Bet­ter to give than be de­ceived

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

ISHOULD have known bet­ter. Af­ter three days in a truck, and forced to hire an armed guard be­cause of an in­crease in ban­dit at­tacks along the iso­lated and muddy roads north of Bi­hara­mulo in north­west Tan­za­nia, four of us de­cide to take a much-needed break from our tour group.

We plan to trek from our camp at the Bun­y­oni Over­land Re­sort on the south­ern shores of Lake Bun­y­oni in south­west Uganda into the sur­round­ing hills. The beauty of the dark blue wa­ters of this vol­canic lake, dot­ted with 29 is­lands, should pro­vide ex­actly the tonic we re­quire.

Cul­ti­vated slopes merge ef­fort­lessly with pock­ets of un­touched jun­gle that creep down to the still wa­ter. I point out that Lake Bun­y­oni is prob­a­bly the rea­son Win­ston Churchill de­scribed Uganda as the Pearl of Africa.

‘‘ For­get Churchill,’’ says my new Cana­dian friend with the binoc­u­lars. ‘‘ That’s a red-chested sun­bird.’’

But be­fore I have time to bounce back and point out that Bun­y­oni ac­tu­ally means place of many birds, we hear the more com­mon cry of a very dif­fer­ent crea­ture that flocks to vis­i­tors across East Africa.

‘‘ Mzungu!’’ And we turn to see four chil­dren hap­pily wav­ing ma­chetes. But alarm bells ring when a man from a small mud-hut vil­lage we have just skirted then comes out to greet us and, af­ter chat­ting for a while, in­vites us back with the line: ‘‘ We have wood carv­ings and or­phans for you.’’

Ear­lier, when I looked into vol­un­teer­ing at an or­phan­age in Africa, it amazed me how ex­pen­sive it is to do­nate your time. An en­tire in­dus­try has grown up around con­science tourism, with a variety of groups of­fer­ing vol­un­teer pack­ages, many at what seem to be in­flated prices.

Speak­ing to a fam­ily friend who has been con­tracted to a num­ber of UN projects in East Africa, I dis­cover that for ev­ery or­phan­age charg­ing thou­sands of dol­lars for your time, there are many with­out the re­sources to ad­ver­tise that would wel­come you with open arms if you just walked in off the street.

And I couldn’t help but be sus­pi­cious of who was ac­tu­ally prof­it­ing.

Af­ter our en­counter near Lake Bun­y­oni, we re­turn to camp to find the rest of our group has been ap­proached by an­other man from across the lake to visit his or­phan­age. Given the bless­ing of our tour guides, we ea­gerly join in as ev­ery­one jumps aboard eu­ca­lyp­tus dug-out ca­noes and pad­dles to the other side.

As we walk up to the or­phan­age, beam­ing and curious chil­dren run to greet us. Then we are wel­comed by a wo­man who says she looks af­ter the 30 or­phans, and a man who is their dance teacher. Dressed in rags, they dance for us, rhyth­mi­cally sway­ing and stomp­ing their bare feet to the beat of sev­eral drums. It leaves some of our group in tears.

The teacher then tells us how des­per­ately they need money to look af­ter the chil­dren, for school­ing and HIV test­ing. We quickly have a whip-round.

As we walk back to the ca­noes, the older girls at­tach them­selves to the two women in our group who clearly have been the most moved by what we’ve seen. By the time we reach the shore, both have agreed to part with 500,000 Ugan­dan shillings ($327) to send the girls to school.

When we re­turn to camp, an Amer­i­can wo­man vol­un­teer­ing for an or­gan­i­sa­tion sup­port­ing lo­cal schools and work­ing in the fair trade cen­tre joins us for a chat. We re­count our visit and her face drops. And when she tells us she knows of no such project, so do ours.

She says it is her or­gan­i­sa­tion that built the school in the vil­lage we vis­ited and, given the size of that com­mu­nity, there sim­ply couldn’t be 30 or­phans.

We still don’t know whether the or­phan­age is gen­uine. The Ugan­dan em­bassy in Lon­don has promised to in­ves­ti­gate.

What is clear is that there are chil­dren in Uganda who could do with a lit­tle help; it is less cer­tain whether our money has reached them.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.