For our next adventure, we headed to a village in Uganda, Rubuguri, where we would volunteer with an organization called Big Beyond. Getting there from Madagascar, via Rwanda, took two days and involved two flights (the second of which we shared with the Uganda National Rugby Team, whose exuberant personalities took up even more space than their imposing physiques), a private taxi (that we shared with our guide, Joseph, and two fellow volunteers, Amy and Michela, and all our luggage), followed by two public buses, followed by another private taxi, followed by an utterly mystifying border crossing that entailed walking back and forth between three little buildings carrying itty bitty scraps of paper, followed by one last taxi ride, a stop for lunch, and picking up an impromptu additional passenger, who turned out to be the principal of one of the schools in the village. On the way, we happened upon a big flock of beautiful crested gray cranes, Uganda’s national bird.
Besides the variety of transport, the journey was interesting in other ways. Kigali is a modern city with multi-lane, well-paved highways, guard rails, traffic lights, signage, functioning drainage—all those engineering details that we take for granted in the West, but which had been nearly absent in Madagascar. Once we left the city, the road continued in good condition as it climbed into the mountains, but roadside commerce was sparse, with few obvious hotels, restaurants, or rest stops for travelers. I found this surprising, if only because we were traversing the area between the region’s largest city and Volcanoes National Park, home to the mountain gorillas that are one of Africa’s biggest tourist attractions. We did see signs of waterworks, electricity, and endless agriculture. Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in Africa, and it seemed as though every inch of the land was in service to feed them all.
As we neared the border the pavement ended. Once across, the road gradually narrowed. We stopped in a largish town to exchange currency and have lunch, which was served buffet-style, with a selection of stews made with goat meat, carrots, and Irish potatoes. From there, the road became much rougher as it climbed into mountains. There were patches of trees, but mostly the land had been cleared and terraced far up the steep hillsides.
This was the first time Karel and I were trying a volunteer experience as part of our travels. The way it works is you pay for your room and board, and you do volunteer work on projects the organization has in progress. We thought this would be a good way to get off the well-worn tourist trails, meet local people, learn more about what life is really like here, and do something interesting and helpful. Karel did some research and found Big Beyond, a small non-profit based out of the UK with a few projects scattered around eastern Africa.
The Big Beyond base of operations is a walled compound of a couple of acres or so, on a hillside, surrounded by larger farms and homesteads. Within the walls are the main house and kitchen, a large pavilion for dining and working, guest quarters, bath house, and several out-buildings. Also, a few chickens. Across the road on a separate parcel is a large, fenced garden. The neighborhood is a sort of “suburb” to the village, with an elementary school, a cantina, and even a “convenience store” where you can buy bananas and onions and whatever else the proprietress has on hand that day.
Our home for three weeks was simple but easy and comfortable for westerners. A pipe from a mountain stream provided ample fresh water for washing, and the kitchen boiled water for drinking. The staff built a fire under the boiler every evening (except occasionally when they forgot) for hot showers. Neighbors brought a daily supply of fresh eggs and cow’s milk early each morning—until the cow gave birth to a calf, at which point our milk supply was diverted to other important purposes. Solar panels provided just enough power to charge devices during the day and run a few lights in the evening. Karel and I had a private room with a double bed, a non-working ceiling light, shelves, and a full complement of resident insects.
It turned out that everything was new. Big Beyond had moved there recently—within the past few months—from their original location on the ridge across the valley. There had been an incident involving a break-in and theft. They decided the location was too difficult to secure, and too far from the village. So, Karel and I were the first to enjoy the “couple’s quarters,” and pathways and outbuildings were still under construction while we were there.
We were greeted warmly by our hosts, Nick and Yoly, and the staff, shown to our rooms to drop off our things, and invited to the pavilion to hang out until dinner. Everyone was friendly and kind, but seemed a little preoccupied. I couldn’t help but feel as though we had interrupted a major discussion. Ah, well, not our concern. We had plenty to think about, simply adjusting to a new place, a new routine, and a new community.This entry was posted in Uganda, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa