Conversations with volunteers: Eilís McDonald

Continuing our series of interviews with development workers and volunteers, retired teacher and long term volunteer Eilís McDonald writes for us below reflecting on her many years volunteering experiences in Malawi, Uganda and Kenya.

Eilísh speaking at the Irish Aid Volunteering Fair


” Things do go wrong sometimes.  Mostly something that seems perfectly ok on paper, doesn’t translate the way we expect.  This is often due to our own stupidity, lack of experience, culture clashes that neither we or those others involved can understand.  Our best intentions may totally miss the mark and be totally misunderstood.  And if we don’t speak the local language, translations will often be misunderstood also.”

Eilís McDonald is my name, from Stratford-on-Slaney, Co. Wicklow. I’m a 72yr old widowed retired teacher.  Finding myself alone with no calls on my time I could for the first time in my life choose what I wanted to do. A long time yearning to go to Africa, probably stemming from the “black babies” collections at school could now be fulfilled so I had a 5 week placement in a school in Uganda to see if I would be able for the place.  It worked out very well so I spent two years preparing for early retirement and disposing of chattels, clutter and my accumulated treasures. It took great energy and determination to decide what I really wanted to keep (everything), what I must keep (very little) and what would comfort me later (photographs – mostly and my very few bits of jewellery).

My first placement was in Malawi but for many reasons it didn’t work out and after 3 months I was back home, dispirited and confused but not defeated.  I had rushed off like a headless chicken without proper preparation and soon paid the price.

Next time I did the preparation, examined all the angles, worked to my own strengths and applied for a teaching related position to VMM, a faith based volunteer organisation. On their questionnaire I ticked the boxes for teaching related work, living alone or in small group, rural setting, children or young adults, no war or troubled areas, no slums or hospital work.  I’d be no help at all to old or sick people.

I was given a placement that suited me perfectly, rural western Uganda, teaching English and Art at a Teacher Training College and living alone in a little house on the compound of a nearby boarding school. I loved it there, made millions of mistakes which caused great consternation and/or amusement to my new colleagues.  When someone said that Sr. Margaret was lost, I thought they meant that she was dead. I was quite upset as I had spoken to her by phone a day earlier on a work related issue but it meant that she hasn’t been around for a while.

The greatest challenge there was time keeping.  In Uganda or in Kenya very few activities start at the stated time. My students could be half an hour late coming to class, workshops timetabled to start at 8 am may eventually get going at 10am. Meetings almost always start more than an hour later than advertised.  The exception to this are church services.

Mass almost always starts on the dot of time but then they go on forever lasting at least two hours. However with all the beautiful singing and clapping and processions to the altar with offertory, for communion or for special blessings,its quite a social event.  Prayers of the faithful are exactly that! Anybody can join the group at the foot of the steps and one by one each says whatever prayer is on their mind, exam success, illness, death, lack of work, good crops, blessings for the school year, journeys to be undertaken, operations, losses etc.

I settled well in my new environment. It was strange and different but I enjoyed the challenge. I tried all the food I was offered and liked some more than others but ate a little of everything. I don’t really care for millet at all, a brown gloopy mess or  posho – a white slab made by mixing maize flour and boiling water. Its called by different names, Nsiima, ugali but many countries have either or both of them for almost every meal.  Porridge is another food I enjoy at home but there it is a gruel type of thick liquid drink that looks like wallpaper paste. I’ve never tasted it as the look of it puts me off.

But I do like matoke (cooked green bananas) and groundnut sauce (ground peanuts) and goat. Nobody in rural area use packet flavours or seasoning but have local herbs and spices  which do a good job. Even though our area has lots of tea and coffee growing,  the locals  don’t use them but for tea they stuff a handful of herbs and maybe some tea leaves into a kettle of boiled milk and water and serve that often at 11am.  Into it everybody shovels two heaped tablespoons of sugar and thats our break tea! Maybe with it sometimes there are roasted peanuts or a banana or as a special treat there may even be dry sliced bread eaten without butter or jam.  Sliced pans in Uganda are sweet – having a cheese sandwich is a bit of  a challenge but we do –  or do without! Sometimes I’d dream of having a rasher sandwich like I had a home


Street View of Kampala, Uganda by Justin Raycraft

There’s lots of meat available, the best of steak is to be had at a fraction of whatever is paid at home. Trouble is you might be a bit put off by seeing it hanging with hoofs and tail still attached dangling from a butcher’s window surrounded by blue bottles.  The best idea is to go for it very early as you see the wheelbarrow bringing fresh produce from the field of slaughter straight to the shop. There are few enough flies around at 7 or 8 am.  That meat would take many hours cooking to make a decent stew but we do it and relish it! And of course nobody would make a small pot of stew. We’d make enough to feed a threshing and invite volunteer colleagues to join us. Nobody would come empty handed and a great time would be had by all with many photos to send home to show that we’re not lonely at all, at all.  Yesterday or tomorrow the story might be different and often is but we keep each other going when the going is rough.

Things do go wrong sometimes.  Mostly something that seems perfectly ok on paper, doesn’t translate the way we expect.  This is often due to our own stupidity, lack of experience, culture clashes that neither we or those others involved can understand.  Our best intentions may totally miss the mark and be totally misunderstood.  And if we don’t speak the local language, translations will often be misunderstood also.

I’ve been in Uganda since 2010, foostering along, making lots of mistakes and not always learning much from them.  Its easy to be friendly with people and to share with them what we have but it is most difficult to be equal friends.  I have things and gadgets that everybody wants, my laptop, phone, kindle, watch, and I and all volunteers are seen to have access to lots of money and power.

My watch is the only bit of jewellery I have with me. I wear locally made ear-rings and necklaces, skirts and trousers but the perception is that I, and all white people have access to shovels full of cash.  We are targeted as friends so that we can be relied on to help our friend whenever the need arises and it will arise very soon! Even those with whom we are working will be asked by their family and friends to get financial help/sponsorship/school fees/hospital bills/medicine etc from us for them.

  All volunteers get sucked into hardship stories and nearly all get stung in one way or another. But hardship does exist and sometimes it is no hardship to us to help and it is almost certain that all volunteers are supporting someone through school, college, an illness, or even several generations of  families.  We are all asked for loans and so long as we know that the money we loan will very rarely be repaid to us, then we are ok.

We are often helping exactly where it is needed. On the ground we can see the difficulty, assess the need and give the bit of help that moves someone to safer ground. There’s no one  taking a cut! You are helping  and you are also listening!  So you give of yourself, time and empathy and show compassion.  I used to carry sweets in my bag and give them to children I meet but I don’t do that anymore. I fear it is creating an expectation in them that isin’t fair. They learn to say “give me money” very early and because some do give money, we have trained them to expect or at least hope that every white person will do the same. There’s a fine line somewhere between being supportive to those who need help and creating a dependency that white people will sort their problems for them.  For my work which is about getting rid of corporal punishment in schools, I work with teachers in their staffroom to help them find ways of managing their classrooms and schools in a more child friendly manner. So I’m here with skills to pass on to other teachers, skills learned in my own teaching career.

Eilís speaking about her volunteering experiences at the Irish Aid Volunteering Fair 2018

There is a similar baseline for us all to work from. Ireland only got rid of corporal punishment 40 years ago so we are just a few lessons ahead of them.    We can work well together on a level that is comfortable for them and for me. I bring with me only my laptop and projector so we can all view the material I use which was designed and produced in Uganda by an organisation called “Raising Voices”. They need no equipment and I don’t have to bring “things” for the programme to work.  Its an education programme delivered to teachers by a retired teacher. The objective is of course so wide reaching that it has the potential to affect  every child in the land.

I love Uganda and Kenya, love the opportunity to travel, to see new places, to experience all the challenges offered by hot, wet, dusty climate, mosquitoes, cramped battered old busses that run at unpredictable times, the stench and the beauty of the city and the countryside, the friendly decent people, the thieves, millions of smiling happy children in their school uniforms growing up rapidly in a country that is not ready to accommodate them.  I love rooting around the markets, haggling for old clothes or fresh fruit and vegetables.  I love the exasperating  unpredictability of power cuts, sudden rain, water shortage,  delays, queueing for everything. It gives me time to stop and realise that its ok not to be so full of my own importance.

You can find other reflections from volunteers and development workers on our blog here and here