Notes From the Field: How I Prepared for 3 Months in Uganda
This summer, instead of writing for Cubicle Chic, I'll be sharing some of my experiences as an intern in Lugazi, Uganda.
For three months, I'll be working for Musana Jewelry, which works with disadvantaged women to make jewelry that's sold in local and international markets, plus provides classes in English and business. I'm excited to work with Musana Jewelry on product development, expansion of its international and local production, and social media outreach. And while taking a three month leave of absence may sound like a lot—I'm pretty sure it's going to fly by.
Many people have asked how I’ve managed to put together this experience. So, if you’re considering an international internship, project, or volunteer opportunity, here's what I think are the most important things to know.
1. Find a Program
No matter what you want to do, there are many programs around the world looking for interns and volunteers. Idealist is one of the best-known resources and is an excellent source of opportunities for any length of time. I am working through HELP International, an organization that partners with local NGO’s around the world, such as Musana Jewelry, to support development projects (and happens to still be accepting applications for the end of the summer!).
In addition to programs organized around placing interns and job seekers, you can also look directly at local internationally minded non-profits and see if they have opportunities for you to work or volunteer in another country. Consider joining BPeace, Accion, Bead for Life, or any other organization that’s close to your heart.
2. Find Funding
This can be the most daunting step, especially if you’re looking at a hefty couple-thousand-dollar plane ticket and a program fee. But, don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends, family, and social network (a good online venue for doing so is IndieGoGo). More often than not, people are happy to support others in their lives who are doing charitable work. Lots of small donations can add up quickly, and you never know who might want to support you in a more substantial way.
You can supplement your campaign with an in-person fundraiser like a happy hour, karaoke night, pay-by-the-plate dinner, raffle, or other social event. I used Shecky’s to help me plan a happy hour fundraiser, a quick and easy approach that didn't require cold calling (a huge plus, in my opinion). Most often used for birthday parties, you just input the details of your event on the website, and it will suggest three venues for you, then contact the venues to alert them about your planning. (I actually had all three bars call me to discuss a deal.)
3. Establish Your Support Network
For most of us, a volunteer experience in a developing country means traveling to a completely different culture and having very few connections to your life back home. That said, you may be surprised at just how small the world is. Talk about your trip and your destination with others, and you may discover you already have some useful connections.
I went from feeling very alone (in an exciting independent way, of course) in my travel plans to Uganda to scheduling meetings with friends of friends working in the capital, organizing travel plans to neighboring countries to meet new acquaintances, and even learning that one of my friends’ parents live in my destination. Creating these connections could mean everything from project collaborations to the offer of a warm meal, so be open-minded, friendly, and act on every email contact you receive.
4. Plan to Stay Connected
Don’t forget you’ll want to keep in contact with everyone back home—especially those who supported you! If you’re going to have relatively regular internet access, start a blog or a weekly email newsletter on Tumblr, Pixelpost, or WordPress.
Or, if you’re going to be off the grid for most of your time abroad, a recap email or letter at the end of your experience is a must. You’re a cultural ambassador during your internship or volunteer experience, and the same is true upon your return: stories and photos from your time in India, Tanzania, or El Salvador are a window into a different part of the world for your friends and family who supported you.
5. Get Your Shots
Quite possibly everyone’s least favorite item on the pre-trip to-do list, vaccinations are required if you’re traveling to many places in the developing world. You can look up your destination country on the CDC’s website to see what’s required, and then visit a travel doctor (many general practitioners are) to get your shots. Some destinations, like Uganda, require that you show proof of yellow fever vaccination before you enter the country—and you definitely don’t want to forget your malaria pills.
It’s also smart to bring a personal first aid kit that includes antibiotics, bug spray with at least 30% DEET (if you’re going anywhere with mosquitoes or other tropical insects), and some pain reliever. You might not be able to find these things abroad and wouldn’t want to find yourself in a situation without them!
6. Make Sure You’re Covered
Many domestic insurance policies won’t cover you while you’re traveling abroad, so you should find both medical and medical evacuation insurance (in case you need to be flown to a more developed country for treatment) before you go. As a minimum, you’ll want $50,000 for emergency medical and $100,000 for medical evacuation coverage.
Travel Insurance Review is a good resource for answering questions you might have on your insurance and figuring out the type of insurance that’s right for you. Also check out Insure My Trip and Squaremouth to compare travel insurance options.
7. Learn About the Culture
This is the fun part (assuming you didn’t consider your immunizations to be a good time). If you’re traveling to a country you know very little about, this is your chance to work out your inner nerd and learn about history, language, food, literature, customs, religion, whatever. There’s always Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor for the basics, but also do some Googling to discover prominent experts on the country, interesting articles and books, and blogs about the region. To complement your collection of facts, make some time to enjoy literature written by native authors and poets.
Also do what you can to learn the local language. Although there isn’t a whole lot out there on some dialects, I only needed to search “learn Luganda” on YouTube to find a few videos with helpful vocab words and phrases.
The more you immerse yourself in this information before you go, the better prepared you’ll feel and the more tools you’ll have to make connections with people you meet once you’re there. And in the end, that’s the most important part!
Have any other suggestions for finding an international internship or preparing to go? Share them in the comments!
Photo courtesy of Trees ForTheFuture.
About The Author
Based in New York City and constantly dreaming of the rest of the world, Meredith manages her globetrotter's itch by exploring sustainable economic development in emerging markets through fashion. Previously a style blogger and currently a jack-of-all-trades for Musana Jewelry, Meredith's also got a love of statement jewelry and a weakness for a strong cup of Ugandan coffee. Keep up with her work on Twitter @musanajewelry or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.