My trip to East Africa was unforgettable to say the least. Let's start at the beginning, in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a bit of a culture shock at first, as Nairobi is a chaotic, bustling city. We stayed at the YMCA. I couldn't sleep for the first week because my body was adjusting to my malaria meds. This doesn't happen to everyone, but it's really important to keep taking them if it does. While in Nairobi, we visited a very cool art collaborative called PAWA254, walked through the slums of Kibera, and got thoroughly ripped off at the souvenir shops (at least I did - I recommend bargaining hard if you want to buy anything but be respectful of course). The slums of Kibera were truly eye-opening. Be prepared to have swarms of children run after you; they're very friendly! We visited Carolina for Kibera, an organization that does amazing work to provide healthcare and other services in the slums, and helped distribute sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
Next, we took a bus ride to Kimende. I should mention that most of the bus rides on this trip were extremely long and uncomfortable, but I kind of enjoyed the discomfort as part of the experience. Just try to stay mindful and positive. In Kimende, we stayed with local families and did a few activities like planting trees and weeding. The hospitality was incredible. We stayed here for a few days before taking off to Uganda!
In Kampala, Uganda, we worked with RWEYOWA to set up an HIV testing clinic. Our job was to walk around certain neighbourhoods and distribute flyers to promote our clinic. Again, people were very friendly. It was also very hot! The ground is covered in orange dust, so I recommend wearing shoes that you can wash or don't mind getting dirty. Kampala has a great nightlife, which some of us explored, but I loved that there was no pressure at all for those who didn't feel comfortable.
Next, we went rafting on the Nile! This was SO. MUCH. FUN! Highly recommend. Some people also went bungee jumping but I chickened out.
In Gulu, Uganda, we worked with United Youth Entertainment (UYE) to produce and screen a silent film. I found this leg of the trip to be quite long and slow. This is where you really start to experience a different pace of life but be patient and try to relax. The extra free time lets you do some exploring. Gulu's nightlife is also great.
Then, everyone had ten days off to do what they wanted. Three of us decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I could go on about this part forever but let's just say this was one of the most challenging and rewarding weeks of my life. It's a little pricey but 100% worth it. We finished off our trip with some camping in Kenya before heading back to Nairobi. Overall, this experience is perfect if you're looking for adventure and not afraid of feeling a little tired or outside your comfort zone at times. Our program directors made all the difference; they were always there to listen and help us adjust. Thank you, Shamira and Julius!
Since returning home, I've discussed my experience with many: friends and family (of course), job interviewers, and I even wrote about it in my (successful) applications for graduate programs at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. If used properly, this experience can be an asset to boost your CV. However, expect that some people will be critical. Voluntourism is controversial - for good reasons, in my opinion. But I've always felt that my experience with Operation Groundswell was not a classic voluntourism trip. We didn't go in and build a school where there was no need for a school. We partnered with local organizations on projects that were already underway, for which there was real demand. It's useful to emphasize this if faced with criticism. I would also keep in mind that this program is not the most effective way to help communities in East Africa. You should be clear that you are doing this for yourself as well as to have a social impact. With that in mind, I do think we helped!