In early July this year I found myself filled with excitement coupled with nerves as I received all my immunisations and was packing my suitcase for 5 weeks in Uganda. This wasn’t going to be just like every other holiday I had been to, this time I was going to spend these 5 weeks volunteering in Uganda.
It was a year ago now that I attended NSLF representing Sikh Youth Australia and found myself inspired by the ideas, the people and the impact that each individual can make in the world starts with believing and then committing to doing something about it, however small it may be. A year later and my step was to go for a week with a group of past NSLF attendees to a small village in Uganda called Mityana. I was lucky enough to spend a week with the NSLF family before continuing on for 4 weeks on my own discovery into the world of Physiotherapy and health clinics in rural villages in Uganda.
The first week with NSLF constituted visiting a variety of communities and schools, mostly where we would engage the children with games and some stories of ourselves and where we were from. We powered though about 4 schools each day, meeting thousands of children, seeing the environment they spent their schooling hours in and listening briefly to some of their concerns and questions to us. No matter how many schools we went to, each and every time the humility and happiness on the children’s faces to see us even though it was ever so brief is something that will stay with me forever.
The initial week with NSLF was a good exposure to several communities, some more rural and less accessible than others. It left such a helpless feeling within me knowing that I was going to leave these people behind to a life so scarce where the battle for food, clean water and shelter were day to day obstacles. By the end of the week everyone was ready to carry their experiences back to Australia with them to share with friends and family and begin discussions on how do we do something about helping these people.
However, I still had another month ahead of me, as I farewelled the group at the airport I began the second and most rewarding leg of my journey in Uganda. Heading up to a small town called Jinja, renowned as being the source of the nile, was going to be my home for the next month. I was volunteering with a non profit organisation called Softpower Education. This British NGO had been established in Uganda for over 12 years and had two specific volunteering channels; Building schools and working in health clinics. I settled in and was given a schedule of my time table which showed 9-5pm volunteering at two health clinics from Monday to Friday for the 4 weeks.
I was organised to stay in a homestay, where a local Ugandan lady had a dorm of 10 beds with other volunteers staying there as well. She was such a delightful lady and by the end of the 4 weeks we were great friends, I would return home from my full day of volunteering at the clinics and tell her all about it, as she cooked dinner for all the volunteers bunking at her home. She listened and told me how to see things from a Ugandan perspective and what basic difficulties the local people face.
My days at the clinic were different everytime. The program consisted of running physiotherapy clinics at 2 different locations for half day at each one of them. The patients that we worked with predominantly were physically disabled children, most commonly with cerebral palsy. Almost all of the children born in Uganda with cerebral palsy went untreated due to lack of knowledge amongst the parents and communities about the condition. Most believed that the child was born possessed and never left the house to attend school or even do simple things like practice walking.
Several children with cerebral palsy attend these clinics where the local physiotherapist treats them with a variety of stretches, fitting of postural devices as necessary, exercise prescription and plenty of education to the parents so they understood the nature of the condition and how to implement treatments at home.
It was an incredible experience to see how back braces, leg and wrist splints were made by the local physiotherapist. They used paper technique to make these, which was of minimal cost. It took several weeks for a splint to be made as thick glue and paper was used in the mould measured out to fit the child. Every third day an additional layer of paper was added by glue until about 10 layers were done, and the final result was a sturdy splint ready with valcro to be used by the child.
Just watching this was inspirational as the local physiotherapists were able to construct a brace device from the most basic things so that families didn’t have to pay for them. It was an eye opening experience and I even got to make a splint for one of the kids that I was treating while I was there. Again, the gratefulness expressed by the family upon receiving these splints was so humbling to us.
4 weeks flew past as I began to feel more like a local there, getting myself to and from the clinics daily, making friends with the local physiotherapists, teachers and other health workers. I even spent 1 day a week training the physiotherapists on clinical analysis and imparting my knowledge about cerebral palsy assessments and treatments as performed in Australia. It truly was a great learning experience for both myself as well as for the local physiotherapist there.
During my stay, I spent weekends meeting local families and eating all the local produce which was so fresh and tasty, with bananas and corn being staples. Local families were over the moon to have a guest over and would cook a feast to share with me, each and every person would share their laughter and love which was very welcoming.
It was with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to the new family and friends I had made in Jinja. However, upon leaving I was also on a high of inspiration, there was so much that one person could do by giving up some of their time and imparting love, friendship, knowledge and most importantly providing hope to the people that there are positive things to look for. The love and upmost gratitude shown by the local children towards each and every volunteer was such a beautiful gift to me personally and makes me realise that in our daily lives we get caught up with small issues and hold grudges, while people who have so little can be so happy and share with open hearts with their friends.
This form of community service has most definitely been the most rewarding experience of my life, and has sent me on a journey to continue to find ways to give back to communities which are less fortunate. The feeling of giving hope and teaching a child or adult something is something that will go a long way in their lives, and can have such a positive impact on both the person giving and receiving.