Retired chartered engineer Ted Mooney recounts his experiences of volunteering with VMM in Uganda, where health facilities, electricity and even underwear can be hard to come by

In 2003, at the age of 57, I took early retirement – it followed a change of ownership in the company for which I worked. I’ve spent about half of my time since then in out-of-the-way parts of the world, usually as a volunteer, sometimes as a wanderer.

Cumulatively, I’ve spent about four years as a volunteer in Uganda, primarily with VMM ((Volunteer Missionary Movement), a Christian organisation with a focus on sending volunteers to work in developing countries. Its motto is: ‘To share who we are and not just what we have.’ Most of the time, I’ve had the good fortune to be in the relatively safe, peaceful and well-developed regions of Kampala and Kabarole (the Mountains of the Moon are located in the latter).

On my last trip to Uganda, however, I went to the West Nile District (WND) in the remote north-west of the country. My bag didn’t make the connection to Entebbe and took a few days to catch up with me. There weren’t many menswear outlets in WND, but I found deodorant so I was okay! The reference to my bag is by way of gentle introduction to the challenges one encounters in Uganda.

Historically relatively underdeveloped and impoverished, WND suffered greatly from the depredations of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and recovery has been slow and intermittent. At least half of the people live in thatched rondavels like those in the photographs – the better-class rondavels have mud-brick walls, the rest mud and wattle.

WND is a subsistence economy with frequent droughts and employment levels approximate to what we are accustomed to as unemployment levels. Educational and health facilities are sadly lacking, electricity is enjoyed by perhaps 5% of the population (but is unreliable in the extreme)…and new underwear is very hard to come by.

Despite what we would regard as privations, the local people have a cheerful outlook on life and smile in welcome at visitors such as me. There is a mixed Christian and Muslim population, but no apparent religious strife and or fanatics.

Economic and cultural development


Ted Mooney finds an alternative power source when the power was off

On a broader scale, some word pictures may serve to paint a picture of economic and cultural development in Uganda in the last 25 years. The largely rural population was traditionally confined to a radius of perhaps 20km to 30km around the home village – the distance one could travel on foot in one day. A huge change has been the advent of inexpensive motorcycles (US$100 – US$200), which comfortably negotiate the dirt roads and have broadened horizons tenfold. It’s common to see an entire family straddling one of these machines (many of which serve as ‘bodas’, unofficial motorcycle taxis).

There are very few people with postal addresses in Uganda, not even in the capital of Kampala – if you’re rich, you have a PO Box number at the local post office. As in many parts of the world, there has long been an urban drift. Reminiscent of the ‘American Wake’ for the famine Irish, all contact used to be lost between the stay-at-homes and the migrants – you couldn’t write home with your new address!

The advent of the mobile phone has dramatically changed this. Your mobile phone is now your identity. You can keep in touch with home and you can arrange to meet friends and relatives who come to the big city to visit. The mobile phone also provides a banking service – you can send money from one mobile to another.

While penetration rates for electricity are still very low, some interesting trends have developed. The first purchase (after a couple of light bulbs) by someone who has gotten connected is generally a fan – the poor man’s version of air conditioning – and the second is a refrigerator.

Electricity distribution is so badly arranged that it’s common for the nominal voltage of 230V to vary between a low of 150V and a high approaching 300V. ‘Fridge protectors’, which protect against over and under voltage, are a standard retail item although unknown in our world, while light bulbs pop with alarming frequency. Not directly related but interesting is the business of battery charging. Mobile phones are an essential item for all Ugandans, but most of them don’t have an electricity connection. throughout Uganda.

Social and political culture


Low-rent rondavels in Uganda

The Western media makes much of homophobic laws in Uganda but it is, to some extent, the standard journalistic practice of never letting the facts interfere with a good story. I have travelled the length and breadth of Uganda and it is clear that, as throughout sub-Saharan Africa, homosexuality is indeed frowned upon in the local culture.

There are homophobic laws on the Ugandan statute books, but these closely resemble the laws that existed in Ireland into the 1990s and they are no more enforced in Uganda today than they were in Ireland in the ’90s. I have never been aware of active repression of homosexual activity in Uganda – on the other hand, however, it’s pretty obvious that there is a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude similar to the US military policy so recently repealed by Obama.

Obsessed with the notion of ‘one size fits all’ democracy, Western media would have us believe that human and political rights are seriously lacking in Uganda, but the reality is quite different. Unlike the party-political affiliations taken for granted in our world, the extended family and the tribe are the most important elements informing Ugandan attitudes to politics, rights and responsibilities.

As in Russia, the concept of the ‘strong ruler’ is paramount. But that is not to take away from the fact that, by African standards, political and human rights are well respected in Uganda. There are several political parties, and the main opposition has its own national newspaper and TV station. Local democracy thrives in cities, towns and villages – a white Irishman was elected ‘mayor’ of one large, poor Kampala district in 2011!

EU observers in recent years have had little complaint about how national elections are conducted. Compare President Museveni of Uganda with Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and a whole shopping list of others. One can only conclude that democracy fares much better in Uganda than just about anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa.

Volunteering projects and the health system


Scaffolding Kampala-style

When I first came to Uganda, I volunteered as a project manager on a health-sector construction project. Despite our perception of AIDS as the scourge of Africa, it ranks only number six in East and Central Africa as a cause of untimely death. Malaria is the number-one killer – it’s in a league all of its own.

Rehydration (IV drip) is the first response to acute malaria. In Uganda, due to inefficient distribution, IV fluids run out regularly in remote areas. When this happens, patients are put in a corner to die – why waste scarce beds on people who won’t live? Initially, I was horrified but I had to accept that the local priority was the living, not the dying. We need to realise that judging local custom and practice from behind the veil of our own prejudices is to do them an injustice.

On the subject of local custom and practice, ‘corruption’ is regularly condemned. Before spending time in Uganda, I had no difficulty with black-and-white definitions of corruption, but today, I see many shades of grey. The Ugandan government doles out some drugs to be dispensed free to patients who attend government hospitals. Many doctors snaffle these drugs and offer them for sale in their own private clinic. When a patient comes to the hospital, the doctor writes a prescription. The patient goes to the hospital pharmacy, but the pharmacist apologises: “They’re not here – but go to the clinic of Dr So-and-So and you can buy them there!”


Nansana clinic under construction

Corruption? Once upon a time I would have responded, “Definitely.” Today, I’m not so sure. A Ugandan hospital doctor makes approximately US$ 300 per month – even in Uganda, you cannot maintain a doctor’s lifestyle on such an income (particularly as someone within the administration system will misappropriate anywhere from one to three months of the salary each year).

Could I put my hand on my heart and state that I would never snaffle the drugs, were I a Ugandan doctor? Fortunately, I have never been put to the test!

This was never meant to be an encyclopaedic presentation of Uganda, merely an effort to comment on a few aspects of life there that seldom see the light of day in our world. Winston Churchill famously described Uganda as ‘the pearl of Africa’, and he was right. The climate is wonderful, for example: because of the elevation, it seldom gets too hot (in most of the country) and always drops below 20C at night – I’ll forgive any climate if I can sleep at night.

Rainfall, again in most of the country, is generous and well distributed throughout the year. In the southwest, the soil is so rich as to make the Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley or our own Golden Vale look poor. People are cheerful and smile all the time.

As a volunteer, I have been humbled many times by the gratitude expressed by local people – not for the work I did but for the fact that I would leave what they believe to be a Utopia and come share at least some of their way of life. Volunteering has never done anything for my standard of living, but it has done wonders for my quality of life.

Anyone who is attracted by the notion of sharing who they are rather than what they have should contact VMM. And anyone who wants to share what they have to help others share who they are should also contact VMM – donations are an essential lubricant of development.

Author: Ted Mooney BE, EurIng, CEng, FIEI O'RiordanElecelectricity,funding,volunteering
In 2003, at the age of 57, I took early retirement – it followed a change of ownership in the company for which I worked. I’ve spent about half of my time since then in out-of-the-way parts of the world, usually as a volunteer, sometimes as a wanderer. Cumulatively, I’ve...