Linda Ozromano | Contributor
Editor’s Note: Photographer Linda Ozromano writes more about her experience volunteering in Uganda and explains the theme of this week’s photo album.
During the summer of 2011, CVAP ( Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program), worked with four different local partner organizations in which both Canadian and Ugandan volunteers took part in. I worked at one of these organizations called TASO which stands for ” The AIDS Support Organization.” It is a non-governmental organization founded in 1987 by a group of 16 volunteers including people living with HIV/AIDS. From a small group initiative, TASO has grown into one of the biggest organized national responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Uganda and the sub-Saharan region. TASO has 11 service centers in the districts of Gulu, Jinja, Kampala, Masaka, Masindi, Mbale, Mbarara, Rukungiri, Soroti, Tororo and Wakiso.
As volunteers, we did not choose where we were going to work at but we were specifically placed according to our strengths and weaknesses. The first time I heard that I was going to work at TASO, I should say I got pretty anxious. I did not see myself working at a medical environment since I had no prior knowledge of HIV/AIDS and I have been generally oversensitive at the sight of blood. Yet, I was told that TASO was one of the biggest non-governmental organizations in Uganda and had many different departments which included services not only in the medical care, but also in counseling, social support, community sensitization, HIV education, advocacy and research. As a result, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to be only working at a laboratory so I took this placement as an opportunity to overcome my fears and prejudgment on something that was so familiar to Africans but not so much to the rest of the world, especially to North Americans.
I was very warmly welcomed by the TASO staff and always felt comfortable and at home while working with them. One of the most important cultural differences that I experienced with other Canadian volunteers was the work environment, the structure of a business day and the process of bureaucracy. We always started the day with prayers, singing and dancing, even at the general staff meetings. Everyone was interested in each other’s problems and cared about each other very much. Asking about someone else’s family or friends’ well-being was one of the most important things to do within a day. Yes, the bureaucratic process of how things worked was quite different and way slower but I never considered this as a symbol of ineffectiveness or laziness; on the contrary it was part of their cultures’ courtesy and a matter of living with different priorities within the daily life.
During my volunteer experience at TASO, I met many people among the staff from the Medical Department, Counseling Department, Social Support Department, and Research and Data center. After working at several different tasks, we were placed at the Social Support Department and directly worked with an AIDS Challenge Youth Club (ACYC) for community sensitization on HIV/AIDS. This youth group consisted of 23 members between the ages of 13 to 25. The members of the group were selected based on their status of HIV/AIDS: they were either HIV positive or had HIV positive parents or family members. The group’s aim was to visit various parishes for community mobilization and sensitization through performing drama and traditional dance. In addition to sensitizing communities about relevant HIV/AIDS issues, the group members themselves also became empowered through participating in the group’s activities. They have considered dance and drama as a therapy to overcome their own vulnerabilities. We interacted with this youth group many times, attended their outreach performances, and worked closely with TASO to assess their specific needs. We also tried to encourage the youth through discussing the skills of each and every member of the group and the challenges of the team all together. One of the dance and drama performances we attended attracted more than 100 people from all ages in a village called Lukodi in which I also had the change of photographing some of the audience. TASO’s main trained dance and drama group also performed in CVAP’s Sports Gala to sensitize the audience on HIV/AIDS which I included in my photographs as well.
I learnt so much from my volunteer experience at TASO. As a volunteer, one of the most important values that I always tried to promote was the principle of sustainability. This meant that us as volunteers were expected to be sensitive to community’s needs and desires and to always entail the active participation of the local people in development projects. It also meant that any projects implemented were expected to have long-term goals in mind and be continued after the departure of the volunteers. As an individual passionate about international development issues, I have also learnt how to initiate, implement, and finalize a project in spite of the cultural differences. And most importantly, I have gained immense knowledge and experience about the way to combat HIV/AIDS, and the importance of encouraging people on “living positively” with HIV/AIDS. I was deeply touched by the extent of HIV/AIDS within the community; how it was so widely common, accepted and was a harsh reality in one’s every-day life, and how it affected each and everyone from all ages. Meeting some of these very special people and listening to their personal stories changed my perspective on life and reminded me of how precious our living standards are which we always take for granted.
Editor’s Note: More from Project Maisha next week.