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What's Up Magazine

Arborist in Africa

May 17, 2011 11:22PM ● By Anonymous

In fact, I would like to set up a Bartlett satellite office in Kamwenge, Uganda, but I don’t know which Division Manager would oversee that office code!?!?

My time there was a sensory overload. Without a doubt, this was one of the most AMAZING experiences of a lifetime! Uganda is located on the equator in central Africa. To my delight as an arborist, it is a lush and green country. It has a wide variety of plant and animal life. To recall all the friendships, experiences, and moments of shear excitement would take several pages. Let me touch on a few of the highlights here.

Beyond the obvious – a far away land with exotic plants, animals and a very friendly people – there were the more subtle moments; the internal changes not immediately recognized. These are the types of events that help define who we really are. This happens, I think, when we open ourselves to new cultures and customs.

After two days of travel, we arrived at our guesthouse in Kamwenge. Think of a clean Motel 6 with a firm mattress, mosquito netting and a hole in the floor where the toilet should be. There were no windows or screens needed.  The rooms were simply open to the outdoors.

The church group I was traveling with had two “rules.” First, “No Complaining!” It was strictly forbidden! The second rule was no talking about food from home. Our diet would be hard-boiled eggs, bananas, white rice and goat meat. “No Complaining!”

We started our first day with an early breakfast, and a job site briefing. Yes, there are JSSAs (Job Site Safety Analysis) even in Africa.

One of our chief goals was to repair widow’s homes. These women don’t have the support of a husband’s family and the community doesn’t really have a social service system.  As such, widows rely on the goodwill of their neighbors and the village.

We knew it would be a difficult day of hand-mixing cement with shovels and hoes. We would then apply the pasty mixture to the walls of homes with trowels. This would be time consuming and exhausting in the 90-degree plus temperatures at the equator, but satisfying work.

All the literature I had read before leaving for Africa explained how their culture was family, community and village-oriented. This was in contrast to traditional “western” values, which venerate independence and individualism.

I was able to experience this sense of community firsthand.  Much like our crews at Bartlett, my work crew was diverse.  It was composed of several older, well-dressed gentlemen (I found out most of them were teachers and learned that the literacy rate in this English-speaking country is very high) as well as several younger men. The people I worked with were all volunteers just like me, but I was one of only a few Mzunga (white) and the others were all locals.   

Those first minutes were awkward ones, like a mixer at a party when you make pointless small talk to break the ice.  But in this particular case, you don’t speak the tribal language or know the customs.  

In regards to the work, everyone seemed to know what to do without anyone in particular giving orders. There was a beautiful rhythm and harmony to the way the day was unfolding.  No one was in a particular hurry, but the work was all getting done. It was a picture of cooperation in the workplace that I’d love to see on every job site.

I learned that the Ugandans are a very kind, courteous people but they are also shy around strangers.  They were open and willing to share their knowledge of local plant life and indulge my curiosity about the indigenous trees.

I asked one young man to show me the edible foods growing at the edge of the village. To my surprise, he pointed to at least eight different plants within reach of our worksite including banana, maze, millet, mango and jackfruit. I was so impressed.   

The local volunteers knew many of the names and medicinal uses for most of the plants as well – all used for generations, and passed from one generation to the next.

By the end of the day, we were having good conversations and wheelbarrow races to see who could bring over more cement for the house project.

It was humbling to work alongside such a grateful and happy people. Despite such material poverty, it was clear that I could learn a lot about contentment from them in so many ways.

It was an honor to have participated in this adventure. I deeply respect all the people of Uganda and their hospitality. To see them all willing to serve one another with genuine care was an inspirational experience for me in these times of world conflict.