The Explorer Belt - Francesca's Story

They all said that it would never work. Many voiced the opinion to Eric Goulding (Uganda 2000 Contingent Leader) and Nick Winter (Explorer Belt Leader) that they were mentally unhinged to try to take ten rowdy venture scouts to the rural African county of Uganda to complete their explorer belts. Not only was the idea of the country unpopular but also the combination of its participants. Instead of having teams made up of the usual two same sex members from the same unit the U2k project was taking groups of a girl and a boy not only from different units but different counties and regions scattered all over the UK.

I live in London and my partner Paul Boulter lives two and a half-hours away in Peterborough (by my driving anyway!). We only met three or four times before departing for Uganda, yet to be honest this only made the whole experience more exciting. Paul and I are very different and had near enough been thrown together at the last minute. I am very into sports and he is very into bird watching I guess you could say we are ‘like chalk and cheese’! However we are both loyal scouts initially reassuring us that we must have something in common!

After a couple of acclimatisation days Paul, myself and the Ugandan scout, Idris, who would escort us set off on our ten day expedition with over 160km of distance to travel, a major project of education and ten surprise projects to complete. I am not usually the type of person who gets nervous but as we waved goodbye to the other teams I was definitely anxious to say the least. As the dust of the bus dispersed the three of us stood almost helpless in the backwards village of Kaliro, Central Uganda. Hundreds of locals stared at the mysterious muzungu (white man) who had just stormed into their peaceful village, which simply consisted of a few shabby roadside buildings and distant mud huts lining organised farms.

I glanced over to Paul who reassuringly looked as worried as I felt! Completely self-conscious we decided to find what would be our camp for the night - the local Police Post. Our fantastic support team of Nick Winter and Dick Booth had spent the weeks prior to our arrival whizzing around the Kamuli District (where our expeditions would be bases) ensuring that we would have a safe place to stay each night. I have to admit that I only felt half-safe and half-uncomfortable as out tents were guarded by a frowning man swamped in a trench coat holding an evil looking AK47! Shrugging our shoulders we looked on the bright side and mentioned ‘as long as we don’t upset him I guess it’s good protection’!

Still disorientated and confused by our surprise projects we decided the best thing to do was grab a stodgy lunch of rice and traditional posho to clear our heads and discuss how on earth we were going to plan and cope over the next ten days. As we waited for our food some brave locals approached. One guy, Fred, was particularly interested, as he had heard a lot about U2k on the radio and in the papers. We updated him on our personnel aims only to discover that he really wanted to help. As we followed Fred through the suburbs of this village it became apparent that he was then true ’Dell Boy’ of Kaliro without all the dodgy bits! He knew everyone and they all seemed overjoyed to know him.

His many contacts enabled us to complete nearly all our projects in one day. All to the locals amazement we repaired bicycle punchers, worked for two hours in a potato farm, visited the local brewery, visited the bakery, learnt how to cook a traditional meal, met the local scouts and visited the local schools. On top of all this (and more importantly) we made a friend for life. This is what the explorer belt is all about; meeting people, experiencing different cultures, making friendships and building international links.

Exhausted we managed to get a few hours of rest to maniacally fill our journals before taking Fred out to dinner - well to a little mud hut that served rice and goat at 40p a plate.

Despite initial difficulties of explaining to the disapproving Police Post that Paul and I were just friends yet we shared a tent, the first day had been a fantastic start. Consequently from this point on if anyone asked - we were happily married, this prevented cultural differences and marriage proposals getting in the way! Being married in Uganda at 18 is not unusual.

Our second day would be our first day of walking and would settle us into the routine that we hoped to continue for the rest of our expedition. We rose early (6:00am) to try to have our walking done before the midday blaze of sun. Unfortunately the best maps that we had of the Kamuli District were of a scale 1:700,000. Estimating the distance between villages was difficult. We soon learnt that not only were the scale of these maps ridiculous but they were also very inaccurate. As the temperature exceeded 36 degrees centigrade in the shade we resigned ourselves to catching local transport which comes in the form of buda-budas, having walked for a good four or five hours. These are rusty little bicycles powered by scrawny men, for which you have to use every muscle in your body to cling on for dear life as you thunder down the bumpy roads.

For Paul and myself, arriving at our second village of Lukotaime was the most memorable experience of our Explorer belt. We received a very unusual welcome from the residents of this rural town, as some had fled in fear at the sight of us, whilst the rest continually stood in silence, watching our every move. Using the local language Idris established that we were the first muzungu ever to enter this isolated village. Throughout the rest of this eye-opening day and night we broke many boundaries; teaching the community not to fear us, and building emotional friendships. We reluctantly left the following morning, with chickens slaughtered and trees planted to commemorate our visit. Paul and I were also renamed after the tribe’s founders; Benuzi and Waggulawaki.

The structure of the rest of our expedition was very similar to this second day. Walking in the morning, snatching transport in the afternoon, receiving incredible home hospitality in the evenings, visiting as many schools and scouts as we could each night, making some firm friendships and gaining some insatiable experiences. We also learnt a lot about each other and ourselves. I now feel a lot more confident about independent travel and communicating with foreigners. From barely knowing each other Paul and I got famously, we had so much to get to know about one another that there were times when you couldn’t have stopped us talking if you tried! I think doing the explorer belt with someone you don’t know adds to the whole experience and discovery.

On the last night all five groups met up at the Kamuli Country Club along with Nick and Dick. We were thanked and congratulated by the king of the Kamuli district and were even offered citizenship. Despite the luxury of a real bed none of us got much sleep that night as we had so many stories to exchange, most of us are still producing new tales of our enchanting time in Kamuli even now we have returned to England.

So inspired by our whole trip to Uganda between many of the younger members of the contingent there are hopeful talks of continuing the good work initiated by Eric Goulding and his phenomenal team from the UK-Uganda Network. Every evening since I have been back instead of preparing to start university I have conversationed on the phone of distant strategies that we hope to propose to the rest of the contingent and network when we get together again in October. Uganda is an amazing country to experience, but to experience it through scouting as we were fortunate enough to do is another thing all together. I feel that the greatest gift that I could give fellow scouts is the gift I was given by U2k. I guess all that is left to say is watch this space!

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