Set the scene. Where are you right now?
I am residing in the busy little town of Lira, Uganda and commuting each day into the bush to visit villages. Lira is a town that knows no stoplight or bike lane, littering cannot be a fined offense, and people “go on foot” for any journey no matter how far. It is also a town of proud shop and food stand owners, ladies carrying bananas (matoke) on their heads, and jerry cans being used for just about anything (cooking oil, water, garbage bins, flower pots, etc.). When the sun sets this busy town retreats to their villages and turns into an eerie ghost town, but before the sun has time to come up again it is already bustling and alive. The smiles here are contagious.
What’s the weather like?
Hot, hotter and hottest. Most of my days start off with a nice warm morning watching the sunrise. When the sun comes out to play it heats up fast. However, it is not a humid hot, which is nice. Around 4pm it is the hottest and then a nice rain storm rolls in and cools everything off followed by a picture book sunset. Sunscreen and water have been my best friend.
What’s the landscape like? What scenes do you see along your travel route?
The landscape goes as far as the eyes can see. Being known for farming, Northern Uganda has scattered fields of sunflowers, pineapples, banana trees, cassava plants, corn stalks, mango trees and the occasional patch of pine trees. Goats run around like dogs and chickens take full ownership of the villages. Along the travel route you are bound to see people bathing and splashing around in small ponds, people gathered under a mango tree for shade playing mancala, and hundreds of vendors selling anything from vegetables, cell phone charging or clothing. Everyone is eager to smile and wave to the foreigner.
What are the roads like?
The roads are the central hub for activity. Since everyone walks here, the one lane roads have cars, cotton trucks, cattle, bodas, bikes and people all competing for a spot. The red dirt gets thrown about and creates a very dusty scene. Along the roads you see women and children carrying jerry cans on their heads while carrying babies on their backs. Little boys are herding cattle with their little sticks. Everyone has one goal on the roads; avoid the potholes, don’t get stuck in the mud and try not to lose a tire due to bumpiness.
What makes traveling here particularly challenging?
The lack of road infrastructure and the small paths in the bush that have a million forks vying for you to go their way is challenging. You can get lost easily because all the paths and villages look very similar. When looking for a water site you tend to need village’s guidance on where to go. It is very challenging because everyone knows of a water site and wants to direct you there whether or not it is the right one you are looking for. Also, riding in the truck you get quite the core workout from all the bumps and jostling around that happens. Another challenge is the lack of familiarity. Even though everyone is so friendly and hospitable, it can get lonely not having any familiar comforts from home, but that is how international travel goes! But more seriously, the living situation is so different for the people of Uganda and you get frustrated that you cannot help everyone or provide them basic necessities.
What makes traveling here awesome and exhilarating?
No place that I have ever traveled has been so remote. You may think you have a route planned out on how to reach a water project and end up going completely the opposite way. The awesome thing about this is the unpredictability. Being in the truck is so fun because many of the paths you think are not passable become a new road due to the truck plowing on through full steam ahead. Here you are liable to meet some of the most inspiring and friendly people just around any bend. People in the villages are so eager to jump in the truck and show you exactly where you need to go so you meet so many characters. Also, wherever you are, you have a panoramic view of some of the most gorgeous views.
What about your experience has been different than expected?
I am seeing more water sites a day than I had anticipated. Once you plan a day, you realize how close some of the projects are in distance and how easily it is to visit multiple villages. I did not expect Lira to be as big as it is. It is still a small town, however the amount of people in town and on the roads blows my mind. I also expected the villages to be less welcoming of a foreigner but they are always so happy to see me.
Describe the process of locating a project.
The night before I go out, I plot all of my coordinates on my GPS. I then wake up and during breakfast get on Google Maps and drop pins where I think the turns will be and plug those coordinates in the GPS. I am old school and enjoy doing it this way because it makes it more challenging than having a meter by meter direction guide. (Okay, once and only once I entered the coordinate wrong and didn’t realize it until we had walked 2km out of the way. We laughed it off.) Then, my driver and I hash out where we think it is and take off into the unknown. Once we get close, we ask village people where their closest water source is, if they know the organization and if they can point us in the right direction. Then we turn to the GPS and walk to the point. Once there we look for donor signage, ask the people around the name and gather information.
What do you notice about the people?
Bottom line, they are the hardest working group of people I have ever met. Everyone is on a mission whether it is to hand plow a field, gather water, crush corn into corn meal or sell their produce. Their energy is high and their personalities are strong. When I enter a village, it takes a minute for people to warm up to the mazungu but after some awkward giggles on my part and smiling, they form an instant connection and make you feel very welcome. Also, many people would label the people as impoverished because they live in huts, but I can tell that they love and are proud of their huts and villages. They worked hard to build what they have and they are very satisfied with living in the middle of nowhere.
What sorts of activities do you see people doing? What do they do on their off time?
People fill their time with all types of things. The most common is congregating under the mango trees. The children run around and cause mischief when they are not carrying water, in school or helping out in the village. I have noticed many wedding ceremonies, gatherings and meetings. People also love to sit and enjoy the fresh air. It is a very simple life full of simple joys.
So far, what’s your favorite local food?
The “rolex” or rolled eggs. Two eggs mixed with onion, tomato and other special ingredients all wrapped up in a huge chapati. Chapati is the Ugandan answer to the tortilla and is delicious. I have also enjoyed the cooked matoke, which tastes like potatoes. Samosas are similar to empanadas but have a thinner crust and are deep fried. I also indulge in the banana muffins, pasted peanut flavored chicken, pork and cassava fries, and of course rice and beans.
Describe mornings in Uganda.
Lira Town comes alive in the mornings. Think NYC minus the skyscrapers, subways and dog walkers. Everyone has a plan and is headed to their little nook of the city. The roads coming into the city are full of walkers from the villages and bicyclists. Early early in the morning there are many runners on the red dirt roads. And as always, bananas are everywhere in the morning.
Describe evenings in Uganda.
Sleepy and quiet. Many people do not venture out after dark for safety reasons so at around 7pm everyone has made their way home. Before sunset there are always people playing soccer or reminiscing on the day. It is very busy at quitting time with everyone going to the markets but that dies down quickly.
Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met so far? What’s their story?
Her name is Jenty Samuel Ogoli from the Omanabunga A Village. She moved to the village 40 years ago after she got married. She is a farmer and grows corn and cassava. Her family lives in the village and she has taught her children and grandchildren how to farm. She said her proudest moments are when she can provide the babies in her village with clean water. Her water project currently produces rusty water and they drink from a ground well close by. When I asked her if they boil the water she laughed saying that there is no time. I was sad when she said that but then she said, “We are grateful for this water, even though it is dirty. We love clean water though and our village thrives off of clean water.” Her story was not grand or very unique but her attitude was inspiring. She was grateful to be able to even drink any water because other villages lacked the luxury of having water so close. She hopes for clean water soon to restore her health. Where she lacked in health or clean water she definitely made up for in smiles, laughing and being welcoming.
Tell us your best story so far!
Literally 10 minutes before this happened I was thinking “I have no great stories”…Today I was being stubborn with my GPS coordinates and insisted that we walk 2km into the bush even though people were insisting there was not a water project out there. My hard headed self led the pack out there only to realize I entered the coordinates wrong. Thinking my crew would be irate with me and want to throw me in the well, I was surprised when they started laughing and saying that we needed the exercise and bonding time. Then when we reached the point, a large group of people were at the site that would not have been had we arrived earlier. The Omanabunga A Village greeted me like I was part of the village and we had a very fun photo shoot. I stayed for an hour and we laughed a lot, they showed me their ground water well and explained how their pump was producing rusty water. Instead of saying why they needed maintenance, the oldest lady there starting acting out how they look when they have clean water and how they look when they drink contaminated water. It was a back and forth charades of standing up tall and proud, and slouching over walking like a granny. As serious as the matter was, we could not stop laughing. To round out the visit, my interpreter was wearing a Kansas Jayhawks Basketball t-shirt randomly, my hometown basketball team, and he told the village that this represented my home. They wanted to take a picture pointing at the shirt to show my family that they support me. This story might not blow your socks off but it was a mix of events that led to a very fun and comical site visit that I will never forget.
Also, I recently went to Gulu, Uganda to visit my Krochet Kids family. I took a matatu (large van) 2.5 hours up to Gulu and the whole time I sat by a live chicken. I was in the very back row with four people across, inhaling dust and being jostled around by all of the potholes. There were probably 20 people in the van that could hold 10 max. It was quite the experience; I was so happy to get off and stretch my legs because I thought my left butt muscle was going to be cramped indefinitely.
Show us your local language skills! What have you learned to say so far?
Apwoyo! – hello, thank you, bye, what you say when you don’t know what else to say.
A tya ber – I’m good. How are you?
Ber – good
Mazungu – foreigner (white guy)
What’s the best part of being a Field Volunteer?
There is no possible way to pin point one exact thing, but the people are what make this worth while. Seeing their culture, hearing their stories, watching them interact, being infected with their smiles and engaging in their lives has been the most rewarding. I love seeing how simple life could (and should) be and I love being reminded everyday that it is not what we have but who we have. Watching their family dynamics is inspiring. Also, I absolutely think it is the best thing to be traveling and adventuring in a new country and rural landscape, all while being the eyes and ears for a fantastic organization and seeing the work that has been done and continues to be done. I also really enjoy learning about the water crisis, seeing what other organizations are doing and hearing the villages input on how to improve water sites. Basically this job rocks and I do not want it to end.
From the field,
PS – Most of these photos were shot with my iPhone…I think iPhone photos can be more candid and raw therefore that is why they are up!