The volunteering experience

Learning a language called Runyankole, a five-hour drive along horrendous roads and improvising with bricklayers’ trowels to make ointments are just some of the things I have experienced in my year teaching pharmacy in Uganda, but I would recommend it to anyone.

I started to research the idea of doing voluntary work abroad as a pharmacist a couple of years ago, and the organisation VSO appealed to me because of its motto Sharing Skills, Changing Lives, which means the process is sustainable.

It was quite a relief to finally arrive in Uganda with my husband Jason in February – after sorting out rental of our houses, handing in notice for our jobs, getting medicals and dental examinations done, and attending numerous VSO training courses. We decided to get married just two weeks before we arrived in Uganda, which compounded the stress even more.

During an initial week of in-country training in the capital Kampala, we learnt about Ugandan culture, had some training in the language Runyankole (local to our destination of Mbarara), and found out more about our placements. It was also a very good opportunity to meet other volunteers and build up a support network. Then it was off to Mbarara, a five-hour drive on some of the worst roads I have experienced.
In the pharmacy department of Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), just a few minutes’ walk from my flat, I teach modules in community pharmacy and pharmaceutical technology. Lectures take place in a classroom that can comfortably seat 20 students, although there are more than 35 in one of the year groups.

Practical sessions are conducted in an old laboratory that has very little equipment – so my biggest challenge has been learning how to improvise. For example, we do not always have the right ingredients for extemporaneous dispensing sessions, so we have to substitute with things like sugar, salt and fruit squash.

This week the students were making ointments, although we had no ointment slabs or spatulas for mixing; I scoured the shops and the most appropriate substitutes I could come up with were some plastic chopping boards and some bricklayers’ trowels. The unreliability of the power supply can also be a big problem, especially when I am lecturing and want to use an LCD projector – I am still trying to perfect writing with chalk.

There are currently just over 300 qualified pharmacists in Uganda, serving a population of more than 30 million people; that equates to only one pharmacist per 100,000 people.

There are many community pharmacies in Uganda, but they do not always have a pharmacist available to give advice; the law here says that there only needs to be a pharmacist present for 40 per cent of the time the pharmacy is open.

In my experience, you can buy whatever you want from a Ugandan pharmacy with no questions asked and little counselling given, and with scant regard as to whether the drug is prescription-only or not.

The thing I am most proud of achieving is helping to develop a new curriculum. The previous pharmacy degree syllabus included hardly any practice content until the final two years of the course, and myself and my colleagues wanted to ensure MUST produces pharmacy graduates who are competent and able to apply theoretical knowledge to clinical practice.

Now, our final year students have recently started going on ward rounds in the hospital next to the university, learning how to communicate with patients and other health professionals and how to address problems with drug therapy.

I do miss the UK, especially my family and friends. Since we’ve been here we’ve missed three weddings, and I will not see my new niece or nephew until (s)he is six months old. Life can be frustrating at times, but on the whole it is an amazing experience.

We have lovely weather all year round, and are lucky to live only a few hours drive away from some beautiful national parks. One of the highlights of my trip so far is doing a quad bike safari at Lake Mburo National Park – we managed to get really close to the animals.

I do miss being a community pharmacist in Liverpool, but I am learning so much by being out here. When I come back to the UK next June, I think I would like to be involved in education in some way, maybe by finding a job as a teacher practitioner while still working a few days a week in pharmacies.

Anna’s CV

Graduated with MPharm from Liverpool John Moores University

Lloydspharmacy pre-reg in Rainhill, then branch manager in Liverpool

Superdrug pharmacist, Bootle

Rowlands pharmacist manager in Liverpool and Kirkby areas

Pharmacist lecturer, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Uganda

What is VSO?

• VSO is an international development charity that works through professional volunteers.

• VSO is seeking applications from pharmacists with a minimum of two years’ post-qualification experience.

• VSO provides volunteers with a living allowance, flights, accommodation, travel and health insurance, visas and work permits. Thorough pre-departure and in-country training equips volunteers with the tools needed to work in development.

• An initial application of interest to VSO takes just 20 minutes to complete – please call 0208 780 7500 or log on to


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