Building the Big Beyond bigger picture in Uganda

Ok, so our goal at every Big Beyond site is to integrate the conservation of a threatened national park with the sustainable development of its adjacent communities. Within that, there are a number of projects across education (kids and adults), the natural environment, enterprise, health and culture.

We’re working hand in hand with the local communities to achieve a range of goals, right from the grassroots, through guiding and building the capacity of existing community projects as well as helping to spur on new one’s. It’s the job of the Big Beyond team to keep an eye on the bigger picture and direct volunteers to relevant roles that enable us and the community to achieve short and long term objectives with genuine impact.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m out at our Uganda site at the moment. Me and Jenn (Big Beyond Manager Uganda) have been ultra busy bees meeting with all our community partners, stretcher groups, government departments, protected area management and also working with the BB team to take the projects to the next stage as well as improve our volunteer house to keep our volunteers extra comfy in this remote spot : ) Finally we say farewell to the construction guys today – woohoo!! It’s been a challenge without a doubt. But looking nice.

I’ve been busy meeting up with the different local groups and individuals we’re linked up with to get project updates so far this year, chat about new ideas and to continue to develop the understanding about the Big Beyond bigger picture to a wider group of local people as we grow. Our style of involvement is a new concept to the people here really. We’re not a big NGO with shiny 4WDs and millions of dollars to invest. We don’t construct buildings. We’re not bringing high end gorilla tourists, we’re bringing motivated people from overseas that are becoming a real part of their community, living and working alongside them. We look at the root causes behind local dreams and facilitate the availability of skills and knowledge through our amazing and diverse volunteers from around the world – that means our strategy is predominantly human rather than financial resources. Believe me, it’s different to what a lot of people in Africa have become used to. While some traditional development is good, some is not quite so good. Some areas like this have also been pretty neglected overall.

The core of our philosophy is beyond handouts towards new opportunities. In our vision, there’s a lot that can be done with what’s already here. With ideas, knowledge, skills and motivation we are confident we’ll see the fruits of all our work over the next few years. And, we’re determined to prove it can work well. So watch this space! Everything we do is also a partnership. Efforts from our volunteers must equally balance with those from the local people. It’s a rule! So in a nutshell that’s what the Big Beyond team and the volunteers that temporarily join the team are working to achieve.

I can’t pretend and say that I don’t battle occasionally striving to change mindsets a little by offering something different from the well known international NGO as I talk about above ; ) We like a challenge! But I’m now told enthusiastically that this community are increasingly getting it. And loving it. And are genuinely excited. That makes us happy! It’s a truly welcoming corner of Africa where everyone involved is made to feel at home and are eager for us to work alongside them for positive change. May it continue to strengthen.

Womens empowerment…

Community demonstration farm in development… 

Crafts and other tourism related enterprise ideas… 

The younger generations too… 

And lots lots more going on. 

The last few weeks has as always, been fascinating, productive and challenging for me – despite how many times I’ve visited the place I always learn something new and inspiring from talking with people and observing their ways. I may have lost a few years of my life instilling that motivation in builders but hey!!!! I can definitely see our relationship with the local community grow stronger and stronger by the day. It blows me away everyday and definitely seems to do the same with the volunteers. This is a special place that everyone should visit at least once in their lives we are sure!! Do it and get the chance to experience it : )

Volunteers in action 

Right now there are four volunteers on the team and we have another six brilliant people arriving tomorrow. Everyone here is excited to meet new faces and learn about their involvement in the projects. Should be a lot of fun too. We have a very global bunch this month – USA, Canada, China, Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia… awesome mix of minds and experiences on the way which I have no doubt will be enlightening to the work on the ground.

Volunteers and BB show us their moves! 

I thought I’d give a quick glance at some of the volunteers and their projects at the mo ..

We have Ann our legend conservation expert from Scotland. Ann’s 49, spent many years with Scottish Natural Heritage working on the scientific side of conservation as well as the education side of protected areas. She’s also volunteered in Zambia before. Clearly she’s a great asset to the team here she’s working on three main projects over her 6 month stay before she heads off to our Ethiopia site for another 3 months. She’s leading a project that’s helping to conserve one of the few remaining indigenous forests in the community, now separated from Bwindi. It’s under serious threat with persistent grazing of cattle and goats, tree felling and planting of exotic species. Many of the community have realised it’s a potentially valuable asset for them though, partly because of tourism, and they see its degradation happening fast so are thinking of ways to stop it. There isn’t much incentive not to use the resources at the moment. It’s full of birds and a beautiful little place. That’s not always enough in reality. A forest management plan is in development, with the help of Ann, and she’s working closely with government and local communities to enable their involvement in establishing it as a community forest reserve, that they proudly own, with economic benefits not just beautiful trees and birds to gaze at. They hope to generate income streams from the various links into tourism products and services. It’s early days and she’s been busy exploring the forest and mapping  the boundaries and peaks with her GPS. Thanks Ann, it’s been a productive start.

Little waterfall in the Nombe Pocket Forest… 

Another project of Ann’s is with the Uganda Wildlife Authority along the borders of Bwindi which is starting later this week. She’ll be addressing the human-animal conflict through various programmes alongside protected area management. Gorillas and elephants leave Bwindi to raid crops at the detriment of the communities around. They’re aiming to figure out where the problems are and what the possible solutions may be. Her third project is environmental education. She’ll be working hand in hand with schools and volunteers to help develop innovative programmes for the wildlife clubs.

And there’s Hannah from England who’s been with us for about a month now too. She’s developing teaching aides in schools and launching World Clubs. Hannah’s 19 and in her gap year before uni and our youngest volunteer to date. She’s truly immersed herself within the local community, says she’s already grown up so much (!) and with a big smile on her face, bounds down the dusty road to her various school projects each day. She’s brilliant with the kids who seem to have become very fond of her, as are the team here. We’ve also heard that her mum told her she’s never heard her so happy – obviously fantastic for us to hear that and that’s part of what Big Beyond’s all about. Thinking of extending her two month stay, we hope to see that happen!

Hannah’s been busy observing lessons in local schools to figure out the need for teaching aides and generating ideas for things that can be developed from what’s already around – so, showing what can be done without the need for financial resources. This is really key when people get stuck in the rut of saying ‘we can’t because we don’t have funds’. Not true! Creativity, resourcefulness and action can make a lot happen.

Hannah’s ‘World Club’ is at two primary schools. As tourism starts to emerge here with more gorilla groups habituated in the last year or so, we’re striving to help the kids understand different cultures before the influx of foreigners. For their benefits and the success of tourism in the area. Those that have travelled to developing parts of the world before will know how frustrating it can be when kids beg for money, pens and bottles, and shout ‘mzungu’ (white person/foreigner) in your face. Right now, this community are pretty good to be honest so we’re on the mission to prevent this negative change through education, rather than try and fix it after it’s started. And, to help minimise tourism from eroding their culture too. It’s not only the locals that need educating, it’s actually the tourists as well. Tourists themselves are often the root cause of this negative behaviour as foreigners often feel the urge to handout pens and money willy-nilly not really understanding the impact they’re having after they leave to their next destination. That project is also in development and something we’d like to grow as the community look forward to embracing tourism. Hannah’s World Club is a really good start and also a lot of fun for the students too. She’s been developing an outdoor resource using stones and a panga and will be teaching about different parts of the world. I’m jealous of her little spot as she has sweeping views of Bwindi one way and the community Pocket Forest the other. Nice office.

Lucky Hannah met the big guys this weekend, excitement!!.. 

A little nursery Hannah also works at once a week… 

Bruce and Akila recently landed from Canada. They’re both in their 30‘s. Bruce is a doctor and Akila a teacher. Bruce is working on a health research for the community to inform a health promotion project and is busy having discussions with local households to understand root causes behind some of the local issues. From this info we’ll be working closely with Bruce to develop ideas and get some health projects implemented and linked in to the other community projects we’re involved in. It may be nutrition, exercise, sanitation, or something else, or a mixture, not sure yet. He’ll also be looking into the significance of herbal medicine vs others. And perceptions towards available health services will be investigated. No assumptions will be made. That’s the name of the game. Everyone’s very interested to hear his feedback over the next few days. He’ll be working closely with a couple of stretcher groups on implementation later in his stay.

Preparing to start their placements this morning… 

Akila is enhancing teaching methodologies in two of the schools. One government school and one community-run school. She’s spent time observing and discussing with teachers so will be testing out a few of her ideas today actually. Akila will be running teacher workshops to share her knowledge about more productive teaching methods and demonstrating in classes. Right now, the methods generally involve repetition of teacher words only. She’ll be introducing new ways to get the kids actually thinking, exercising their minds and learning in a more engaging environment. More on that to come.

Although Sam’s sadly left the site now. Not a volunteer but a more permanent member of the Big Beyond team. Sam spent couple of weeks on site at Uganda helping keep the builders in line and develop the volunteer house. Sam’s spent time at Big Beyond Uganda and Ethiopia and visited us for a couple of weeks in June and always a great help to us. To the amusement of the locals, Sam got digging and painting and really helped get things moving. Hammocks are up, sun-decks are constructed, Uganda tasty brown windows turned white, water tank filled and the big team of construction people kept in order, and lots of laughs had with the guys. Although he was only here for a short time back in January it was lovely to see the community welcome Sam as a long lost friend. He always makes a big impact and everyone misses him a lot! “Where’s Sam? When’s he coming back?” Thank you for your help!

The Big Beyond team as hard at work as ever preparing for the new volunteers arriving tomorrow. We’re all really looking forward to welcoming them to the team here Uganda. I’ll keep you posted on their progress.

But this week it’s actually time for me to leave and although I’m very sad to say goodbye to everyone here for now I’m really excited about reaching the lovely Big Beyond Malawi again and hearing all the progress there. Keep an eye out over the next couple of weeks for some insight from there…