Oh Uganda: An Intrepid Volunteer’s Perspective by Karen L. Smith

Oh Uganda: An Intrepid Volunteer’s Perspective by Karen L. Smith
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In this book, the author recounts her experiences as a volunteer with VSO in Uganda. Using tongue-in-cheek humour and a Canadian’s viewpoint of the Ugandan culture she tells the stories of her daily observations and interactions with Africans.Having agreed to live and work in the bustling city of Kampala, Karen finds herself being sent to tough it out in rural Uganda within weeks of her arrival. There she is forced to live without electricity, running water, a working knowledge of the local Lusoga language or other overseas volunteers for support. Although she has some success at integrating, Karen never fails to find the Ugandan ways amusing, exasperating and even bizarre. Karen describes her everyday encounters ranging from chickens and servants at home to managing an educational project and installing boreholes in the community. Then just when Karen is ready to wrap up her volunteer stint, things take a surprising turn.

Changing the world is much harder than it looks.

Ms. Smith had a marvelous sense of humor that shone through brightly in her memoir. I chuckled as I read about the creative solutions she came up with for all sorts of ordinary problems in Uganda, from keeping most of the bugs out of her bed to asking for directions in an unfamiliar town when her understanding of languages like Lugandan wasn’t good and the people she was talking to knew little to no English. Sometimes the best thing to do in life is to find the funny side of frustrating or unexpected events, and the author definitely excelled at that here.

I did find myself wishing that more time had been spent exploring what the people living in Uganda who knew the author thought of her as a person. There were some delightful passages that shared some of their assumptions such as the idea that all white people and all Canadians are wealthy. These were such eye-opening scenes, and they provided a nice framing for the culture shock that Ms. Smith often felt when she was living in Uganda. If they had occurred more often, I would have happily gone for a full five-star rating.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that explored the many cultural differences between Uganda and Canada. Ms. Smith arrived in Kampala with assumptions about everything from how animals should be treated to what the definition of a good teacher should be. Of course, the people already living in Uganda had their own opinions on those topics, too. It amused me to see how everyone responded to being exposed to other ways of looking at the world, especially when the two cultures had wildly different ideas about the same topic. There is so much to be said for expanding one’s horizons and learning about how other people live.

Oh Uganda: An Intrepid Volunteer’s Perspective was a humorous and educational read.

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