Volunteering in the Rift Valley of Uganda
See Lake Bunyonyi and Mount Muhabara
Most Meaningful Experience: Working with Reaplifedig.org and learning about the Batwa Community
Meeting Lauren in Rwanda was a bit of an awakening. She was an American from Boston with dirty, blonde-red hair, blue eyes and a determined look on her face. We met at a bus depot where we were both looking to take a shared taxi….although she also wanted to transport a new thatch-woven couch. Lauren was determined to get the best deal possible and I wasn’t going to get in her way.
After long negotiations (the driver wanted to charge double to put the couch on the roof), we eventually crammed into the taxi and journeyed through Eastern Rwanda’s lush Rift Valley scenery to the border with Uganda. I was keen for a rolex (a chapati filled with egg and vegetables) that I knew would be waiting on the other side and made a beeline to the nearest stall as soon as we were across. “How much did you pay?” Lauren asked me. “Around a dollar each” I replied. “You got jipped” she quipped, before adding “let’s go” as we continued to our destination – Kisoro.
The following morning, Lauren and I jumped on a motorbike (after she’d fiercely negotiated the price) and we made our way along the winding roads that led to Lake Bunyonyi. Nestled amidst emerald green hills patch-worked with agricultural fields, it was truly magnificent. A serene and seemingly untouched part of the world.
We stopped in a small village where I grabbed a chapati and milk tea that had been ladled from a large pot and drank it outside a wooden shack with a local teacher. I told him I taught business skills and he said: “that is needed here. I teach the basics and hope they can get into college one day.” He had a patient and unassuming personality, thanking me for my support as we parted ways.
I hopped back on the bike with Lauren and we continued driving up into the hills to a small village that was clustered with houses and a few stores. It stretched into a valley framed by two mountains and I immediately knew that would be my running route. I was training for the Ugandan Half Marathon, which would be taking place in Kabale in a few weeks time, and could definitely feel the effects of the altitude on my body.
I spent the next week working with ReapLifeDig.org who are on a mission to improve the nutrition and health of HIV-affected and at-risk people through sustainable gardening. Each day, we would travel up into the highlands to teach Batwa communities about farming, with these former hunters having been forced out of their forest home so Uganda could sell carbon credits to China. They were now rebuilding their lives here and ReapLife was helping to empower them to meet their needs through agriculture.
Lauren was driven and energetic, motivating people to get to work preparing the soil, planting crops and using soap as a pesticide. One woman was particularly hard-working and was pushing others to be the same. I could see the determination in her eyes and told her I would donate enough for a new project.
Each evening, I would train for the marathon, with locals sometimes joining me on long runs into the hills. Sometimes we’d stop to watch a soccer game and once we even attended a funeral, which was more of a celebratory community gathering of singing and prayer.
Lauren was a great host, ensuring we had enough to eat every day and that coffee was ready in the morning, as well as training us in the art of bucket showers. She was on top of everything and I appreciated the seriousness and strength with which she conducted her work.
She’d just hired a new director, Chris Festo, who was educated in Kampala and eventually got a scholarship to study plant agribusiness in North Dakota. He invited me to his home and explained the history of the village, as well as how rich people from Kampala were building vacation homes here to show off their wealth.
One evening, the village chief arrived quite upset (and visibly drunk), complaining that I didn’t have permission to be there. After a long conversation with Lauren where she tried to reason with him, he eventually addressed me directly saying: “you are crazy man! You are running all over the place. The people think you are crazy. We don’t run like this in Uganda – only crazy people run around.” I replied, “well, I’m kind of crazy.”
On my final day with ReapLife, I ran up the mountain that rose behind the village, with kids trailing me all the way. After a scramble over rocks and past a small waterfall, I finally reached a pass where there were incredible views across the rolling hills below. In this vast landscape of green, I could imagine dinosaurs sauntering below – it was a scene I would never forget. Eventually, some kids tugged at my arm and said: “the sun’s going down”. It was time to go home.
After returning to Kisoro, I decided to hike Mount Muhabura, an extinct volcano in the Virunga Mountains that rises to 4,127 meters. It took me around four hours to summit, arriving at a crater lake surrounded by large succulents and with a heavy fog blanketing the peak. I meditated here for a while before my guide said he was cold and we headed back down.
From there, it was back to Kabale for the Ugandan Half Marathon. The undulating dirt roads of the marathon route passed through tiny villages where crowds gathered to cheer us along. It was a fun experience and I managed to finish in around two hours, just before the heat dial was about to crank up!
Back in Kampala, I had a few days to kill before venturing to Kenya on safari, then on to Mount Kilimanjaro with my friend Jeremy. I met up with Brett – a UN World Food Program employee who I’d met over 15 years ago in Hong Kong. Since the tech bust, he’d dedicated his career to solving world hunger and had developed a unique perspective on life. He had a knack for languages (French and Chinese) that helped him in his line of work and a supportive wife who shared his commitment to making the world a better place. I thought that sharing the same, unique path in life must be the key to a good relationship.