Better to give than be deceived
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.