the wall.
A few weeks into my stay, Mary announced one day that we had a visitor. A man related to the Saza chief had been sent to welcome me. He came bearing gifts, a sack of potatoes – Irish potatoes, he said. The three of us sat drinking tea and making polite conversation partly in Lugandan, (Mary and the man), and in English (me). After about an hour the man finally left and when we had seen him off the premises Mary came back to my sitting room and exploded with laughter. “You don’t know why he came, do you?” she asked. “He came to ask me for your hand in marriage.” Apparently the whole village was anxious to know who I would marry as Mary had picked a Congolese refugee, and they wanted to get in quickly with their local man for me!
A Volunteer’s Mission Can Bring Challenging Encounters
Aside from the cultural misunderstandings, a lot of hard work was done in the school and I enjoyed the fact that it was co-educational and multi-religious. I taught African and European history, English and was involved with the girls in the boarding school. I edited the school magazine and started a proper library with help from the British Council and books shipped out from the library service in the UK. Only the girls boarded. The boys often walked miles to school every day, usually barefoot, carrying their shoes to preserve them. There was a lot of fear around the village and the school when Idi Amin took over the country in an army coup in January 1971. Some male students left the school to return home to help defend their families. A curfew was imposed and it was a risky business walking home from school in the dark evenings. A couple of times I hid behind a seven-foot ant hill on the road while an army patrol drove past.
I was joined by another VM when Mary left and Edwina told the fathers that we would need a house on the mission compound. Father Catoire built one for us. We never had running water during my time there and always used the outside latrine. Soon, we were joined by a third VM. Sometime after taking office, Idi Amin went on a tour of the country and our mission staff were invited to meet him at a gathering hosted by the County Chief. Amin arrived by helicopter piloted by himself and after the welcoming speeches we were introduced to him individually. I haven’t forgotten that he did not know where Ireland was and kept referring to “your queen.” When I tried to explain, I was quickly moved along by one of his ministers. Things got bad in our area later on with kidnappings and road blocks, but our school, with its 80 students, continued to prosper and increase.
From Small Acorns Do Mighty Oaks Grow; and Attract Termites
In 2009 I had the opportunity to visit the school 38 years after I had been there as a VM. It had grown from the initial 80 students to 730 in building across the road from the original compound. All the missionaries had gone and it is now a government school. I brought with me the first copy of the school magazine as a gift. The headmaster, Mr. Peter Mukasa, presented me with a glossy copy of their present magazine. I had a tour of the school and spoke to the senior students. It was great to see so many girls studying compared with the early ears. Free secondary education, though, had brought its own problems; the school was vastly overcrowded with over a hundred students in each class; the computers had viruses, termites had eaten the lunchroom and the library, which I asked to see, was kept locked and was a shadow of its former self.
I met only one person who had been there in my day. It was a real joy to meet our local shopkeeper, Mr. Kadu – older, now a widower, and no longer a shopkeeper but running a warehouse for local beer where his shop had once been. He was delighted to meet me again and claimed to recognise me! I had a nice lunch with the local priests in the former mission house, now the parish house, under a framed picture of the school’s founder, Fr. Catoire. The Uganda of that visit was a very different country to the one I had worked in as a VM so many years before. It had made huge progress, but the best part was discovering that the people were the same; the friendly, open, hospitable people I had remembered from the old days.
To get your own copy of ‘VMM Stories’, a collection of tall tales, memories and touching insights from VMs throughout 50 years of volunteering for “a world where we live in the shelter of one another”, email us at: email@example.com and we will have a copy sent out to you.