Inside the Volunteer House

By Claire Gatto- Volunteer Coordinator Intern

photoI got lucky with my school agreeing to send me to intern at Shanti this summer. My role as the Volunteer Coordinator turned out to be an on-going lesson about how to live and work with other people. Easier said than done, right? Right. Shanti’s volunteer program draws people from around the world. On top of living and working in Uganda, volunteers have another host of experiences through living and working with fellow interns.

First, let me tell you about the Volunteer House. It is a shared home with the landlord with our own separate corridors in the village of Kasana. The garden just outside our kitchen door has seen better days but right now things are looking up as the rainy season approaches. Inside, the home is filled with an eclectic collection of sundries that have been accumulated from the all the different Shanti volunteers and friends who have passed through the house and left pots, bags, spices, the Twilight series, photos of the Birth House and so on. The walls are also randomly curated with such things as…

  • An unfinished beaded art project in a corner
  • Photos of Shanti mamas with their babes
  • A laminated picture of the Ugandan Cranes football team in the form of a place mat
  • Health questions that were asked by teenage girls during a youth empowerment workshop. The anonymous questions ranging from what to do with a broken heart, to questioning abstinence to challenging menstruation myths and information they had heard about sex from their friends
  • An ode from one intern to another in the form a haiku
  • A list of what to do to help recover from a recent break-up, such as watching TED Talks, learn five new Luganda words, Operation Hot Body aka a 5-20minute mini-workout (Note:  This happened twice)and reading a chapter of a midwifery textbook
  • A monthly hand-drawn calendar outlining upcoming important dates, birthdays, arrival/departures of interns, listing of housemates fertile days and so on

This list of what covers our walls illustrates how volunteers become integrated into their fellow volunteer’s lives, which is intertwined with Shanti, living in Uganda with friends and family back home and with each other. The walls speak to the relationships that have been developed with Shanti, the staff and with fellow volunteers. Living and working in the same space forces people to really get to know one another as you see people during their highs and their lows. Seeing others through these times can also mean that you become less judgmental as you are able to see a fuller picture of a person’s life when you are with them day in and day out. To get through the challenging times (which is inevitable), means being honest with others and most importantly with yourself! It’s not only applicable to shared living and working spaces but also applies to many areas of life. However, being able to identify when you need some alone time or when issues need to be aired out becomes an essential skill when living in a different country with a new group of people.

As Volunteer Coordinator, I’ve been able to see how Shanti draws an incredibly diverse group of people who want to get involved in women’s health and development. The range of people’s professional, educational, volunteer background and personal stories that have drawn them to Shanti is inspiring. To meet new people and develop relationships with other volunteers whom you share a passion for social change and to learn about how they understand important social issues like global health, gender inequality, racism, poverty and human rights undoubtedly makes an impact on how you understand yourself and your worldview. Corresponding with incoming volunteers from abroad and living with current volunteers has highlighted the importance of Shanti’s work to improve maternal health and to empower women even more for myself. It’s been a remarkable experience to learn about maternal health in Uganda while connecting with folks from abroad who share the same goal to see women have healthy lives with opportunity.

On an end note, one of the most important lessons I’ll be taking away from my experience at Shanti is the importance of how we relate to one another. Rather it be overcoming language barriers with a new mom at the Birth House, the boda boda driver that wants to charge you an exorbitant price or trying to reach consensus with other volunteers about what we should have for dinner, the way we relate to others impacts how we get by in life and what we carry forward.

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