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Voyaging and Volunteering in Sub-Sahara

Helen (ACA)
The School Club Zambia , Zambia

A couple of weeks ago I had a fantastic weekend in the Kibale Forest national park and by the Crater Lakes. My lovely relaxing weekend was preceded by a hilariously uncomfortable journey.

I took a large coach from Mubende which was packed full of people, live chickens, bunches of Matoke (local staple food made from a type of banana) in the aisle and hurtling along the road at break neck speed. I was sitting at the back with a man practically on top of me for most of the journey while a small child didn’t take his eyes off me once. Every time we went over a bump (frequently) I was lifted right up off my seat! Thank God it was only a two hour journey because I had such a bad headache from my brain rattling round my skull! Little did I know that was the comfortable part of the journey… After the bus I opted for a Matatu (shared taxi) to take me to my resort. This Matatu was a Toyota car in which they crammed 11 people- two men were in the driving seat, plus luggage, plus two huge sacks of potatoes that they picked up on the way! I couldn’t believe it! I was right at the back squashed in with two other women and my rucksack, it took about 10 minutes for me to get the feeling back in my right buttock. You just have to laugh here, at least it makes travelling a bit more exciting!

The next morning I ate my breakfast in the sunshine overlooking Lake Nyabikere. When my breakfast was served it came with a large bamboo stick. Confused, I asked what it was for. ‘Beating away monkeys who will steal your food’….it proved to be a very useful mealtime accessory! About 6 vervet monkeys surrounded me in the trees watching my every move and on two occasions trying to steal my bananas. I fought them off with only a scratch but they succeeded in taking a bread roll when my head was turned!

After breakfast I took a long walk over to Lake Nkuruba which took around 4 hours and was about 18km. It was absolutely beautiful walking through the forest and over the hills. I stopped at one crater lake where there was a woman and her two children doing their washing and fetching water. Swimming about 20 meters from the shore was a lonely hippo in the shallows! It popped its head up a couple of times and I got some good photos. On the journey back I visited the ‘top of the world’ which offers the most spectacular views of the surrounding area.

The sun was shining and the sky was a perfect blue which allowed me to see for miles over the Rwenzori mountains, three crater lakes and the Kibale forest.

On Sunday I went chimpanzee tracking in Kibale. As soon as we entered the park we saw two chimpanzees right up high in the trees. It was so amazing to watch them swinging from branch to branch using their arms just as we would. They are so similar to humans that they share 98.5% of our genetic code. The guides told us that a chimp is stronger than 4 men and the males weigh around 60kg. The way they fight over territory by using fists or any weapons lying handy is so similar to the way humans behave, it’s crazy to think about it! We trekked for 4 hours in the dense forest where the sun could barely shine through the foliage. The trekking was easy although it was quite hot and humid and uncomfortable. We followed several chimps and watched them eating, moving around and even grooming each other.

As well as a couple of fantastic weekends the past fortnight has been very busy with transforming many of the accounting practices at RHCF. Bob, Dr Dickson and I worked on completing the fixed asset register. To the template which already existed I added a tab for recording inventory and a tab for a summary of every asset that RHCF owns. It has been really interesting to see the value of the assets of RHCF, I think they have more than they realised!

Another day Bob and I sat down and input the paper analysis book into excel and reconciled it with the bank statements. This was quite a tedious task because there were several months to complete with many transactions but at least it’s done now. Their records on paper were good because everything balanced with the bank statements and it showed that the donors money had been used to budget.

Another of my tasks at RHCF this fortnight has been as an excel tutor. I have been taking the non-financial staff through basic formulas and letting them practice creating graphs etc. I am also completing an excel guide with explanations and instructions for all of the formulas that we have worked through. Helping the non-computer literate staff makes me feel very worthwhile as they are so thrilled at being able to use excel and the internet and so appreciative of their new skills. All RHCF staff have previously analysed graphs and pie charts in water reports that they use and never before dreamt that they could actually create them themselves.

Last week I created an income and expense schedule and a cash budget template for the Rural Mamas Orphanage. I sat with Dr Dickson and explained the importance of recoding donations and expenditure, even if it is small, because future donors will want to see how the organisation has been managing its finances when it is independent. He has started using it already which is brilliant and I hope that recording the weekly expenditures will help for future planning. As well as accounting I have also had several facinating afternoons out in the field with the RHCF team.

We re-visited one of the water sources to finish it off and officially open it to the school. I watched as the head girl was the first to use the well. There was a sea of bright yellow uniforms in front of me and children pushing and shoving to get a good look. They were delighted and laughed and clapped and ‘gave flowers’ (waving hands in the air) whenever another child came up to drink the water or wash their hands.

On another day the whole team and I went out into the field for a ceremony where bikes were presented to the HIV/Aids assistance ambassadors in the area. We travelled in the Land Rover with 10 bikes on the roof- for once it was not me being stared at as we drove around! The ceremony was held by the roadside in a small village where plastic chairs and wooden benches had been set out for us all to sit. In attendance were all 10 ambassadors, RHCF team, district chairman and pastor. There were many speeches in Luganda (some of which were translated for me) while everyone introduced themselves and spoke about the good work of the ambassadors. I also stood up and introduced myself to the crowd and explained my role at RHCF. It was so fantastic to see the people receive the bikes. They were basic one gear road bikes but had a rack on the back which will be useful in carrying equipment. They will enable the volunteers to travel further afield in the area and give assistance to more HIV positive people.

An account of the past fortnight wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that I have diced with death on the river Nile! I went grade 4 and 5 white water rafting which I think must be the scariest thing I have ever done in my life! On one particularly bad grade 5 rapid I can barely remember paddling before our boat began to tip and we were flipped really badly backwards. I was thrown into the water before I had the chance to take a big breath and pulled swiftly downwards. I could feel other people around me for a while and knew that we have all been pulled into some kind of washing machine vortex. I was spat out to the surface and struggled for a breath but it was less than a second before I was pulled back down again along the river. I was sure I had breathed in water and was in a total panic. It felt like forever until I resurfaced and finally saw a safety kayak paddling towards me. I know I gave the kayaker a look of pure terror because I could feel my eye balls popping out of my head! I couldn’t breathe properly; I could just manage a wheeze until the water had cleared from my windpipe. I clung onto the front of the kayak like a monkey with my legs up around it and was taken back to the raft where three others in my team had been rescued! Obviously my account is extremely melodramatic and I probably wasn’t in any real danger but still a hair raising experience for me!

After that adrenaline pumped adventure I decided I needed a relaxing weekend to follow so I spent it at the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi, about 8 hours from Kampala down by the Rwandan border. I stayed on one of the islands in the middle of the lake and as I was the only one going to the island at the time I opted for the free dugout canoe ride. I had to help paddle myself out to the island for an hour- my arms were killing me! I had to keep stopping to ‘take photos’ to give my arms a rest! It was a pretty cool way of seeing Lake Bunyonyi though. The water was still like glass and the hillsides surrounding the lake reminded me of the Italian lakes with the terraced farmland and terracotta orange houses dotted around. I borrowed Gorillas in the Mist from the library and read all day Saturday as I lay on the sun bleached deck by the lake. It was a perfect day. I had been craving the sun so much, spending a lot of my time inside the office. I want to make the most of the sun while I am in Africa because I know it is raining so much back at home!

So after a water-filled fortnight I am now coming into my final couple of weeks at RHCF and feel like there are a million things I still want to achieve before my time is out. Hopefully I can get through it all and leave having laid some good foundations for the organisation to build upon.
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