The all-Ugandan staff at my Kampala-based NGO was well managed, hard-working and appreciated my efforts, adding up to a fulfilling experience. My assignment was made clear to me, mostly research and writing, and I could proceed without distractions. The facilities and technology were good enough to enable me to use my computer productively -- and the NGO's backup generator let me continue working during the frequent electricity outages.
My work enabled me to dig into the most pressing environmental challenges of Uganda (and sub-Saharan Africa) and the action programs directed at them. I was free to provide my own analysis about how to organize the information, and my colleagues were open to my suggestions. So, yes, I believe that I made a difference and made a lasting contribution to the NGO.
I tried hard throughout not to impose my views on my colleagues who, after all, have been working in this field for many years -- and to respect their policy positions and work style. I wanted very much to leave a sustainable legacy behind so that they could expand the work I began without my involvement being necessary. I'm still involved in their work, but use a light touch, nudging them along. I tried to avoid being just another pushy muzungu (Swahili for white guy).
A little bit of IT expertise goes a long way. Despite being only computer semi-literate, I became the IT visionary at my office, and was able to accomplish significant improvements in the NGO's technology -- mostly by demonstrating that the upfront costs of improvements were minor compared to the high costs of inadequate information technology.
Adjusting to daily life there was not the challenge I feared. I shared a furnished 2-bedroom apartment with another AJWS volunteer in a suburb of Kampala within walking distance of our offices -- a good compromise between living alone and living with a group of expats.
We split expenses and alternated cooking duties, with frequent dinners out nearby or in downtown Kampala. We were the only muzungus in the neighborhood, which gave us ample opportunities to learn about real life there. We made a point of shopping locally and using the ubiquitous matatus (14-passenger mini-vans) that provide inexpensive public transit.
Kampala lived up to its reputation as an affordable city, so my living costs were reasonable -- a total of about $2,500 for 3-1/2 months, including rent, food, transportation and entertainment. Cell phone and mobile internet service were especially inexpensive (and high quality), and I could call my wife in Florida for about 6 cents a minute. Getting online with wireless modems was a snap.
At least weekly, my housemate and I socialized with other AJWS volunteers, who were uniformly delightful (I was the only guy, so how could I miss?) and adventurous. I occasionally traveled out of town on weekends with them, but mostly I explored different neighborhoods of Kampala.
Did this change me? I'm still trying to find out. I've spent much of my life in public service, so this was an extension of that. But it also was so different -- and the issues I worked on were so important to Uganda's future -- that it expanded my conception of humanity in general and Africa in particular.
I know that it helped deepen my understanding of Judaism and how I could become a better Jew through pursuing justice here and abroad.
Becoming an AJWS Volunteer is not for everyone, but for those who choose it, prepare for an amazing experience.