Alaska – Canoeing to the Bering Sea
»Big River« is what the Athabascan Indians call the Yukon. It’s one of the mightiest rivers on the planet. In this episode, Dirk Rohrbach travels the river all the way to the Bering Sea in a self-made canoe.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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Photos: Steven Hille & Hannes Schwessinger
Translation by Isabel Adey