Sunday, August 12, 2007

Uganda: Rapids and paint fumes

Rafting the Nile River was an experience to be reckoned with: thirty kilometers and twelve rapids, four of which were Class Five. Mamma mia! The raft flipped completely over three times, and the whole thing seemed to be set to a testosterone pumping soundtrack of battle cries, war whoops, thundering beats and swirling water with rapids named things like the g spot, total madness, and the bad place. Holy cow, it was fun! Kathleen admits that twice she was under water a bit longer than she felt entirely comfortable with. She had to remind herself to relax and that she would float up, what with all the life jackets and helmets and such. But still, it felt like an awfully long time for the water color to lighten up as she neared the surface. The whole thing was an exhilerating ride over mammoth waves, swells, and bumps at the source of the Nile River. And the stories became more and more exaggerated over beers and bbq. By the time we get home, we'll undoubtedly be claiming to have done it blindfolded, naked, and without a guide.

The next day we helped paint a schoolroom with Soft Power, an organization that has done some amazing work in Uganda building schools for orphaned children (a sadly common plight due to AIDS and other disease), setting up a medical clinic, and developing advanced education opportunities. While we have nothing but great things to say about the progress of the organization, we did get a taste of some of the roadblocks of volunteering.

There were far too many people assembled for the work they needed done. In fact, we had wanted to volunteer for three days, but they only had work for us for one. And we met several other people who had the time and energy to pitch in, but there simply wasn't the infrastructure in place to make use of their time. Unfortunately this left some volunteers feeling frustrated. Two schoolteachers that were doing our painting project with us had organized their volunteer time months in advance....only to find that we finished the project within a few hours with lots of idle time to sit around. Not exactly what they flew to Uganda for...and they had had a similar experience during their volunteer stint in Kampala. Indeed, we have met lots of people eager to share their time and energy, but a bit stalled by the opportunities that exist. Not that this is unique to Uganda....coordinating volunteers anywhere in the world can be a lesson in patience and tolerance. And we applaud the organizations that try, and we have a huge amount of respect for everyone involved.

What is really striking about our time in Africa thus far is how virtually everyone we meet is involved in some sort of interesting and socially redeeming it UNICEF in Kampala, aiding a hospital or health clinic, studying HIV in women, or building schools. We have really been inspired and encouraged by other travelers we have met.

And while we understood some of the volunteers annoyance at being underutilized, we had such a fun time playing with the kids, that we didn't mind. They even let Eric join their hack (soccer ball) circle while Kathleen answered endless questions about her name, her dad's name, her mom's name, her sister's name, etc., etc. The kids were dumbfounded that she only had one sister. Families of eight or more are the norm in Uganda(and a complicated problem of financial responsibilty, poverty, and education). At the school for orphans and the desperately poor, kids tumble from every corner to grab your hand. They all want to be picked up and held, a heartbreaking reality that they don't get to experience often enough. We could have held them forever.

The digital revolution also is a big hit with the kids. They love having their picture taken and then seeing it afterward. The moment you whip out your camera, everyone's clamoring over each other to get in the shot, elbowing our their friends and hamming it up. Very fun! See if you can find the muzungu in the shot in front of the African mural...

After our project, we returned to our Nileside backpackers dorm, where Jack Johnson has oficially joined the ranks of Bob Marley as the official voice of the chilled-out bohemian traveler set. Rock on.

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