Chun van der Vaart’s experience as an intern in Uganda!

When I first stepped out of the airplane, the first thought in my head was, “Wow, it smells so different here than at home.” The second thought was, “Oh my, it’s so hot!” Those were the first differences that I noticed between the Netherlands and Uganda. Maybe the temperature was the most obvious one because while I was already sweating, we were picked up by Mercy, who was dressed in long pants and a sweater. And from that point on, I am constantly phased by the differences, and sometimes similarities.

One of my favorite surprises is the unparalleled kindness and warmth of the Ugandan people. “You are most welcome” is not just a polite response to a thank-you as we say at home—it is a genuine sentiment shared when you walk into a room. It is the first thing that comes to mind when friends and family from home ask me about the people here. They are the most welcoming.

However, my eagerness to embrace this hospitality sometimes led me into unexpected predicaments. In my initial naivety, I found it difficult to decline offered gestures of generosity. This resulted in a rather amusing yet discomfortable encounter during my visit to Muni University in Arua.

The moment we stepped foot on campus, we were pleasantly surprised by a cultural appreciation day. It was a unique opportunity to learn about the many different cultures that exist within Uganda. We were given front-row seats to the songs, dances, and performances of the students who proudly represented their own culture. Our friend who brought us to the university wanted us to personally meet the students who were from his own region, Western Uganda. And when we sat down with them, we were offered a traditional drink, Bushera. Obviously, I could not refuse. Me, Lisa, Deniz, and Esther each received a cup, filled to the brim (courtesy of the well-intentioned students), but we all drank it in different quantities. Deniz only drank one sip and then politely put it down. Esther and Lisa finished their cup, and when my cup was finished, I went to put it down as well. However, the student who offered the drink to us gestured to give her the cup. I thought, “Oh, that is nice, she wants to put the cup away for me,” but this was not the case. While I was distracted and talking to the rest of the students, she came back with another cup, that of course, was filled to the brim! And as I did not want to come across as rude, I finished the second cup as well.

Proud of having finished two whole cups, I felt pretty good about myself until the next day. Because when I woke up, it was the start of a long week accompanied by a lot of visits. Me visiting the toilet and the hospital for a malaria test, and other people visiting me, a kind neighbor, a nurse, and the project manager of AEE. I felt particularly sorry for myself when I was still feeling unwell on my birthday. But fortunately, the rest of the girls made it bearable by decorating the living room, preparing presents, and giving a beautiful (albeit a bit off-key) “Happy Birthday” performance.

Luckily, to conclude my story on a more positive note, this was the only time I fell ill in Uganda. And lesson learned: do not blindly accept everything that is offered to you, especially when it is a traditional drink with who-knows-what mixed in.

Most of my time in Uganda was dedicated to my internship activities. Alongside the incredible team from AEE in Terego-West and my fellow interns, I was privileged to experience several instances that have left a lasting impression on me. From conducting child-monitoring sessions at local schools to engaging in insightful interviews with parents from nearby communities, and even observing parenting groups in action—each moment was another lesson, in empathy, resilience, and the power of community.

This internship, this adventure, has been an unparalleled learning journey for me. It has provided me with insights into the complexities of development work and the profound impact it has on individuals and communities alike. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of such meaningful work, and I am eager to carry forward the lessons learned into my future endeavors.

Chun van der Vaart

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