The beginning of the rest of my life….

Orla McGrath writes touchingly about her experience of volunteering in Uganda with Nurture Africa, and how that very experience pointed her in a new direction both personally and professionally, for the rest of her life….

“It was something that always appealed to me. I am not sure if appeal is the right word but lets say interested me.

I had watched suffering on my T.V. screen and I felt drawn to that. The ads depicted starving children, with their protruding ribs and rounded bellies, and I asked myself why? Not the big deep questions of “why the poverty?”, “why them and not me?”, they came a bit further on; but just the practical why’s like “why do their bellies do that??” The fact that the answer was “malnutrition” perplexed my young mind at the time. It was an answer that niggled at my conscience, and I always felt like something could be done.

I love people, I know it sounds a bit odd on paper, but I do. I love meeting different types of people, talking to them, learning about their lives and doing the little things to help them along. That is what brought me to nursing really, I had been told since forever that I was caring, and so it just seemed like the obvious option. It shocked me when I didn’t love it as I had spent so long thinking I would. I was sitting, bored out of my tree, in the nursing computer lab when I got the email from Nurture Africa about volunteering with them. I remember the wave of excitement I had at the thought of such an opportunity, this was the type of work I would enjoy! Frantically I wrote an email as I was nervous they would not take on student nurses. Luckily they took three of us on as general volunteers, and it came in the form of two others just like myself; Hank and Aoife.

We had the orientation meetings, it was good to talk. It gets all the stereotypes out in the open. For me the various forms of media had created a picture of devastation in my mind. On reflection I was preparing myself to come home from Uganda as a changed person, possibly a broken one. OK yes, it sounds dramatic but your mind does go a bit bonkers, especially with the prospect of the unknown.

Looking back, I was anxious, so I did what I do best and that is focus on the practicalities of what can be done. First things first, needed to pack a bag, no easy task deciding how many wet wipes to bring to Africa, so I picked up the phone and introduced myself to Aoife. As I mentioned, she was a student nurse like myself and had the same attitude to life and was facing a similar predicament with the wet wipes. We decided in a logical manner that it must be fairly safe to head as Nurture Africa would not jeopardise our safety and consequently the entire charities future if it wasn’t. So we left it at that and decided to keep our parents worry at bay by whatever means possible, we were heading to Uganda with a sufficient amount of wet wipes! As my mother would say at this point of the story “whatever’s for you, wont pass you” and to be honest there was never a truer word.

Teaching basic First Aid skills to children in Jet Valley Primary School, Nansana, Uganda.

It wasn’t what I expected… I didn’t like it, I loved it. I loved the country, and the culture but above all the people. When they smiled, you knew they were kind people. Their faces were warm and their eyes would genuinely brighten up at the thought of welcoming you into their lives. It sounds romanticised but that’s just how I felt. Don’t get me wrong it was not easy, I saw the starving children. However the western camera lens places an emphasis on this particular aspect often forgetting to tell the rest of the story. These people are not merely defined by ‘poverty’. They endure hardship on a daily basis, hardships that we can not even comprehend. However, what struck me was the sheer strength and dignity that they display when encountering them. They are rich in many of the basics of life we are often too busy to enjoy. The simple things; family, friendship, a strong sense of community which places emphasis on the courage and motivation we can gain by simply having the support of one another.

It is a contagious way of living really, it has the feel good factor. We lived in the Nile house (volunteer home name); 7 of us like squished peas in a pod. 2 nurses Ashling and Siobhain, 3 teachers Katie, Brian, and Carol, and myself and Aoife as general volunteers. Our house was kept like a palace by two young Ugandan ladies we christened our “bean an tis”. Their hospitality was beyond belief and made us feel like we were home. The first night all 27 of us got together and played every child’s’ game the teachers could remember, we all got on really well. I know a lot of that is down to luck, but we did put in a conscience effort from the very beginning. It was important to us that we were important to each other. There was a respect for individual character and a recognition that our varying personalities would be the back bone of making us a strong team. Everybody got stuck into all the work, If a few of the nurses were free they popped down to give us a hand at the building site. We spent the evenings together usually cutting out a hundred humpty dumpty’s or whatever needed to be done for the teachers classes the next day.

At night I talked through every single moment that I had experienced that day, which ignited further thoughts, questions and broader topics of discussion in my overly analytical mind. Luckily in the bed opposite me was a saint called Katie, who reassured and supported me to no end. She never once told me to stop even though she lay down each night in the hope of reading an entire page of her book. We all had our difficulties and laughs, and smiles and tears but we listened to one another which is a simple gesture that can put a distressed mind at ease.

It takes me a while to register things, which is both good and bad. It makes me a very productive person during difficult or emergency situations when others are upset and not functioning as they normally would. And on the other hand, I cry at the strangest of times, usually long after an event has taken place. So for me it happened when I flushed the toilet for the first time in Dublin, I sat there on the bathroom tiles crying to myself, crying for them and I suppose crying for me. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, it was something I had promised myself when I was in Uganda. The gruelling trips to fill my single yellow bucket with water had taught me to appreciate it. I swore to myself that I would never waste 24 litres of water by flushing a toilet at home. I know it sounds like one of those “I want to save the world” gestures but I felt it was a personal and private way to remind myself of how much I had come to admire the hard work and pride of the Ugandan people. When I flushed the toilet I felt like I had returned back to the exact same life, and Orla that I knew prior to leaving. How was it possible to experience Uganda and then simply forget about it just like that? So I had my moment and I needed it. Over the next few weeks I had a few more. I began to realise that I would not simply ‘forget’ Uganda no matter how many times I flushed the toilet. I had shared moments with the people there, which had shaped me as a person in a new and positive way.

That niggling at my conscience grew stronger from my time in Uganda. I still felt like there was something to be done, and it was in my capabilities to do something about it. So I headed off to Kolkata having changed from nursing to a degree in English, Cultural and Media Studies. I volunteered at a school there, and thought perhaps I might become a teacher. I returned home having had another great experience but knowing teaching probably was not for me either. I decided while unhappy in nursing that 9 to 5 in a job I was not passionate about was too many wasted hours in my week. So I began to research a Masters in Law and Human Rights, which in turn sparked a thought to spend the summer working in Palestine. On returning I have began my masters in N.U.I.G. which has given me an eagerness and excitement for my future. Looking back Uganda was really the beginning of this long and windy road. The friendships I continue to enjoy today are testament to the strength of my Nurture Africa experience. I will be forever grateful for all of those who generously donated, supported and motivated me, making a trip to Uganda my reality, and possibly the seed to the rest of my life….

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