Before I was set to start a new job in Morocco, I had just enough time to find a meaningful way to spend two months. Determined to explore more of sub-Saharan Africa, I found a small Ugandan NGO advertising for volunteers in exchange for “free room and board”. Thrilled at this opportunity, I contacted them and before I knew it, I arrived in the heat and chaos of the Entebbe airport.
The director, clutching a crumpled paper sign with my name, identified me quickly and helped me wrestle my bags onto a crowded bus, joking with the curious locals about how many cows he’d sell me for. After pulling into Mbale hours later in the east of the country, we jumped on two tro-tros, their motorcycle taxis, straddling my bags and pulled up to a metal gate – I had arrived at my new temporary home.
Throughout the week, I gave art and English lessons to enormous class sizes of 40 students or more. One of the highlights was participating in their biannual Sports and Music Day events, as I discovered innumerable new ways of exercising with minimal resources. I dedicated hours to correcting the teaching materials and creating additional resources for the library, and it was a true joy to be a part of their teaching staff, even if for a short while.
However, at the heart of my experience was the community immersion of my living situation. On the way to Mbale, the director had asked if I preferred to stay at a guesthouse 10-minutes walking distance from the school, where the other volunteers were, for $5 USD a night, or $1 USD a night to stay in their local community compound, two minutes from school, and meals were included since I’d eat with him and his family. It was a no brainer- I chose the latter option.
The Community in Mbale
I quickly realized what the $1-a-night-deal entailed. The gated compound we were in consisted of 50 living quarters- essentially square, metal rooms with a window that had bars and a screen full of holes. A metal door shut with a luggage lock, and the director quickly warned me to always have my door bolted since the neighbors knew “wealthy foreigners” lived there with “expensive possessions”. My room consisted of one bed, a thin mattress crawling with insects and spiders, and a torn mosquito net. A rickety wooden nightstand stood in the center of the room and a thin clothesline drooped diagonally across the room.
There was no running water, so we retrieved it with bright yellow jerry cans from a well 15 minutes away on foot. When it was needed, I’d drag it to the toilet, a wooden stall that didn’t close properly, with a hole in the ground, and the shower. Bathing was a delicate balancing act – I would have to prevent my towel from being soaked as the water splashed everywhere, keep the door shut with my knee, and at night, secure or hold a flashlight, candle or phone to light the stall without dropping it or getting it wet, all the while keeping one eye shut to avoid seeing the rodents and arachnids in the dark corners.
My neighbors were primarily local families and their children played in the central courtyard or did homework in the evenings together. They had Biblical names as Written, Given and Blessing, and I treasure the hours where I played dice or cards with them by candlelight on the steps of our living quarters. They also loved dancing, and would take any excuse to start up a beat by clapping, urging on the youngest one in the middle of a makeshift circle to show me his dance moves.
The adults in the compound couldn’t seem to decide how they felt about me. The parents of the kids I played with and escorted to and from school, would warmly greet me and patiently indulge my questions about Ugandan life. Others limited our interactions to cordial greetings and shamelessly asked for my possessions. Whether it was a pair of flip flops, a hair clip, or a pen, I would often hear, “Oh, that’s nice…give me it” with hands outstretched at least three times a week.
Without exception, all the women openly guffawed as they watched me wash my clothes, scrubbing and spilling water from my jerry can to my tub every weekend. One of them finally came over and took over, showing me the right position and appropriate amount of force to clean with. I was there during the rainy season which meant cooler-than-normal temperatures and spontaneous rain storms. With several clothes lines hanging outside in the courtyard, it usually fell upon whoever was around to grab all the clothes the second thunder rumbled.
Normally, the community has electricity but just my luck, right before I arrived, there was an issue with the power and the entire block was without it for the duration of my stay. In order to have my camera ready to go, I would head down the street to a local guest house where I would buy a Coke or some cookies, and in exchange, get to sit in their lobby for a while, not-so-subtly charging all my electronics.
Limited electricity also meant at night, there were limited activities. I ate my meals with the director and his family next door and helped to prepare them sometimes as well. His wife would start cutting and chopping by 3pm and light the charcoal by 4:30pm for the food to be ready by 6pm. We generally ate the heaping plates of rice, beans and matoke (plantain bananas) with our hands, sitting in the dark, and after washing our plates with water from the jerry cans, we’d be in bed by 7:30pm.
In the end, it helped to sleep so early since I’d regularly wake up around 5am to the noise of chickens and roosters clucking around the central space, children fighting, and the women loudly conversing (which often sounded like arguing) across the courtyard. The moment the sun was up, the families were washing clothes, hoping to have them dried before the afternoon’s rainstorm, and breakfast was prepared before the kids went to school at 7am.
Walking to the market, or around the neighborhood was always an adventure. The clay red dirt streets turned into such a thick, sticky mud during the rainy season that I lost count of how many sandals I broke. At one point, I started taking them off to squish through the roads barefoot. “You’ll get jiggas!” the kids warned me. Unaware of what a jigga was, I asked several people before I understood that they were parasitic worms which attached to your body through any means possible. Later on, a Peace Corps volunteer told me about how one had laid eggs in his foot and he had to cut it out with a knife due to the lack of medical facilities in his area.
A foreigner in Eastern Africa is labeled a “muzungu”, and I quickly grew accustomed to children shouting it from across the street or down the block at me, frantically waving until they received a response. In the heart of Mbale, this happened less frequently, as the pace of life moved much quicker. Tro-tros whizzed about, transporting bushels of bananas and live chickens, and little markets stocked our favorite snacks unavailable in our village. A handful of nicer restaurants boasted Wifi and Western food, which were occasional welcome escapes. Bars and clubs lined the entrance to the town, and plastic bins and toys imported from China lined the small shops on either side of the fruits and vegetable market.
Another volunteer and I discovered the ultimate safe haven our second weekend. 20 minutes by tro-tro, there was the Mbale Resort Hotel, commonly frequented by businessmen and international visitors, where, for a reasonable price, we could bask in the consistent electricity, relatively quick WiFi, shower stalls with working doors, and even a pool where we wouldn’t have to worry about dust or dirt for an hour or two.
My Experiences in Mbale
The other volunteers often balked at some of my tales, and often tried to persuade me to move to the guesthouse with them, but I never budged. No matter how many shivering, sleepless nights I spent on the thin, flea-ridden mattress or dead cockroaches I found in my luggage after I left, I wouldn’t have traded the smiles I encountered and unforgettable people along the way for all the shillings in the world.
Written by: Annie Chen
Annie is originally from Los Angeles although she’s worked and lived abroad for the last 10 years. Currently living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, she’s traveled to over 100 countries and enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and volleyball when she can.
Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01