Good Kind of Crazy: Volunteering and Hiking in Uganda and Rwanda

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This has been an American year for the Gorilla Highlands team. The fourth US specialist volunteer of 2017, Benjamin Blayne Dawson from Florida, is flying home at this very moment, after volunteering in Uganda and Rwanda for two months.

Benji B. has spent 90% of his time at Lake Bunyonyi, however, he has also visited Kigali for just long enough to be featured on Rwanda Television. The show, Prime Time Live, was devoted to wellbeing and eating right so the video above skews towards these topics. Benji did start every morning with some yoga next to the lake surface and ended his volunteer stint with a training session for our kitchen team — but there has been more to his volunteering.

Let us enjoy his story…

Benji B., Gorilla Highlands Volunteer; photo by Miha Logar

In May 2017 I was researching gorillas on the internet because I was interested in their diet. I found it to be very similar to an alkaline diet fad that I had been strictly following for six months. (Unfortunately this diet eventually caused an overgrowth of bad bacteria in my digestion system, called candida – see the video above.) During my research, I found a region in Uganda and Rwanda called the Gorilla Highlands. The idea of traveling from America to volunteer at a place in Africa that I didn’t really know anything about, seemed kind of crazy, but the kind of crazy that meant really living.

Motorboat trip on Bunyonyi; photo by Miha Logar

The Universe lined everything up perfectly for me to leave my job, my apartment, family and friends; to take a leap of faith and trust that this was an experience I was supposed to be a part of. Not knowing where I would pick back up from when I returned home, started to not matter anymore. I felt in my heart that, good or bad, I would be challenged in ways that would help me overcome obstacles that made it seem as if I was tied down in Florida.

In the middle of August 2017 I entered Africa in style …

Having zero international travelling experience, I had to quickly become familiar with how not to go about it. I missed my first flight out of Florida to New York by three minutes. In my defense, I arrived at the airport by midnight and my flight didn’t leave until 6:00 a.m. I wasn’t able to check in until 4:00 a.m., and then failed to account for enough time to get through the security and onto my terminal. Fortunately, beginners’ luck was on my side and I caught a flight one hour later. I arrived to JFK Airport in New York and faced a ten-hour layover. I chose to ride the subway from Queens to Manhattan in search of some world famous New York pizza. My smart phone was out of data and I didn’t plan ahead and get an address to where I could find it. So I found myself wondering aimlessly in the Big Apple. I never did find what I was looking for and decided to give up while I was still ahead, and make my way back to the airport.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t have any issues at my first international airport in Brussels (I thought that was Germany but it’s actually Belgium…) and began my way to Kigali in Rwanda. As I was approaching my destination, I was unaware that the plane was going to make two stops in two different countries. Naturally, I stepped off the plane in the wrong country of Burundi. I got to meet the police and they advised me that it would be in my best interest to quickly get back on the plane that was soon leaving to my scheduled destination.

Zebras on Lake Bunyonyi’s Kyahugye Island; photo by Miha Logar

I made it to Kigali and found my luggage to be torn open and damaged. I was so exhausted from the past 37 hours and wasn’t looking forward to facing the challenge of resolving this matter. After getting the information that I needed (the phone number I was supposed to call but never did) I spent the first night of my African experience in Rwanda. I woke up early the next morning and started my way to Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda, using public means.

Benji B.’s Gorilla Highlands Volunteering placement at Lake Bunyonyi; photo by Benji B

As a volunteer at Bunyonyi I focused on teaching the children from Bufuka Primary School how to swim. This is important because many pupils arrive to school by canoe and it’s very unfortunate if they should fall into the water and not have any swim training. I got to bring my cooking experience into the kitchen and share those skills with the staff at Edirisa, my hosts. I soon found myself busy with many other projects of interest- including the construction of a traditional beehive. Then two separate, unexpected opportunities presented themselves to be able to trek through the Pearl of Africa (a perk of being on the Gorilla Highlands team).

I know that leaving this special place will be bitter-sweet. Even though I live so far away, I will always remain near through the memories I made. The parts of Uganda and Rwanda I visited are so different from one another that I find it difficult to compare the two. Yet there is a unifying theme: the people of both countries share a friendliness that I’ve not experienced anywhere else. The friends that I’ve met along the way have treated me like family and I’ve been welcomed into perfect stranger’s homes with open arms.

I’m so glad I jumped at the opportunity; it’s been so fulfilling in many unexpected ways. My soul will always feel connected to the Gorilla Highlands region.

But if I have to be specific, the best times have come from hiking through the highlands and the people I’ve met along the way! Therefore I’ve chosen to share with you four days of my journaling while trekking in southwestern Uganda. I was attached to a group of East African Playgrounds volunteers who otherwise build playful kids’ spaces around Jinja in Eastern Uganda, doing the Three Upland Lakes trek.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Edirisa Nursery School entertainment; photo by Benji B

We leave Edirisa by canoe after having a delicious breakfast of pancakes, fresh fruit, eggs, toast, butter, red plum jam, and coffee. The guides bring us to a peninsula called Kyabahinga. We stop at a nursery school to be entertained by local children who sing and dance for the group. We also perform three children’s songs in return and then head to a local pub and enjoy some obushera – a local porridge made from fermented sorghum.

Obushera with friends; photo by Miha Logar

Feeling refreshed we set off to see a natural healer. Here, I learn about indigenous plants and their medicinal uses. This is a great experience because I am mending from a cough and the medicine man has just the plant for me to chew on, and I must say, it helps.

Traditional healer; photo by Benji B

Then we meet with Anna. She’s a local craft maker with so much talent. She uses organic materials for all of her products; even the dyes that she applies are plant-based. I get to make two bracelets and take them with me for good memories. We are served a wonderful lunch made of Irish potatoes, groundnuts (“g-nuts”), cooked cabbage, and posho made from masa. The sky is gathering dark clouds so we leave Anna’s and head down the hill where the canoe boys are waiting to take the group to the next destination.

We make it to Tom’s Homestay, on Habukomi Island, just before the clouds open up with rain. My tent is already set up and I take shelter to keep warm and dry. The rain lets up just in time for dinner. I enjoy more local food- Irish potatoes, g-nuts, cabbage, crayfish, and rice. After dinner I go to relax in my tent to prepare for the next day’s adventure.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Waking up to the call of the roosters, it is 5:30 a.m., and time to get ready for a much more intense day of hiking. The sun is rising, breakfast is ready. Chapati, mixed fruit jam, local organic honey, bananas, hot cocoa, and coffee is what we eat for strength to get us through the first part of the day.

From Lake Bunyonyi to Lake Kayumbu; photo by Benji B

A motorboat is awaiting to take us across Lake Bunyonyi to the hills below Echuya Forest Reserve. A member of the Batwa is my guide through the forest and I admit that I am struck by the challenge that this hike presents. Drinking water, bananas, and even a snickers candy bar are available to keep my energy levels high enough to climb to the other side of that enchanted forest.

Terraces and a volcano on the way to Lake Kayumbu; photo by Benji B.

After the forest we make it over more hills and rocks to rewarding mountain top views. I enjoy a picnic lunch of nutella, peanut butter, jam, tea biscuits, tuna fish, cheese, bread, butter, bananas, cookies, and Pringles potato chips. The breath-taking quilted hills and gorgeous volcano backdrop make for an extra special meal. The clouds are beginning to look like it might rain and we are ready to continue down the mountain.

Lake Kayubu with the Virunga volcanoes; photo by Benji B

As it begins raining, I can tell that my Nike shoes are not appropriate for the rest of the descent. Lucky for me, the porters are not far away with gumboots; they have better traction to help me on the slippery slopes. The rain stops as we make it into the village and stop at a local pub to refresh with obushera.

We make it to Gerald’s and Jackie’s home at Lake Kayumbu, and they welcome me with very warm greetings. My tent is ready and dinner is being prepared. The lovely hosts attempt to ready a campfire, however, the firewood is too damp and creates more smoke than fire. This is the last night of the trip that local food will be prepared. I enjoy rice, beans, g-nuts, Irish potatoes, and avocado. The sunset over the lake smears the sky with vibrant hues of blue, yellow, orange, purple, and pink. It is an awesome end to a great day.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

I get up before sunrise to reflect on a hillside overlooking the lake beneath the most brilliant diamonds in the sky. We are served a very simple breakfast – bread, peanut butter, jam, bananas, hot cocoa, and coffee. It begins to lightly rain as the bus is being loaded with the gear. We are on the way to Kisoro, cutting the way short by riding in our support vehicle.

When I arrive into town I am able to do some banking, visit the supermarket, and relax at the restaurant known as Coffee Pot Cafe. Wi-Fi is available, but my phone battery fails and I didn’t bring a charger… Instead I enjoy a cup of coffee and a very filling lunch. The first course is chapati and guacamole with a glass of fresh passion fruit juice. Then I am served creamy pumpkin soup before having the option of a vegetarian meal- rice, vegetables and chips, or meatballs, rice and chips. I finish my lunch with a fresh fruit salad.

In the afternoon we are scheduled to attend a coffee tour. I participate in the coffee process from plant to cup. Different roasts have certain levels of caffeine. The taste factor is determined by the quality of the bean. Also, the aroma, smooth or bitter flavor is affected when the bean is exposed to certain temperatures of heat. I spend the day in my flip flops because my shoes get mixed in the bag with the gumboots, somewhere on the bus.

From the coffee tour we walk to the lakeside where a motorboat is awaiting to take us to Mutanda Island Lodge. On the way I listen to the children of the hills calling out, “Muzungu! Muzungu! How are you?” As we get to the tiny island, dinner is ready- pasta, beef with gravy, rice, vegetables and beverage options other than water. I enjoy my meal beside a campfire. The flames are so hot, I watch as they turn blue. The night is electric, and I find it difficult to fall asleep in my handsome tented accommodation.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Cheerful moment during hiking; photo by Benji B

I wake up to a singing paradise of birds, silver sparkling water, guava trees, and lush green grass- softer than your most comfortable pair of socks. My shoes are still in the bag with the boots on the bus, which gives me the chance to ground my bare feet on a very inviting cool mound of grass. Bathing in the golden African sunlight, my spirit is so content… I am not sad at all that, due to improper footwear, I can’t attend today’s hike.

For breakfast I have bread, egg omelettes, green peppers, tomatoes, a side of fresh fruit, and hot tea. When it is time to leave the island, I board a motorboat and head toward the bus where I find my shoes. I go back to the town of Kisoro for lunch and opt to have a rolex- chapati, egg, tomato, and onion- made from a street stand, directly across from Coffee Pot Cafe.

I leave Kisoro on the bus to the jungle of Uganda – Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. I receive an African bus massage on the way up that bouncy mountain. When I arrive to my campsite I am greeted with fresh local coffee, hot tea, milk, and sugar. Feeling at home while sitting in an open cantina, the jungle is alive with birds calling, moving water babbling in a nearby stream, and sights of elephant foot prints. The sounds are like the beating heart of the rainforest. I am feeling alive!

As night falls, so do the rains. I find myself back in the cosy cantina and have a phenomenal dinner- savoury baked chicken, vegetables seasoned just right, and Irish potatoes. The rain is so mystical and I decide to relax with one more cup of coffee before retiring to my tent for the night.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Benji B. with East African Playgrounds volunteers during 4-day trek

I wake up, cold, in that misty jungle. I unzip my tent, step out, and realise how amazing this opportunity has been. I am so grateful to add this experience as a part of who I am- courageous, righteous, creative, patient, kind, loving, healthy, peaceful, influential, and inspirational. My breakfast this morning has some deeper meaning. Ambition is on my side and I’m refreshed and ready to continue doing the many things I was created for.