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My Experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda, Africa

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Written by Eric Dobbrastine (Classic Travel Intern, Summer 2014).

Born and raised in Grand Ledge, Michigan and having never left the United States, a study abroad trip to Ghana during the summer of 2007 was a signature experience influencing my deep desire to do something much more meaningful with my life. The wide-spread poverty, the warm-hearted people, the eager-to-learn students that I had the privilege of teaching, the whole experience inspired me to think of how I could use my many blessings to make a greater impact in the world. After much research, the Peace Corps became my post-graduation goal. As my undergraduate studies came to an end, I began the long process of applying to be a Peace Corps volunteer, only to have those dreams put on hold due to personal financial challenges. It was crushing and it left me wondering what to do next.

Five years after that first African experience, upon completion of my first year of graduate school, I began a new life journey as I finally had the chance to swear in as a Community Economic Development Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda. Working with the Batwa pygmies in the southwest region of the country, on the fringe of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, I assisted these traditional inhabitants of the forest with income generation, among other facets of their post-forest dwelling lives. With a burgeoning tourism industry, thanks to the presence of half of the world’s remaining population of endangered mountain gorillas, I helped the Batwa to tap into the tourism market in an effort to support themselves and their families.

Having already started the Batwa Experience thanks to a previous volunteer, I provided assistance with marketing this cultural tour which not only offers tourists a glimpse into the traditional forest life of the Batwa, but also serves as a cultural and historical education center for the youngest generations of Batwa. Through networking with the various tourist lodges in the area and the abundant tour companies popping up throughout Uganda, I shed additional and much-needed light on this unique opportunity to spend the day with elders of this fascinating tribe.

In addition to marketing the Batwa Experience, I also assisted at the Batwa Craft Banda, a small shop just outside the gates of the National Park where the Batwa sell various items such as hand-woven baskets, hand-knit scarves and home-made jewelry to tourists. I worked with the shop manager to improve the display of the products, better track inventory, increase the quality of the crafts made by the Batwa, and more effectively promote the products. This included expanding the market into the various lodges in the area to bring the products to the tourists.

My time in Uganda was not all work and no play. I had some amazing opportunities to be a tourist and explore this incredibly diverse country. I didn’t have to go far for one of the biggest thrills. The awe-inspiring creatures that people came from all over the world to see were regular visitors to my house. On multiple occasions I was within arms-length of the beautiful (and smelly) mountain gorillas and even had a baby attempt to enter my house out of curiosity. So visibly and incredibly powerful yet so human-like, it is simply humbling to be in the presence of these rare creatures. The gorillas are divided among families of anywhere from five to twenty-five, each given a local name such as Rushegura (the family that frequented my house) and habituated over time by park rangers working for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Due to the habituation of these animals, they barely pay mind to the groups of tourists from around the globe that trek to see them each day.

The adventures didn’t end with the mountain gorillas, as Uganda is home to so much more! I had the unforgettable chance to go on more than one authentic wildlife safari at Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls National Parks. Roaming through the seemingly endless savannahs on early morning and evening safari drives, I caught glimpses of elephants, buffalo, hippos, giraffes, zebras, kobs, warthogs, crocodiles and even some of the more elusive critters such as lions, hyenas and a leopard. Having the opportunity to see these creatures in their natural habitat, no fences or glass, my head poking out of the top of a safari vehicle, is an indescribable experience, one that you must experience for yourself.

In the far south of Uganda, very near the border with Rwanda, lies Lake Bunyonyi – a gorgeous, sprawling lake surrounded by rolling green hills and dotted with islands. Traveling by motor canoe to get there, my dad and I stayed at a modest little resort on one of the islands, surrounded by pure tranquility and stunning beauty. At Byoona Amagara, you can stay in a “geodome” or a “Little House on the Prairie-style” cabin while enjoying the wonderful views, going for a dip in the refreshing water or enjoying a cold Nile Special beer and a delicious home-cooked meal.

With my volunteer site being located in the far reaches of southwest Uganda, I had relatively easy access to Rwanda, a spectacular little country that is thriving just two decades after one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen. Clean, green and bustling, Rwanda is an absolute gem on the beautiful African continent. The capital city of Kigali could easily be mistaken for a large city in a western country, with smooth, paved roads, tree-lined and beautifully landscaped streets, modern buildings and organization not seen anywhere in Uganda. When visiting Rwanda, it is a must to visit the solemn yet powerful genocide memorial in Kigali and the churches in the surrounding area where some of the most horrific attacks took place. It is an intense reminder of what humans are capable of and that we all must do our part to treat each other with respect in order to ensure no such tragedy ever takes place again. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” visiting the famous Hotel des Mille Collines is also a must.

Since my return from Uganda, I have resumed my Master’s program at Michigan State University and have had the privilege of working with the great people at Classic Travel. With my academic focus being International Tourism, with a specialization in International Development, and my ultimate goal being to start my own tour company, this opportunity has provided me with valuable experience in the tourism industry. I have spent much of my time researching various destinations for Classic clients and also conducted comparative research on tour companies that specialize in African travel in an attempt to identify a potential partner to bring African excursions (including trekking the mountain gorillas) to the clients.