“What am I getting myself in to,” I remember thinking to myself on a plane that I did not want to land, as I was afraid at what could be awaiting me on the other side. This was months ago, when all of my knowledge of Africa came from a Taylor Swift video and The Lion King. I had never gone into my gap year thinking I would do Latitudes, as the idea of traveling on my own had never even occurred to me. I also could never have imagined I would end up deciding to do my volunteer placement in Africa, a place I had been spoon fed images of my entire life of bare chested ladies sitting in mud huts with a small army of malnourished children about to be attacked by a lion. When I made my decision to come to East Africa and volunteer in East Africa, my family had even told me I would die. Literally die. And, given my track record of near death incidents on my group semester, I almost had half a mind to believe them.
Yet, as I spend my days between Uganda and Rwanda at the Gorilla Highlands centered on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Lake Bunyonyi, my initial worries seem almost laughable. Here, I work as a photographer and multimedia photographer, telling the stories of the locals, culture, and the region in an effort to promote this place as a tourist destination to benefit locals both economically and in developing pride in their region. I would describe an average day to you, but that’s quite impossible, as my day seems to unfold as I go along. One day, I could be trekking to a traditional healer where I have been tasked with collecting a love potion, while another could lead me to filming a video about an Egyptian riding around in a canoe and delivering balloons to children. Every day is different, every moment leaves me guessing, and every conversation has me making new discoveries.
On my very first day of work, I was being asked to write a blog post to be published about myself and my first perceptions. Apparently, it was good, because I’ve been asked to produce more as time has gone on. Which, you know, is awesome because writing was my first love. Now, I’ve been told that if I ever get an idea of something I want to write, to just go for it and it will be published. There’s just something about your work actively being published and able to see people you know reacting to it that just makes you feel as if you are actively accomplishing something.
Then I was asked to do video. I came as a photographer and had never really had much experience in video, but I figured I’d try it out. After all, it involved a camera, and I could work a camera, so how hard could it be? Now, I am being assigned video after video, where my main projects at the moment are telling the stories of individual people as well as my own story as I carry on in my volunteer experience.
Now, I am helping in the development of two new publications: the new version of the pocket travel guide, which is a little mini booklet containing easily accessibly and visually stimulating information about the region, including the culture, languages, and destinations of the region. As well, I am helping with the new version of the Gorilla Highlands ebook, which is an interactive publication designed to be accessible from iPads and other touchscreen devices that is a more in depth guide than the pocket book. For them, my photos are working in contribution, but I am also being asked for my input in developing ideas as well.
I am able to be fairly autonomous in my work, which is great. If I want to climb a mountain one day to get shots, I’ll tell my main contact, a sarcastic Slovenian named Miha, and he’ll tell me to make sure I don’t die, at least until the end of my volunteering. Or if I want to spend my day curled up in my blanket on my bed as I edit away, that’s cool too. The other day, Miha told me to write up a list of all the places in the region I wanted to do and all of the projects I wanted to accomplish and we’d work it into a calendar. So, now I’m set soon to work with a photographer from National Geographic before being sent other places all across two countries in projects ranging from interviewing gorilla park rangers, staying in classy lodges to shoot footage, or climbing up volcanoes. One of my biggest worries about volunteering abroad was the idea of staying in one place for three months, but here, that really isn’t an issue, as my work could take me anywhere to do anything.
Before I arrived, when I would ask people from Carpe Diem what they knew about the Gorilla Highlands, every single one of them left me with one continuous statement: The people are characters. Every time I heard it, the less I understood what it meant. That is, until I arrived and began to figure that out for myself. Everyone has a story, whether they are one of the many locals I am introduced to or the international visitors that are always coming through, and it is my job to tell these stories. By doing this, I am able to give back to these people by giving them the recognition and voice that they deserve and showing a different side of the stereotyped vision of Africa that has been imprinted upon Western consciousness. I am but one voice and one storyteller, but each voice that shares the realties adds up into the new image we are creating.
And to be a part of something like this, where I get to do what I love and feel like it matters, like I can give back to people who show me such kindness, is what I find the most important aspect of my work.
Whether I’m canoeing around the lake pretending I’m Moana, speaking with travelers from all over the world about our shared travel experiences, or almost getting attacked by a pregnant goat (I deserved it), I find that I am no longer afraid of the unknown mystery that awaits each new day. I no longer wonder ‘can I actually do this’ but rather know that I am quite capable of anything. I am doing things I never dreamed I would be capable of not even a year ago, and I don’t know what’s coming next, but I can promise you it’s going to be amazing.