Uganda

What can I say, I’m happy to be home. Upon returning from Uganda, I felt bombarded by eager curiosities wondering how my trip was. Friends with big smiles on their face asking, “How was Africa? Was it so amazing? Did you have the best time? At the time, I didn’t have an honest answer as I hadn’t processed all that had happened in only two short weeks. It was high and low, long and short, amazing and overwhelming, exhausting and exhilarating, all at the same time. Back in Austin, I was aching to travel and spend more time off the computer and “in the field”, whatever that means, and boy did I get my wish. I was “in the field” for six days straight in a country I had never been to, in a region I had only seen photos of, and in a continent that I knew everyone loved, but had never experienced for myself. I was smack dab in the middle of East Africa and experienced culture shock on a whole other level. As someone who has done a good deal of traveling, I’ve learned how adaptable I can be and that even if conditions are not ideal, I’m usually fine. And in the end, I was.

This trip had two parts. The first part was considered my vacation where I had the incredible opportunity to go gorilla trekking and spend three whole days alone with nothing to do but sleep, trek, read and write. An introverted, animal-lover’s dream vacation. The second part of the trip was much different. I participated in my company’s annual mission trip, Nets for Africa, where I joined a group of God-loving folks to do a medical mission in remote villages. I felt foreign and out of my element. The poverty, the living conditions, the immense amount of trash that flooded the streets, the dirt, the crowds of people, it was different from any place I had been, it was hard to wrap my mind around. I was beginning to wonder what I had signed up for, often feeling like a fraud posting photos of me being a “do-gooder” in Africa, when in reality, I was counting down the days to coming home. What transpired is a testimony for growth, it’s the reason new, hard situations are called “growing pains”. They physically hurt and they force you to shed a layer of skin that you felt safe in, that you’ve clung to for as long as it protected you. What changed for me on this trip were the people. Both the people I was traveling with and the people of Uganda. I can’t tell you how much I learned to love Ugandans and their bashful politeness and giant grins, they were what kept me going every day. How could I not show up the next day? How could I chose the luxury of staying in bed when they were sick or hurting or in need of medication? Not that this whole mission relied on me, but I was part of the team, this is what I came to Africa to do, this is what I wanted when I decided Philanthropy might be a new angle for me, and now I was here, present, I had to pull it together and get to work. By the end of the week this small corner of the world started to grow on me, the things that felt foreign in the beginning, felt normal, and I am so glad I got to experience it first-hand. Something like this certainly changes a person, but first, I must tell you about the mountain gorillas!

Gorilla Trekking

Upon arriving late into Entebbe, I had a short night’s stay before waking up at 5am the next morning to catch a flight to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, one of the few locations the mountain gorillas can be seen. The other two locations are Rwanda and the Congo, my guide insisted Uganda had the highest number of gorillas, home to 16 different groups. After hopping off a tiny propeller plane, I heard my name. Since there were only 6 people on the flight, it was easy to find my ride. We had an hour drive to the forest where my driver allowed me to ask all the questions I wanted. It was just me and him, and of course I had to sit up front with him to get the best view. The hills of Uganda are stunning, green tea plantations rolled alongside us as we drove with the windows down waving to all the children as we zoomed past them.

I asked him about malaria, the political climate, how people survive out here, what do they grow, how does their schooling system work, and about million more questions about the gorillas. Until that week, I had only seen them in zoos and in documentaries, what was it going to be like to stand just feet away from one? What if they get angry? What if a baby wants to ride on my back, is that cool? (spoiler, it is not cool). Driving through this rich land, I immediately felt like I was in a rare place that not many people get to see. A place that takes two days to get to. A 22 hour flight below the equator, then another flight where I sat directly behind the pilot, and then finally an hour drive on narrow, windy, dirt roads that only a jeep can navigate. The landscape is pristine, barely touched by man, still vibrant and booming with a species that was once almost extinct. We finally arrived at the lodge for the next three days, Mahogany Springs, tucked away down a narrow dirt path, almost invisible next to the mountainside.

After eating dinner alone, reading my book by candlelight and listening to the sounds of the forest, I realized how much I love traveling alone. No forced conversation, not having to fill the evening space with comments on the day, but to be able to be silent with yourself, say nothing, enjoy your meal and reflect on life, it’s a strange but comforting feeling. In a place filled with chatter from couples or big groups of friends comparing photos from their treks, to see a young woman eating alone in the far-off forests of Uganda, I felt empowered. How I somehow manifested that I’d be in Africa this year still amazes me. For reference see my last blog post. I quickly got to bed with my trekking gear laid out for the 6am wake up knock. It’s embarrassing how much gear I have, I completely fail at minimalism when it comes to gear.

I often got the best seat in the house.

Finally, we set off on the trek. Uganda Wildlife Authority only allows 96 gorilla trekking permits a day and only 8 people can trek each group (in Bwindi there are 11 groups). I was assigned to the Rushegura group which included 16 members with 1 silverback. Our trek was fairly easy, we hiked on a flat trail for about an hour when we heard the guide talking on the radio to the actual trackers who locate the gorillas ahead of time. I appreciate the care that the guides and the Wildlife Authority take to ensure the safety and preservation to these wild animals. They are habituated, as they are used to seeing humans, but strict rules prohibited anyone who is sick from trekking, also making sure no food or water was taken or flash photography.

Our first sight of a female and her baby was endearing. The baby was active, swinging from branches and showing off. Then we hear rustling in the brush and more appear out of nowhere from the thick impenetrable forest and are suddenly all around us. I felt a little nervous as one walked right past me, slowly backing up as instructed. Soon we were in front of a group of two babies, two females and the silverback.

We were only allowed one hour with the group, promptly taking as many photographs and video as we could. I couldn’t believe where I was and what I was doing, what an incredible experience to be able to witness these stunning and gentle creatures in their own habitat. No fences, no fake habitats or cages, this was the real deal. After the gorillas got bored with us, they went on their way, perhaps to search for food or to take a nap. Their docile nature and overall nonchalance about us being there surprised me. It was just another day in the forest for them. The hour went by fast and before we knew it, we were hiking out. Overall the experience was up there with walking with the elephants, my favorite day in Chiang Mai. The trek was organized, well-managed, safe and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There weren’t crowds of people blocking your view, it was semi-private and intimate, something I would recommend to any nature and animal lover, it’s worth the long travel and the somewhat hefty price tag.

Nets for Africa

Marketing photo op.

Soon I was back in Entebbe to meet with the COTHA crew to start our medical mission. They took me under their wing, many of them veterans of this annual trip, and quickly brought me up to speed on what was going to be happening for the week. We drove for six hours to a town called Lira, an area of Uganda that has never received a medical mission, it was a first for all of us. As I mentioned, culture shock hit me hard when I got to the hotel. Maybe I was tired, jet-lagged, hungry, or all the above, but I broke down into tears, wondering what I had got myself into. Hardly ever getting homesick or longing to go home when I travel, I found myself ready to catch the next flight out. But I wasn’t going anywhere, I was hours from an airport and had committed to my company and to this mission team, this is what I wanted, remember? I stared out my window looking across a series of tin roofs, watching the sun begin to set, and said a little prayer. I asked for strength to carry me through this mission and to help me to get rid of self-centeredness, this wasn’t about me. Luckily, my prayer was answered, because the next day I popped out of bed at 6am and was ready to go. Over the course of 6 days, we fell into a nice routine.

We’d grab a quick breakfast, drive to one of the three different churches where we spent two days at each church. We sorted medicine, set up doctor stations, a dentist station, a reading glasses station, had a medicine bus parked outside the church and of course, passed out mosquito nets.

Photos by Nathalie Bonnete

All this happened for 8 or 9 hours a day with a steady flow of people going through the stations all day. Between 8 doctors, at the end of the week they saw over 9,000 patients. We gave out over $14,000 worth of medicines and 6,000 nets. People got tested for HIV and other infectious diseases and we even sent one woman to have surgery done on her neck. We gave out 750 reading glasses with the help of translators, this line was always the longest, and many received much needed dental treatment. It amazed me that this was all made possible by the generosity of complete strangers donating money to Nets for Africa in America, thank you again! Unfortunately, there were several cases of malaria, epilepsy and sickle cell in the children. It was hard to see the little ones’ suffering, their mothers unsure how to console them.

Photos by Nathalie Bonnete

It’s heartbreaking to know that we were only able to help a small amount of people and that thousands of people didn’t get to receive care or nets. It’s bitter-sweet doing something like this. On one hand you feel like you’re helping, and in the next thought you realize you are only here in this area for two days. By the second day, the word gets out and more people show up. We run out of nets and medicine by the second day and must pack and leave. I was nervous that when the supplies ran out that there would be an angry mob as people have been waiting around all day. I had flashbacks of watching people stampede over each other during Black Friday in America, but that wasn’t the case in the slightest. Everyone was calm, polite and unbelievably kind, they’ve lived a life that has always been unfair, often forgotten and uncared for. I made sure I looked each one of them in the eyes and smiled, no matter how hot and tired I got. They would reply with “apoyo”, meaning “thank you,” with gratitude. By Saturday we were a well-oiled machine. With the amazing support from the churches, the doctors and nurses, and our team in Uganda who run this every year, we did the best we could with what we had. I’d say it was a success.

Photos by Nathalie Bonnete

On the long drive back to the airport, I was reminded that we are all just people who were randomly born in different parts of the world, how lucky that I landed in America, with a good family, a steady income, food, water, shelter and more than I could ever need. Often torn between the materialism I indulge in at home and the extreme poverty I see when traveling, I’m constantly discovering new ways of living that are in alignment with who I want to be. This is why traveling is important to me. I travel not just to experience these extraordinary adventures, but to open, to become humbled and to strengthen my capacity for compassion. I travel to get outside myself and to experience the world as it is, not as I wish it to be. At the medical and prayer tent, I saw a lot of pain, but it wasn’t too different from ours. Physical aches and pains, desperate widows, marital issues, sickness and money problems. Of course, others were more devastating, but people all around the world face these issues, we are more connected than we think. One thing we all share is that we all feel pain, we all have hard times, we all know grief and loss, heartache and hopelessness. Some people rise above, others are not as fortunate, but we are all human and even if it feels like nothing we do makes a difference, believe me it does. One does not have to travel to Africa to make a difference, it’s something we all can do in our communities, at work, within our family, we are all capable of brightening someone’s day, of saving a life, or giving hope. As I sit with my thoughts and emotions on Africa, even though I struggle with the many aspects of conservation, philanthropy, mission work and charity, what is the alternative? Doing nothing? I couldn’t fathom it. Maybe we don’t have it all perfectly figured out, but it’s a start and it’s a doorway into an area that desperately needs attention. I am confident that one door opens another. I never know when inspiration will strike or if I will be led to do more purposeful work like this, but I always try and remain open. I don’t know what comes next, but I know that I am a stronger, more compassionate human for taking this journey to Uganda, and that is all I can ask for.