“Just leave me your wake to remember you by.”
– Boats & Birds, The Scene Aesthetic
Waking up in my safari tent alone on Bushara Island this summer in Lake Bunyonyi — “a place of many birds” — was quite an experience. True to its name, sunrises on this lake are always accompanied by an orchestra of birds of nearly every kind chirping merrily, as the temperature rises gradually. All else is calm and quiet. I could feel the fresh and cool morning air blowing in through the open flap of my canvas tent, and a glimpse of the lake beyond is easily visible, even from my bed. Given the choice, I would have liked to stay in this moment forever.
There is plenty of privacy here on this island — perhaps too much that at night, the silence, darkness and emptiness could become oppressive, even for someone who is used — and indeed, actively seeks — solitude to the ends of the Earth. But waking up to this abundance of serene nature makes every solitary night a worthy struggle. I would get tingles down my spine when I thought of the isolation and seclusion of my solitary presence there on the island, as I sat there enjoying the view of the lake from my “front porch”.
If I were to revisit Lake Bunyonyi though, I would revise my itinerary by obliterating everything that I did during my stay here. While here, I had the opportunity to visit some of the neighboring islands. I found myself passing through some hilltop villages with spectacular views of the lake, and even had the great fortune to visit a primary and secondary school, a church, and a community clinic. At one point, my guide even brought me to the local prison on the mainland near Kabale, and afterwards, a beautiful mosque where I managed to catch a few moments of much-needed calm and solitude with God.
I cannot deny that I learned a lot from visiting the surrounding community — this was certainly an experience that Lonely Planet would not have been able to capture in its pages. But I did feel like it detracted me from my whole purpose of being there on the lake — which was to do nothing, to think of nothing, and to simply read and write in my journal and enjoy an afternoon lazing about on the hammock or throw myself into the lake from the rope swing. Instead of doing all these things I’d promised myself, I had to be a nosy philanthropist, which perhaps wasn’t really number one on my list of things to do, particularly when I was at that moment actually already involved in a summer-long charity project in a village in Kenya.
When we reached Kabale town after a brief visit to the local prison, I had to politely — but firmly — tell my guide to allow me to find my way back to Bushara Island on my own, because his presence was beginning to suffocate me for some reason. I did indeed reach my island destination safe and sound, but not without some haggling with the motorboat driver. I spent the rest of my evening wondering why I suddenly felt the urge to leave the island — if not this instant, then the moment the next bus to Kampala passes through. Some serious reflection over dinner led to the realization that what I was feeling was not simply (physical) fatigue, but also compassion fatigue: I was tired of being asked, everywhere I turned, to “help”, to “give”, to “contribute”, to “donate”, to “assist”, at every village, school, church, and island I visited. Whatever the benevolent term the act was couched in, it didn’t matter to me, because it didn’t make me feel good about myself, particularly as I kept wondering how much of a difference my contributions would make to these communities anyway.
I woke up around midnight from the sound of heavy rain pounding on the metal roof, and received a timely text from my Project Partner inviting me to join them in Kampala the following day. I was ecstatic — I’d found my calling for where to head next, and when. The receptionist lady, who had been a kind host throughout my stay on the island, was surprised to see me eager to leave when I came to the main hut that morning to settle my bills, but I made some excuses about my friends wanting to see me soon.
Ten hours later, reunited with my friends in Kampala, I could not be happier. I realized then that perhaps I’d been away on my own for far too long. I will always remember Lake Bunyonyi as having two irreconcilable sides now: on the one hand, as the serene “place of many birds”, and the other, as a cluster of struggling communities in need. It is somewhat impossible to ignore the unequal power dynamics while here: how does one harmonize this image of poverty coexisting side by side with the incoming flow of wealthy tourists bearing unimaginable amounts of economic capital into the community?
This vacation turned out to be an extension of my soul-searching journey not only deeper into Uganda, but also into the self.