The wooden motorboat carrying my Nomad Adventure Tours family and me knocked into the makeshift dock as we pulled up next to it. A few local men got up from where they’d been perched by the water and came over to help us out of the motorboat and back onto solid ground.
I remember feeling pretty peckish, due to the fact we’d been out visiting the Batwa tribe since after breakfast –nearly 6hours prior. It was hot, and my water bottle was long since empty. Didas – our tourguide for the day and founder of the Hope Uganda Orphanage Project – had promised us a visit to his orphanage to meet the children he was helping out.
Thanks to our aching muscles from the previous day of gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, we struggled back up the dusty hill, which led us to the orphanage. We reached the orphanage gate at the bottom of one final steep hill – this was the time that Didas turned to us all ,”the children are looking forward to your visit. Please remember to donate what you felt the day was worth to you. The donations do not go to me – they go back to the orphanage. I help 150 local children and hope to find sponsors for all of them.” I remember feeling anxious and excited to meet the children.
I knew that I wanted to do more than simply donate a measly $20 to the orphanage in return for Didas showing us around Lake Bunyoni and the pygmy tribe visit. I knew that I wanted to sponsor a child – and give them the opportunity at a proper education, the opportunity for a better life.
I huffed and puffed my way up the last hill, turned the corner around a high fence, and immediately had about 20 children with the biggest smiles on their faces run up to me. The massive beast that is my Nikon D600 DSLR camera fascinated them. They happily surrounded me waving at the lens, faces complete with the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Lise – a Norwegian girl on my Nomad Adventure Tours group – took my camera and was able to get a few snapshots of the children crowding around me. I remember vividly that many of them patted my hair – enchanted in the difference between mine and theirs (or rather their lack of).
After nearly twenty minutes of playing, taking photographs and turning the camera around for them to see their own image, Didas showed us the very basic classrooms that the orphanage has on site. I felt as though I got knocked over by a freight train. It’s completely shocking to suddenly realize that you are in the middle of the third world – and while organizations like the Hope Uganda Orphanage Project is doing incredible work – it’s nowhere near ‘up to par.’ It’s through the donations from tourists whom Didas shows the local area that they are able to give 150 some semblance of an education and at least one hearty meal per day.
I left the classroom wishing I was able to help all the children. Wanting to do anything I could to help make Hope Uganda Orphanage Project an even better place. Didas had earlier expressed his big dream of raising enough money to eventually build a proper boarding school and orphanage – something that would only cost $50,000USD – not really a lot when you really look at it from a first world viewpoint.
I went off in search of Lisa – my Australian tentmate – only to find her in the office of the orphanage, smiling with tears in her eyes as she finished filling out the papers to sponsor a beautiful girl. Knowing I wanted to do the same I found Didas and expressed my desire to do so. He asked me if I had a child in mind. At the time I was completely overwhelmed, and couldn’t seem to pick out the quiet, calm boy who had been following me around for the last half hour. He was lost in the crowd of 150 children.
“I think I have just the girl.” Didas told me as he took me back into the office and I saw a young girl sitting on the couch looking very solemn. “This is Akankunda Saviour. She’s 8 years old and your friend Lisa has just sponsored her best friend.”
I wanted to reach out and hug the girl. I wanted to let her know that it was all going to be okay. Instead I reached out and took her hand and let her know that I would take care of her education, that she wouldn’t have to stay back while her best friend went to boarding school and that she too would have the opportunity to get an education and hopefully have a bright future ahead of her.
Of course, she didn’t understand a word I said, but I kept rambling on – if only to stop the massive lump in my throat from giving way to the tears that I knew were on the brink of being released.
I signed the papers, and handed over enough money to put her into school for one term – promising that upon my arrival back in Canada I would transfer the remaining money.
Saviour and I then took a few pictures. It was the first time I saw a small smile appear on her face. And like before, I kept rambling on – knowing full well that she didn’t understand a word I was saying. I kept telling her how much she was going to love school and how I hoped she did well. I was about to stand up when she grabbed my shoulders and flung her arms around my neck.
“I want to thank you very much.” She said softly in very broken English.
Cue the waterworks. I couldn’t even pretend to hold them back. I just kneeled there and sobbed. She had long since let go of the hug, but kept a hold of my hand. I don’t remember too much that immediately followed. Didas rounded up the children that had been sponsored and whisked them away to take a few photographs.
Lisa and I stood together with tears streaming down our faces – laughing at the fact that these children probably didn’t quite understand why “us crazy mzungus (white people) came to visit, sponsored them and then started crying like babies.” Eventually Didas called us all over and we were able to get a group shot with the 7 sponsors and 5 children we sponsored. Cameras snapped like crazy. We all beamed, knowing we had done something so substantial for these children’s lives. For a mere $300USD/ year we were able to send a child to boarding school to get a proper education where they get room & board, 3 healthy meals per day, school supplies, a uniform, shoes and health insurance.
We left shortly after the photos were taken as the children had to get back to their villages around Lake Bunyoni (not all at the school are true orphans – and most live with family members). Didas promised to send us email updates as often as possible.
I vaguely remember returning to the Lake Bunyoni Overland Resort. Nyika, Noah and Sandile waiting with the pasta salad for lunch they had prepared. I was in a complete fog as I managed to eat a small helping of the food. Feeling as though I needed some alone time to digest the last few days’ emotional highs and lows, I found myself changing into my bathing suit and heading for the dock.
Lisa and I enjoyed refreshing water and were soon joined by Lise. We didn’t speak much to each other – rather took in the beautiful scenery and internalized everything that had gone on in the last 48 hours.
Before long, it started to get dark and I took advantage of the amazingly hot showers at the campsite. After returning to where Junior, the Nomad Adventure Tours truck, was parked and our meal tables were set up, I found myself enjoying a few beers with John and Jess (the Australians), Jerry and Inga (the Belgians) and Ralf (the Swede). Ralf was proudly showing us his photos from his gorilla trek earlier that day and we happily took it all in until Noah announced that dinner was ready.
Not realizing how hungry I was, I happily devoured a bowl of warm vegetable soup and a heaping plate of beef curry. What I did realize, though, that after an incredible experience of gorilla trekking the previous day, then meeting a tribe of environmental refugees the following morning, and meeting and sponsoring a beautiful 8 year old girl that afternoon – I was actually at the end of my emotional rope. Those are the types of extreme highs and lows and reality checks that makes Africa a sometimes difficult place to travel. I quietly snuck away to my tent shortly after dinner was finished, found Lisa already snuggled up in her sleeping bag, and quietly got into mine. I turned off my head torch and lay there in silence.
“Mel?” Lisa whispered.
“Yeah?” I replied.
“Today was such an incredible day.” Was all she could say.
Smiling to myself all I could say was, “it sure was!”
We spent a few more minutes reminiscing about our day and sharing our feelings about it all before we finally said goodnight and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
Start reading about my experience on the Masai Mara & Gorillas tour from the beginning! Click HERE for Day 1
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**DISCLAIMER: While Nomad Adventure Tours asked me to partake in this tour and did provide me with a discounted tour price, all expressed thoughts, opinions and experiences remain my own.**
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