Medical Student Altruism in Uganda

As a final year medical student on my elective with two fellow students, I travelled to Eastern Uganda and worked in a non-government based hospital that was partially funded through charity. Whilst working there I gained experience of practicing medicine in a low resource setting and learnt many new things.

However the biggest lessons came later when I became involved in helping to set up and manage a charitable organisation based in the area. Whilst travelling we had become acquainted with a Ugandan born London woman who was visiting her elderly parents who ran a non-government organisation providing support for rural orphans and widows.

We visited the orphanage and instantly fell in love with the excited children and positive atmosphere. As the area was so rural it had no proper road access, and we had to make our way there via scooter (boda-bodas) and foot. Despite how happy the children were, it became apparent that resources were stark and access to healthcare was poor. In our youthful optimism we decided that on returning home we would establish a UK branch of this organisation and raise funds for the widows and orphans.

This was something I had no personal experience of. We set about forming a committee of odd-bods, both friends and family of ours and the lady we had met in Uganda. Some of these were happy to support the work of the organisation but did not want the responsibility of being a trustee.

We navigated our way through the HMRC website and other resources and tried to gain an understanding of charity law in the UK and how to register. This was more complicated than I had previously believed. Different definitions were flying about including ‘Charity’, Charitable Trust’ and ‘Charitable Organisation’. These were dependent on whether or not we wanted the ability to employ people and trade or own property as well as the expected funds in our account. This was all a bit too much especially as we were navigating ourselves through our F1 year and life was already a bit overwhelming anyway! We eventually opted for registering as a charitable organisation as it required the least funds. I believe the law has changed again since 2011 and there are now different definitions. I imagine it’s still as complicated though!

We held meetings when we could which usually involved travelling to London where many members of the committee were based. We also designed a charity website with the assistance of a website designer who was happy to offer her services for free. Each of us fundraised back home on a small scale and things seemed to be gaining momentum slowly. Raising money certainly got me over the finish line at the Nottingham half marathon that year anyway.
One of my fellow students even spent a year working in Uganda following her F1 year (where she ended up getting married!) Despite this difficulties were beginning to arise. The Ugandan born lady from London who had been overseeing the work on water collection systems and other building work at the site of the orphanage had to travel back to the UK due to a family emergency. With no real contact on the ground, we felt like we weren’t sure where the money was going despite pushing for specific plans and costs. Fundraising slowed down at home and we were all rather busy with our new working lives.


Eventually between us all, we came to the conclusion that the best thing to do would be to wrap up the charity (more paperwork…) and donate any remaining funds to the hospital where we had been based on our elective in order that they could carry out several operations for those living in the rural areas. At the time life was so frantic that I briefly felt guilty about not managing to do all that we had promised and then got on with my on-call shifts. Now I am older and wiser (just a little bit..) I can reflect more on where we went wrong.

We possibly could have done with being a little more ‘SMART’. For those unaware of the acronym, this means having goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. Self belief is not a bad thing and our altruism was not ill placed. We just wanted to help ‘in general’ but there was a probably a limited amount that we could achieve as busy junior doctors working in a different country. We relied completely on the guidance of our Ugandan friends and had little experience of the systems in their country. Real change needs to come from within through those who understand best what needs to be done and how.

I would also have embraced the online communication tools that are now available such as Skype, Facetime etc. Travelling to London is expensive and time-consuming and meetings could have been much more regular this way. We could have talked to more people who had set up charities themselves in order to get a little advice about paperwork and the common pitfalls. I think it would have helped me personally to visit the project more regularly. It’s very easy to lose sight of who you are trying to help if you’ve not seen them in ages! Out of sight, out of mind…they say.

From a little internet based research, I can see that the non-government organisation we were involved with is still going strong. However they do seem to have changed their focus slightly, acting as a demonstration farm to teach widows farming skills and running a ‘sponsor a child’ programme. I do not regret trying to do what we did and I was privileged to be involved with some very wonderful people. It was a big aspiration and I’m not sure I’d have the youthful energy to attempt it nowadays but I hope one day I will find that inspiration again and have the skill set and time to do things better.

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