We were ready for a somewhat different experience during our time in Uganda, our last stop in Africa. Uganda, also known as "the pearl of Africa", is a country roughly the same size as the state of Oregon, but with a rapidly-growing population of 33+ million people (for comparison, Oregon's population is 4 million). The days of Idi Amin's oppressive dictatorship are long gone, and while the country still has its fare share of challenges, we had heard--and would soon learn--that the people are some of the friendliest in Africa.
We spent our first three months on the continent enjoying parks, exploring cities, relaxing at lakes and beaches, seeking wildlife, and climbing a mountain. While Uganda packs a ton of parks, wildlife (most notably gorillas and a wide array of birds), adrenaline activities, mountains and lakes in a small area, we were feeling spoiled and slightly culturally-deprived, and wanted our time there to be a bit more people-, instead of activity-oriented. So, we contacted a few NGOs who take volunteers and don't ask for a ridiculous amount of money (a factor that, unfortunately, has prevented us from volunteering more than we have), and decided to donate our time to Soft Power Education, an organization based in Bujagali Falls.
Bujagali is located a few kilometers from Jinja, which is where the world's longest river, the Nile, begins as it spills out of large Lake Victoria. The area is most well-known for its fantastic rafting and kayaking, which has only been slightly damaged by the recent and long-awaited completion of the Bujagali Dam. Soft Power was started by a retired overland truck driver who had been to the area many times and started fixing up local schools. Over the last dozen or so years, they have grown and added a community center, special education program, two pre-schools for the very needy, and a health clinic to their list of projects. Their permanent staff are a mixture of British and Ugandan employees, and they are an incredibly warm and friendly bunch. I spent my time painting and fixing up local schools (which were still on break while we were there) and helping staff with pre-school registration. Nick spent his time sprucing up their website, improving its social media credentials, teaching some employees how to use MS Excel, and painting the schools.
While Bujagali is a backpackers' magnet, volunteering got us out of the campsite and into the village and surrounding towns, so we got to interact with many Ugandans. We found the people of Bujagali to be really friendly, and as soon as they knew we were volunteers, they were even more welcoming. Pre-school registration involved interviewing the parents in order to determine which families are the most needy, since only the most disadvantaged children are given one of the thirty (free) spots at each school. I acted as the note-taker, filling out the questionnaire while the Soft Power employees acted as translators and main communicators with the parents, many of whom don't speak much English. Not surprisingly, some of the families' stories were heart-breaking: orphaned children, HIV+ parents and kids, unemployment, not enough food to feed all the children, lack of basic shelter and sanitary facilities... the list goes on. I was baffled at how one could possibly distinguish the needy from the really needy: in my eyes, all these kids were absolutely deserving of all the free education and care we could provide them. However, my job was to ensure some consistency and integrity in the recorded information, since many of the parents know the Soft Power employees--perhaps they are neighbors, friends, or acquaintances--so the organization can use someone who can help to ensure that parents aren't able to exploit those connections. It also provides somewhat of a scapegoat for Soft Power: they can blame the mzungus for any final decisions, which was perfectly fine with me!
After our time volunteering, we treated ourselves to a really fun and exhilarating day of Class V white-water rafting down the Nile River, complete with adrenaline-producing flips, lazy floating, and incredibly tiring but fun river-boarding (think boogie boarding but over and through huge whitewater rapids). The cool thing about this stretch of the Nile is that it offers almost completely fool-proof Class V rapids: the huge volume and high water level means that there are virtually no dangerous rocks or walls in the way, just huge waves that you can flip over, surf on, and get tossed around in. The experience made us want to raft again very soon, and perhaps even learn to white-water kayak--those rolls look way too fun in a tiny white-water kayak!
We'll leave you with this final message. We asked around the village as to the meaning, and the best (and possibly funniest) explanation we got was that "sometimes Africans have trouble getting to work on time, but we want our country to be more productive." For once, I bought the tee-shirt.