I promised I’d keep a relatively regular blog of my day to day happenings a few thousand miles away. I’ll try to keep it short and sweet, so that I still have stories to bore you with when I return, but here’s the instalment so far:
Day 1 (Tuesday 30th June): My first observation of Uganda was how much more obvious the influence of capitalism was here than in the UK. I appreciate the pretentiousness that only a Warwick student could write is present in that sentence, and that capitalism runs every country, but Uganda was something else. Mismatching hashtags such as #exploringthepearlofafrica and #relaxinginthepearlofafrica greet you from the very first walls you see, and the four hour car ride from Entebbe airport to Jinja, the main district EAP works in, was reminiscent of either a civil war or the football World Cup where either Pepsi or Coke adverts are displayed like banners or English flags. The roads ran as expected, and the driving was exactly as I’d heard, but the view of lake Victoria in Entebbe – and again 4 hours later in Jinja – was something I hadn’t prepared for. The scenery of Uganda is breathtaking, and those reading this signed up for the Gorilla Trek in particular are in for a real treat. My arrival in Jinja was a quick tour of the EAP house & office followed by Mexican food (promoting my uncle to ask if I had yet “shit in an olé?” and an early night.
Day 2: On my second day I headed to project – a playground, already half built due to my lateness – and the first group of volunteers. Emily, the firecracker of an intern who’d been standing in for me, introduced me to them and them to me, before their afternoon off took them to Kingfisher, a local swimming pool with optional boat trips round Lake Victoria, and Emily & I to main Jinja: to sort money, SIM cards and get my bearings. A quick tour consisted of the imaginatively named Main Street – at that point the one worth knowing – before heading back to collect the volunteers, having my first proper Ugandan meal (beans and rice, and yet somehow so much more) and an evening of games getting to know people.
Days 3 & 4: These days blend together somewhat, both starting with a morning of playground painting (the radio blaring out the coca cola advert between every 2, maybe 3 songs), banter with the builders and evening entertainment. Stand out moments were watching Emily get a boda (a motorbike taxi & the cheapest form of transport) back to her own project and feeling like my safety net was flying away on the back wheel, the joy of the school sports day in which the teacher’s race was the most vicious and taking my volunteers to Jinja for the first time themselves, sorting similar things and watching them barter over endless pairs of Hareem pants. The main feeling from these days was amazement: the speed with which the playground came together, how quickly the group accepted me as if I’d been there the whole time and the gut feeling that I had undoubtedly made the right move by coming here.
Day 5: Dubbed ‘the rest day’ for the volunteers who had been here for a week already, they arranged themselves a variety of restful activities… Such as quad biking and bungee jumping. After a tearful goodbye to the build team and the children, we got everyone on the bus and raring to go. I did the classic Andy King thing and gave a speech (I know you’re shocked) about the adventures behind us and the adventures ahead. Whilst they went to their activities, I went to NRE campsite to meet Carla (my boss) and Beth (the other Gorilla trek intern) to enjoy the gorgeous view of the River Nile and discuss how the project was going so far. An hour and a half later of hearing about the trekking side of the project – emphasising both the ‘mountain’ and ‘trekking’ parts of the phrase ‘mountain gorilla trek’, I left wondering if I’d spoken too soon about signing up. This thought left me at approximately 9pm, at which point we were dancing on tables, surrounded by American Peace Corp volunteers celebrating the Fourth of July, but came back at 11.30pm as I forced 20 volunteers on a bus home ready for their 12 hour journey in 7 hours time. Eventually, however, it was managed, and we slept like babies for the 5 hours that it lasted.
Day 6: This day consisted of uncomfortable sleep on a bumpy bus and the full experience of Ugandan drivers, who do not use their wing mirrors but rather use their horns. My group, hungover but happy to be on the move, slept most of the way as I got to know Andrew, the EAP staff member accompanying us. We arrived at camp Edrisa (meaning window) around 7, before the sunset, and were given a tour by Miha, the Slovenian owner whose parents had “given him money to buy a flat in Europe, but had opted instead to build a village in Africa”. After this, we sat round a campfire, and were taught some of the spiritual history of Uganda by Beneric, a reformed gangster who had worked for Edrisa seemingly forever. The others went to sleep and I stayed up a while, talking about national literatures and admiring the ferocious intelligence of the locals, before turning in myself.
Day 7: The first thing that that gripped me in Western Uganda was the cold. The mountain altitude and the proximity to Lake Bunyoni cancelled out the African climate and I donned a jumper for the first time since landing. It didn’t last long, however, as we started our trek by paddling dugout canoes across the lake, to an island maybe a few hundred metres away. The day was easy, and full of punctuation: we stopped at a nursery and were sung to by children, a local bar to try their ‘delicacy’ that Miha promised that we would learn to love, a Rastafarian camp, the hut of a craft woman who taught us to make bracelets and the home of a healer – perhaps one of the last, Owen (one of our guides) hinted. Few of these people spoke English, and on the whole language was far more interesting in this day, translation being far more common. But eventually we got to the other side of the island, and canoed further along Bunyoni to an island we called Tom’s Island. Imaginatively, the owner of the island was called Tom. Having resisted the urge to buy the teensiest goat that ever there was (a story I’ll save for another time) and learned some history of the island around the campfire, we turned in – aware that the hardest day of trekking lay ahead of us.