Tyler’s Travel Tales: Rwanda & Uganda
Feb 26 - March 15, 2018
Every time I travel for charity: water, I like to send real-time stories and personal anecdotes home to my loved ones. In February and March, we spent two and a half weeks in Rwanda and Uganda. Here’s a look back at our trip in five emails.
Part 1: The Journey Continues
February 26th, 2018
Family and friends!
Hello from Amsterdam! Home of the weird middle-of-the-night pre-Africa layover. I’m a little delusional right now, but I do have two exciting things to share with you.
#1: The second season of The Journey (which we filmed last October in Ethiopia) is now live! You have to be a member of The Spring to watch all of the videos, but you can sign up in 30 seconds on that page. Or at the very least, you’ll get a kick out of the trailer…
Item of business #2: We’re currently en route to Rwanda and Uganda to shoot the next two seasons of The Journey!
This is my 13th charity: water trip, but my first to Rwanda. They call this country “the land of a thousand hills” — which isn’t great news for a man who recently sprained his ankle. But I’m still pumped.
Our local partner in Rwanda is building massive piped systems throughout the hills and working to provide complete coverage for entire districts at a time. Should be unlike anything I’ve seen to date.
More to come in a few days!
Part 2: Choosing Tomorrow Over Today
March 4th, 2018
It’s surreal to think that just seven years before 9/11 happened, Rwanda suffered one of the worst genocides in history. I was 12 years old at the time, and I really don’t remember it happening, but I can tell you this now: Rwanda lost more than 30% of its population at the time — in just 100 days. An estimated 1,000,000 people were killed. Another 2,000,000 became refugees.
It’s even more surreal to imagine what happens after that moment. How you’re supposed to return to a normal life after losing half or all of your family. How you’re supposed to live next door to someone who might’ve helped murder them. How you’re supposed to rebuild your homes, economy, and infrastructure.
But the government and the Rwandan people made an incredible choice in that moment to focus on the future instead of dwelling on the past. People chose forgiveness instead of revenge. And then they started to rebuild.
I’m telling you all of this because Rwanda is one of the most unique “developing countries” that I’ve visited so far. Kigali (the capital and largest city) is clean, organized, and safe. Full of hip coffee shops and trendy restaurants. (I know my bar is low, but I’m not just talking about hotels with reliable electricity and better-than-cold showers; I’m talking about restaurants where you order on iPads and public buses with free wifi!)
We’ve spent the past few days with our local partner here, who is working closely with the government to provide complete coverage for entire districts at a time. Which is unprecedented. These aren’t individual drilled wells — they’re massive piped systems that serve thousands of households. Like highways throughout the mountains that aim to connect every single person. It’s an undertaking that requires so much foresight, and it’s the beginning of something so much bigger… villages becoming towns, towns turning into cities.
I truly think that all of it is a testament to that original decision… to forgive and forget. To chase the things we all want, together, instead of chasing what we each want, alone. (Which is a life lesson that’s had me crying like an Oprah episode all week long.)
Anyway, it’s been a powerful few days so far. We’ve talked to 70-year-olds who never dreamed they’d see a day with clean water and hammed it up with kids who will never know any other life. We got invited to a wedding, interviewed the Vice Mayor of the Rulindo District, and hiked at least 500 of Rwanda’s 1,000 hills.
Tomorrow we set out for a new district — one that charity: water is working to serve this year and in the years to come. I’ll get you another update soon! Some photos below in the meantime. Much love to you all!
Part 3: I’ll be Dancing Like This
March 9th, 2018
The way you advertise a hotel seems to change as one moves from the city out into the more rural parts of Uganda. It’s almost as if you go from ‘ways we work to make you comfortable’ to ‘ways we work to distract you from your level of discomfort.’ As we drove out of Kampala today, the hotel signs quickly shifted from “free WiFi” and “air conditioning” to “cold drinks” and “pool table.” One sign simply said, “accommodation and meals” — with “meals” in quotation marks. I don’t even know what that means.
Right now, I’m laying on a not-so-cushiony, 3-inch-thick mattress that has surely seen bed bugs, I just killed a mosquito inside of my mosquito net, and I’m sweating. All of that to say… we should’ve done Uganda first. But here we are! Ready to start the second leg of our trip.
Before I get into that though — I owe you an update on our finish in Rwanda!
We spent our final few days in Rwanda visiting a community (and district) that does not yet have access to clean water. Families there, who live even higher up in the hills, make a three hour round trip each day to collect water from an unprotected source about 1,000 feet below. When there’s a line of people waiting (and there’s almost always a line), it can easily take another hour. So all-in, you’re looking at 4–5 hours every day for just one or two Jerry Cans of dirty water.
(Just to make it real… that’s like half of a season of Game of Thrones spent walking and waiting every single day.)
Once again, we found an incredibly lovable family who was willing to share their stories with us… a 50-year-old farmer and mother of six named Dativa who lost her husband in the Rwandan genocide and has been working hard to take care of her family on her own ever since. I’ll let the video series bring her to life later this year, but I will tell you that when we asked her what she would do when she saw clean water come out of a tap near her home for the first time (because she didn’t believe it would happen), she literally stood up and started dancing. “I will be dancing like this!” she exclaimed.
It was a powerful end to our week in Rwanda — knowing that Dativa and hundreds of others in her community will be dancing in celebration of clean water later this year. Moments like that make moments like this current mosquito net prison so well worth it.
Tomorrow, we hit the ground running in Uganda, where we’ll be working for the next week. If you want to map it, we’re staying in a town called Bugiri and spending our days near Lake Victoria (the largest lake in Africa) in the Namayingo District.
With the rural-ness also comes a lack of wifi. So don’t count on me for your basketball pools just yet. But I’ll try to report in when I can. In the meantime, thank you for all of your messages and prayers.
More to come!
Part 4: Don’t Get the Water in Your Mouth
March 11th, 2018
Before we made the four-hour journey from the city of Kampala to this part of eastern Uganda, our local partner made a point to say, “don’t get water from Lake Victoria in your mouth.” It seemed like such a funny choice of words at the time. Especially because I had read up on Lake Victoria before the trip. I already knew that it’s the largest lake in Africa. That it’s heavily polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste. That it’s home to hippos, snakes, and Nile crocodiles. I had absolutely no intention of getting close enough to that water for any of it to touch me — let alone enter my mouth!
Not more than 48 hours later, Jamie and I were crowded into a man-made canoe (that was surely built for one person) with a local fisherman named Steven, casually skimming though the wetlands of Lake Victoria so we could see where families go to collect water.
You’ll see in the photos below. This wasn’t a simple paddle-off-from-the-dock-at-summer-camp kind of moment; we were carving through a dense marshy canal where every stick looked like a water monster.
That was the scariest part of my day… half trying to capture video content, half trying to keep the 1-inch margin of canoe-above-the-water as level as possible while still scanning the area around us for crocs and pythons.
As I struggled not to pee myself, Steven expertly paddled our canoe with a stick he found (?!) and started flinging water into the air. Suddenly, Jamie gasped: “Oh no. Water in the mouth! WATER IN THE MOUTH!” Just like that, we broke the only rule.
I don’t think Jamie ingested enough water to be concerned, but what’s truly surreal is that families here are ingesting this water every day. And worse yet, they’re putting their lives at risk to go get it.
If you don’t have access to clean water here, you rely on the lake. Period. You walk to the nearest point, you wade through that marshy path out to a waist-deep clearing where the water is less muddy, and you dunk your Jerry Can to fill it.
Steven’s family actually got clean water in their village back in 2015. So his wife and kids don’t go to the lake anymore. Only him. And only for fishing. His wife shared that they used to spend about 25% of their monthly income on medicine and visits to the health center to treat stomach problems, diarrhea, and waterborne diseases. Today, they go once every five months. And it’s usually just for a checkup. The money they’re saving? For all five of their kids to go to school.
There’s so much about our local partner and their work here that is admirable, but today, I’m just grateful that fewer and fewer people are visiting and drinking from that lake each day.
We’re nearing the end of our trip. We only have two more days left in the field here. I’ll get you one final update from Kampala on the way out. In the meantime, much love from my mosquito net heaven!
Part 5: Dirty Underwear & No Water
March 17th, 2018
Earlier this week, at the end of a particularly long, hot day, I returned to our hotel — overdue for a shower and change of clothes. I was eager. But also dreading it. Not only was it guaranteed to be an icy shower, but if the power was out (and it was often out), then I’d be showering by flashlight again. Which, frankly, was starting to feel a little bit like I was shooting low-budget voyeuristic videos of myself.
As I delivered my usual Any Given Sunday-inspired pre-cold-shower you-can-do-this pep talk, I realized I also had no clean underwear left in my bag. So not only was I in for a cold and dark shower, I’d also have to hang around long enough to soap up some undies so I’d have something clean to wear in the morning. Great.
I walked into my bathroom, naked, with my flashlight and two pair of dirty underwear and turned on the tap. Nothing came out.
That was a first for me. Having a hotel run out of water. And kind of an incredible irony. It meant a reality I’d often heard stories about from families in the field: with just one bottle of water in my room, I’d have to make choices… do I choose to brush my teeth? Try to freshen myself a bit? Save it for drinking? Or do I wash my underwear?
We don’t have to talk about how I solved (or didn’t solve) that problem. The thing I really wanted to share is that I spent the first several days in Uganda thinking about the modern comforts I missed. Disappointed in bland food. Unimpressed by our accommodations. Feeling lonely or far removed or sorry for myself. And then I hit this low point — naked with a flashlight and some dirty underwear — and realized the thing I was doing that Ugandans (and people I’ve met in rural communities around the world) weren’t doing, was dwelling on my circumstance.
You can’t find the good when you’re being blinded by the bad. Attitude is everything. And that’s when I changed mine.
And wouldn’t you know it… over the remaining few days, I started to notice all of the things that I loved about Uganda…
> The way our local partners so proudly and brilliantly talk about their work. A sense of pride and determination. For water quality. For sustainable solutions. For behavior change.
> Communities who received clean water just one month ago who are still singing and dancing in celebration today.
> Baller female local leaders like Gladys who refuse to be de-throned by men who think they can do a better job — who serves as role model for every young woman in her community.
> A restaurant down the street from our hotel that served a mean plate of french fries with scrambled egg on top — where we literally hugged the staff goodbye on our last night.
I do feel lucky to have been born where I was born. Not just a place with luxuries like air conditioning and smartphones, but a place full of opportunity — to eat nutritious food, choose a job I love, or know that I can learn anything I want to learn.
But this trip served an awesome reminder that what we have doesn’t define who we are. In fact, it’s who we are that often defines what we have.
I’ll leave it there. Thank you all for following along with this incredible two-country journey! We just returned home, safe and sound, and I can’t wait to start putting these stories together to share with you soon.
Next trip dates are up in the air, but will likely come in the fall and feature some new countries (Sierra Leone? Ivory Coast? Madagascar?!). Until then — nothing but love from New York City!
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