Volunteering overseas isn’t just about your time spent on humanitarian projects. Of course, that’s the main reason you go, and it is the most fulfilling aspect of the trip, that will shape your memories of the experience in years to come. But it’s also about experiencing the country through the lens of cultural immersion and opening oneself up to things the average tourist never sees.
Based as I was in Kampala, opportunities for this abounded, and there are too many to list here. But the particular experience that sticks out in my mind was the Uganda vs. Tanzania football (soccer) match. I went to see this with some of my fellow volunteers at the Nelson Mandela stadium on the outskirts of the city.
Wander down a high street in Uganda and it’s not uncommon to see people huddled around TV screens or radios transmitting the latest match, and this passion for football extends to the kids of the school I worked at. Every playtime there would be at least one impromptu match being played on the grounds, with swathes of excited kids chasing a bundle of bunched plastic bags (actual balls are something they can only dream of accessing), dreaming of emulating their heroes one day.
As anyone who attends major sporting events knows, a little drink or two on your way to the game is a must. I very much doubt that the locals at the bar we dropped in were expecting a gaggle of ‘Mzungus’ (white people), clad in Ugandan football shirts and face paint, to show up. But, in true hospitable Ugandan form, they took us to their hearts, toasting us with the favourite Ugandan tipple of Nile Beer, as they earmarked Ugandan players we should look out for on the field of play.
The livewire atmosphere in the stadium was unlike any other I’ve ever experienced. The stands may not have been full – many people can’t afford tickets – but the excitement was tremendous, with people dancing, singing and waving flags and banners as they cheered the Ugandan team on. The soundtrack of Vuvuzelas from the stands, much-maligned in most footballing circles, actually enriched the carnival-feel to proceedings.
Uganda took an early lead, which perked up the already buoyant crowd. Although Tanzania equalized roughly half an hour into the game, it was the home team who enjoyed the majority of the ball, constantly pressing the Tanzanians and bombarding their penalty area for much of the first half. We Mzungus, honorary Ugandans for the day, sagely agreed with the Ugandan fans in attendance, that ‘we’ were unlucky to be held to a deadlock at the interval.
The second Ugandan goal, early in the second half, had an air of inevitably about it, but a one-goal advantage had been wiped out before. So when the third goal was netted about 70 minutes into the match, easing any tension, the fun could really begin. Touched by our support for their team, the locals around us celebrated with us: the moment a rather small gentleman (couldn’t have been much over 5ft tall) somehow managed to pick me up in a celebratory jig when Uganda scored their third is a moment I’m not about to forget!
The match was televised and, the following Monday, one of the kids at the school told me that he saw me, surrounded by other ‘crazy Mzungus’, celebrating in the crowd on a TV he was huddled around with family and friends. So I guess you could say that, among everything else I gained on this special trip, I also managed to acquire a little notoriety!