If Kampala is the biggest K that volunteers encounter, Kanungu is certainly the most familiar. It is home to Volunteer Uganda, it is where we live, where we are at once guests and part of this community.
Kanungu town, as you would expect, is the administrative centre of Kanungu district located in the south-west of Uganda. Travel more than 50km from Kanungu and it becomes a place few have heard of. It sounds remote, it is remote, and to those living in the urban sprawl of Kampala it may as well be on another planet.
Of those who have heard of my home for the last year, many know Kanungu for all the wrong reasons.
Ask, and most people will tell you that they remember Kanungu as the place where up to five hundred members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God burnt to death in their church on the morning of 17 March 2000. They had been promised by their leaders that the apocalypse was coming and only those inside the church would be saved. Then the doors were locked,the windows boarded up, and the building torched. It was and remains to is day the largest cult killing in the world.
But Kanungu should be known and remembered for much more than a dark past.
It is a place of generous hospitality, unfailing kindness and the warmest of welcomes to any visitor. Do not be fooled by the fact there is no Rukiga word for please, the people are courteous in an African way, a way you come to understand if you are lucky enough to spend a significant amount of time in their company.
I shake, on average, two dozen hands a day, each one with a smile and a genuine inquiry as to how I am, usually in Rukiga and English and, if it is Mohammed the mechanic who is asking, French too.
Friends are easily made, from Nicholas, the opener of the local stationary store, to Ellie, the local postmaster. From the fuel station attendant always ready with a wave as you drive by to the woman in the phone shop who refuses to speak any English to you – just for fun. Whether it is carpenter Frank, Moses, owner of the local drinks supplier, or Maureen, tailor of the finest African pants, everyone takes time to get to know you and makes you feel at home in a foreign environment.
The fact that these connections and lasting friendships can be made is a credit to the way that Volunteer Uganda operates in Kanungu. In our red shirts and branded vans, we are a visible presence and a respected one.
It is our work that will help Kanungu turn it’s dark past into a brighter future. That is what people in Kanungu want – to look forward, to move on.