The Travel Episodes

A Well for Uganda

The Long Road to Water

A project that promi­ses to help people and push me to my limits. A reality between moments of lethargy and the pres­sure to perform. Steven Hille travels to Africa to build a well.

When I get off the plane in Entebbe, the Ugan­dan heat feels plea­s­antly warm. It smells of hay, like it did in the holi­days when I went to stay with Aunt Hilde in deepest Bran­den­burg. Smells often have this ability to make my mind conjure up events from years back in the space of just a few seconds, gene­ra­ting an incredi­ble sense of well-being inside of me.

But this time it’s diffe­rent. I was awake the whole flight, thin­king about life. I’m unba­lan­ced and unsett­led; even the old fami­liar smell can’t change that. I quit my job a couple of months back. I didn’t want to keep doing adver­ti­sing for compa­nies whose work I don’t support. I saw no bene­fit to be gained from it. Instead, I wanted to work on projects close to my heart; projects that inte­rest me and make a diffe­rence. And that’s the very reason I’m here now. I’m going to work in nature in Uganda and offer support for people in a village. 

I’m ready to start a new chap­ter in my life.


* * *


Welcome to Uganda

I’m gree­ted by a heavenly dele­ga­tion, and we drive through Kampala at breakneck speed.

Waiting for me at the exit of the airport are two men and a rather pensive-looking woman. They’re holding a white sign that says the name of my volun­tee­ring orga­ni­sa­tion Karmalaya on it in purple. I’m happy to have the trans­port service, as I’m tired to death and can barely think.

One of the two men is pres­um­a­bly Father Joseph, the priest from the parish commu­nity in which I am soon to live. I just don’t know which of them it is yet. But instead of asking, I let them guide me to my car without saying a word, and I sit down in the passen­ger seat. My escorts don’t say anything, either. Strange.

We drive through the night full steam ahead.

Our jour­ney takes one and a half hours, during which time I disco­ver that Father Joseph is the one in the seat next to me, hurt­ling through the Afri­can night at formi­da­ble speed with an impa­ti­ent combi­na­tion of flashing signals and horn honking. Thank God the man’s a priest. He must have called on a whole army of guar­dian angels for this nocturnal jour­ney. Father Joseph is in his late thir­ties, he’s wearing a pink polo shirt and has a slight belly. His full name is Father Joseph-Mary Kavuma. There’s a figu­rine of the Virgin Mary in front of me on the dash­board, and the Ugan­dan flag is flap­ping about rest­lessly by the windscreen in the car inte­rior.

After an hour of fren­zied driving through the Ugan­dan darkness, we arrive at a backyard in Kampala, the capi­tal city of Uganda. Roan­nie, my second escort, jumps out of the back seat and opens a rather sombre-looking creaky metal gate. We drive in. Just three hours now before the alarm is due to go off and it’ll time for Mass. I’m exci­ted and looking forward to the time ahead of me, so I can’t get to sleep… 

I’m only stay­ing in the capi­tal for a couple of days, then I’ll be hitting the dusty roads and heading north.



* * *


Time, Uganda’s greatest wealth

Ant tasting, impa­ti­ence, impos­si­ble tasks, and the first rain.

It takes us two hours to travel just 40 kilo­metres. En route to the village of Nandere, we pass by anot­her village called Bwaise, which occu­pies an unfor­tu­n­ate loca­tion in a small valley. Each year when the rainy season begins and the water drains down from the plateau, heavy floods and muds­li­des ensue. That’s why the Ugan­dans say:

“Water is life, but not for people in Bwaise.”

Father Joseph shows me how high the water rises. It’s like a curse: these people spend months waiting for the rain, and when it finally comes, it arri­ves in such great quan­ti­ties that the people can’t control it and the ground can barely hold it.

About 500 people live in the village of Nandere. There are two primary schools, an eccle­si­asti­cal school, a nurses’ home, a tiny hospi­tal and a parish hall, which is where my room is loca­ted. Cons­i­de­ring the condi­ti­ons here, I live quite comfor­ta­bly: I have my own room with a bed, a desk and a small cabi­net. Very few people enjoy this much comfort in Uganda. The day after I arrive, I’m taken on a guided tour of the village by Colline. The houses, which belong to one of the primary schools, are old and run-down. For each of the small rooms there are eight child­ren. They sleep on the floor without a blan­ket. Some of them even spend the night on empty bed frames – without a mattress. And still, they’re often better off here than they are at home. They get three meals a day and the educa­tion they so despe­r­a­tely need here.

The people in Nandere have no running water. They fetch their water from a well in the centre of the village. I have to queue up for thirty minu­tes just to fill my bottle.

The well has been there for centu­ries and only works to a limi­ted extent these days. A scree­ching hand pump hauls the ground­wa­ter up to the surface from a depth of forty metres. If I pause to catch my breath for a couple of seconds, the water plun­ges back down into the pit of the well. It’s a labo­rious process.

The parish hall has a big water tank, which is supplied by the rain­wa­ter from the surroun­ding roof­tops. During the rainy season, howe­ver, it’s almost always empty.

My room is stone’s throw or two from the church. Each morning just before five o’clock, I’m awoken by the sound of the church bells ringing. Then off rush the primary school kids in their smart clothes, heading for church with their hymn books under their arms. The second service of the day starts at seven; it’s atten­ded mostly by the older school child­ren and the adults in the village.

I’m impres­sed by the strong faith these people have – almost ninety-five per cent of the Ugan­dan popu­la­tion are devout Chris­ti­ans.

A lot is diffe­rent here compa­red to my sojourn in Kampala. I get up early and wash myself in a tiny shower room with some water from a bucket, and then I head to a common room in the parish for break­fast. I often eat katogo, plan­tain with sauce, or a slice of toast. I usually see Father Joseph Bali­kud­dembe at break­fast. I know, it’s enough to drive a person mad: there are three priests in this parish called Joseph. Every so often I indulge myself in a spot of mischief and address all the villa­gers as Joseph or Jose­phine. They laugh and call me Joseph, too.
Father Joseph
On my first day here, we meet up with the local forest ranger. Father Joseph star­ted working with the NFA (Natio­nal Forestry Autho­rity) two years ago, and he goes to trai­ned fores­ters when he needs profes­sio­nal help and advice. William is a lanky fellow in his mid-fifties, and his head is cove­red in ripp­les of curly grey hair. He’s quiet and pati­ent. We’ve arran­ged to meet him at seven in the morning. He’s almost punc­tual, arri­ving just seven hours late. It doesn’t even seem to occur to him to apolo­gise come the after­noon. “That’s Afri­can time,” is the vague attempt at an explana­tion I hear. 

William shows me the pine forest at the other end of the village. It’s seven years old. Plan­ting it was one of Father Joseph’s first offi­cial duties after it quickly dawned on him that they ought to be plan­ting more trees than they were felling. The first time the forest was thin­ned was two years back. Now it’s time to trim the trees. If the pine trees are to grow thic­ker trunks, it’s important to chop off any bran­ches that are a drain on their resour­ces. Easy, I think to myself, and start looking around for a saw. Nothing. So, none of the people here have thought to bring work tools? Well, no, because of course today we’re only here in the forest to inves­ti­gate.

I’m getting rest­less. I don’t have time for this. 

Even during my first few days in the capi­tal city I found myself getting bored. I wanted to finally make a start and do some­thing, make some­thing happen. And now? Nothing’s happe­ning, again.

But the next day it’s time for action. I ask Emma how high up we need to cut the bran­ches.

Eight? Did I hear that right? Eight, as in eight metres? How are we going to manage that? Instead of answe­ring me, Emma simply whist­les with her fingers to two workers in the distance, who produce some bricks from behind the bushes. Joined by the two workers and armed with two mache­tes, we head into the forest and clob­ber down a couple of young trees. The young Ugan­dans swiftly assem­ble the trunks to make a three-lagged ladder. It makes me feel uneasy when I think about stan­ding on this hand­made ladder, packing almost a hund­red kilos of body weight. But it turns out to be very stable.


But two metres of Steven plus three metres of ladder still doesn’t equal eight metres.

So, we look for anot­her tree trunk, which Emma severs with a power­ful strike of the machete. We place our saw on this trunk – and the tele­sco­pic rod is complete.

It takes almost ten minu­tes to prune a single tree up at this height. That’s 6 trees an hour, 48 per day. But with around 500 trees in this section of wood­land, there’s no time to lose.

My life over the follo­wing days revol­ves around pruning the trees. In the first few days, I only manage 15 to 20 trees before my arms start to ache and I feel like collap­sing in a heap on the forest floor. But my physi­cal fitness does get better. I manage to trim more and more trees in less and less time, and my work is done after two weeks of hard graft. I’ve actually mana­ged to prune the whole forest!

A couple of days later, I find myself in some nearby bush coun­try along with four other men from the region. The land­s­cape is full of wildly over­grown bushes measu­ring up to two metres in height. I’m holding a machete in my right hand and wearing Father Joseph’s straw hat on my head as I sweat and pant in the scor­ching morning sun. We cut down ever­y­thing that gets in our way with power­ful swipes of the machete. Grass, shrubs, young trees – we clear them all from the ground. The men I’m working with aren’t from Nandere. They’re travel­ling through the region looking for work.

They earn no more than 10,000 Ugan­dan Shil­lings for a day’s work. That’s €2.50.

They get their break­fast in the village, where the parish cook prepa­res black tea and porridge. For the rest of the day, they feed them­sel­ves. On five out of six working days, they eat jack­fruits they’ve picked from the trees around us.

But today there’s a deli­cacy on the menu for lunch: white ants! The ants flew away during the night, and what I saw this morning when I got up was nothing short of a true natu­ral specta­cle. Milli­ons of white ants were flying through the sky, making the surroun­ding area look like it was cloa­ked in fog. Swarms of ants that had probably been flying for hours were lying limply on the ground. School child­ren and villa­gers were collec­ting them in black plastic bags. One of the men shows me his bag. Wow, he must have collec­ted about half a kilo’s worth. He’s care­fully sealed the bag and laid it out in the sun. The black­ness of the plastic bags is now baking the ants in the sun’s heat. Of course, he asks me if I want to try one of his white ants. I kill the crea­ture with my first bite; it doesn’t taste of anything. What I’d been most afraid of was the thought of the ant craw­ling around on my tongue.

The next day I meet William. He’s come to help us plant a euca­lyp­tus forest. We discuss the plan of action. First things first, we’ll have to wait until the rainy season begins before anything else can happen. We’re at the end of March now, and the rain is eagerly awai­ted here in Uganda. Then what? Then we can start plan­ting the trees. That’s it. End of meeting. We need the rain first, then we can plant trees. Makes sense to me.

I spend the next couple of days in the parish. I help out in the garden and the kitchen, I mop my room, and I read a lot. I enjoy the isola­tion that comes with living in a 500-soul village in Uganda. There’s nothing to distract me here. For the first time in years, I feel evened out again. And I have the chance to reac­quaint myself with what bore­dom feels like.

Much to my surprise, I find some music tracks on my phone. That’s quite odd, because usually I only listen to music on the radio. One of the songs that has made its way onto my phone for some reason or other is Toto’s Africa. I listen to the song again and again, and spend several conse­cu­tive after­noons lying lethar­gi­cally in my room, staring at the ceiling.

And suddenly, just as the refrain is about to set in again with the words “… I bless the rains down in Africa…”, it starts raining. The child­ren run out from the nearby school and I open my door to the front yard of the parish hall. The tempe­ra­tures drop five degrees in one fell swoop. The air is filled with the scent of summer rain, a smell I’ve adored ever since I was a kid.

Finally, yes finally, the rainy season has begun and we can plant the forest. Exci­ted, and in the hope that we’ll be able to get to work in a matter of moments, I run through the parish on the hunt for Father Joseph. He’s sitting with the field workers. I imagine they must be discus­sing the work sche­dule. Exci­tedly and hastily, I ask what the next steps are for us.

“Unfor­tu­n­a­tely, the rains have star­ted now, Steven. We can’t do anything else at the moment.”
“What do you mean, unfor­tu­n­a­tely? But we’ve waited half a week! Why we can’t do anything?”
“We still have to burn the old plant debris before we can start to plant the trees.”

I’m speech­less. We’ve been waiting for the rain for half a week. And it’s finally here, it suddenly occurs to the gentle­men that we’ve yet to burn the old plant debris. I can’t believe this place. Uganda. I retreat to my room and start listen­ing to the song where it stop­ped.

… I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had …

Fortu­n­a­tely, the rain passes quickly, and the next day the heat of the sun is strong enough to banish the last drops of mois­ture. The control­led slash and burn clearance is carried out in just one day. Yet I still won’t plant even a single tree. That’s only going to happen two months down the line, as our forest ranger has neglec­ted to order the 10,000 seed­lings we need to plant the forest.

In the days that follow, I find myself thin­king a lot about volun­tee­ring as a concept. Will the work I do make any diffe­rence in the long term? Or has my volun­tee­ring stint been nothing more than just a perso­nal adven­ture for me?

I’m off to save the world.
But I only have four weeks. 

I’ve come to Nandere to help people and dedi­cate my time to them. I enjoy working outside in nature. It’s an adven­ture for me and I’m probably learning more about nature and Ugan­dan culture than I’m actually able to teach people myself. The only thing that might be seen as enri­ching for the people here is the inter­cul­tu­ral exchange. But I don’t really get the impres­sion I can make a valu­able diffe­rence. Worse than that, I get the feeling that I’m taking someone’s job away from them. I want to do some­thing that goes above any beyond my volun­tee­ring stint, and achieve some­thing that helps these people long term.

I get the feeling that the village of Nandere is more than capa­ble of being self-sufficient. The fields surroun­ding the village supply plenty of fruit and veg, plus the wood indus­try makes a small contri­bu­tion to the empty coffers of the village and the church. But sadly, water is in scarce supply when the dry season sets in. 

The ground­wa­ter just cannot flow into the pit of the well as quickly as it gets pumped out.

The rain­wa­ter from the roof of the church and the surroun­ding houses is fed into an under­ground water tank with the capa­city for 25,000 litres. But if there’s no rain, there’s no water for the parish. Every morning before school, and every day after school, Colline goes back and forth to the hand pump and carries hund­reds of litres of water to the parish. There is a pipe system in the houses. But that’s obviously no use if there’s no water in the pipes.

When Colline sets out to fetch water and I’m close by, I go to help him. Only at this point do I realise just how hard this back-breaking work really is.

One day, I come back from foot­ball trai­ning cove­red in sweat and dust. I take the last bucket of water out of the barrel and wash myself in the shower. Wimp that I am, I’ve finally just about got used to showering with cold water. When I finish, I don’t just want to top the water level; I want to get more than I’ve used. I grab two twenty-litre canis­ters, and I head for the well. People are reluc­tant to leave me here alone, and as Colline is about to make his way to the well anyway, he accom­pa­nies me carry­ing two more canis­ters of the same size.

We have to wait a while when we get to the well. When our turn comes around, I put one of the canis­ters under the outlet and start pumping. I pull the lever up ten times, twenty times, thirty times. No water. It’s never been as bad as this. A little boy tells me I must be pati­ent. A dozen or so more pumps, and the first bit of water makes its way up from the ground. It’s a wonder­ful moment, but there just isn’t enough. Only a hand­ful of water splat­ters out into the canis­ter with each pump.

It takes us twenty-five minu­tes to fill one of the four canis­ters. For just twenty litres!

I’m exhausted and defla­ted. I’ve always been very helpful with pumping the water over the past few days, and now some of the child­ren and adole­scents come rushing to my aid. After more than an hour, I head back to do my laundry carry­ing two full canis­ters.

Upon my return, I disco­ver that the child­ren have alre­ady filled the other two canis­ters and brought them back to the parish. I’m lost for words. I know exactly how stre­nuous it is both to pump forty litres of water and to carry it all the way back. I’m touched, and I find myself wonde­ring whether the same thing would have happened to me in Germany.

When I leave the village of Nandere after more than three weeks of intense coha­bi­ta­tion, I’m seriously deter­mi­ned to set things in motion. I’ll be coming back, no doubt about that. 


* * *


A promise is a promise

Wishes. Setbacks. And: can I even help?

I’m certain that I want to help the people in Nandere solve their water problem. Before leaving, I met with three engi­neers from the region. I asked them to find out if it would be possi­ble for one of the three wells in Nandere to be repai­red. A diffe­rent plan emer­ged from our meeting: as Nandere is situa­ted on a small hill, the idea is to dig a well at the foot of this hill. The water will be supplied to the village by means of an elec­tri­cal pump and almost 500 meters of piping. I ask the three engi­neers to give me their quotes, but after a few weeks have passed I’ve only recei­ved two.

“If you had just one wish, what would it be?” I asked the people in the village before I left. The response I had from almost ever­yone was “water” or “rain”. Ever since then, this wish has been my moti­va­tion. I want to work as hard as I possi­bly can and do ever­y­thing in my power to make it a reality. In June 2015, the project starts to take shape. I launch the fund­rai­sing page on betterplace.org.

Before anything else, I make a projec­tion of how I’m going to manage to reach my fund­rai­sing target. “I have 707 friends on my private Face­book profile. If ever­yone dona­tes just €10, we’ll have surpas­sed our fund­rai­sing target,” I write in my blog.

“And let’s be honest – how much is €10 anyway? Three beers down at the pub? A cock­tail in a bar? A small meal in a restau­rant? Two packets of ciga­ret­tes? What could you go without for one day?”, I conti­nue. I’m convin­ced we’re going to be able to raise the money we need by next year.

My calcu­la­ti­ons are off.

In the months of June (€1466), July (€185), and August (€373.50), we raise a total of €2024.50. The project got off to a great start in June, with some parti­cu­larly generous dona­ti­ons coming in from my blog readers, friends and members of my family. But there comes a time when my blog’s reach has been exhausted and I must change tack. I’ve got to make the project bigger, so I join forces with a blog­ger friend of mind, Katrin. She’s alre­ady spoken highly of the project on nume­rous occa­si­ons and offe­red me her help. We manage to find new donors through her circle of friends and the “dona­ti­ons instead of gifts” campaign for an alter­na­tive to birth­day pres­ents, as well as from readers of her blog.

I start looking for an orga­ni­sa­tion to give the project the signi­fi­cance it deser­ves in the outside world. I’m also in despe­rate need of expert support and legal assi­s­tance. And anot­her thing: a chari­ta­ble orga­ni­sa­tion would be able to issue chari­ta­ble dona­tion rece­ipts, which would be helpful seeing that all the dona­ti­ons made so far have been cons­i­de­red gifts to me as a private indi­vi­dual. With an orga­ni­sa­tion on board, I want to come up with a sustai­na­bi­lity stra­tegy to help us guaran­tee long-term support. After all, we’re helping no one if the pump needs repai­ring after a month or so and there’s no money in the pot to mend it.

The search proves diffi­cult. The project is too small for Viva con Agua, and Engi­neers Without Borders Germany doesn’t have any capa­city to spare. Tech­no­logy Without Borders Germany is the first orga­ni­sa­tion to express an inte­rest in the project. They warn me about the tedious bureau­cra­tic chal­len­ges that lie ahead and put me in touch with an ener­ge­tic and expe­ri­en­ced project mana­ger in the form of Hannes. I get to know him and the rest of his regio­nal group in Leip­zig, at which point I admit that I’m a bit disap­poin­ted as I’ve only mana­ged to raise €2328.50 of our €7015 goal. The members of the asso­cia­tion don’t under­stand my frus­tra­tion, they just pat me on the shoul­der and tell me it’s a great achie­ve­ment.

But things aren’t moving quickly enough for me, I wanted to have raised the money by now.

Hannes worked in Ghana a few years back; he set up a recy­cling project there. Now we join forces to set oursel­ves some new objec­tives. Our first job is to look for an engi­neer, and we soon find one in Stef­fen. Hannes and Stef­fen alre­ady know each other from before­hand.

In and amongst all the posi­tive reac­tions to the project, I must also learn to deal with the odd criti­cal voice. The sustai­na­bi­lity of the project is called into ques­tion, as are its prac­tical imple­men­ta­tion and even its justi­fi­ca­tion. On top of that, my moti­va­tion is scru­ti­ni­sed. I’m bran­ded a colo­nia­list, someone who wants to make a name for hims­elf in Africa with help from dona­ti­ons.

But then Father Joseph gets in touch in a Face­book message:

Hello Friends from Berlin,

I salute you all and I thank you for all the work you are doing. I am Fr. Joseph-Mary Kavuma from Nandere Parish, in Uganda. And I take this chance to thank you very hear­tily for accept­ing to be part of us by sharing in our suffe­ring. You have done us great through the generous contri­bu­ti­ons towards our water project.

I am most grate­ful to you all, most espe­ci­ally Steven, who took charge to mobi­lise and sensi­tise you on this great need for water. Nandere is the oldest Parish in Kasana-Luweero Diocese, having been foun­ded by the Missio­na­ries of Africa way back in 1899. We wish to provide water to the 5 commu­nities at the Parish Head­quar­ters; namely the Parish Commu­nity, the Sisters and the orpha­nage, 2 Primary schools and the Health Center. Members from all the 5 commu­nities share one bore­hole which was built 15 years ago, it keeps brea­king down due to old age and exces­sive pres­sure. The situa­tion beco­mes unbe­ara­ble during the school going days coupled with prolon­ged dry spells as a result of climate change.

We really need your support to go out of this mess!
Wishing you God’s choicest bles­sings in all.

Fr. Joseph-Mary

I’m embol­dened once again by this message. It reminds me and ever­yone else invol­ved in this charity project just who this project is all about. Novem­ber (€2083) and Decem­ber (€3087.09) conse­quently turn out to be the most success­ful months for fund­rai­sing.

A rude awake­n­ing, right in the thick of it.

I’m forced to raise the total fund­rai­sing target from €7015 to €9215. I’d neglec­ted to take certain costs into account in my initial calcu­la­ti­ons back in June: for example, the outward jour­ney and medi­cal care for the people invol­ved in the project.

With help from my friend David, who also asks people to give a dona­tion instead of gifts for his birth­day, a radio inter­view, and my former colleague Ecki, we manage to finish fund­rai­sing on 10 Febru­ary. I’m saved at the last minute, as my flight to Uganda is due to leave in eleven days. 

My joy dimi­nis­hes five days later, when I learn of the sudden death of the repre­sen­ta­tive of my former volun­tee­ring orga­ni­sa­tion. He suffe­red a fatal car acci­dent in the early hours of 15 Febru­ary.

I’ll never forget the way he bode me fare­well at the bus, wished me all the best for the future, and vanis­hed. And how ten minu­tes later, he reap­peared at my window of the bus, asking if he should accom­pany me to Kampala. He said he’d look after this 1.92-metre-tall, almost hund­red kilo Mzungu. 

Godfrey had studied in Austria. He had the chance to stay in Europe, but he chose Uganda. Because he loved his coun­try and he didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Godfrey was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. 

* * *


Giving and more giving

I meet old acquain­tan­ces, suffer new setbacks and leave Uganda before our project reaches its conclu­sion – but in the end, I’m success­ful.

Uganda, 21 Febru­ary 2016: things are much the same as the first time I was here. The same smell of hay perva­des my nose when I stand outside Entebbe airport. There’s a plea­sant heat. And I’m feeling quite exci­ted once again.

My ruck­sack weighs about ten kilos. I strap it onto my back and take anot­her piece of luggage from the conveyor belt; it’s jam-packed with clot­hing dona­ti­ons. I don’t know what to expect, and I certainly don’t know if we’re going to reach our goal. But now I’m here, and there’s no turning back. “Let’s do this!” I say to myself as I dive head­first into the final chap­ter of this adven­ture, which is going to push me to my limits once more.

Much to my surprise, I’m gree­ted by three old acquain­tan­ces who have come to pick me up from the airport. Father Joseph, Father Joseph Bali­kud­dembe and Emma are there waiting for me at the exit. I hug them all wholehe­ar­tedly. The reunion moves me to tears. All the memo­ries from my last visit suddenly come floo­ding back. It’s all so fresh in my mind, it’s as if I only left yester­day.

We pick up from where we left off. Our wild jour­ney through the Ugan­dan night gives us chance to catch up in detail, with Father Joseph driving just as madly all the while – not even a tiny bit slower than he did the first time. The presi­den­tial elec­tion took place a couple of days ago. Yoweri Muse­veni was re-elected yet again – he’s been the Presi­dent of Uganda since 1986. The suppres­sion of his poli­ti­cal oppon­ents is the subject of inter­na­tio­nal criti­cism; indeed, there’s a great deal of criti­cism in the coun­try itself. Many people are set to hit the stre­ets in the coming days to demons­trate against elec­to­ral fraud. Muse­vini is cons­i­de­red a corrupt indi­vi­dual. I find myself wonde­ring how a coun­try that’s full of corrup­tion is suppo­sed to evolve.

We make it to the parish yard at around seven in the morning. By this point, I’ve been awake for 24 hours. I’m tired, the moun­ting tempe­ra­tures are sapping my energy, and I just want to go to bed. But half the parish is awai­ting my arri­val. I see so many fami­liar faces. Agnes and Colline are waiting to welcome me. There are hugs, drawings are handed to me as gifts, and our project recei­ves God’s bles­sing. Never before have I been given such a warm welcome. After that, I can finally go to bed, albeit just for two hours.

A lot has happened in the space of the past year. The euca­lyp­tus forest I helped to prepare for plan­ting is alre­ady two metres high in places. It’s incredi­ble how fast the trees have grown. I come across one of the sisters during an exten­ded tour of the village. I imme­dia­tely reco­gnise her. I call out to her. “Oli otya, nyabo?” A huge smile beams from her face as she replies “Gendi”. I respond with a slight moan, like I’ve so often heard them do in Uganda, and retort with “Ni bulunge”: I’m well. I feel good.

It’s like I’ve finally come home after a long trip.

But along with all this human happi­ness, I also perceive some nega­tive chan­ges. The primary school just by the well – the one I thought was in such an appal­ling condi­tion a year ago – has now been closed down. The scar­city of the water supply was instru­men­tal in this deci­sion, but dispu­tes between the teachers were anot­her factor. The old school buil­ding is deser­ted, and there are plans to refur­bish it in the coming months. It’s a lot quie­ter in the village now. I see far fewer child­ren. Some­ti­mes, in the after­noons, I feel like I’m comple­tely alone.

Obviously, I’m inte­rested in how matters stand with the well now follo­wing this “popu­la­tion drain”. My first few pushes of the pump surprise me: ample water flows from the rusty metal pipe of the hand pump, which is much easier to use compa­red to last year. Was the water going to be enough for the village now? Colline, anot­her boy and I carry a couple of water canis­ters to the well. I want to find out how much water there is inside. It takes us several hours to pump more than 200 litres of water. Then it beco­mes clear that the well is almost empty. By this point, only a meagre dribble of water splat­ters into our yellow canis­ter. Our deci­sion to build a well is still correct. Besi­des, the new well must be built if the primary school is to reopen.

At midday on the same day, I’m waiting to meet Moses. He’s the project mana­ger from Busoga Trust, the company that’s going to be respon­si­ble for the construc­tion of the well. He’s brought an engi­neer with him. Bare­foo­ted, I slip into my wellies and we head for the foot of the hill.
We pass by the banana plan­ta­ti­ons as we go down­hill, walking half a kilo­metre until we reach the desi­gna­ted spot for the bore­hole. The engi­neer nods without saying a word. This is where we want to dig the trench for the well. Our plan is clear. But then we start talking about the contract and the costs.

Moses offers to save me five per cent on the over­all cost. In return, he wants to execute the project inde­pendently. Without Busoga Trust, without thirty years of expe­ri­ence in well construc­tion, without a contract, and without protec­tion. All I have to do is trans­fer all the money we worked so hard to raise to his private bank account. It doesn’t take me long to decide against this plan. Obviously, I want to see the project through as per our budget and with Busoga Trust on board. Of course, Moses isn’t happy with this deci­sion. Obviously not, because this way he can’t pocket the money hims­elf. He threa­tens to delay the project.

On this after­noon of 22 Febru­ary, I return to my room at the parish feeling disap­poin­ted. Over­ti­red and unsett­led, I lay down on my bed and reflect on what’s happened. Now’s the time to stay strong. This kind of situa­tion is exactly why we deci­ded to super­vise the project on-site. That’s the only way we can try to prevent corrup­tion and stay on sche­dule.

The next day, I come to an important deci­sion irre­spec­tive of any other arran­ge­ments with Moses: with help from us, the people of Nandere are going to dig their own trench from the well to the centre of the village. This way, we can cut costs and get the village actively invol­ved in the project. We’ll also save time because we can start whene­ver we want to.

We need to dig a trench that’s 470 metres long, 60 centi­metres deep and 30 centi­metres wide. We start work the next morning, borro­wing a few work tools from nearby. It soon beco­mes appa­rent to me why we need a pick­axe. The ground is rock hard, and only the top layer is soil. Under­ne­ath this is a layer of stone that can only be loosened with the pick­axe. Once the top layer is off, we scoop the loose stones out of the ditch with a shovel. I’ve unde­re­sti­ma­ted how much effort this is going to require and how much we’re capa­ble of achie­ving. That beco­mes clear to me after the first half hour. I stand under the shade of a mango tree with my T-shirt soaking wet and my hands full of dust, panting like an old decrepit donkey. 

The first day, we only manage 30 of the 100 metres we’d plan­ned to dig. It’s even less on the second day, and by the third day I’m all out of posi­tive thoughts. Less and less people help as the days go by. It’s hard to moti­vate them. Even if I manage to, they’re so over­ex­er­ted from all the hard graft they end up never coming back. A lot of frus­tra­tion mingles in with all the disap­point­ment and sadness. I’m at a loss; I just can’t under­stand the people in Nandere. The well wasn’t my idea. It was the people in the village who wanted their drin­king water so badly. But clearly they don’t want to work for it. I become acquain­ted with a diffe­rent working culture over the course of these few days. It would appear that the people of Nandere find it more conve­ni­ent to walk 30 minu­tes every day to get to a well outside the village, and then spend half an hour pumping water and march back again, than to spend their time digging a 470-metre ditch out here in the Afri­can hear with this crazy German guy.

By all accounts, the water was of funda­men­tal impor­t­ance to the child­ren of the former primary school. Their school has been closed down. They’re the ones I decide to dedi­cate my work to over the next few days. 

It’s them I want to do some­thing for. They’re my moti­va­tion.

Emma and Raphael help out every day, and they become my best friends in Nandere. They have both achie­ved some­thing in this village. They culti­vate their own fields, make agri­cul­tu­ral produce and sell it at the regio­nal markets. Both of them can afford a small house, and they have some­thing to eat every day. They’re doing well. And despite alre­ady having plenty to do in their own fields, they’re always doing their bit as part of the digging team.
One after­noon, Raphael and I are stan­ding in a row inside the trench. The sun is beating down on us, and Raphael is hard at work loose­ning the stony ground with the pick­axe while I’m shovel­ling the stones out of the trench. We quiz each other on voca­bu­lary as we work.

“What’s your name?” – “Erri­nya lyo gweani?”
“I’d like a water, please.” – “Njagala mazzi.”
“How much does it cost?” – “Sente mekka?”

I enjoy learning the Ugan­dan language. At some point, Raphael turns around and says that it’s finally time I got a Ugan­dan name; I deserve it for all my inte­rest in Ugan­dan culture and the help I’ve given in the village. 

“From now on, you’re going to be called Kasali,” he says, and with that, he conclu­des his little unex­pec­ted rant. I’m baff­led.

Kasali? Sounds good. OK, that’ll be my name now.

My mood impro­ves noti­ce­ably in the days that follow. For the time being, I stop using my German name. Most people call me Mr Kasali now, even Father Joseph. The trench gets longer day by day. We some­ti­mes manage to dig over 40 metres in one day, but some­ti­mes it’s less than 20. I’m on Afri­can time now; I’m calmer and I have fun doing the work.

Not even the eter­nal rounds of meetings with Busoga Trust bother me now. I’m confi­dent, and I reckon we’re going to finish the well on time. Mean­while, back home in Germany, Hannes and Stef­fen have formu­la­ted an agree­ment outlining all the important construc­tion proces­ses, the costs and a sche­dule for us. We’ll be able to fina­lise the agree­ment a week after I land. We set the dead­line for the comple­tion of the well on 29 March. If we don’t get it done by then, there’s no money for Busoga Trust. That’s a good enough source of pres­sure.

We manage to dig about half the length of the trench by the time Hannes and Stef­fen make it to Nandere. I’m so happy to meet these two Berli­ners when they get to the airport in Uganda. Finally, we no longer need to talk and make plans in never-ending Whats­App chats. We can have real conver­sa­ti­ons, weigh up the pros and cons, and make deci­si­ons toge­ther. We take an extra-long walk around the village when they arrive. I feel like someone who’s proudly presen­ting their first flat to friends. A couple of villa­gers greet us when they see us. Child­ren play­ing in the distance yell out “Mzugu” – Kiswa­hili for “white men”.


With Hannes and Steffen’s help, we manage to come up with a sustai­na­bi­lity stra­tegy. It’s not going to do anyone any good if there’s some­thing wrong with the well and it can’t be fixed. Someone is going to have to look after the well and take respon­si­bi­lity for it. A profes­sor from the Univer­sity of Hohen­heim has given us a tip: esta­blish a water commit­tee, and charge a fee to use the well. I’m initi­ally oppo­sed to the idea of char­ging a fee. But gradually we realise that doing so is comple­tely necessary. The villa­gers should only be char­ged a few cents, but the schools and hospi­tal will have to pay a more size­able monthly fee.

I leave Uganda after just two weeks. It breaks my heart that I have to leave now. I’ve put so much sweat and tears into the well, and I would have loved to see it right through to its comple­tion. I don’t catch a wink of sleep during the flight. I jot down some of my thoughts and memo­ries in my note­book, and I reflect on lethargy, hard work, burnout and poverty. The lack of help I got digging the trench left me feeling sorely disap­poin­ted.

But perhaps it’s funda­ment­ally better for us to take ever­y­thing that bit easier?

Hannes and Stef­fen are taking over the project in Nandere now. They’re struggling with the same problems, but there’s two of them, so they can moti­vate each toge­ther. I’m in contact with both of them almost every day. They report to me with pictures of the progress they’re making over there. Everything’s back to normal here in Germany. My life hurt­les by at high speed, so I never really get a chance to process my expe­ri­en­ces in Nandere.

Then before I know it, Maundy Thurs­day is here and the time has come for the elec­tri­cal pump to be instal­led in the pit of the well. Late in the evening, when my phone buzzes and I start watching the video of Hannes and Stef­fen, I find myself on the verge of tears. Water is flowing. There’s running drin­king water in Nandere!

They’ve done it. The project that all began with a spon­ta­neous deci­sion I made – they’ve seen it through right to the end. Water is flowing. Incredi­ble! From now on, the elec­tri­cal pump is going to deli­ver clean drin­king water 420 metres up to the water tank in the parish. From there, the water will conti­nue around 50 metres strai­ght into the centre of the village. Finally, the people of Nandere have running water they can drink. And finally, there’s enough water for ever­yone in the village.

The men from Busoga Trust even work on Good Friday so that ever­y­thing can stay on sche­dule. They close the trench we so pain­sta­kin­gly dug. The power and water lines are alre­ady inside; they’ve been laid under Steffen’s watch­ful, criti­cal gaze. The offi­cial well opening takes place the Tues­day after Easter. The Bishop of Kasana-Luweero performs the cere­mony; I persua­ded him to do it on a visit. Hannes and Stef­fen send me pictures of the opening cere­mony. Exhausted but happy, they’re holding in their hands a plaque dedi­ca­ted to Godfrey’s memory. Even after his death, he’s still a real role model.


Since then, I’ve heard from multi­ple sources how grate­ful the people are for our help, and just how much their quality of life has impro­ved. Although a few chal­len­ges stood between the idea to build a well and those first drops of water, I don’t regret how hard I worked on this project, not even for a second. 

It was a drai­ning time, but it was incredi­bly educa­tio­nal.

Early in the morning on 2 May, I go to meet Father Joseph at Berlin-Tegel airport. He’s recei­ved an invi­ta­tion to Chicago from the Catho­lic Church. This is the first time he’s been out of Africa. A flight to Berlin is cons­i­der­ably chea­per, so he’s deci­ded to come and stay with me for a few days. I’m exci­ted, and I’m so happy to have the chance to intro­duce him to my family and friends. As soon as we’ve exch­an­ged gree­tings, ever­y­thing goes back to the way it was before. We conti­nue our running gags and joke around. I show him how our taps work here, and I show him that we can get hot water from the pipe, too. 

How fortu­n­ate we can count oursel­ves.


* * *

Photos: Steven Hille & Hannes Schwes­sin­ger
Trans­la­tion by Isabel Adey

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Rocky Mountain High

Colorado, U.S.A.

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An Episode by


Steven Hille

Steven Hille loves nature, crazy ideas, Lisbon, and feeling the head­wind on his racing bike. And he loves to keep pushing hims­elf to his limits. He puts hims­elf to the test in various ways, inclu­ding running the occa­sio­nal mara­thon and clim­bing Mount Fuji. There came a point when he deci­ded it was time to start concen­tra­ting on the sort of projects that have a real bene­fit. So, he collec­ted dona­ti­ons for a tiger cub, he suppor­ted a natio­nal bee project, and he built a well in Uganda.

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  • Guido on 4. Dezember 2016

    Nach der Hälfte des Arti­kels hatte ich gedank­lich bereits einen Total­ver­riss als Kommen­tar formu­liert: Was für ein Schwach­sinn, als wenn man West­ler einflie­gen müsste, um einen Baum zu beschnei­den oder den Busch zu mähen. Als wenn die Locals diese Arbeit nicht erle­di­gen können. Der Volon­tär­tou­ris­mus ist mitt­ler­weile ein Geschäft, bei dem Unter­neh­men im Westen mit Menschen auf dem Selbst­fin­dungs­trip Milli­ar­den verdie­nen. Den Menschen vor Ort in Afrika hilft das nicht.

    Aber Du hast das selbst reflek­tiert: «Doch ich habe nicht wirk­lich den Eindruck, etwas Wert­vol­les bewir­ken zu können. Schlim­mer noch. Ich habe das Gefühl, einem Menschen den Arbeits­platz wegzu­neh­men.» Soweit kommen die meis­ten Volon­täre nicht. Und danach wird der Arti­kel ganz groß­ar­tig. Auch der Brun­nen­bau scha­det vieler­orts in Afrika mehr als er nützt. Aber das hier hört sich nach einem sinn­vol­len Projekt an. Großer Respekt!

    • Steven on 6. Dezember 2016

      Hallo Guido,
      ganz lieben Dank für dein sehr ehrli­ches Kommen­tar. Der Text spie­gelt das ganze Projekt in chro­no­lo­gi­schem Ablauf wieder. Anfangs bin ich an die Sache natür­lich ganz anders range­gan­gen.

      Beson­ders nach der Rück­kehr habe ich mich viel mit dem Thema der Entwick­lungs­hilfe beschäf­tigt. Ja, Volun­tee­ring ist oftmals ein reines Aben­teuer für den Volon­tär. Der Erfah­rungs­ge­winn für die Einhei­mi­schen ist mini­mal oder gar nicht vorhan­den. Auch das war in meinem Fall anders – weil wir es fort­ge­setzt haben. Father Joseph war ja im Mai bei uns in Berlin. Da konnte er viele Eindrü­cke und Erfah­run­gen mitneh­men. Es ist geplant, dass er wieder kommt. Dann macht er auch Prak­tika im Land- und Forst­wirt­schafts­bau und nimmt Wissen mit, das sicher­lich nicht von mir kommt. :D

      Meine dama­lige Volun­tee­ring­or­ga­ni­sa­tion Karmalaya schätze ich dennoch sehr posi­tiv ein. Sie planen Projekte lang­fris­tig, schaf­fen Arbeit und Verdienst­mög­lich­kei­ten für Einhei­mi­sche und infor­mie­ren rundum gut. 

      Beste Grüße,

  • Fr. Joseph-Mary Kavuma on 6. Dezember 2016

    Steven is a Great Man, he has a big heart and a lot of love for other people. He gave us the chance to live and work with a ‚Mzungu‘ for the very first time and our life here in Nandere will never be the same again! May God bless you Steven, your Family and Friends for the love and care you exten­ded to my people!

    • Steven on 7. Dezember 2016

      Thanks Father!
      But it wasn´t just me. We did it toge­ther.

  • Max on 16. Februar 2017

    Ein wunder­vol­ler Bericht. Der ziem­lich lang ist, und mich — ähnlich wie bei Guido — am Anfang etwas zwei­feln ließ, was denn „der weiße Mann“ da zu suchen hat.
    Und sehr schade, dass du am Ende weg muss­test. Aber ein unglaub­li­ches Enga­ge­ment, und am Ende sogar ein Happy End.
    Wirst du noch einmal hinflie­gen?
    Gruß, Max

  • Anye on 7. September 2018

    .….….damn, abso­lut stark, geile Sache! bleib geseg­net! Anye