Dreading the idea of graduate life? Not fussed about heading to London just yet? Why not try International Citizen Service. International Citizen Service (ICS) is a government funded volunteering scheme which partners young people from the UK with young people from the developing world and places them with projects which have requested help.
ICS was something I did during my time from university three years ago and lots of people have been asking me about it recently as an option to do now they’ve graduated and have time. So, I thought I would make a post about my time with ICS and explain more about the programme and be completely honest about what I experienced.
Having changed course and taken a break from university in 2016 I had nine months of nothing, just waiting to get back to the crazy student lifestyle my friends plastered over social media. I wanted to travel and explore but more than that I wanted to do something that would help me grow and where I could help others. Inspired by friends I applied to be part of International Citizen Service and was selected by Restless Development to volunteer in Uganda. Restless Development are a youth led development agency who work with young people all around the world. I was going to work in Uganda where Restless Development teaches about sexual health and reproductive rights and HIV and AIDs, as well as helping young people develop sustainable livelihoods.
In order to join ICS, you have to do an intensive interview process after which I was accepted and sent off to Uganda; where I spent three of the most intense, scary and yet amazing months of my life.
Life in Uganda
When you arrive in your host country you do at least a week of training and learning about the country and programmes you will be delivering. As well as getting to know your UK and, in my case, Ugandan counterparts. For both countries people came from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and we ranged from 18 to 27 (for UK volunteers the age limit is 25 but for Ugandans it was older).
After 10 days of training by health professionals and Restless Development staff, I moved into my new home. For the first month, I lived in Kanjuki, with the local hairdresser and two other volunteers. However, after a tough month (read: endless sleepless nights due to rats scampering over our beds and bodies, the threat of ‘Night Dancers’ and fractions appearing in our group), I moved to another village. Of course, it was sad to leave the local children I’d begun to befriend; who called me ‘Mama Esther’ and led me around the village with sticky paws. I particularly missed my host sister Shima with who I shared a love of Taylor Swift with, and who took me around on her daily duties introducing me to all her friends and inviting me to hang out.
I moved to a tiny congregated iron hut in the village of Busaale, a small village with no running water or electricity. Here I was to spend two months with my new ‘mama’ and four lovely new sisters – my three fellow volunteers and our seven-year-old host sister Sandra.
We settled quickly into village life – getting up early to collect water from the borehole and washing with the morning sun beating our backs.
During most days we taught at local schools and ran sessions for youth groups in the afternoon. Although we were given guidance by Restless, we created the sessions ourselves and drew posters and created games to keep everyone entertained. Issues like menstruation and contraception are barely talked about in Uganda, even though it has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in sub-Saharan Africa. The only teaching girls get about menstruation is from their female family members so for those whose mother and aunts are not around it is incredibly difficult for them to learn. Menstruation is a taboo in Uganda so men are not usually taught anything, leading to them mocking and bullying girls when they are on their periods. This teasing combined with the difficulty to get sanitary supplies means many girls skip school on their period and this can cause them dropping out altogether. As women we found these facts particularly hard to swallow so made sure we focused a lot on menstruation, teaching both girls and boys how to deal with it.
I was use to classes of thirty at school but in Busaale a class of fifty was considered small, and often classes were combined for our talks leading to us speaking to over a hundred children at a time. My confidence had been severely knocked starting university and I was definitely not one for public speaking, however with only a small team we all needed to get involved and very soon I’d forgotten any fear I had. Before ICS I’d found the prospect of public speaking to even a small group terrifying, but by the end, I was happily leading seasons to hundreds of school children.
The good bits:
Busaale was a world away from anything I’d ever experienced. Whilst corrupt is rife in Uganda and something I came to experience on a regular basis, our host mother and family were some of the kindest people I’ve met. They brought us into their lives and shared everything. Unlike one of the fellow teams who’s host family stole the charity money and fed them only rice, our mother cared for us like her own. She was a fantastic cook, always trying to cook our favourite foods and provide us with fresh mangos and pineapple – I’ll always member how her brother brought us around twenty pineapples after we helped build his family a ‘tippy-tap’ to wash their hands.
Our placement was also very lucky that we had Kiran, not only one of the kindest people I’ve ever met (and now a life-long friend but also a fantastic cook. When Ugandan food was getting a bit too much, Kiran would make the most amazing curries and fresh chapatti, and when we could scourge eggs the fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever had. Unlike many volunteers, we ate an array of meals and were constantly battling against our host mother’s attempts to fatten us up!
After sessions, we’d help our mama cook and relax in our little room; whispering secrets and learning every word to the few songs we had saved on our phones. Our host sister Sandra would also join us after school, kneeling down in the dark and drawing us pictures of everything she’d seen in the day.
Sometimes we’d make the hour round trip to Kayunga town and treat ourselves to tiny tubs of ice-cream or even a plate of chips in a local ‘hotel’. We also ventured to Jinja, cramming into the smallest taxi (aka a precarious minibus) with around fifteen other people, a few babies and of course lots of chickens. Jinga was loud and colourful and completely different from Busaale. It’s where we went when someone had malaria or typhoid (surprisingly common) but also as a treat to go and visit the Nile. Go to the Nile. If you’re ever in Uganda, go to the Source of the Nile. It’s very, very beautiful and something you will never forget.
If you view ICS as a way of getting a new profile picture and having a long sunny holiday then beware, its not a holiday. They always say this and its easy to ignore, but it really isn’t a holiday. ICS is scary. It just is. Most of the people I was out with got malaria or typhoid and it is a pretty eye opening experience to be with your friend in a hospital where you have to go out and buy your own loo roll or food, and where you need to keep an eye on her drip because the nurses are just so busy. There are a lot of superstitions in Uganda and it is pretty terrifying to be in a place where everyone believes in witchcraft and ‘night dancers’ (cannibals) apparently live in your village and try to bash down the door to your tin house at 3am (this actually happened). Some people are also, understandably considering history, very anti westerners and you will recieve lot of abuse. You will also have a hell of a lot of experiences with rats, and cockroaches. But do you know what, you just have to deal with that, because when everything else is happening a cockroach invested toilet doesn’t seem that bad.
Also a major issue I had with ICS is the lack of teaching support we got. Although we had basic knowledge on most of the things we were teaching, with some topics we lack sufficient knowledge and experience in dealing with the situation. When I landed all I knew about HIV and AIDs was what I’d seen on Comic Relief and there is only so much you can learn in a week, especially when you are in a new country trying to make new friends and also refresh everything you learnt in GCSE biology… So it’s very fair to say we were not in the right position to be teaching and talking to children who have all had some experience with it. I will always remember one girl putting her hand up and telling us that her mum had just been diagnosed with AIDs and what could she do? I’ve never felt more out of my depth and more uncomfortable about the fact that I am a privileged white girl who was over there for three months to then leave them all behind. I hope that since I’ve done ICS the training has improved. It is a great programme and has so much potential to build friendships between countries and debunk myths on menstruation but there is a very fine line between the work and being a ‘white saviour’.
But despite everything I’m still very glad I did it. It certainly wasnt easy but ICS takes you out of comfort zone and places you in situations you’d rarely even dream of. It is hard. You will get homesick, you will get physically sick and you will receive abuse from some of the people you’re trying to help. But you’ll also meet amazing people, make friends you’ll always remember and have the possibility to change lives.
If you’re stuck after graduation I would definitely recommend looking in to it.