I was in the middle of a perfectly ordinary day at the office when my girlfriend phoned to say that she had found an organisation called Big Beyond who were doing amazing things in Africa and were looking for 2 Volunteer Managers. It wasn’t the sort of perfectly ordinary day that I imagined would end with me deciding to drop everything, pack up my belongings and move to rural Uganda but the research I did on Big Beyond’s work made me feel that that was exactly the right thing to do. And so, within 8 weeks of finding the position, we said goodbye to the UK.
By the time we left Kisoro, the last major town between our new home, and us, we had already been travelling through a full day of layovers, delays and disruptions. Also, it was getting dark; that kind of country dark you see from time to time in the UK that lends a shudder of excitement to a walk back from a country pub or a house plunged suddenly into darkness in a storm. The last leg of our journey was slow progress as the road out of Kisoro is a patchwork of densely strewn volcanic rock and thick, wet mud; further up towards our destination the dirt track is cleaved and warped by the torrential rains which pour down the sheer, steep hillsides. Our grumbling 4×4 heaved and crawled and only 2nd or 3rd attempted some sections of the dipping and weaving mountain road, it’s headlights only serving to create a bubble around the vehicle outside of which there seemed to be nothing at all. All the while, our new friend and guide, Kobsheshe Valence, chatted happily with our driver, seemingly oblivious to our plight. As we edged further and further from home it seemed more and more likely that we had inadvertently driven over the edge of the Earth.
There was a significant amount of surprise then, when the sun rose over our cozy new home the following morning to reveal that the road running past our property bustled with people. Children made the walk to school, their smart, simple uniforms in various stages of dilapidation. They were followed by women resplendent in bright cloth; geometric prints wrapped around heads, torsos and waists; their babies were swaddled tightly on their backs and their farming tools slung across their shoulders. Men in proud but weathered suits strolled among them.
There are, in fact, a lot of people here over the edge of the Earth. On our side of the stark, vivid line that marks the border of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, almost every inch of the land is utilised; there are houses perched precariously on the top of every hill, ridge and outcrop. We soon found that on a Sunday the valleys echo with the sounds of singing from the many churches and the local communities don their smartest suits and elaborate dresses. Our first Friday, spent an hours walk down the hill in the village of Rubuguri, was one spent in the melee of the local market where people gather from miles around eager to sell their wares, stock up on supplies and catch up on the local gossip.
There is a rubbing against each other of old traditions and a newer hankering for the trappings of western culture. Young men still herd their family’s livestock from field to field looking for the freshest pastures but as they do so they play the latest popular songs from their phones which they exchange with each other by Bluetooth; an act made more incredible as charging a phone here means paying one of the local shops to plug it into their solar batteries and phone signal is intermittent at best. In open defiance of the difficulties encountered in using even the most basic telecommunications devices, the owners of the local pub still manage to screen live international football, using an ingeniously improvised, generator powered satellite receiver, for the benefit of the local men. Preoccupied with a subsistence existence centred round their family’s land during the day they pass the night trading opinions on the latest Manchester United signing. Life survives and thrives here in spite of the remoteness and it strives to greet the future whilst it carries with it it’s past.
Whether as people who have travelled away from their homes and jobs to volunteer in Uganda or as people who are looking to improve their future prospects beyond subsistence, we are all working together here to live a different way. We are greeted eagerly on the whole, seen in a sense as representatives of this future, and we intend to repay the warm welcome by helping in any way we can.
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