Aid work in Uganda: Why less is more for one young German | Generation 25 | DW | 20.09.2015
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Generation 25

Aid work in Uganda: Why less is more for one young German

She says she feels a connection to Africa and has everything she needs there. Lisa is a volunteer in Uganda - but homesickness is a foreign concept to her. Here's more on Lisa in Africa.

Lisa Zeumer moved to Uganda in 2015 to volunteer with an initiative created by the the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), called "weltwärts" - which translates as "out into the world."

We tried to get in touch with Lisa using Skype. After a few initial rings the connection seemed to break down each time. Lisa later told us that in the end she had to move to another room in order to have a better Wifi signal for the call. Despite the weak connection, we finally managed to talk to her and get her on video as well. Here's what she told us.

DW: It looks like we got a decent connection at last. Thanks for bearing with us! We can see you. How are you today?

Lisa Zeumer: I'm fine, thanks. I'm really enjoying Uganda.

Where are you right now?

In Kampala, Uganda's capital. I'm at a little art gallery, where I like to spend my spare time.

What have you been up to today?

Right now I'm actually on vacation. But on an average day in Kampala, you'll find me at the main office of the Katosi Women Development Trust, an NGO which we are in close cooperation with. I write proposals and reports, do research, and support this office in whatever way I can.

But the majority of my time is spent at the village of Katosi, which is located on Lake Victoria. It's a little fishing village, about two-and-a-half hours away from Kampala. That's where most of my life and my work takes place.

Describe your first visit to Katosi.

Watch video 00:53

Lisa's answer

What was it like for you to move to the fishing village of Katosi after living in Germany?

Well, there's no denying that things are somewhat different here than they are in Germany. But when I had initially arrived in Uganda I spent the first two months living in the capital city of Kampala. I took part in workshops, where I began to meet various women's groups and gradually got used to my surroundings. So when I later made the move to Katosi, I didn't have any culture shock or anything.

Can you describe what your life is like there?

Watch video 01:18

Lisa's answer

Do you miss anything from Germany?

I'm actually amazed to say that I don't, especially when it comes to materialistic things.

What exactly is it that you do in Katosi?

I work with various primary schools and so-called sanitation clubs. What this means is that we try to educate children to adopt sensible hygiene measures. We teach them how to wash their hands properly and how to build so-called tippy taps, which basically are improvised sinks made of a disused canister, some string and a few tree branches. We also speak to the kids about water purification techniques and teach them how to keep toilets clean and functioning. Not only do these sanitation clubs serve to build up their foundations of hygiene but they also impart valuable knowledge that the children can also pass on to their families and peers. And in addition to all that I also specialize in working with various women's groups.

Watch video 00:49

Lisa's answer

How did the women of Katosi receive you? What was that like?

They honestly embraced me with open arms. They're all interested in being part of the workshops and learning more. They're all eager to further themselves. It's a lot fun to get to work with the women.

What are these women like?

They're inspiring women. Strong women. I'm impressed by all of them. There are a few among them, for example, who work as school teachers, but still don't manage to earn enough money to make ends meet and sufficiently take care of their children. They go on to get another job and still find time to do volunteer work. Then there are some other women, who have very limited financial means and struggle to make a living at all. Still, they adopt orphans and manage to scrape together their school fees.

How did you come up with the idea of volunteering in Uganda for a whole year?

I studied social work and started working in Germany after finishing university. I did that for a number of years but always felt drawn toward doing something in economic cooperation, so I thought that getting involved in "weltwärts" would be a good opportunity. I started doing some research online and found the work that is being done with the ladies here in Katosi. Since I had worked in youth services in Germany before, where I dealt with many women's and children's issues, I thought it would be a good fit. I had always wanted to spend some time in an African country. Somehow I feel connected to Africa. Uganda is good to me.

Could you imagine staying in Uganda for longer?

Definitely. I could even imagine not just staying here, but living here for a long period of time. But I don't have any designs or plans to that end at this point.

Katosi, Uganda, Copyright: Lisa Zeumer

Katosi, Uganda

Are you scared of having to look for a new job when you return from Uganda?

I wouldn't say that I'm scared. But of course it's sensible to start thinking about what comes next. I completed my Bachelor's degree, and now I'm thinking about doing a Master's next, perhaps. I have a few ideas of what my life after Uganda might be like.

Do you have any particular career goals?

I think I'd like to keep working for NGOs or stay in the area of economic cooperation. That's all, really.

Do you consider your year abroad in Uganda an exercise in personal growth, or is there more to it? Do you mainly focus on the kind of change that you can be part of?

I would hope that both of those statements could be true. This has indeed been a hugely rewarding time for me, but I hope that my work here can equally be regarded as rewarding for those who live in Katosi. I suppose that I have managed to make a small contribution to Katosi, for instance by teaching women some key skills that will help them in making a living. I do believe that through my work I can instigate change and support people in their endeavors. But there have also been times when I have had to question myself and reconsider how much I can actually achieve here when the truth of the matter is that I'm here for just such a short time, and I don't even speak the people's language.

Have you learned to speak their language, Luganda, in the meantime?

A little. But I'm nowhere near perfecting it. I can communicate about everyday things but I can't address every last subject matter. But the locals really appreciate when you at least try to speak their language.

How did your parents react when you told them that you'd be going to Uganda for a whole year?

They were very supportive of my decision, actually. But I can imagine that it isn't exactly easy to let go of your child.

You were born in 1989 - the year the Berlin Wall came down and just before German reunification - near Leipzig in eastern Germany. Your parents were not able to travel outside East Germany when they were younger - let alone do aid work in Uganda. Have you talked with them about that?

Watch video 00:30

Lisa's answer

Do you consider it a privilege that you get to travel around the world this way?

Having the freedom to travel is a huge privilege. Freedom in general, is. I am very aware of how lucky I am.

Does the fact that you were born and grew up in eastern Germany factor in at all with your decisions and lifestyle?

I don't think your background should ever play a role. Whether you're from the East or West, who cares? I personally don't. But I don't believe that everyone's on the same page with me on this. Some people still seem to make a big deal out of it.

Do you still hear those terms like "Ossi" for someone who comes from the East and "Wessi" for someone from western Germany?

You can't really escape those labels, but I avoid using them myself. I don't understand why some people still see a need to refer to each other in those terms. We've now had a unified Germany for 25 years. After all that time, why should I still care to make a distinction between someone who comes from the state of Saxony-Anhalt and someone who comes from the state of Hesse? I don't see any reason to point out differences where there are none.

Do you miss home?

I can't say that I feel homesick at all. But there are times when I miss my family and friends. But on the whole I'm really happy here. The Internet is a great tool to help keep me in touch with my loved ones back home, both friends and family.

Since you're planning to stay in Uganda until the end of December, do you already have an idea of what experiences you will take back to Germany with you?

I'm still learning things every day. I most definitely can say that I managed to get acquainted with the processes involved in running a professional NGO. And I've also become much better at navigating new terrain. On a more personal level, I've perhaps managed to learn to be more relaxed and easy-going about things, and also how to improvise more in everyday situations and challenges. The women of Katosi are real experts at improvising. But in truth, I will probably only get to grasp the full extent of my experiences here once I return to Germany.

Is there a particular moment that stood for you during your time in Uganda?

In July, we built some energy-saving stoves in one of our workshops. Everyone wanted to be in on that course, and so we managed to build nine of these stoves within a matter of two or three hours. I don't think I'll ever forget that.

What's next for you while you're still in Uganda?

For the time being I'm going to enjoy my vacation time, and plan to take a trip to the Ssese Islands. But there's still a lot that I want to get done during the four months that I'm still going to be here. I would like to devise a program for the sanitation clubs that would help them to continue with the workshops even after I'm gone. They don't always have a volunteer, so I would really like to leave a curriculum or something behind. I really want to make sure that my work here is sustainable, that's all. Who knows if I will manage to even do all that?

Lisa Zeumer at the equator, Copyright: Lisa Zeumer

Lisa tries to take time to travel as well - and made it to the equator

Last year, 3,381 volunteers traveled abroad with the "weltwärts" program created by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). They were all aged between 18 and 27 years old. 68.2 percent of the volunteers were women. The organization says it expects the number of volunteers for 2015 to rise to roughly 3,500.

A research team with the charity "Lernen und Helfen Übersee" (Learn and help abroad) found that there's been a steady increase in volunteers going abroad from Germany. Looking at numbers recorded between 2008 and 2010, the charity observed that an additional 1,800 volunteers had joined various private as well as government-sponsored volunteering programs during that time.

There are 7,800 German volunteers presently involved in aid projects around the world, and their average age is 19.3 years old.

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