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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.
We knew we wanted to volunteer in a few places when we first started planning out our trip several months back. We also knew we wanted to spend a good amount of time in the Galapagos, so one of the first things we did was apply to be volunteers with an Ecuadorian organization called Jatun Sacha that does reforestation and eradication of invasive species work on San Cristobal Island. We applied, were accepted, and then secured a 4-night cruise that would start when we were done volunteering for 2 weeks. The organization has its headquarters in Quito, so we went there for an orientation the day before we flew to San Cristobal. We were told the goals of the program, some ground rules including working hours and where we'd be living, and then off we went!
The biological station is located about a 40-minute drive in a pick-up truck from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the main town on the island and where the airport is. The climate in the islands is very dependent on proximity to the coast and elevation. When you're on the coast, it's generally sunny and warm, but when you start going inland and higher in elevation, it gets cooler, more humid, and often overcast or drizzly. The station is located at the end of a dirt/gravel road, on 200 hectares of land. The buildings are simple-- one kitchen/dining area where we ate and spent most evenings, two houses with dorm-style rooms (bunk beds and simple shelves) for the volunteers, and one house for the employees. The buildings are all connected by muddy paths, with tons of banana, orange, lemon, passion fruit, and papaya trees along the way.
Also on the property are two nurseries/vegetable gardens, and tons of mora plants. "Mora" is an invasive raspberry plant-- it grows tall with white, thorny stems and branches. It grows quickly in thick patches, and it's a major problem for the island, as it just takes over huge patches of land, strangling any existing plants and starving them for light, and not allowing any new plants to grow. Jatun Sacha's goals include cutting down and clearing as much mora as possible, and planting native or endemic plants in its place, including the poison apple tree (poisonous to humans, but one of the land tortoise's favorite snacks). Volunteer tasks therefore include cutting mora with a machete; collecting seeds of the poison apple tree and coffee plants; working with the National Park, who has a large nursery and uses the seeds that we collect; and upkeep of the biological station, which means helping in the kitchen, cleaning, composting, collecting fruit, setting rat traps (another invasive species that causes a lot of problems), maintaining the water collection infrastructure, carpentry, etc. There is also room for volunteers to work on a "personal project": one they're interested in, or one they have particular skills for. To this end, I worked for a morning on making new signs for a new compost heap (while I don't have a particular skill for painting I do love the sorting of trash!), and Nick spent parts of a few days starting work on some benches in a grove of trees with a view of the ocean. The work can be hard (it's mostly manual labor, after all!), especially due to the relentless swarms of "carmelitas" (a cross between a mosquito and a fruit fly) that don't seem to be too repelled by DEET, mosquito coils, cigarette smoke, or any of the usual mosquito tricks. We pretty much wore full body armour the entire time we were there-- long pants, high socks, long sleeve shirts, face nets, and hats. Even with all that, most people were still covered in bites. It got annoying, to say the least.
At our orientation, we were told we'd be working from 8 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday. When we arrived, we soon realized that this was not exactly the case: in the one and a half weeks we were there, we only worked one or two afternoons. All the volunteers and staff head down to the port town for the weekend on Friday morning and return to the station on Sunday evening. So, while the work was hard, we didn't end up doing that much of it, and many long afternoons were spent reading or napping in hammocks (covered in a mosquito net of course!).
I have mixed feelings on the experience.
On one hand, I really enjoyed getting to know the other volunteers. They ranged in age from teenagers in high school to adults in their 30s, and were from various countries (mostly North America, Europe, and Australia). The atmosphere at the station was similar to summer camp: we all lived together, worked together, ate together at long picnic tables, and played cards, charades, or watched movies after dinner. On the weekends we went to the beach, hung out in town, went out to dinner, and went to the bars together. We met some awesome people and traveled a bit with some of them to other islands. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the friends we made, but on the other hand, I felt that the volunteers were underutilized. People come there with the expectation that they'll be working, and while I definitely don't think that volunteers should be worked to death, I also don't think that we signed up to sleep in bunk beds, get mauled my carmelitas, be covered in mud, and take cold showers just to work 3 hours a day and spend the rest of the day doing nothing. I think the organization has its heart in the right place, and it's clear they have already made a ton of progress toward their goals, but I feel that a lot more could get accomplished with 25-50 volunteers. We were only there for just under two weeks, which is definitely not long enough to make conclusions, but I think it was long enough to get a feel for how things generally work.
In the end, I'm glad we decided to volunteer. We learned first-hand about some of the challenges the islands face, met lots of great people, and experienced the islands much more intimately than the average traveller does during a 4- or 8-day cruise. Plus, I learned that it is possible to eat rice two times a day for two weeks and not die!