People of the Gorilla Highlands Are Characters

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Before my arrival to volunteer in Rwanda and Uganda there seemed to be one phrase that I was told that hung over me: The people of the Gorilla Highlands are characters. I didn’t know quite what this meant at the time, but now this one statement has defined my experience. And so, the only way I can tell you about my journey is to tell you about the people.

If you kept up with me through my first blog post, then you would know I began in Kigali. There, I met Nash, a fast talking Canadian who made me feel welcome in Rwanda, despite my uncertainties. He is so incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the region that he made me feel passionate as well. I can consider no better introduction.

Once I crossed the borders of Uganda to continue in the Learn from Africa orientation, I met Andrew, who would act as my guide and translator over the following days. In a new environment where I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the constant cries of “Muzungu” (white person) hurled my way, Andrew was a calm and assuring presence. It became quickly apparent to me how informed he was as he guided me along Lake Bunyonyi and introduced me to even more characters.

There was Jeremiah, the traditional healer who doesn’t speak a word of English, but whose eyes seem to smile with him. At the time, I was on an assignment that required me to collect a love potion from him, and I still remember the knowing grin he gave me as he packaged it up.

Next, I met Annah, the amazingly talented craft maker who singlehandedly supports her entire family with her creations. Though I was just one person, she prepared a delicious feast of local food for lunch and guided me in making my own bracelet that I have not taken off in the weeks since.

And who could forget meeting Tom Karemire? This was my first of soon to be many interactions with Tom, but right off the bat, he makes an impression. Tom is friendly and as warm as the campfire we sat around as Mr. Eric played his enanga. Perhaps my favorite aspect about Tom, though, is that he does his own thing. He is so wonderfully stubborn and no one can tell him what to do, except for Miha, who he still shows awe inspiring loyalty to, even after his retirement. He is a man who will leave you in hysterics, quoting his one liners days after they’ve occurred.

Though I could not communicate by language with the Batwa “Pygmies“, my visit with them left a mark on me. From their leader, Kanusu, who led me through the lush Echuya Forest and helped me to swing on a vine like Tarzan to meeting their entire community, I was left humbled.

Mind you, this is no tourist trap with fake furs and exaggerated, rehearsed ceremonies. The Batwa were themselves as they showed me how they would make fire, attempted to teach me how to shoot a bow and arrow, at which I was utterly hopeless, and introduced themselves and their roles in the community. Once Andrew told me that the money Edirisa collects from the activity goes towards supporting the Batwa and the other people I had met, I was grateful that I could give something back to those people who had offered so much to me.

Because Edirisa means ‘window’ and is seen as a way for visitors to learn from Africa and Africa to learn from them, everyday I get the chance to meet new characters along the way. Some I have liked and some I have not, as is life, but all have impacted me for the better.

From Musyoka, the 28 year old Egyptian who was on a week long hunt for sugar cane to a Canadian TV cameraman who had traveled to 95 countries, all the way to Claudio (above), the permaculture and environmental genius that we knew simply as “The Italian Ninja”.

Aside from just the international guests that come and go, I have developed a deep fondness for the locals that surround me on a daily basis and treat me with extraordinary kindness. I have never felt lonely here because of the amazing people, both temporary and permanent, that have enriched my experience.

The Gorilla Highlands is special because it recognizes that when you travel, it is the people that you will remember more than just the places. I am lucky in knowing that the work I am doing as a photography and multimedia specialist volunteer directly goes to helping these people that make every day worth it.

text and photos: Anika Utke