Volunteering in Dangerous Places:Lira, Uganda

As I travel around the world, I often volunteer with global nonprofit organizations. To me, volunteering is a great way to get to know local communities and cultures and I like the idea of giving back while benefiting from the experience.

Before I left on my two-year around-the-world trip, I spoke with several nonprofit organizations and lined up a few volunteer gigs during my first year of travel. One of these opportunities was to work with an American nonprofit organization that is building wells in East Africa, bringing clean drinking water to communities in need.

I was super excited about this opportunity and planned my entire first year of travel around this particular volunteer gig, coordinating my schedule so I could accompany the U.S-based team that was to visit the region in mid-October.

Imprecise Planning

Unfortunately, once I arrived in Uganda’s capital Kampala my pre-trip preparations unraveled fast. It soon became apparent that I would need to make my own way to Lira (a 5-hour drive north of the capital), arrange for transportation to the well site (a further 3-hour drive on dirt roads), and figure out my own accommodations.

Now, traveling in northern Uganda is dangerous by any stretch—Think Joseph Kony 2012, Lord’s Revolutionary Army, child soldiers, mass rape. I had to make the serious decision on whether or not I would go it alone to Lira.

After much reflection and quite a few sleepless nights, I decided to go. Clean water is an issue in which I feel passionately. Also I was already in Uganda and looking forward to meeting the local community. Finally, this was my largest donation to date and I wanted to see the funding in action.

Ensuring Self Safety

After making my decision to move forward, I lined up my resources to ensure my own safety. Here was my 5-point plan of action:

1. Kidnap & Ransom Insurance

Before I left on my worldwide travels I bought Kidnap & Ransom (K&R) insurance. I knew that I’d be traveling alone throughout Africa and the Middle East and so bought the policy for about $1,200 a year. (Individuals can’t buy this type of insurance, but companies can. As president of my own consulting firm, I purchased the policy for myself.)

Along with the policy, you get access to a personal safety team. I called them before I left to introduce myself, thinking that if they have a voice / face with the name, they might try just a little bit harder to find you. Before leaving for Lira, I also sent emails to my contacts to let them know I would be traveling in the area, the dates I was traveling, and the name of the organization I was volunteering with.

2. U.S. State Department Registration

I always register with the U.S. State Department’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) before entering a new country. Not only will this alert the government that you are in the country during times of conflict, it also supplies the government with next-of-kin information.  Another advantage is that you’ll receive local travel updates, as well as invitations to parties and consular events.

3. Private Driver / Bodyguard

I decided not to take local buses like I normally do, but instead hired a driver, that could then serve as a sort of bodyguard for me. I wanted someone who spoke the local language, knew the area, and would accompany me into town.

While in Kampala, I contacted another nonprofit organization that I had worked with several years earlier. They arranged for a driver for 5 days, supplying me with his State ID, Driver’s License, and a background check. At about $1,000, this was a significant cost for me, but my driver Fred was the consummate professional, trained in Germany and incredibly serious about his job. This was exactly the person I wanted by my side.

 4. Personal Emergency Procedures

My family and I have a safe word that I can use if I’m in imminent danger. If they receive a call or message with this word, they are instructed to call the K&R team, the U.S. State department, and the local Embassy. I sent a message to my family to be on alert that I was heading into dangerous territory.

5. Self Defense Training

Before I left on my travels, I went through a 3-day self defense training course by a global nonprofit called IMPACT. The classes are taught by women, for women. The training I received was the single most empowering experience of my life. While making my arrangements in Kampala, I took the time to review what I had learned, so my skills were fresh.

Prepared for the Possibilities

In the end, my days visiting the well site in Lira were a highlight of my trip. I met many members of the community, talked with women who lived in the village, gained a greater understanding of the village’s need for clean water, and visited the children attending school in the area.

The children showed me the current well, which is too shallow and now polluted with E.Coli, and we broke ground at their Apache SDA school where the new well was being built. Tears repeated welled in my eyes as the local congregation and school children sang for me in the age-old African tradition.

Was my 5-day trip into northern Uganda worth the extra safety precautions and added expense? Unequivocally yes. I was happy that I visited Lira and got to join in the building the well.

The dedication plaque on the new well reads:  “May your life overflow with possibilities.” The opportunity to travel to northern Uganda to volunteer was a possibility that, despite the risks, I could not pass up. But it was a possibility for which I was well prepared.

A former finance executive, Erin Michelson is now an “Adventure Philanthropist,” who recently completed a two-year global giving adventure, visiting all 7 continents and exploring 60 countries. Volunteering with global non-profit organizations along the way, Erin helped build a house in the Philippines, a well in rural Uganda, and a library in northern Laos, sponsored secondary school education for a young woman in India and helped provide self-defense training for young girls in Israel.  Read more about her experiences on GoErinGo.com or follow her on Twitter as @GoErinGo.

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