Sustainable Community & Gorilla Conservation Program

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Immerse in an African village through a bespoke volunteer program supporting Mountain Gorilla conservation & community empowerment. Big Beyond create exceptionally unique volunteer opportunities for individuals with a passion to learn about development & wildlife conservation in Africa through contributing directly to responsible grassroots initiatives in Uganda. This is the chance to experience life in a stunning rural community, nestled right on the edge of the vibrant jungle, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. You will join a globally critical conservation initiative protecting the worlds last remaining and incredible Mountain Gorillas.

A range of sustainable community & conservation projects need your support and there are roles suitable for all levels of ability. Your personal volunteer program can focus on one impact area or work across a few. Many programs are skills-based. Projects include health, enterprise, education, teaching, conservation, eco-tourism, events and more.

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9.1 Rating
based on 10 reviews
  • 9-10 rating 90%
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  • Impact 8.4
  • Support 9
  • Fun 8.7
  • Value 8.8
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Showing 1 - 8 of 10
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No, I don't recommend this program

A mixed bag

I volunteered with Big Beyond for 2 months, mid 2015. I am a seasoned traveller, who has been to Africa a number of times. I am also very involved with an NGO that works in Africa - but which has a strict policy of only people of the country work in the country. I wanted to feel what it was like working embedded in a community, and hopefully feel that I could offer something useful. I have also trekked in to see the Mountain gorillas twice, so felt this was a good place for me to do some give back!

So those are my biases!

I really wanted to find an organisation that knew the community it worked in well, because it had worked there long enough to have great community input. BB has been in the community well over two years and employs members of the community as project coordinators and as staff. However in the two months I was there it was not evident that there is large scale community rapport.

The business of volunteer tourism is a new model and I am sure a very tricky one to get right. There was a new management team when I was there - and this certainly may have been causing hiccups! But the comments in previous reviews about better lines of communication - should be heeded.

I have thought long and hard before putting up a review. My honest experience was that I had a lovely time meeting and getting to know craftspeople there - something I would never have been able to do in any other way. I 'worked' with the craftspeople in the area. I saw a little tiny slither of what life is like to live in a small remote African township. And I certainly enjoyed the landscape, birdlife, and long walks along dirt roads in the area - also the hairy scary bike rides.

But like it or not, BB has not broken the mould on 'whitey knows best' - there were way too many examples of the project coordinators not being respected as the thoughtful and innovative local leaders they could be. There was too little evidence that programs had grown out of deep community consultation or request - but a lot of evidence it was shaped around volunteer's interests - maybe great busy work for us, not so good for locals.

I worked with the crafts people. I carve bowls, and have a knowledge of many aspects of different craft areas - so I loved sitting with the carvers and seeing how they worked and what they did. I spent time with the weavers, beadmakers and a blacksmith - all delightful. We talked, I tried some of their skills, offered some of mine, and we tried some new designs. But seriously, they were not asking for a volunteer to come to them. They wanted us to buy the work they were producing, or tell them what to make so we would buy it from them, and there it stops. Volunteers roll through there, changing over all the time some rapidly, some stay longer, but what the craftspeople wanted was a good way to speak with management, and they did not have it.

The tricky thing is, Big Beyond must have happy volunteers - because that is what brings in the money to pay management, infrastructure costs and programs - so they need to make the volunteers feel useful and worthwhile, but what happens when the community doesn't want or need what the volunteers want to do??? For BB - who is your real client? the volunteer or the community? I don't envy the management team trying to resolve this dilemma - and they are trying. I wish them all the very best. They offer an access point into an experience which is unique.

Community lunch is a very successful induction activity - enjoyed by every volunteer as a highlight - in fact the first two induction days are excellent, whomever in the team planned those two days, should be congratulated and PLEASE get involved in how volunteers can be better integrated through language lessons etc, so the barriers get chipped away. If volunteers contribute nothing else, they could at least help break down the myth that westerners know more than the locals about what's best for a community.

Response from Big Beyond

Lesley, what a really really great shame you have left your experience with Big Beyond feeling this way. We take feedback seriously. Let me address your comments and help clarify for yourself and to others. I hope it sheds some light on what may have happened.

It’s been a long journey for Big Beyond! The rapport we have with the community here in Uganda is strengthening day by day, month by month, year by year. With our model that takes a lot of perseverance. We are fully committed to our model of fusing the invaluable human resource of our volunteers with that of local people, because we firmly believe, and have witnessed an enormous number of times, how powerful this can be. You’re right though, it does not work for everyone.

We do not offer financial or other tangible handouts for immediate philanthropic satisfaction because we strongly believe in the potential of local people here and don’t need the glory - we are indeed different as an NGO and are challenging what we consider unsustainable efforts from some other organisations that fly in and out of this area offering handouts of food, cash or whatever. The implications of this? Our ‘rapport’ with some members of the community take a longer time to build. It is a big community. We are small. The majority of people living here think only for today. They sometimes want us to donate them things not people. Those that have embraced opportunities with Big Beyond through highs and lows however, have gradually emerged thanking us for persevering with them. That to us is a result, we are experienced with these challenges and with the changes that can happen after time.

We cannot guarantee huge smiles and wide open arms for each volunteer every day with everyone they may work with in the community, it usually happens, but some people are lacking confidence and experience of working with volunteers and still in the short term mind-set. Some people who today say thank you, have taken years to get to that stage. It takes perseverance to share and guide. Not dictate. Patience is the key.

Our project coordinators, as you say are recruited from the village, they are passionate about supporting their community and the model of Big Beyond and are growing into being innovative local leaders - we are not quite there yet with all of them as they are training which is why we need our volunteer teams to work hand-in-hand with us to create this opportunity for them and their local community they serve. We are happy to create local employment. Most have been with us from the start and many have never had a job before. To see them grow and blossom has been incredible. We don’t require shiny degree certificates, we require potential, local respect and passion for what we do for the community and for our volunteers.

We have put years of research into understanding the needs of the community and it does not stop - it is a deep philosophy of ours to localise our bigger picture objectives of conservation and development with specific local needs. Lots and lots of work goes on behind the scenes to evolve this understanding and shape our strategies. Sorry you feel otherwise. We like to experiment, our model is trial and error and we learn and grow. We will definitely improve in communicating this to our volunteers. It sounds like there was a glitch in that, perhaps with our new manager at the time getting his feet firmly on the ground after being let down by our predecessor as you say. Honestly, we really apologise if that was the case. Taken on board.

Just for volunteers? We do tailor all our programmes around individual volunteer skills and passion but that is always aligned with the needs of our projects at that time. Whilst it may sometimes feel like it fits perfectly with some volunteer interests, then we have done something right. That does not mean it is just for them. Behind each programme is a very thoughtful process as to where a volunteer role or task will enable us as an organisation to head in order to achieve long term impacts we are so passionate about creating. And we mean long-term.

You did some fantastic work sharing talents with crafts people - thank you, from us and the people that were lucky to have spent time with you. It’s a big shame that you felt the crafts people did not appreciate or want your input, it is far from the truth. Yes they may sometimes hope for some additional sales of their items, but this is the nature of their business minds coming out, hoping for a benefit today, it’s the mind-set we are dedicated to changing for local benefit as I have said already - we will however definitely have a word to the people you worked with and feed back to them about your feelings to understand more, that of course doesn’t make us happy either. Our management has a very close relationship with all the individuals we work with, as do out project coordinators. We can’t meet them everyday which is why we have a team of volunteers. We are however launching a new community forum in a couple of weeks to encourage a more open communication channel - this should help tackle some of the issues around that.

Happy volunteers are so important to us - we want to offer them an enriching experience in return for their generous time and financial contributions to such critical projects in this part of the world. When the community doesn’t need or want our volunteers anymore we will fully hand over the management of our projects to the community. We are far from that point. On the contrary, many many people in the community ask us for a lot more volunteers to help them across the different sectors. That is more of our challenge.

Our ‘real client’? We don’t actually have clients. We have colleagues (the volunteers and permanent local team) and partners (the community and national park management). We work extremely hard to create a thoughtful link between the two. We fully believe that ambitions can be linked. Those of the volunteers to learn, share, sustainably impact, travel or whatever they may be, with those of the community to have greater security in life not just for themselves but for generations to come. It seems we did not succeed in your case - we are sorry.

Whilst Big Beyond is of course not perfect, we are human beings trying to develop a small innovative model in an undeveloped part of Africa familiar with handouts, we sincerely do not feel that ‘whitey knows best’ and whilst we love to share our ideas and offer an external perspective (that’s what it’s about) we fuse that with local knowledge to find the solutions. That is why we embed ourselves in the community, 365 days of the year. When it works well, is when we have the right volunteers. We know we offer far more autonomy to our volunteers than any other organisation and whilst we do our best to train people in a short space of time, there are some volunteers that naturally click and drive this approach and those that don’t. That is the risk we want to take. There are some volunteers that will be exposed to a ‘food for today’ mind-set as we work towards winning their hearts and minds by proving they can create sustainable change themselves. It’s the nature of our projects - this takes time and takes our volunteers being great ambassadors for our vision to make it happen.

Big Beyond is not for everyone - it is for those that align with our philosophy. Those that want to expand the proportion of the community that has a good ‘rapport’ with our model. It is for those up for the challenge. It is for those that are willing to support the real deal rather than support an off-the-shelf volunteer programme. It is for those that don’t want a project designed just for volunteers that trudge in and out as a number not a name. If we focussed only on volunteers our life would be much much easier, believe us - that is not why we exist. We exist because we want to see this community thrive. Happily, most of volunteers do click with our model, which is why we continue to invite volunteers to help us evolve and bring the much needed human resource into these neglected corners of the world. In return we want to offer an incredible experience. You’re right though, it is very tricky because not all do, and to manage the diverse personalities of both our volunteers and the community whilst trying to create the best results we can in development and conservation project, is a challenge. We do work against the grain at times. But we love challenges. Having the right volunteers is absolutely critical for this to work. We learn from every mistake we make.

Although volunteers may be exposed to reactions from the community they may not like so much, it is because these are real life projects, with real people, and they are not getting paid to work with you like many organisations out there. Big Beyond exposes people to the realities of genuine empowerment projects, as we continually expand our reach, including local people that are new to working with volunteers. We put more trust in our volunteers to do that than most organisations, which many embrace, but we as a permanent team stay long long after our volunteers leave and see the fruits of their perseverance and ours.

So from us we are so sorry and once again, thank you enormously Lesley from everyone on the team and on behalf of our community partners for all your time and support in the crafts projects in Uganda amongst others. And for your feedback. Kares an example of an artisan you worked with has done really well, you were part of engaging them to realise the benefits of our volunteer skills and their time, for their future benefit, he now uses additional income from craft sales for medical expenses and his bee hives - please see this blog… where you’ll see some of the work you were involved with.

Your contributions, Lesley, live on and your suggestions on how Big Beyond can improve are taken on board as we continually improve to strive for ambitions of everyone who engages with Big Beyond, be they volunteers, staff members or most importantly community partners.

P.S. Sorry this has merged into one paragraph. Not sure how to fix it! Hope it's legible.

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Yes, I recommend this program


My time in Uganda was a truly heart warming, eye opening experience. It is difficult to write a fresh review as Its now been two years since I spent my summer out there. However I still find myself looking back to those experiences and they still influence the way I see my life now.

Looking back I honestly couldn't have changed a thing, having that opportunity to travel to this beautiful country, so far away from the well known tourist spots, having the ability to see, understand and experience rural Uganda. Then to be completely free whilst having all the support in the world was totally unique. I am a keen traveller and have been to many places and carried out tons of research on the topic and nothing I have ever come across has ever come close to what big beyond offers.

Having arrived out there, the ball was placed in my court and they asked me what I wanted to learn, what I was good at, what I wanted to do, what I wanted to get out of this experience and what I wanted to give back. Then from that point onwards my time was spent focusing on achieving those goals, and in that short time I did just that and so much more. My 4 weeks out there was just an appetiser of what could be possible, it was so rewarding seeing the way my skills had influenced people and improved their quality of life.

Being so heavily immersed in their culture you learn so much and make so many special friendships with people. It is a feeling unlike any other when you are accepted into their world as an equal, not just a passing tourist.

I learnt so much about myself during my time with Big Beyond, It has made me appreciate and enjoy my life on a totally new level.

Thank you Big Beyond, I will be back!

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Yes, I recommend this program

An amazing summer adventure!

It's hard to know where begin...When I arrived, I felt immediately welcomed by everyone - staff, other volunteers, community members - and I could not believe the place I would call home for the next two months was so beautiful.

I loved that I could bring my own unique skill set to the local community and develop a unique outline of what would consist of my summer. Some projects I worked on included, but not limited to, co-coordinating the Mountain Gorilla Trail Run, working with the Batwa, and locating future hiking trails to be used for tourism. All of this done with the main goal of sustainability in mind.

The bond I made with people in those two short months will last a lifetime. I became fast friends with other volunteers and Rubuguri is a community full of wonderful people - many who I consider friends for life.

I left more confident, humbled, adventurous, and with a deep love for a hidden corner of paradise.

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Yes, I recommend this program

The most beautiful place and most beautiful people on earth

I was very fortunate and blessed to go to Big beyond in Uganda. The ethos of '' a hand up, not a hand out'' meant that you could really listen to what the community hoped for , and then use you experience, and time to support. it was fantastic to be part of the community, who were gracious, friendly, generous and grateful. I worked along side inspiring and dedicated local project coordinators, who were well respected in their community, and help facilitate experiences you could never imagine. I was doing health talks to the children in schools, part of an ongoing programme. Some of the highlights were doing health talks to 20 women, leading on to very interesting and relevant discussion of their health concerns.The care from the house staff was wonderful, delicious breakfasts and so many different ways with beans! The team of volunteers was great, an amazing experience by living and working and playing together. The English project manager and house manager were outstanding, always helpful, caring, selfless. Literally giving away his mosquito net and blanket for the needs of the volunteers .
The saying TIA, This is Africa, helped, as things often do not go to plan, but there is always another volunteer to accompany leading to a totally unique and different experience. I would whole heartedly advise anyone who enjoys a challenge, is flexible, loves people to go for it! Volunteering with Big Beyond is all about the time spent with people, relationships, not about the number of tasks completed in a day.

What would you improve about this program?
Communication is difficult with the volunteers house being a distance away from the office, but this is understood, and everyone tries to make things run smoothly.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Simply awesome

I spent 6 weeks with Big Beyond in Uganda, and I can safely say that it was the best 6 weeks of my life to date. The location is unbelievably beautiful, unlike anywhere I have seen before in terms of landscape and natural beauty. It is very remote, but this was expected, and in fact it really adds to the overall experience. As a geography student interested in sustainable development and conservation, it was amazing for me to see some of the things I have studied/am studying played out in 'in the field', but also to get involved and apply some of the knowledge I've acquired throughout my studies, to help to try and maintain/improve this wonderful area, and to make sure that tourism doesn't have an undesirable effect on the both the local people and the landscape. The staff are amazing, both the local coordinators and the foreign staff, they really make the experience what it is, and make you feel at home. Some of my highlights would be collecting indigenous tree seedlings and restoring them to the local community, teaching a class on how to use organic waste for compost and the benefits of doing so, and helping to build the first public bin in the village. Amongst amazing weekend trips to the stunning lakes, hiking and of course tracking and spending time with the endangered mountain gorillas. The great thing about Big Beyond is that you get to meet volunteers from all walks of life and make friends, no matter what their age or background. i can't recommend Big Beyond enough for anyone wanting to see new places but also do something worthwhile.

What would you improve about this program?
Switching off from the outside world is nice, but wifi and power are, as I found, very helpful when trying to work on projects. The connectivity/power can often hold you back, though it is hard to improve this without a national improvement in infrastructure. Its a challenge. Also, getting around the local area can be difficult at times so perhaps improved transportation would help day to day life run smoother and ultimately increase the impact projects could have.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Unique Experience

The experience I've had with Big Beyond in Uganda was simply unique, beyond all my previous experiences.
First of all, Bwindi forest and its surroundings is a magical place to work at.Every time you wake up and see the misty hills or the rising sun, you just have to be amazed. At least I was.Every morning you start with a big smile on your face, not only thanks to the place where you stay, but also thanks to the georgeous, friendly, warm and hospitable house stuff and amazing breakfasts they make for you.
The most amazing thing about Big Beyond is the fact, that you don't have to be qualified or to have some previous experiences to volunteer out there.Me, as a student, I was a bit afraid of being useless as I haven't had some stable job or practice yet.But in fact you don't need any of such things.You only need openess, flexibility and energy to give out.Every simple human being has absolutely different skills that can be useful when you're able to transfer them.And then it's simple - THE MORE YOU GIVE, THE MORE YOU GAIN. You'll get incredible experiences and after some time spent in those places, you reevaluate things and kind of realize what's important and what's not.
Another great thing about BB is that all of the projects are tailored according to your own skills and abilities.Me, as a person interested in health care and nature lover, I could be involved in health care and conservation projects, as our knowledge is simply much higher than their, even without being a doctor or whatever.
At the end I would say that I do not regret any single day I spent there. Even though you sometimes get the feeling that you don't make a big impact, the big impact is composed of many little things each person does and I'm very very happy to be a part of it.

What would you improve about this program?
Improve communication between the office, the project coordinators and the volunteers to avoid cancelling the projects just before it's up to start.
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Yes, I recommend this program

A totally amazing and unforgettable experience!

I loved every second of my time with Big Beyond in Uganda and have since been back with them 2 more times. They totally welcomed me into the Big Beyond family and I felt safe and well looked after at all times. I was immersed into the local community from day one and made firm friends with local people as well as other volunteers during my time there.
Big Beyond adapted my program to my interests and skills and I had a diverse and extremely enjoyable teaching program. I worked with a range of local teachers and I know that the work that I carried out will have a sustainable impact on the community.
This organisation is the only one I have found which has real, sustainable impact and I could not imagine volunteering with another organisation.
Big Beyond make work fun every single day and I had so many brilliant and memorable experiences with them.
I would recommend anyone to go with this organisation to Uganda, go with an open mind, positive energy and you will have the time of your life whilst supporting the welcoming local community.

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Yes, I recommend this program

Happy Days

Ernest Hemmingway said; " I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy."

He wasn't in Bwindi, nor even Uganda, but the statement still applies. I spent an incredible few weeks on the Big Beyond project here, having arrived not knowing what to expect of the rainforest - all my Africa experiences had been desert and bush. I ended up staying for an extra week, enjoying one of the happiest and most meaningful Christmas's of my life, and am soon to return for a second visit.

This is probably the most rewarding volunteer project I have ever undertaken, being not only fun, educational and inspirational, it is also sustainable; giving a real purpose to the lives of the local people, and a sense of worthwhile achievement to the volunteers. I came away with the feeling that I had seen a very rare and beautiful part of Africa, carried out important work where it was needed, made some lifelong friends, and left a good impression behind me.

I would list this experience amongst the best things I have ever done.

What would you improve about this program?
Apart from a local shop selling bacon cheese and chocolate - nothing!