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Soft Power Education & VolunTourism
Soft Power Education (SPE) celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Founded by Hannah Small in 1999, the organization has played a part in assisting the Ugandan educational system in progressing towards achievement of the 2015 United Nations Development Goals. Sharon Webb, Volunteer Co-ordinator for SPE, takes time out of her busy schedule in Jinja, Uganda to offer responses to this issue's 3Q's.
Quite often, I am asked: "What opportunities exist for short-term voluntary service engagements for travelers that are also sustainable?" Well, in this issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter, I would like to introduce you to Soft Power Education (SPE) in Uganda and let you discover for yourself how this organization meets the dual criteria of this request and much, much more.
1) What was the inspiration behind the creation of Soft Power Education?
"Soft Power Education is the vision of Hannah Small, Founder and Chairperson. She saw a unique opportunity for engaging tourists in sustainable development through short term engagements. Initially she worked as an overland driver and travelled extensively. After spending several years with tourists she saw their desire to contribute something back to the countries they were passing through and the potential of offering a unique opportunity to get involved at the grass roots level for a short period of time but without leaving a void when the tourists left. By employing locally trained builders and workers, the work is able to continue with the funding left by the tourists.
In the beginning the whole idea was met with little encouragement but Hannah was persistent and few could have imagined that 10 years later over 7000 volunteers would have spent a day volunteering with us, in 2008 alone donating over $25,000! With this incredible amount of support Soft Power Education has been able to renovate and refurbish 40 Government Primary Schools in 7 sub counties of Uganda, working on over 400 classrooms as well as building numerous pit latrines and installing 24 water catchment systems.
In addition to the 1000 annual ‘one dayers’ we also welcome around 150 individual volunteers and approximately 150 students during the summer months. Many of these volunteers ‘found’ Soft Power whilst volunteering for one day or heard about us from someone who volunteered for one day and return to spend longer volunteering with us. Word of mouth is truly our best friend! They raise incredible amounts of money for us by doing all kinds of crazy sponsored events and fundraising initiatives."
How have the residents of the local communities in which you operate been involved in the programs that you offer voluntourists?
"It is vital for us that the local community is actively involved in all of our projects to give them a sense of ownership. This aspect is essential to ensure that the local communities do not take the work we do simply as handouts, which will only serve to increase dependency. With our school refurbishment programme, we hold a meeting with the school and their committee before beginning work and all schools have to agree to certain conditions before we begin work on their school such as agreeing to provide lunch for all of our builders and volunteers working on site; a secure room for our tools or volunteers to stay in if they are sleeping on site; a regular supply of water and at several schools parents of the school have actually dug the foundations for us!
We have an Education Centre based in the heart of Kyabirwa village close to Bujagali Falls, through this centre we offer numerous programmes aimed at giving access to life skills – agriculture programmes, tailoring and carpentry workshops, art and craft apprenticeship schemes. We conduct base line surveys before embarking on any project and ensure the projects are viable for the communities they are aimed at. This centre also runs a very successful Pupil’s Project. We bring over 3000 pupils to the centre and they experience hands on learning activities in ICT, Drama, Art and Library Sessions. In addition Agriculture and Science are also taught on outreach sessions at the schools.
Before any of this even started a meeting was held with all the head teachers to figure out the best way of reaching as many pupils as possible with lessons which were going to be beneficial. Before the start of each year a further meeting is held to run through the programme for the year so that this information can be taken back to the parents of the pupils. The schools all sign MOUs (memorandum of understanding) with us and agree to provide certain items such as equipment for building hand washing facilities and lunch for the outreach tutors. With all of our projects we feel it is essential that the projects work as partnerships."
3) Why do you feel it is important to connect travellers to local communities through short-term engagements in service?
"Cultural exchange is an incredibly important part of life for all of us. Not simply for the tourists visiting Uganda to understand the culture and way of life here but also for Ugandans to be able to see beyond their country and through the tourists learn about other cultures. We feel this is particularly important for children in the western world and many of our volunteers return home and give presentations on Uganda. In addition we have several links set up with schools in the UK and Uganda which allows pupils from both countries to explore the other culture.
Whilst travelling it is incredibly easy to stick to the tourist route staying at the same campsites as every other tourist and never really venturing off the beaten track. Our volunteer programmes allow the tourists the opportunity to venture off this path and give something back to the country they are travelling to. It is a chance to see the ‘real uganda’ rather than just going from campsite to campsite.
Probably the most important aspect of our programmes is that the volunteers, whether spending one day with us or three months, can physically see where their donation is being spent. They can see we have no fancy offices, no one is driving around in big 4x4s and they can see the projects going on. They can see the paint we have bought to help paint the school and that the buildings have all been renovated prior to them painting. With so many Voluntourism organisations out there charging huge amounts for ‘an experience’ our volunteers truly find it refreshing that we offer voluntourism activities whilst remaining a charity with no one lining their pockets from the donations.
Throughout the western world there is a misconception that the whole of Africa is starving, and living in a barren desolate landscape with war raging at every turn. This perception is thanks to the media portrayal of this continent and the fact that only the negative aspects of Africa ever make the news. It is therefore essential to engage tourists travelling through so that they may in turn return home to correct this misconception and encourage others to visit. In turn this increase in tourism can help to lift the countries and boost their economies.
Uganda is a lush, green and incredibly welcoming country with smiling children everywhere shouting ‘Mzungu mzungu’. We feel honoured and privileged to work in such a beautiful environment. We encourage everyone to visit!
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