“Excuse me,” one of the administrators entered the ranger’s office I was sat in. “There is a Jo to meet you.”
Jo? I searched my brain. Unlike Google, I came up with nothing. “Who is Jo?” I asked her as I followed her across the grass.
“He says he knows you,” she said, leading me to the restaurant of the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary where at the bar stood a tall South African with dreadlocks.
“Are you Jo?” I asked.
“Yes,” he grinned, sticking his hand out. “I’m Erin’s boyfriend. I was told to buy you a beer. So which beer do you want?”
I blinked. Well, this is a first.
Erin was a Canadian I’d met in Kilifi, Kenya. She’d told me how she and her partner had started an NGO in Uganda. And the global village just shrank a little more.
“Howzit, bru?” I said, connecting the dots. “I’ve just quit alcohol for medical reasons but I appreciate the offer.”
We sat down to chat and by the end of the hour Jo had invited the Gypsy Queen and myself to become his NGO’s first volunteers.
“We need to get the word out, bru,” he said. “If you want to barter a small paragraph –”
“Stop,” I stopped him. He blinked. “I don’t do paragraphs. I write.”
He grinned. “You’ll stay at my friend’s lodge, you’ll get food, take you hiking to waterfalls,” Jo was selling it well.
“I’m there,” I grinned. “We can do a little video for you too.”
13 rides and a party at the cop shop (which could have ended up in the holding cell) the Gypsy Queen and I had finally arrived at the rolling green hills of Rubuguri, a small, picturesque village deep in the heart of the Kisoro district in western Uganda. Beyond its surrounding hills lies Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where Uganda’s endangered mountain gorilla population reside. It was here that we met Gordon and Ben, Jo’s two right-hand men that were to take care of us for the week we were volunteering. We were bedded in Wagtail Eco Lodge, owned by Mr Rubbs.
“He’s the local mayor,” Jo had told us.
A crafty politician he was immediately taken by us and offered us to stay for, “Two months. We make business together. We make money.”
I tried to explain our non-monetary ways but it fell on deaf ears.
Footsteps Through Africa had begun back in April, 2015. In the seven months since it started up they managed to get a donation of 22,000 books from the USA and have about 22 kids sponsored. They’ve started up a community library and another one in the village boarding school.
Quite an impressive accomplishment for such a short period of time and more so for an NGO that has no corporate financial backing.
“In June next year I’d like to hitch hike through Africa,” Jo had told me back at Ziwa. “Raise awareness, raise funds, find remote villages off the beaten track and see what Footsteps can do for them.”
Gordon and Ben showed us the community library in the building where an 80-year-old mzee (term of respect for the senior) greeted us daily. Even though he looked more like he might be scraping 60. When we visited the school the kids were let out and what was supposed to be a playful afternoon soon became a mini-riot as the kids screamed and reached out to us like we were candy. Some kids even touched my legs, having never come across a non-African before.
For the week we were there, it rained every day. It rained when Gordon and Ben took us on a hike up the hills, passed terrace farms and all the way to the Bwindi forest, through the woods where mushrooms scattered the forest floors. Through the mist the area was infamous for.
It rained when we hiked to the waterfalls and the caves the next day. It rained so heavily that we took shelter in a nearby hut, trying to dry our clothes, succeeding in burning a hole in my camera bag. We eventually turned back to the village and tried again the next day that appeared sunnier.
It still rained on us for a bit as we finally made it to the waterfall.
Gordon also trains the local kids in athletics at the village football field which also doubles as the cows feeding grounds. When it rains it triples as the local swimming pool. One sunny afternoon with a break in the rains, I found myself playing football with the kids. I played barefoot, sliding on every attempt to get the ball, the locals laughing hysterically until I scored a Maradona inspired goal (but without the Hand of God).
Which, turns out, didn’t count.
“That is my bar,” Gordon indicated to the sign that read, ‘The Cave’.
He showed us his humble establishment and the Gypsy Queen latched onto a wall. “If you want, I can do some string art here for you.”
After explaining what string art was he agreed to get the wool and nails. GQ and I then proceeded to spend our last day making what would become The Cave Mandala.
To inspire our work, we shared a bottle of Old Monk rum that GQ had brought from India. By evening, when we had finished, I had whipped out Ol’ Red and had Gordon, Ben and everyone within earshot dancing to my tunes. We retired to Wagtail lodge where, while cooking dinner, I continued to play as the staff suddenly turned the kitchen into a dance hall.
There are thousands of NGOs in Africa. Some are dodgy that just want money and don’t care about community impact like the one that is already in Rubuguri who shall remain unnamed. In the six years its been present in the district, the community has seen no contribution from its presence.
In the seven months that Footsteps Through Africa have operated here, lives have changed for the better. Children are getting an education, life’s doors of opportunity are and will open up for them. 22,000 books? Some libraries in the Western world could only dream of having such a collection.
The Rubuguri community has had a positive impact thanks to Jo and Erin’s Footsteps Through Africa. Volunteering is available by contacting Jo or Erin at https://www.facebook.com/footstepsthroughafrica/