Pre-Conservation Camp, Kisoro

24/8/15 – 29/8/15

I am inundated with emotions right now. I just finished editing together my group’s COS (Close of Service) slideshow which showcases photos and videos from almost two years ago when we first met each other in Philadelphia for staging on November 11th, 2013. I am clean, comfortable, and resting here in Bruce’s apartment in Kisoro as we gear up for Conservation Camp. The past few days, I have felt like I have been playing house; Rachel and I have been cooking ridiculous meals in a kitchen with a faux-marble countertop, doing daily errands, and lounging on couches in a living room.

Bunagana - Uganda DRC Border

Bunagana – Uganda DRC Border

We endured a harrowing night bus ride which included blasting dancehall music from 8pm – 5:30am inside the darkened bus, babies crying, and chilly wind blasting through the windows. We got into Kisoro while it was still dark and Jax, Bruce’s counterpart, picked us up and brought us to Bruce’s house. Over the course of several days we prepared for the coming weeks. Rachel prepped the shirts, water bottles, certificates, and plans for Conservation Camp events while I worked on the COS slideshow video for our COS Conference next week.

Hill WalkingDuring the day, I would ride Bruce’s bicycle around Kisoro town. As the warm sun hit my skin and the wind rustled through my sweater I felt as if I was back home in the United States. I would just bicycle a few minutes to pick up cauliflower, onions, green beans, butter, milk, cheese, and other cooking ingredients. At one point, Jax brought us to this hill purportedly where Churchill dubbed Kisoro the African Alps. We called it Churchill’s Hill, but the locals called it Munari Hill off the dirt road from Kamugoyi Village in Kanaba District. We also hiked up the gorgeous hill behind Golden Monkey Guesthouse where one can see Mt. Muhabura and Lake Mutanda. This time however, we continued walking up a nearby, steeper hill and made our way down a ridge bounded with trees and steep slopes on either side. It honestly felt like a new adventure.

This past week has been so much of a blur, and I can’t believe that we are about to start Conservation Camp. During this camp, local Ugandan youth will learn about sustainable methods to start conservation projects in their community as well as learn life-skills and leadership methods. There will be 10 counselors: 5 Ugandan and 5 Peace Corps Volunteers. My role during this camp is to capture moments through both photographs and video, as well as cook dinner for the PCV’s during camp. The menu consists of sushi, stir-fry, pastas, pizza, sautéed veggies, and cabbage slaws.

Winding Kisoro Roads

Winding Kisoro Roads

Hiking Mt. Elgon

3/4/15 – 6/4/15

I felt very fulfilled after this Passover and Easter weekend. On Friday I did my usual journey to Kampala where I met up with Rachel at the Kamwokya Taxi Stage in the New Taxi Park. We made it to the Peace Corps office as the DMO (Director of Management and Operations) was pulling out of the office parking lot. She quizzically asked us why we were in Kampala and Rachel stated that she was bringing in quilts from Piece by Peace. I just remained silent as she drove away. I picked up my tent from the Peace Corps Volunteer lounge and Rachel dropped her quilts at the office where staff was working on the upcoming Youth Technical Trainings. As I entered the office, they told us that Kampala was still on strict lockdown due to the possible terrorist attack as notified by both the British and U.S. Embassies. As a result, we technically shouldn’t have been in Kampala.

Rachel and I quickly departed the office, but not before I accidentally sat in a swivel chair and knocked down a dry-erase board and glass wall clock that shattered on the ground. We sojourned to the frenzy of the Ugandans in the Bus Park and obtained tickets to Mbale. Honestly, after battling a few dozen Ugandans who bull-rushed a ticket vendor for the next available bus with two backpacking backpacks and a tent, I will never be upset when waiting at the DMV with a numbered ticket stub. The ride was uneventful in that it started to storm halfway through the ride and one of the passengers complained that the bus kept stopping to pick up people along the road who were headed to Mbale. This sparked an interesting debate where many of the passengers and bus staff took a stand against the complaining passenger. Personally, I would have endorsed this complaint except that I didn’t want to be kicked out of the bus.

By the late evening we arrived in Mbale and made our way to PCV Cindy’s house where she was hosting over 10 other PCV’s. The plan for the weekend was that on Saturday we would share a Jewish Passover Seder Meal with the Abayudaya. From what Rachel told me, the Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in Luganda) was the group of converted Ugandan Jews who resided near Mbale, read the Torah, and observed the high holy days. Half of the PCV’s at Cindy’s house were Jews who wanted to attend the Seder Meal and the other half were those who were interested in sharing in such an experience. I had also organized an overnight hike on Mt. Elgon on Easter Sunday with my fellow tutors at Luteete PTC, Masters Joseph and Dan.

It started more than a month ago during lunch at the PTC when Master Joseph asked me about my bike ride to Fort Portal. When I told him how much I enjoyed the scenery of western and southwestern Uganda, he told me that I should also see his home region of the east, especially Mt. Elgon. He also suggested that I bring my friends. As a result, he contacted his old friend from secondary school named Richard who lived near an Mzee (old man) who lived on a village high in Mt. Elgon National Park. Many phone calls later among myself, Rachel, the Abayudaya Rabbi, Cindy, Master Joseph, Richard, and the Mzee it was decided that the Mzee’s village on Mt. Elgon would host us Sunday until Monday. Other than that, there were no other details.

On Saturday evening we took a private vehicle to the Abayudaya Village where we met up with Abayudaya Arrivalsome other Ugandan Jews, a Jewish NGO volunteer, and an Israeli named Daniel Goldberg (a very unique name as I was assured by those PCV’s not in the Jew Crew). It was quite interesting to hear the history of the Abayudaya during the Seder Meal. A few decades ago when the Christian missionaries were in the Mbale area, the local chief disagreed with the New Testament of the Bible and told his community members to follow the Old Testament only. The ensuing congregation was proto-Judaism, because they intended and attempted to follow the rules of Judaism, but didn’t have the skills, training, or materials to do so. There was a drop in congregation members during the reign of the anti-semitic Idi Amin but through the contact of an Israeli diplomat and Rabbis from the United States several of the Ugandans were officially converted to Judaism.

The main leader behind the main Jewish community in Mbale was Kakungula who had himself circumcised. Right now there are 7 remaining villages where Judaism is practiced by native Ugandans. The Rabbi who presided over the Seder Meal actually lived in Israel for some time where he learned Hebrew and became an accredited and ordained Rabbi.

Seder MealThe community looked like any other Ugandan village, except that there were a lot of Stars of David and donated Jewish books from Jewish communities (mainly tri-state area and New England) all over the United States. The Seder Meal went by quickly, and the prayers were sung in Hebrew with a Ugandan dancehall track playing in the background. All the meat was Kosher and we followed the traditional format of Seder Meal. Personally, I felt that this was such a cool experience because I had never attended a Seder Meal, and I had never expected that my first time would be in Uganda with the Ugandan Jewish converts. Contrary to popular belief, the Abayudaya are not a lost tribe.

Takisi stuck in mudEarly the next morning we packed up our bags and all got into a privately hired takisi headed towards Mt. Elgon, along with Masters Joseph and Dan. Master Joseph lived in the Mbale region and showed us his house and nearby cliff that gave us a panoramic view of Mt. Elgon in the distance. He told us that years ago, the hills and cliffs of this region provided the Ugandans with refuge from the northern Karamajong tribes who would raid the villages. The locals would hide in the hills and roll down boulders upon the raiders until they left.

The takisi wound its way down forest paths and over foot bridges that crisscrossed the River Sironko after reaching Budadiri town. We continued down towards Bugitimwa but our takisi got stuck at Kiguye trading center due to the mud from the onset of rainy season. Interestingly enough, we were a bit concerned about mudslides since in the past few years a few hundred people have died in this region due to mudslides from the torrential downpours. After a break of fresh chappatis, the takisi got out of the mud and continued on a tortuous and harrowing road of muddy banks and deep puddles of brown goop that made us hope that a nearby PCV would cushion our fall if our takisi were to careen off one of the hairpin turns. Fortunately, a few kilometers later we arrived at Buwodeya town and collected ourselves at the Butina Primary School that was started by the Mzee.

Most of the community gathered to see us as we sat down to watch a small greeting from the Bugitimwa Primary Schoolpupils at the school. The pupils performed three song and dance numbers with the words “My name is ____insert name here____, welcome our visitors!” as a mentally challenged older woman danced in front of them. Soon enough we continued our hike through the wide roads of the town, and then upwards. The road was still wide enough for a car to pass through, but steep enough that we needed to put in constant effort to make it up the slope. About 30 minutes up, the path became much narrower and we ventured into the forest.

The path was very muddy from the rains of the previous day, but every now and then a jutting rock would allow us to clamber onto dryer ground. I couldn’t believe that we were exploring an area that Hannah Fallingno non-Ugandans had ever seen before. The hike was splendid, and we kept crossing over small streams and bridges. At one point, one of the PCV’s in the group fell on a stepping stone in a stream and instead of helping her we all decided to take photos as I yelled, “Why are we taking photos?!” Fortunately, Rachel, being the most coordinated person on the hike, slid down the banks of the stream to hold the fallen PCV’s hair.

About two hours later, we were greeted by a village set upon a hill. On either side of the hill were deep valleys bounded by even larger hills. I felt like I was in a hidden valley and all I could think about was how much I wanted to each ranch dressing in that wide open air. Of course the southwest will always remain gorgeous to me, but this area was unseen by western eyes and so different than anything else that I had seen. I wondered how difficult it must have been for the villagers to walk all the way down to the stream from their hill and then bring that water back up the muddy paths. Even though the entire village stopped working in order to silently gather in a crowd and stare at us, there were no catcalls or jeering. No one even called us Muzungu because most of them didn’t even know what they should call us. Even as PCV’s we were in literally uncharted territory.

Kusi VillageThe Mzee and Richard told us that we were in the Masaba sub-county in Kusi Village, which is part of the Zesui Parish. Richared further told me that this place could be located on Google Maps by searching Bukanguye Catholic Church.

They greeted us as honored guests with meals of roasted goat, steamed yams, irish potatoes, another variety of yams, beans, and the local dish called Malewa. Malewa is pasted bamboo shoots. They first steam the bamboo shoots and then cook it with ground g-nut paste. It tasted a bit like bland creamed spinach. After lunch, I hung out at the top of the hill where the village’s sloping farms ended and the adjacent game park began. I just felt so amazing relaxing in the tall grass where the cows grazed and as the sun set. I felt as if I was back in a field or park in Maryland during early fall when the sun was still warm but the wind was cold enough to warrant the wearing of a sweater.

Confession: During the group picture, I was moving everyone’s things out of the shot and accidentally kicked a bottle of water at a child’s face.

We dropped our bags in our tents and bamboo shelters and we continued to hike down one side of the hill in order to make for a jutting rock structure in the distance called Mt. Zesui. Even though we were in Mt. Elgon National Park, we were still allowed to wander around since Richard had made a deal with the local police officers and park officials of the Uganda Wildlife Authority since we were the guests of the locals. After hiking for more than an hour, we felt that we weren’t that much closer to Mt. Zesui and it was getting dark so we headed back across the ravine-like valley.

I can still remember the cool wind upon my skin as the sun set beyond the curtain of hills that Sunset over Elgonmarked the beginnings of Mt. Elgon. I couldn’t believe how perfectly everything had come together and what a wonderful surprise this adventure had become. Master Dan swore Cindy and me as honorary Kampala scouts and gave us scarves with the colors of the Ugandan flag. What made this even cooler was that Master Dan is the brother of my homestay father in Luweero.

The night was spent huddle on the dry side of our tents that was covered by the extra tarp that I had brought since our cheap Nakumatt-bought tents weren’t waterproof. In the morning, we were greeted by over 15 children staring at our tents. We sung a few Peace Corps camp songs for them, wrote the village thank you letters, and paid for the food, guards, and guides.

We made it back down Mt. Elgon without any incident and rode the takisi back to Cindy’s house Mt. Elgon Group Village Shotwhere we chilled and made a gigantic Mexican feast. As I sat there among friends with the cool winds heralding the onset of a fully matured rainy season, all I could think about was how perfect that weekend was. I mean during some weekends in Uganda I feel as if I spent most of it partying with PCV’s and spending a lot of money on an experience or adventure. Or in other cases I spend it too local in the village or at a Ugandan event where I am the local celebrity. During this weekend, I felt as if I had the marriage of both worlds. I felt that even though I was with other PCV’s, I was also willingly immersing myself in Ugandan culture and sharing these experiences with my teachers who were sharing their homes with me.

As I rested my tired body and soul down in the tent on Monday night in Cindy’s courtyard, all I could think was that I wouldn’t have spent Easter weekend any other way.