Bringing Water and Wheels to Africa: My Amazing Frugal Vacation

By Jason Steele. Last updated 8 December 2016. 6 comments

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While I travel a lot, it’s rarely with my parents, which is why I was surprised when I received a call from my father inviting me to join him on a trip — to Uganda. For some, Uganda might bring up images of infamous guerrilla leader Joseph Kony, or scenes from heart-wrenching film The Last King of Scotland. But my father has a much more personal relationship with the country.

He founded The Clean Water Foundation, a non-government organization dedicated to bringing water and transportation to people in East Africa. That is why my father called — he wanted me to join him as he trekked into the tropical rainforests of the Virunga Mountains to see the gorillas, delivered bicycles to women in Buhoma, and helped bring water to a remote village that was the home of a man my parents had met on their last trip, three years ago. I said yes. (See also: 6 Ways My Family Scores Free Travel)

10 Miles From the Nile — With No Clean Water

Two days after landing in Uganda, we woke up in a modest tent hotel along the banks of the Nile, the longest river in the world, and waited for our guide and driver Owingi Milton to pick us up. My father had met Milton — as he prefers to be called — on his last trip to Uganda, when he stayed in a hotel that Milton was working in. Our primary goal for this trip was to bring water to the residents of Milton’s home, Pandinga Village.

As we hurtled down the heavily potholed dirt road, Milton told us that we are the first outsiders to visit Pandinga, and when my father and I arrived, we discovered several hundred people waiting for us. The leader of the village led a prayer to celebrate our arrival, referring to my father as “Tata,” or father of the village, and I was given the title of brother. Next, a procession of women arrived on their knees, bowed their heads, and crawled towards us with offerings of eggs, grains, peanuts, and three live chickens (Milton claimed he found good homes for the chickens). In return we gave them shoes, racquetballs, reading glasses, and assorted school supplies.

We learned from the villagers that among their many needs, clean water is paramount. To emphasize this point, we were shown a skit dramatizing the social and medical consequences of 1,000 people attempting to subsist on water sources that are just muddy holes in the ground two miles away. These effects include infighting among the women who collect the water and families being broken up over stress and illness caused a lack of clean water. Unmentioned is the task of transporting over fifty pounds of water on one’s head for several miles, a burden which seems to be borne exclusively by the women of the village.

But this isn't a story about a primitive tribe being dazzled by strange outsiders. While the rest of the world may not be aware of Pandinga, their residents are aware of us. Although electricity is even scarcer than water, several residents had cell phones that they charged using portable solar panels, and it seemed like they had better coverage than I have in parts of Denver. Pandinga is not a place cut off from civilization; it is a subsistence farming village with few resources that is struggling to reach out to the world. It was our honor and privilege to reach back.

The ceremony concluded with the playing of a xylophone unlike any I had ever seen. In Pandinga, the instrument was constructed with eighteen logs of varying lengths laid over a pit in the earth several feet deep. A dozen men were needed to play it, using sticks covered in rubber from old tires.

After the ceremony, we were escorted to a marshy areas to witness how the village currently gathers its water. Women kneeled in the mud to retrieve brown water from a small trench, one liter at a time. They emptied it into yellow, 25 liter plastic jugs. Once filled, these 55 pound containers were hoisted onto their heads and transported back to the village. We saw thousands of women doing this on the side of the road all across Uganda. And all this for water that puts residents at an ever-present risk of sickness and death.

One surprising thing we discovered in Pandinga, though, is that there were existing wells near the village — they simply were not functioning, and no one had come to repair them. One was built by a company we visited, and my father and I decided to focus our efforts in getting that company to go out and fix the well they drilled. As of writing this article, we have helped get a crew repair the first well, and we are moving forward quickly on plans to drill again to replace their second well, which is beyond repair.

At the end of the day in Pandiga, we found ourselves back at our tent hotel, watching the Nile flow by after having spent the day ruminating on the problem of clean water for a village of 1,000 people not ten miles away. In the United States, we would just build a water treatment plant, pump the water from the Nile to the town, and finance the project by changing each household $30 a month for this virtually unlimited clean water. But the people of Pandinga couldn’t even afford the maintenance or fuel required for a diesel-powered well — only a hand-pumped one. I will never again look at the faucet in my house the same way.

Bicycles in Buhoma

We left early the next day to start our journey to Buhoma, which lies at the foothills of the volcanic Virunga Mountains, near the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda is not a large country, about the size of Oregon, yet it took us nearly three full days of driving on their horrific roads in order to reach our next destination.

In Buhoma, we met with Denis Rubalema, a native Ugandan with an unmistakably British accent. Denis is the director of Ride for a Woman, a bicycle shop in Buhoma with a mission to empower women in the villages surrounding the Bwindi Impenetrable Park. Working with his organization, we presented new bicycles to three women who previously had no access to transportation. With these bicycles, these women would be able to reach the nearby towns to sell their farm goods, purchase supplies, and receive medical care. For example, one of our recipients was Ms. Margaret Naranri, a divorced mother of nine children, four of whom currently remain at home. With a new bicycle, she and her children will now be able to bring their sugarcane to the market in the town of Butogota, nine miles away.

Our plan was to present bicycles to the women when we arrived in the morning, but as we were about to hand them over, I realized that they had arrived from the factory without any of the necessary tuning or adjustment. While I watched a local bicycle repairman struggle to prepare them for delivery, a realization struck me. In Pandinga, I felt helpless because I knew nothing about technical aspects of drilling for water. Yet as a former bicycle mechanic, I could finally put my skills to use. I put down my camera, picked up a wrench, and cancelled our sightseeing plans for the afternoon. After spending a week of making plans and holding meetings, I was relieved to actually be doing some tangible good with my own hands.

Bicycles were not the only reason we went to Buhoma, however — we also went to see some of the rare mountain gorillas in the area, and we were rewarded with a truly memorable experience. We were, in fact, surrounded by gorillas — the adults dropped fruit from above, while babies wrested with each other. At one point, we encountered an enormous silverback in the process of mating. He didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence anymore than he did by the fourteen other gorillas on the ground and in the trees. When the silverback wasn’t preoccupied with his amorous pursuits, he kept a watchful eye over his band.

Just a day later, we were on board the first of several international flights that would take us home...but we were forever changed.

Planning the Trip — Frugally

One of the main things that made this trip possible was frugal planning. A trip to Uganda is not like making reservations for your typical vacation. My father used his local knowledge from his last visit to plan the trip, along with the help of Milton (who is a both a highly skilled driver and an excellent tour guide); this allowed us to book our lodging directly with the providers. Otherwise, we would have had to use a tour group or travel agent that would take a cut. No matter where you’re traveling, it can help to see if you have friends or family who might know someone in the area who could help you plan your trip. Also, we stayed flexible and in many instances pulled into towns where we had no reservations. In these kind of places, the nicest lodge in town might have only been $60 a night.

As regular Wise Bread readers know, I travel a lot using frequent flier miles, which were especially useful in planning this trip. By using 240,000 Delta SkyMiles, we were able to save the $4,000 we would have spent on two coach tickets while enjoying approximately 50 hours of flying in International Business class on Delta and Kenyan Airways. The trick is to always find seats in Delta's "Low" mileage class by searching their systems one leg at a time. I used Air France's website for flights on partners such as Air France, KLM, and Kenyan Airlines. In my experience, you can never rely on what Delta reps tell you over the phone, or you will never get the lowest mileage rate — your best bet is to search through partner sites, and then call Delta to have them book the flights you found.

By saving money with these methods, we were able to achieve one of the most important goals of frugal living — saving money in one area so we could spend it on something else that was important to us. Material things come and go, but life-chagning experiences last forever. 

Final Thoughts

My parents had vacationed all over the world but until this trip, I never understood why they returned from Uganda to start a foundation. When you befriend a man like Milton and visit a place like Pandinga, you return home with a sense of obligation to work hard and share some of your own good fortune. News of celebrity gossip and even our economic downturn seem less significant to me now that I realize that we barely have to lift a finger to find clean water.

The Clean Water Foundation is a grassroots non-governmental organization (NGO) created by the author’s father, Clifford Steele (who also took all the pictures for this article). The foundation drills deep water wells in East Africa, and provide bicycles to residents of rural western Uganda not otherwise served by public transportation.

Author Jason Steele is Wise Bread's travel rewards and credit card expert. For interview requests please contact

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Bringing Water and Wheels to Africa: My Amazing Frugal Vacation

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Guest's picture

Thank you for sharing this great story Jason. There are so many areas of the world that needs our help and attention. It is nice to see people spending their vacation time to make a difference in the world.

Guest's picture

Inspiring Story. What a great vacation.

Guest's picture

Neat trip. It's not uncommon for western companies to propose solutions that break and become problems (e.g. wells that can't be fixed with local tools and knowledge, bikes that can't be tuned and fixed once the mechanic returns to wherever). Sounds like a great experience. Whats your next trip and can I go too?

Guest's picture

This is the kind of thing that people think about doing all the time but very few of us actually take the time to go through with. Well done Jason.

Guest's picture

Love seeing this kind of story and this is why I read blogs to get the more personal side of things. Do you think you'll be making the trip frequently or only when you've saved up on miles--which is understandable given the cost of traveling?

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Cecilia T

I visited the "Ride for a Woman" website and their program sounds like a great cause:

"Most women in the Bwindi community of Kanungu District spend their days and well into each night managing their households. They carry water, dig their family’s garden, care for their children and animals, clean the house, and ensure everything is running smoothly. This leaves no time for them to learn a trade to earn money and very little time for them to learn from each other.

Ride 4 a Woman is tackling this problem with bicycles! Not only do we rent bicycles to tourists to fund our Women’s Community Centre, we offer bicycle career training to the women as one of the career options they can choose with us. Please read more about our Women’s Community Centre."