Three Weeks into our Ugandan Journey with Challenges Worldwide | Sanghamitra C. Mukherjee & Mercy Akello Staythy

Mercy and Sangha
Sangha (left) and Mercy (right) wearing locally made designs from Makika Stylz, one of the Ugandan businesses supported by Challenges Worldwide ICS

Sangha: “For me, making important decisions is not always easy. Before I made a commitment to spend three months in Uganda on a volunteer enterprise placement with Challenges Worldwide International Citizen Service (ICS), I had to carefully consider how this would affect my life and future ambitions. Somehow, this opportunity fit perfectly in to my current situation and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this programme.

To most of us in the UK, Uganda is unfamiliar territory – an alien country, a strange language, a new culture. And yet, despite the many scary unknowns, some of us decided to take the opportunity. I am glad I did!

After being selected on the Assessment Day late last year, volunteers attended a three-day pre-departure training in February to prepare them for what was to come and what they could expect during their placement abroad. Up until then, we were engaged in fundraising for our charity, Challenges Worldwide, without a deeper understanding of our placement activities or the country we would be working in. The training provided us with some very useful insights into life in Uganda, especially as we had the chance to speak to return volunteers who had been in Kampala the year before. My ICS journey started right then and the whole idea of volunteering in a developing country began to feel more real.

A month after pre-departure training, we jumped on a flight to Entebbe, a town about 45 km from Kampala. In the company of like-minded people (and of course, in-flight cinema!), the long journey to Uganda felt a lot more bearable. Just as we landed in Entebbe, sheer exhaustion and the heat made me long for a refreshing, cold shower and a comfy bed. However, life got a lot more exciting once in the country. The people we met were so kind, so friendly and most welcoming. The landscape was interesting and beautiful. It felt like an adventure already, but one in which we could develop, grow and learn, whilst working alongside Ugandan youths who shared the same values, goals and ambitions for their country and further afield.

The training week introduced us to our very lovely Ugandan colleagues and counterparts. Uganda had already started to feel less and less alien since we landed, but all strangeness and anxiety disappeared on meeting the entire team that we would be working closely with throughout our time in Kampala. Everyone turned out to be more similar to us than we had perhaps expected, including our mutual curiosity with each other’s hair, which was quite amusing! As more and more common interests were discovered over the course of the week, through conversations at the dinner table, Ugandan and UK cultural nights, a quiz night, a scavenger hunt, games, music and dance, the excitement for the placement became palpable and the appreciation for one another more genuine.
The training week was very helpful in preparing us for the technical aspects of our work, the challenges of cross-cultural working, and on ways to build relationships with our businesses that could continue well after the placement. As we later immersed ourselves in our enterprises during our first week at work, we became more and more aware of the challenges and joys that have now become such an intrinsic part of our daily lives and will continue to be for the next couple of months. Traffic jams to work can be horrendous, navigating unknown roads can be terrifying, the thunderstorms can be nasty, the power cuts can be painful (especially, when our phones and laptops need charging!) and being greeted as ‘muzungu’ by strangers on the street can get tiring, but for me, the experience so far has been gloriously messy yet immensely rewarding. In our third week in Uganda, Kampala already feels a lot like home.



UKVs Uganda bus
The UK volunteers feeling a little weary but excited after a long trip to Uganda.

Mercy: Actually for me, it is a similar story as Sangha’s. I got introduced to the programme by a friend who recommended it to me but I didn’t expect much as I knew it was a competitive placement and I didn’t feel like I had much international business experience. Being on my vacation and searching for a job, I decided to give it my best shot. I filled the form with all of my information, expressing my interest in meeting people and new cultures, and sent it back, eagerly waiting to hear more about the programme.


I was pleased to find out that I was called for the assessment. There were a lot of people as I expected and it was a little bit scary being the youngest on the assessment day, in age and without experience. I was worried that I might not make it, however, I followed all of the procedures and found it a fun and good experience, being my first ever interview.


After the assessment day, I started thinking about what I was going to do next with my life. Fortunately, I was called one morning and surprisingly told that I was invited to take part in the programme. It was my happiest moment, knowing that I would start volunteering and do something meaningful.


I packed everything that I needed and off I went to the training. I met the Team Leaders, Sanne, Donia, Eddie and Aubrey, who were so nice to me and helped me to carry my things. I already felt at home that very moment. Most of the people were already there and everyone was just so lovely. I settled down into my room and enjoyed a good meal that day. I started organising myself for the meetings, the programmes and the training. It was fun getting to know the other in-country volunteers (ICVs) before the time came for the great expectation – meeting our UK volunteer counterparts.


We wanted to welcome the vistors into our culture, so we started preparing the best we could with the help of the Team Leaders. Everything was great and it was exciting to plan. Having a passion for music, I decided to compose a welcome song which turned out fine. We organised a great dance called “The Wale Wale” which was super. Afterwards, we had a mixed music night, my first time ever dancing the Luganda dance. The night was marvellous. I thought it would be so hard for us to connect but it was the contrary. We quickly got to know one another as if we were one big family. Then the time came for the UK team to do something cultural for us. We had a laugh watching them do the “ceilidh” dance.


We had a scavenger hunt during our training week. All of the ICV volunteers were so eager to take the UK volunteers out to see Kampala, so off we went as a team. I was elected as a leader for my group. Being my first time as a leader, I was very keen to know that everyone was having a good time and to complete the tasks we were given in the tight deadline. We took the lead and the first task was coming up with a name for our group. Whilst we were waiting to find a local taxi (called a “matatu”) we saw a “Pioneers” bus come along the road and that’s when we decided to name our group “Pioneers”. Everyone was happy during the hunt. It seemed like there were no winners or losers. It was just a great opportunity to get to know one another and we had fun.


The whole week of training felt like a family living together, coping with each other, gaining experience in business and learning about each other’s culture. It was quite sad, but exciting at the same time, when at the end of the week, we had to say bye and go with our counterparts to our host home families. My host family was so lovely, as I expected, and being at their house soon felt like home. Our host mother treats us like her own children. I am grateful to be a part of this programme and feel like I am gaining lots of experience already. This ICS journey I am travelling, I believe is taking me somewhere. I look forward to the coming weeks!


UG group 1
Big smiles from the full team of Ugandan and UK volunteers after a week of in-country training!





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