From Squirrel to Unicorn (Volunteer Life Part II)

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View towards Kabale Town; photo by Hank Rugg
View towards Kabale Town; photo by Hank Rugg
When I arrived in East Africa on KLM airlines, I was excited/nervous/curious and really, really tired. I flew in with another student from my Carpe Diem gap year program, who was also going to volunteer in Uganda, at a special needs education centre.

The interesting part about our situation of arrival was that we landed in Rwanda. Now for those who aren’t aware, Rwanda is small – smaller than Costa Rica. We got to its capital, Kigali, in the evening time. We were picked up by a a Canadian fellow named Nash, who I had no idea was picking us up and taking us to his place*.

Nash worked for Gorilla Highlands in the past, and his way of still giving support to the organisation was helping new volunteers land softly and reach Uganda’s Lake Bunyonyi safely. Nash was a cool, talkative guy who had us over for a night at his pad that he shared with a couple of people. He ordered us pizza for a late dinner and in the morning showed us parts of Kigali and his work with a transport startup.

I quickly realised that Rwanda didn’t represent the way I pictured Africa. Everywhere in Kigali there was security and control of all kinds. Lots of police with big kevlar vests and assault rifles. They would stay in place, and scan their environment like robots. There were large intimidating gates, and walls with barbwire everywhere in the downtown area. Wherever I went, the streets were clean, with people sweeping them and picking up any trash in site. All of the people of Rwanda going about their sunny day. Lots of motorcycle taxis, and all of the riders wearing helmets. Safe, secure, and to itself.

As we were dropped at the taxi spot in Kigali and we were on our own to get to the lake, I gained a small sense of worry. What will Uganda be like? Will it be a lot like Rwanda, since they’re neighbours? It turned out that no, they didn’t have a lot in common.

Uganda seemed more wild, the second our shared taxi entered it. It felt like the people were much more extrovert and lively. We took a break at the border, and all of a sudden my colleague and I were very interesting to the locals. In Uganda everyone looked at me as if I was a unicorn. In Rwanda I was more of a squirrel – foreign to their land, but much less of a big deal.

Ugandans and Rwandans are both quiet, at least to my American ears, but what was for sure was that Ugandans were louder and livelier than Rwandans. Rwandans, at least in the city, seemed to be more in a hurry as well. The roads of Uganda were a bit rougher at times but there were still smooth, curvy long highways that went through absolute stunning scenery here and there. Traffic to Kabale Town reminded me of India. You must be prepared for madness, by gripping the door handle. Who knows what could go down … living life on the edge.

Something that was an extremely inaccurate stereotype of Africa, was that Africans are bone skinny, I guess since they don’t get enough food and nutrition. This was seeming like a false accusation, at least where I had been in East Africa, since the grown people I see and meet from the ages of 16 to 70 appear very fit. They make me feel like I should be doing some more pushups.

Everyone in Uganda usually greets me with a smile and hello, no matter what age, gender or class. Uganda seems to just not need all of the security Rwanda had, and that is ironically more comforting. If Uganda was a person that I met last week, they would be always chill, kicking back, cracking jokes, and enjoying the perfect weather they always have. I could get used to being here.

text: Hank Rugg

Editor’s comment: This is so Hank, ha ha! We tried to contact him repeatedly beforehand and we even begged Carpe Diem a couple of times to make Hank reach out to Nash.

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