Final fortnight

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I have now returned to the UK after a fantastic final fortnight and a surprisingly relaxing and hassle-free journey via Heathrow. So to fill you in on my last two weeks….

I spent a few days last week assisting RHCF’s main UK donor, the Methodist Relief Development Fund with some queries that they had on the organisation’s 2011 accounts. I have had a couple of meetings with the auditors in Kampala which was interesting to experience being on the other side! I have also been assisting Dr Dickson with the production of an organisational budget for the second half of this year and for 2013. We used the RHCF strategic plan to pull together a list of all the activities and the previous half years actual figures for estimating future costs although this wasn’t really needed as Dr Dickson was amazing at knowing the cost of everything off the top of his head!

Last week I created a template for reporting to donors who do not prescribe a set format and spent a lot of time with the non-financial staff showing them how to produce graphs and process flow charts in excel. On Wednesday, after a morning of filling out AfID forms and adding to the consolidated budget Dr Dickson, Paul and I went out into the field to visit two communities where water sources were planned. Many villagers turned up including the local leaders to listen to Dr Dickson explain the process for funding and local contribution. Paul was translating for me and it was so interesting to learn how the water source is introduced to the community. Dr Dickson explains that MRDF from the UK has funded the well but will only do so with the agreement that the community makes a local contribution. This is in the form of manual labour, tools such as planks and ropes and food and accommodation for the water technician who lives on site during the building of the well. During the introduction meeting Dr Dickson requests people to volunteer to house and feed the water technician, and to elect a secretary and a chairperson responsible for the well during its construction.

It was so great to see how enthusiastic and forthcoming the villagers were with their offers of contributions to the water source construction. It was also explained to them that they must make the decision as to when the construction begins because they must be committed and willing to work from the start. One village requested that they start tomorrow and the other that they start on Monday so they are obviously keen to have access to clean water as soon as possible. During the meetings I had the chance to introduce myself and explain the work that I have been doing with RHCF over the past seven weeks. I really love standing up in front of a crowd and speaking (translated) because they are so attentive and always smile and clap at the end because I have made the effort to speak with them. It’s funny because in the past I was so scared of public speaking but now I love doing it!

My penultimate weekend was spent on safari in the Murchison Falls National Park. Over the course of the weekend our vehicle broke down over 10 times with the radiator overheating. Each time we had to abandon the vehicle, often into tsetse fly filled fields while our driver cooled down and released pressure from the engine. Every so often it made an explosion noise and steam shot out right into his face, steaming up the whole vehicle!

Aside from vehicle problems the weekend was great and marked my third safari in Africa. We walked up to the top of the Murchison falls on Friday evening. The 50 metre wide river Nile condenses into the 7 metre wide falls with the smaller Freedom Falls to the left. The falls didn’t look anywhere near as impressive as Victoria Falls but they sounded extremely powerful. Because of the ravine-like rock formation of the Murchison falls you can’t really see the waterfall head on but it was impressive to be at the top seeing the water gushing down the gap.
On Friday night I had just gone to bed when I heard munching noises right outside my tent. There was a huge hippo roaming around probably 5 metres from me! It was really quite scary because they are the second biggest killer in Africa (after mosquitos). There was a moment when it began to charge at a man who was shining a torch on it and taking photos- he bolted pretty quickly!

The next day we took a ferry across the Victoria Nile (at this point it is split into the Albert and Victoria Nile, depending on the source lake) and then for a game drive in the Northern Delta part of the National Park. We saw many giraffes, elephant, warthog, buffalo, Ugandan Kob, waterbuck, bushbuck. We also saw lots of golden crested cranes and even a Shoebill stork (huge 4ft tall ugly grey birds with a big beak)! Shoebills are even rarer than leopards and in the park there are only about 20 so we were very lucky.

On Sunday we went to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary which was about a 3 hour drive on the way back to Kampala. We spent about an hour and a half walking through the bush to reach the spot where a mother rhino and her two calves were lazing in the shade of a tree. We could get about 30 meters from them in safety because that is the range of their eyesight although apparently they could smell and hear us.

Amazing, incredible, moving, awesome, breath-taking…. I could continue with similar adjectives to describe my last Sunday in Uganda but I think to sum up my gorilla tracking experience in Bwindi Impenetrable forest was probably one of, if not the best experience of my life. We were lucky enough to see all 14 of the Nkuringo family of gorillas in one small clearing. After trekking for only an hour and a half down very steep hills with no path (the armed rangers lead the way carving a path with machetes) we came across a gorilla in a dark patch under some trees. Soon he moved and led us to a bright clearing where the whole family was just chilling out! It was a stunning sight. They weren’t afraid of us at all and just went about their business, babies playing, Silverbacks eating leaves and mothers breast feeding as if we weren’t there.

As I was taking pictures of a small gorilla I felt a nudge in my back, thinking it was one of the group falling into me I glanced around only to see that it was a huge black back male Gorilla! I took in a huge breath as it lurched past me, not caring that I was in his path! Remembering it now it was soft and padded nudge from all the squishy hair!

Gorillas are adorably cute, especially the babies which are just balls of fluff with wrinkled black faces. I thought I would be afraid of the Silverbacks with their awesome arms and huge broad backs but they were so nonchalant that there was nothing to be scared of. I wanted so badly to touch one and have a cuddle (apparently Christmas the silver back would be the best bet because he is the most tame!) but that’s not allowed- even though they touched me.

After about 15 minutes of frantically moving around trying to get the best out of my rubbish replacement camera (I accidentally dropped my Canon a few weeks ago-oops) I settled down in the clearing in front of the family. A young gorilla started to advance towards me, apparently fascinated with my red fish eye camera. I sat down on the leaves, not caring that I was getting painfully stung through my trousers by nettles, as the baby tentatively edged closer and closer. The guards tried to swat it away (you’re not really supposed to touch the gorillas) but I didn’t care I just stayed put! He eventually plucked up the courage and touched my knee, immediately recoiling in a childlike manner and having a little giggle to himself! It was truly incredible to feel the gorilla’s hand on my knee and see its juvenile behaviour, so similar to that of a human child who knows he is doing something naughty but continues anyway. Later on I was crouched with my back to the Gorillas having my photo taken when the same youngster touched my bum! It was hilarious! I think the guards got annoyed with all the attention that I was getting because they told me to move to the back.

Towards the end of our allotted hour with the gorillas, Christmas and I were a metre apart, him munching on a tasty bush and me crouching there in awe taking photos. I couldn’t believe that a Silverback was so tame to approach close to our group and just plonk himself down for a graze. As the guards told us our time was up I glanced across to see a youngster doing a silly little spin around dance in front of its mother who was breastfeeding another baby – an unbelievable sight.

The Nkuringo group are apparently the most habituated but I was in total shock with the close proximity we got within. The guards also said we were particularly lucky because they almost never see all 14 together, and not in a light clearing like we did. The tracking wasn’t hard at all either. I had heard stories from people about it being so steep and exhausting so I paid for a porter ($15, she was called Marie) to carry my bag and help to pull me up the hills. It was extremely steep and slippery but I must be fitter than I had realised because I didn’t need her help at all- still it was nice to have my bag carried and it provides her family with income.

I just want to go back and see the Gorillas again. One hour wasn’t enough, it just flew by and I would happily pay for the permit again tomorrow to do it all again! I hope to return to Africa in a few years and go to Rwanda to trek gorillas in Parc Des Volcans.

As I write this entry, sitting on the promptly departed train to Edinburgh, speeding past perfectly manicured lawns with rain clouds looming overhead I find myself reflecting on the beauty of African chaos. Although at times frustrating, life is just so much more exciting when things don’t go as you had planned. The African landscape is truly breath-taking and so diverse that I don’t think anyone would fail to find an aesthetic to please them. I will miss the beautiful sunny faces, bright and happy children and co-workers who are so dedicated to working towards a brighter future in Zambia and Uganda. Of course I am already missing the weather! I’m sure I will crave succulent fresh exotic food from the roadside- Jackfruit, avocados, mangos, chapattis and impossibly sugary sodas.

I want to thank the School Club Zambia and Rural Healthcare Foundation for looking after me for the past three months and making me feel so at home in countries entirely different from my own. I have really felt part of your teams and will miss working with you.

I can’t even begin to express what a life-enriching and rewarding experience the past three months have been for me and I hope that the contributions I have made to the NGOs I worked with will be of great benefit. Now it just remains to bore all my friends and family senseless with hundreds of photos and stories- looking forward to catching up with you all!

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