Project Workers reflect: summer 2017, was it worth it?

Written by Harry Rawcliffe, Richard Ware and Ali Tonks. Project Workers in St John’s, 2017.

Being a Project Worker for EPAfrica can seem pretty daunting. Raising over £2,000 (to invest in your school and cover expenses) is no small commitment; spending 10 weeks living and working in East Africa is quite a lot more. It’s safe to say that all of us had doubts and reservations when applying, but now that we’ve completed our projects we can compare them to our actual experiences. So, in the end, is it worth it?

Our donors (not to mention our supervisors) will be relieved to hear that the answer is yes! But it does come with some qualifications…

A straightforwardly positive aspect of volunteering for EPAfrica is the personal experience: you get to spend your summer with a group of engaged and interesting people, trying things you’ve (probably) never done before. Some of these are bits of fun which make for good anecdotes: haggling in the market for fruit you don’t recognise, chatting to hundreds of strangers with varying levels of English, or being the ninth adult to squeeze into a five-seater taxi.

Other experiences are more serious, and help you develop your confidence and competence: organising construction work and other major projects, building relationships with teachers and students, having to aim your excretions at a rather small hole in the ground (not all accommodation has a sit-down loo…). Not all of these will be delightful: unforeseen project expenses, delayed work and absent teachers may be frustrating; constant shouts in the street may be irritating; homesickness may be tough; aiming your excretions may be, well, hit and miss. But the support of your new friends and the dependable EPAfrica summer team make these are opportunities for growth. 

But EPAfrica ensures that it recruits volunteers who don’t go to all this effort for personal development only, or to get that perfect ‘gap yah’ insta pic (although we may do that anyway). Most people sign up because they want to make a significant positive impact on the lives of those who live without our privileges. But is that really possible? Isn’t it sheer arrogance to think that a bunch of backpack-bearing, deet-reeking students can even begin to make a difference in the face of East Africa’s vast challenges? Is all this effort worth it?

It is. To see why let’s consider three of the biggest, most seemingly-insurmountable issues you will encounter, and some ways that we have found over our experience this summer that we can respond positively to them.

The most obvious issue is the lack of general economic development. For example, the biggest issue facing our school is nonpayment of fees: it costs £70 a term to send your child to a Ugandan government supported school but this term our school only received two thirds of this money, leaving them £9,000 (31 million USH) short. To keep kids fed and teachers (mostly) paid the school had to cancel its open day and was unable to provide much financial support for our projects, reducing the possible impact of our investment fund. Fees go unpaid in large part because of the rising price of food: dry seasons are getting longer, so less food is produced each year, so it costs more, so many families have less money to spend on education. Some staff members that we spoke to also think that there is an issue with different generations’ attitudes towards education: many students’ parents did not have a secondary education, so we have heard reports of some viewing it as a low-priority expense.

Another issue is alleged government inefficiency and corruption. Our school rarely gets its full payment from the government on time, so teachers in St John’s often go unpaid for several months and often become—understandably—quite unmotivated. Why spend hours running extra-curricular activities for very little extra pay, which may not arrive, when you could be working your second job? Although the government occasionally provides grants for development (our school has two very nice laboratories) these are few and far between, meaning that schools have to depend on fees to improve.

Finally, we have encountered issues stemming from deeply established cultural views. One of EPAfrica’s goals (the five of which basically get tattooed on your brain) is to improve health. Aspects of this can be challenging in countries which are much more conservative than the UK. For example, the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still being felt but our school chooses not to discuss contraception, and myths and misconceptions about sexual health abound.

These issues are undeniably huge, and nothing one volunteer (or one charity) can do will eradicate them from a country. But through our experience we’ve found three responses which will help make a tangible difference to students’ lives.

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The first is to work around a problem. One of the reasons EPAfrica works directly with schools is to circumvent government bureaucracy, so that more can be achieved and investments can be directly tracked. Similarly, a good rainwater harvesting tank—EPAfrica’s bread and butter—is such a great investment because it will provide water for years with basically no further financial input from the school: it is unaffected by missing school fees.

The second response it to make an incremental improvement, even if the bigger problem can’t be tackled. Back to water tanks: Uganda faces longer and harsher dry seasons, leaving our school without water for three months every year, during which time the students must walk several kilometres to the village borehole and back every evening. Installing a 10,000 litre rainwater harvesting tank will not halt climate change, and the school may need more tanks in the future, but it will give students more evenings off from trekking to the borehole with their jerrycans in which they can study or relax. Classroom refurbishments also improve student welfare dramatically: a concrete floor, plastered walls and doors and windows give students a clean and dust-free learning environment so they can actually concentrate in lessons or when reading in the library. This is only one room in one school but it will end up benefiting thousands of students. You needn’t only help by building new things either: fresh pairs of eyes and new perspectives give schools an opportunity to reassess their assets, problems, and possible solutions. Through collaborative discussions while we were at our school, members of staff realised that combining their existing ICT lab and library would give students many more opportunities to access the computers (and the teaching resources installed on them) that they already have; it would also leave a room empty which could be turned into an infirmary, so that sick students would have somewhere other than their dormitory to sleep, reducing the transmission of illnesses—all without building any new rooms. We’ve just completed this work, and the new Learning Resource Centre and infirmary look great! These projects don’t solve the wider issues facing Ugandan society, but they do improve the lives of students in our school, giving them (and the staff) an environment which they are proud of and feel more able and motivated to work in.

The final response is to tackle an issue at its root, through education. We work in schools precisely because improving someone’s education will drastically improve their chances of leading a happy and healthy life. For example, we recently ran a health day at which students were given talks by health professionals about HIV, malaria, personal hygiene and STIs; questions were answered, myths were debunked, and impartial advice was given. As well as this, free HIV testing was provided, so over 200 students were informed of their status and also found out how quick and easy (and free) it is to get tested. While all students seemed to take something away from the day, perhaps the most significant workshop was one run for the girls by a volunteer from the Red Cross, in which they discussed their own sexual health and many of the cultural traditions concerning sex and their bodies. This seemed to be the first time that many of the girls had talked frankly about these topics, and many seemed relieved to be reminded that they are under no obligation to follow tradition: their bodies are their own. Hopefully this message will stick with them.

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Walking home from the health day was definitely one of the high points of the summer for us: we knew our work and investment had made a difference in the students’ lives and we could see that the school was ready to continue providing health days after we’ve left.

It is moments like the health day, or seeing students collecting water from the newly-installed tank or working on the computers which would otherwise have been locked away, which convince us that us being here is worth it. There are frustrating moments—moments when you are tired or a bit ill, or when you’ve waddled out to the long drop at 3AM with a torch on your head but realise upsettingly late that you’ve not brought loo roll—when you wonder why you are here. But the good and fulfilling moments more than outweigh the difficult moments. We are all so glad that this is how we chose to spend our summer.