Short Term Volunteering Building Lasting Personal Connections and Context Between Communities in Global North and South
VMM partner organisation RCRA (Rwenzori Centre for Research and Advocacy) run a number of community development, educational health projects in Kasese, a rapidly growing district in Western Uganda close to the Congolese border. RCRA empowers this region of agricultural communities and subsistence farmers with a vision of “enabling an informed and healthier society”.
This year VMM is celebrating 50 years of sending professional, long term volunteers overseas to work in partnership with local diocese and community-based development organisations. Since 2016 we have also sent a number of short term volunteers to live in, learn from, work and share of themselves with their new adopted communities. Even though these placements last anything from one to six months the impacts and mutual cultural exchange is palpable and lasting. We have had so many happy stories from both our partners and volunteers, feeding back the positive impacts that their contributions have made to the community, the partner organisation and the volunteers themselves.
One such short term volunteer is Matthew Marsland, a student of the University of Chester who volunteered with RCRA in June this year. Matthew chose to volunteer on one of RCRA’s projects which works to improve general health and hygiene through educational workshops, introducing methods for improved sanitation, nutrition and general well-being into households throughout the area. The project’s results create a more stable base from which to empower families to better support themselves, progress their own futures and help to mitigate against potential future health issues. Read the following account of Matthew’s short term volunteer placement, in his own words …
“I am more than happy to share my experiences in Kasese so that other potential volunteers may see how rewarding and impactful such placements can be, as well as how much of a great experience it is personally.
Sharing of Skills and Self; and Gaining Invaluable Development Experience and Intercultural Competence
Working with RCRA and Jostas Mwebembezi [Founder and Executive Director] really opened my eyes to the daily tasks and projects led by such a small organisation with such a large area of operation. Jostas himself is phenomenally hard working and really ambitious with where he wants to take RCRA in the future, telling me about his plans to operate mobile health clinics across Kasese and eventually construct and manage a large healthcare facility with funding donated from across the globe. This was really great for myself as a volunteer, as there was always something to do for RCRA and always multiple projects that they are actively working on, which they welcome any valuable assistance with.
I personally went over with the objective of using previously secured University of Chester funding to support an existing project run by the organisation. I chose the Health of People and Environment project (HoPE III), where I spent my time managing the extension of the project to include 10 extra households and oversaw the construction of energy-saving cooking stoves (1 per household), drying racks (1 per household) and the planting of fruit trees (5 per household). This provided me with invaluable experience in project management, organisation and communication; alongside the responsibility and accountability required by NGO’s when handling external funding, all of which must be accounted for.
VMM’s Partnership Approach to Community Development: Toward “a World Where We Live in the Shelter of One Another”
Overall working with RCRA provided real experience for what it would be like working within a grassroots NGO, as Jostas and the other staff insisted that we think of ourselves as core RCRA staff members and not just temporary volunteers. They also treated us like valuable co-workers and this really enhanced the experience and allowed me to immerse myself within the project. It made me feel really comfortable and free to bring any queries or concerns to staff members, which naturally impacted favourably on the project’s progress and results.
Unfortunately, within my second week I was very ill with food poisoning. At this, Jostas insisted I do not work and even took me to a doctor, paying the whole cost of the bill, saying how RCRA values its staff and looks after them, which was a really nice gesture. Alongside this, the sisters that provided our accommodation where lovely and again made us feel really comfortable and at home and honestly, they could not do enough for us whilst we were staying at the convent.
Short Term Volunteering: “I Loved Every Minute”
In reflection, I loved every minute of this experience and it truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I would recommend the VMM Short Term Volunteer Programme to anyone who is interested in working within the broad area of development or anyone wanting authentic hands on experience volunteering with an NGO. I have previously volunteered abroad and this was the first experience where I was treated as a valued member of staff and given specific responsibilities, above being simply a volunteer.
VMM Volunteers and Local Partner Organisations: Working Together to Bring Real Impacts
The only hiccup I had was a delay in transferring my funding to RCRA, which resulted in a few weeks of delays with my project. However, Jostas was really understanding and helpful with this and kept me busy whilst I was waiting. Once my funding arrived my project became the primary concern for the sub-county team in Maliba (where my project was based) and Edith (my local Maliba contact) threw herself into ensuring that my project made up for lost time and was completed before my departure. This was done to such an extent that we managed to save labour and travel costs, allowing me to impact a total of 25 households, instead of just the 10 planned: all thanks to the hard work of RCRA.”
Volunteering on a short term basis, like Matthew, offers the opportunity to a much wider cohort of people, who cannot take one or two years off, to go overseas and experience living and working with local communities, sharing and learning about our different cultures and common humanity and then bringing these insights home and sharing them among family and friends. This has the impact of helping to inform communities in the Global North about the reality of issues on the ground in other parts of the world, broadening and personalising international development issues for them, realising the (often unfair) inter-connectivity of these issues between Global North and South and informing the conversation with multiple perspectives beyond what we often find by learning of these just from western media sources. This informal, personal contextualisation of human stories and community issues in a globalised world is a small but valuable contribution to the struggle to help bring about “a world where we live in the shelter of one another”.