Posted by Anne Nkutu on Jun 10, 2019
Last year in September, I was stranded in the middle of Bwindi’s mountain forest. Sitting on a dry patch of grass with my head between my hands, I kept wondering what the heck I was doing in this jungle, how and whether I would make it out of there alive.  Correction - I wasn’t lost or anything of the sort.
Infact, I was part of a group of Rotarians who had set out that cold morning to trek mountain gorillas in the famous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The idea had originated from District Governor Sharmila who deemed it a perfect bonding opportunity ahead of her official visits to Rotary Clubs in South Western Uganda.  Although Gorilla trekking had never been on my bucket list, the invitation seemed too good to pass up, especially at a time that I needed some revving up.  It was only nine days since we had laid to rest Stella - my twin sister (from another womb); and the emptiness that I felt in the wake of her death was numbing.
Our group of 22 Rotarians set out early at about 5.00 am on September 24th 2018 for the great trek. On arrival at the Bwindi centre, we were quickly taken through some drills and given 3 different options on routes based on fitness levels. As you can guess, I chose the easiest route and was joined by 8 guys.  A few steps into the trek, the guide asked me to take the lead having detected that I had the shortest strides.  Perhaps it was also because I was the only woman in the group, other than the armed female soldier who was positioned at the back.  What initially seemed like an easy walk down an idyllic landscape quickly turned into something more treacherous.  In addition to being tripped by twigs and creeping plants, we kept skidding on the slippery slopes.  As we went down and down, and further down towards an endless bottom, the sticks we had been given as supports, also became “slashers” as we had to beat the bush ahead of us to make a path for ourselves. Clearly, it is not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing. Despite the hundreds of trekkers that go through the forest every week – there are no established paths. Every group must find its own way.
When we finally reached the bottom of the slope, I did not know whether to laugh or cry.  There we encountered hidden river streams and were forced to climb over wet and slippery logs and walk in zigzag fashion to avoid the marshy swamps.  One of the guys in our group had to be helped up when his right leg sunk into the mud and he nearly lost his shoe in the process. On and on we went in what seemed like an endless dance of jumping over swamps and logs and bending downwards and sideways to avoid low hanging tree branches and thorny bushes. When we began another ascent, I could not go on and plonked down on dry grassy patch, unconcerned about what could be lying underneath it.  After waiting for a short while – I beckoned the rest of the group to proceed without me. I felt defeated and I wanted out.  Only I did not know how. Reading my thoughts – both the armed guard who had stayed behind with me in a show of sisterhood and the faithful porter coaxed me to continue, telling me that the gorillas were not that far away anymore. I did not believe them since we had earlier been warned that the gorillas had no permanent abode and were constantly on the move. There was therefore no telling when and where we would find them.  But I obliged all the same and we trudged along.  Before long we caught up with the rest of the group and very soon after, came face to face with a troop of gorillas – eight of them.
In that instant, the pain and hustle that we had been through disappeared as we stared in awe at these humongous relatives of ours. Although they are habituated, we were cautioned to maintain a safe distance.  As the over 250kg Alpha male/ Silverback called Mugisha walked towards us, we were cautioned to cower a bit and avoid eye contact.  As we did this, the lead ranger made some soothing noises, apparently in gorilla lingo, to indicate that we were a harmless lot.  It was a surreal moment – being in the jungle, surrounded by these domineering beasts and probably lots of serpents and crawlies and yet we were unafraid.  There was harmony – just as it must have been in the Garden of Eden.  But unlike the baby gorillas – which did some delightful somersaults and females which went about their feeding business unperturbed by our presence, the Silverback kept his distance.  Like a skillful player, Mugisha kept teasing us with occasional appearances and quickly disappearing behind a thicket the moment he had our full attention.
After an hour of this hide and seek, we were informed that our time with the gorillas was up. You should have heard the collective sigh when we were informed that we would be taking the same route back.  Words fail me on how to describe the return trip.  What was a slippery slope as we went down had now transformed into a steep mountain. As we embarked on the steep ascent, energy levels even among the more agile members of the group began to fall rapidly.  The banter that had kept us going faded and soon it was every man and woman for him/herself.  I could now only take a few steps at a time as I felt heavier with each passing moment.  Soon, my attentive porter did not only have to carry my bag, but also my water bottle and jacket, while at the same time holding my hand. I will never know how he managed this, but he will be forever in my debt.  At this pace, we quickly fell behind and before long, it was just me, the porter, the armed guard and the lead ranger, the rest of the group was out of sight. I felt terrible. Mostly, I was embarrassed by my fitness levels in comparison to the lead ranger who was 20 years my senior, but I was also beginning to despair.  Unaccustomed to such a high altitude, I felt like my heart was coming out of my mouth and with it all the oxygen in my body.  Once again, I sat down in defeat.  As I sat there staring at the thick canopy above our heads and the foliage at my feet and back again, memories of Stella flashed through my mind and I was certain I was joining her this very day.
I do not know how long I remained in this state, but after what seemed like a lifetime – I received some divine intervention.  Two of the porters who had accompanied my group mates came back for me.  Each offered me a shoulder to lean on and my faithful porter offered to gently push me from behind.  What a sight! But within 10 minutes, we were out of the jungle and on firm flat ground. I have never been so thankful and I hugged all three dearly.  A rush of adrenaline set in – that I raced to the assembly point much to the delight of my group mates. I had survived the steep ascent - the equivalent of 79 floors!  For making the trek and I guess, making it out of the jungle alive, I was awarded a certificate, that now hungs proudly on the wall in my office.
Bwindi forest will forever remain in my memories, not just for the ‘memorable fellowship’ with the other Rotary leaders, but also for the lessons that it offered me.  Exercise which was the most immediate lesson remains work in progress.  But long after we had left, it occurred to me that the trek had also been an exercise on leadership and offered many lessons some of which I have experienced and applied during my tenure as Country Chair. From the trek I learned that:
  1. Leadership is not a walk in the park - it involves getting out of your comfort zone.
  2. Sometimes you will feel defeated and inclined to throw in the towel – but keeping the goal in mind will help you stand up again.
  3. As a leader, you may not always agree or even walk at the same pace with your colleagues – but never stand in the way of progress.
  4. Be gracious to everybody that you meet along the way – you never know who will eventually help you up.
  5. Along the way, you will meet people who will support you and others that will challenge you - each group presents you with the opportunity to grow and progress.
  6. Learn to recognize and acknowledge your limitations.  Accepting help from others is not a sign of weakness.
  7. As Nelson Mandela said, “after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
And so as I conclude my tenure, I would like to thank all those who have walked this leadership journey with me. I would like to thank, first and foremost, DG Sharmila for giving me the opportunity to serve and inspiring me to grow; and secondly my family and friends for their unwavering love and support.  I would also like to thank the team at the country office and all the Rotary leaders at club, country and district level – with whom we have served this rotary year. Thank you all for your good will, support and selflessness.  And finally to the Rotary family in Uganda, it has been an honor to serve as your Country Chair for the rotary year 2018/19.
Article by: Rtn Anne Nkutu - Country Chair (Uganda) 2018/19