volunteer with Ugandan locals

"As I passed out the cookies to the children I asked myself, how did I get here? The short answer was that I had asked if passing out fruit would be better, and was told: 'Kids like cookies – if you really want to thank the Ugandans for their hospitality, you need to give cookies.' So what as the long story? I had been fired, and obviously travel was the only thing that made sense." ~Nora Livingstone

I had never been fired before. I was always the model daughter, over-achiever, and exceptional student; then suddenly the universe thought I didn’t have enough character. I was fired from three jobs in two years unceremoniously, one, a week before my birthday (which is a few days before Christmas)! Every time I was fired I would call my dad and through tears tell him everything was okay, I would be okay, things would be okay, but I was fired. Closer to the two year mark I would add again to the ends of all those sentences. The first job was, obviously, my dream job, something that I was born for, and when I was fired I was devastated. It was one of those ‘you don’t really get along with management’ firings. I was told I ‘went rogue’ and needed to communicate more. I had thought I was independent and didn’t need to be micro-managed. I spent 9 months looking for work, applying for everything and anything, and getting nothing. I took a job I didn’t really love but knew I would be great at. I was great! So great I was fired because the managers said I was probably going to find something better. This was their way of having me leave when it was convenient for them. The final ill-fated job was my second-calling job. I was fabulous at it and it loved me. I was the community manager and I rocked that community, but due to restructuring and a total company change I was suddenly without a job… again.

I did some community development for a local forestry group and we fell deeply in love. I adored the organic, local, native planting they believed in and they liked me… for some reason. It was obviously too good to be true and when I was called to have a meeting I was sure I was about to be fired for the fourth time. Instead, they asked me a ridiculous question. Did I want to go to Uganda? They were supposed to go and visit a community they would be investing in but one of the co-founders was pregnant and she would be darned if her husband would be going to Uganda without her! My non-pregnant self was heading to Uganda!

It was warm and humid when the plane touched down. Maybe it was the huge smile on the face of the man who picked me up from the airport or maybe the fact that my hotel was on Livingstone street, but I felt immediately at home. I would be working with a forester named Stanley who would be bringing me to a remote village to make sure this community was interested in being invested in. Forestry in Uganda is tricky. As a way to make quick (and thought to be plentiful) funds, there have been many groups who have invested in the pine and eucalyptus trade. Both of those trees are not native to Uganda and both of them are TERRIBLE for the soil, local fauna, and of course, native flora. To make matters worse, there have been so many recent projects that there is an over-saturation in the market, so these people were making no money when they tried to sell their lumber. Basically they were being fired… something I understood all too well.

We drove into these villages’ forests every day and it was amazing to see how proud these foresters were, not only of their trees, but also of their family farms. Walking through family farms in Uganda is like walking through Eden. There are no pesticides and everything is planted intentionally and with distinct purpose. There are banana trees over coffee bushes, corn next to tangerines, beans on top of sweet potatoes, and mangoes in between the rows of peas. It’s farming done right and it was awesome to see people take pride in showing off their beautiful farms.

The group I was working with wanted to be absolutely certain that the revolutionary project they would be helping fund was actually something the community wanted, not just something being pushed on them. So why was it so revolutionary? This would be the first time an international group would be funding a forestry project that would have only Ugandans planting Ugandan native trees. I found that the Ugandans hadn’t ever been asked if they wanted this; or asked what they wanted ever for that matter. They just had people swoop in and tell them how to be ‘successful’ in western standards. No one said, do you want to farm? Okay, well what do you want to farm? The sad truth was, if they wanted to keep these contracts and keep this investment in their kids’ education and their communities, they would have to go along with projects they didn’t believe in. They would be fired if they were too independent.  Something else I knew very well.

Every time I sat down with the farmers and foresters I asked if they were happy with this idea; if they wanted to plant native trees. Every time they emphatically said yes. They were Ugandan farmers, they wanted to keep on farming and they wanted to plant Ugandan crops. They always finished the same way – always adding that they had never been asked before. Once again, this resonated deep in my bones. Did anyone really ask me what I wanted? Had I ever really asked myself what I wanted?

On the last day of the project they wanted to have a town meeting and I demanded to buy the snacks. I looked over the delicious fresh fruit that made my mouth water and was given the ‘are you kidding me?’ look by Stanley. “They are kids Nora, what do kids want? You have to think about what they want, not what you think they want.”

Fair enough, that was MY ENTIRE job while traveling in Uganda. What did these people want? They wanted the same thing I wanted. They wanted autonomy. They didn’t want to be told what to do, they didn’t want to be guided around, they didn’t want to be told the answers to their problems. They wanted a hand up. They knew exactly what they wanted, the same thing we all want, simply: a voice! Cookies were purchased with my listening cap firmly stuck on my head. 

So what did I learn? Being fired isn’t fatal—in fact it can lead to Eden! But more importantly, I learned that sometimes being the best voice to the ‘voiceless’ means shutting your mouth and listening for a bit. Give the people what they ask for—sometimes that’s investment in native trees, sometimes it’s cookies. And by people, I mean me. Of course. 

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About The Author

Nora Livingstone's picture

Nora Livingstone is the Co-Founder and CEO of Animal Experience International, a B Corp that matches animal lovers with beneficial and adventurous volunteer experiences around the world. She has volunteered with animals in more than 25 countries, including Croatia, Mongolia, Sierra Leone, and Guatemala. Nora holds a double major from Trent University in Environmental Studies and Cultural Anthropology and holds internationally recognized certifications for guiding, leadership, crisis intervention, and deployment during natural disasters. She carries a tiny plastic horse and stuffed mouse with her every time she travels.

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