Staying at Sam’s farm is a very humbling, refreshing experience. Staying at the farm is unlike spending time in a Ugandan city or small village. The only water source is a bore hole installed by previous volunteers, we sleep in a mud, grass thatched hut which is shared by mice and spiders, there is no electricity and all the food is cooked on a smoky campfire with rocks used to balance the cooking pots above the flames. As an avid camper I love falling asleep with a blanket of stars, enjoying the silence after dark, “being” with the people you are with, distraction free, real conversations. Having been raised in Australia I struggle to imagine living my entire life on the farm in this way. If my lottery ticket determined that I was to be raised in this farming community, this would be life as I know it and that is a situation worth pondering. Many of the children have never visited the closest city of Mbale – a 10 minute boda boda (motorcycle taxi) ride costing under US$1.
It is easy to get disheartened in Uganda. It is obvious to everyone you are a foreigner, it is assumed you are made of money, people yell “muzungu muzungu” (meaning person of European decent but usually extended to any foreigner) as you walk the street. Barely a day goes by without someone asking for some money to buy <insert miscellaneous item>. Occasionally (quite often really) you can have a very nice, genuine conversation with a local on the street, the lady you always buy your groceries from because she doesn’t rip you off and is just around the corner, or the person you are getting intimate with while crammed next to them in the taxi van with 24 other passengers, only slightly exceeding the legal limit of 14 passengers that is so proudly printed on the outside of each taxi – whole families sit on each other’s laps, a generational pyramid, a cow in the boot and a few chickens on the roof tied in pairs at the feet so if they do escape they would have to use some incredible communication skills (a marriage counselling technique perhaps).
Three things have reinstated my faith in humanity while I have been in Uganda – my small time spent hitch hiking, my few days spent couch surfing with a lower middle class family, and spending time at the Mugiti farming community. As there is a fair bit of free time once the sun goes down and work is no longer possible, time is spent playing with the children – singing, dancing, exercising, – helping out with the cooking, collecting water for a manual shower and eating African sized portions, which is a triumphant task if ever completed by a westerner.
As you might imagine, every single person in Uganda has a natural talent for rhythm. This starts from a very, very young age. Two year old’s dancing better than I could ever dream of, it is in their blood and it is incredible. When there was a group, the older kids would organise the younger ones and a performance is born. Short kids in the front, taller at the back, no pushing. Children dance, sing, run around barefoot in ankle deep mud, chase chickens – it’s every child’s dream! As volunteers we would often laugh at the number of western parent’s rules that are broken each day. Of course in stark contrast, in the west we live very sheltered lives where fear (of everything) is driven into us from a young age.
Work on the farm can be slow. Money for building materials and tools is always short, during the wet season it rains for hours on end, and when the sun is shining it shines with a relentless intensity, making work slow and rests frequent for us poor white souls. When we have enough man power we lack the tools or materials. When we work it can consist of hours of mindlessly digging mud, day after day, using inferior, usually half broken tools. But this should have come as no surprise. We are in a rural, neglected, over populated, Ugandan farming community. Machines are a distant dream as flying cars are to me. We do it the Ugandan way, making use of the little we have, combined with innovative local techniques to slowly but surely accomplish worth wild projects.
The food I have consumed on the farm is the best I have experienced in Uganda, hands down. It is almost exclusively sourced locally from throughout the farming community’s organically grown food, fertilized with chicken manure, ensuring the best taste possible. Sam Kawiso (the community leader spearheading efforts to work together and share resources) is very considerate and takes his hosting responsibilities very seriously – as do most Ugandans. While he perhaps thinks some of our dietary requests are strange (“just fruit for me today Sam”, “sorry Sam I don’t eat meat or eggs”) he does all in his power to keep everyone happy, he understands volunteers are key to development – for the time being, until they are able live sustainably through income generating produce. Needless to say leaving the farm after a day of laborious work hungry is not possible.
Disclaimer: I arrived in Uganda 14 months after I left Australia. 3 months later as I write this I am tired. Please interpret any negative attitudes as comical. Uganda is tiring. Things don’t make sense – 3 months and there are a multitude of things that I have given up on trying to understand, I stopped asking questions after about a month, which is a big thing for me as a fairly logical person (self-proclaimed). I know the prices of fruit and veg in a market, I know how to feel when a pineapple is ready, and I know how to pick the best passion fruit, though I have not quite mastered watermelon selection – yet.
East Africa is a great place to travel and volunteering is a great way to travel slow immersing yourself in the culture – the second best travel advice I can offer, after of course the magical experience of hitch hiking. As anywhere you go in this world, traveling is always always about the people you meet and the journey you take, the place, the sights, they are secondary. I have met and learnt from some amazing people. I have played and laughed with kids despite language barriers, met amazingly generous locals while hitch hiking, hiked untouched forest in Africans tallest mountain range, swam in lakes formed in the crater of extinct volcanoes, jogged through the slums in Kampala the capital, camped in thunderstorms, learnt invaluable dietary information and rock climbed until my fingers bled with an amazing group of people.
Africa is an amazing continent, Uganda is a great country, you will learn more about yourself than you could expect.