I was working as an advertising executive until late 2002 when I went in search of something more personally rewarding. It was a search that led me to find an organisation, Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW), with whom I ultimately coordinated my trip to Uganda. After successfully fund raising the $10,000 required to support my work, I very nervously departed for my destination, bound to undertake rural agricultural development work with local communities.
After one month of intensive in-country training I departed, along with three fellow Uganda volunteers, for my ultimate village destination of Buteza. My fellow volunteers and I travelled along a steep and deteriorated dirt road for more than one hour before reaching the village. We lived in a house that was no larger than an average lounge room.
With no inside bathroom, we made do with a make-shift banana leaf walled shower and a pit latrine 70 metres from the house on public land. Over the next four months we collected water daily from a nearby water source, cooked on a single pot charcoal stove, had cold showers with a jerry can and basin, and used a paraffin lamp for light in the evenings. Our house was located on the edge of a local trading centre surrounded by small farms and plantations, with two imposing lush green mountains surrounding us.
The local villagers were, for the most part, subsistence farmers and they experienced great hardship. Some of the major agricultural concerns they had included soil erosion and landslides, severe lack of firewood for cooking, pests and diseases attacking crops and very poor soil fertility. These problems were just adding devastation to people's already impoverished situation.
Our volunteer group began meeting with community groups throughout the sub-county. Our initial meetings with groups involved determining expectations and then working collaboratively to prioritise problems to be addressed and then identifying possible solutions we could provide. By the end of this initial meeting we had a planned schedule for future visits when we could demonstrate various farming techniques that would help make a difference.
The type of techniques we would be demonstrating included fuel efficient stoves, composts, liquid manures, organic pesticides, nursery beds, agroforestry and land maximising gardens. They were all techniques that used inexpensive local available materials to solve specific problems and that would lead to likely improvements for the community.
Our aim was to work together, with participation from the community, to help make a sustainable difference in Buteza. It is a strong principle of SPW that sustainability is achieved through community participation and contribution rather than just through the passive giving of donations. This approach is much more time consuming but proven to be far more likely to lead to permanent positive change. Based on this principle, the demonstrations that we conducted required the community to collect and provide all the necessary materials, as well as being active in the demonstration.
Throughout the four months in Buteza, in addition to community demonstrations, we developed a Resource Book to leave behind with the community, organised an excursion to a local Model Organic Farm, and organised a workshop on more complex modern farming techniques such as fish farming and bio gas systems.
We were kept extremely busy with all this work however our exhausting efforts were proven worthwhile when we started to see results. As we undertook an evaluation of our efforts we were to find that villagers had not only implemented the newly learned techniques on their own farms, they had also started to tell their fellow farmers of what they had learnt and were therefore 'spreading the word' so the benefits could multiply throughout the village. Farmers were telling us that they were starting to experience the benefits of our work, and that was incredibly rewarding feedback!
During my short time in Buteza I was welcomed so openly into the community. Villagers made me feel as though I was at home and they welcomed me like family, so it was no surprise that when it came time to say goodbye I shed tears.
My Ugandan volunteer experience will be something I will remember and treasure forever. It is an experience that I can recommend to anyone and one that I believe led me to gain far more than I gave!
Merewyn Foran is married and an area director of a corporate welfare services group in Melbourne.