AJWS Vounteer Corps links Jewish professionals with grass-roots NGOs in the developing world who can help the NGOs in capacity building. I spent 3 months in Kampala Uganda, working with a small women's advocacy group advocating for improved human rights and access to healthcare. As a lawyer with a human resources background, I essentially built a human resources system for the NGO. I also helped them with grant-writing and reporting.
I worked with a core group of approximately a dozen Ugandans - dynamic, inspiring, desperately poor and barely educated women who at great personal risk had started this tiny organization determined to fight for their rights. On a day-to-day basis, I drafted policies and documents of all sorts, but also attended countless workshops around Uganda with members of the NGO as well as local police, health care providers and many other human rights groups.
The work was intellectually challenging but most of all inspiring. I got to know the women I worked with well, and empathized greatly with their cause. On a personal level, I felt I learned far more from them than they did from me, and I came to like them tremendously and admire them enormously for their courage and tenacity.
As a woman living alone in Kampala, I felt very safe. Ugandans are some of the most welcoming, open people I have met anywhere in the world, and I felt comfortable from the start.
I lived in a private apartment that I rented from a retired Ugandan couple, and learned to navigate the crazy public transportation system so I didn't feel isolated. I spent time with my landlords, my colleagues at the NGO, as well as some other AJWS volunteers.
I've lived overseas before, so I wasn't thrown off by things that might be viewed as hardships by many first-timers -- such as the constant power outages, internet failures, etc. My kindle and my reading headlamp were my constant companions.
I joined a local running group, and spent many weekends exploring Kampala as well as the Ugandan countryside. I ran a half marathon in Jinja - the "Source of the Nile" - and at the end of my stint with AJWS spent a week touring magnificent, beautiful Uganda. (Relatively untouristed, Western Uganda is spectacularly beautiful - I did some of the best hiking I've ever done and got to trek both gorillas and chimpanzees.) I also had the opportunity to spend Passover with a Ugandan Jewish community called the Abayudayah - a memorable experience that I will treasure always.
The highlight of my experience was being invited by one of my Ugandan work colleagues to attend a "kwanjula" -- a traditional Ugandan engagement ceremony. This was a colorful, fascinating, fun afternoon and I felt beyond honored to be invited. At the subsequent wedding, I was even more honored to be asked to make a little speech on behalf of my NGO -- which I did, in the local language!