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Her greatest joy

Becky Vargo • Mar 13, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Cindy and Don Anderson have done their share of traveling, but it was a 2013 trip to Uganda that produced — as Cindy would say it — her epic fail and her greatest joy.

That trip was the culmination of a nearly lifelong desire to come face to face with gorillas, something Cindy studied while pursuing her master’s degree more than 40 years ago, and it resulted in a family relationship with the community and an ongoing effort to support the local schools.

Anderson, during a presentation on Thursday to the local Toastmasters group, admitted she pestered her husband for many years until he finally agreed to the trip.

“In 2012, I started hearing about gorilla treks,” said the former speech language pathologist for Grand Haven Area Public Schools. Countries such as Uganda and Rwanda were banding together to try to save the gorillas, and these treks were part of that effort.

Once Don gave her the go ahead, Cindy said she obtained the very expensive gorilla permits, planned the trip and bought herself a new pair of hiking shoes.

Cindy said her husband encouraged her to exercise in preparation for the trip, reminding her that they would be doing a strenuous trek. “I’m in better shape than you think I am,” she recalls telling her husband.

In the fall of 2013, the Andersons completed a 36-hour trip to Uganda, then got on a small plane and eventually a Jeep, in which they rode for hours “higher and higher.”

It was 98 degrees. The humidity was 95 percent.

“Everything was slick because it was so humid there,” Cindy said. “I started to panic about being able to do the trek.”

The Grand Haven residents spent the night at the Mahogany Springs Hotel in Bwindi before heading to their destination for the guided tours.

Cindy explained that three gorilla families on the mountain were habituated to humans. You couldn’t touch them or go closer than 7 meters to them, but they were used to humans being in their vicinity. The gorillas lived in different areas of the mountain.

Cindy said the guides watched them as they walked across the parking lot and placed them into groups based on the difficulty and length of the trek. She was placed in the closest group. 

As she approached her group, Cindy said a 78-year-old British man sneered at her and complained that she wouldn’t make it, and that she would hold the group back.

The guides assured them it wouldn’t be a problem, that Cindy would see the gorillas and, for $300, she could use the Uganda helicopter if she couldn’t complete the trek.

Cindy said she scoffed at the thought that she would need help — but, after a short distance into the climb and stopping to catch her breath, she requested the helicopter. It wasn’t long before 13 young men came running up the mountain with a stretcher.

“The trail is this wide and switchbacks going up,” Cindy said, holding out her hands a couple feet apart.

They put her flat on her back and took turns carrying her up the hardest part of the mountain.

Through her embarrassed tears, all she could see were her hiking boots, Cindy said.

Eventually, they got word that the gorillas were headed their way, so the guides used their machetes to cut a path until they reached the primates.

“It was magical. It was all the sounds I’d heard on tape,” she said of the communications between the gorillas.

They were allowed an hour on the hill, and due to impending rain, they forced Cindy to ride on the cot again so they could get down the mountain faster.

Although they had tickets for a second day, Cindy said there was no way she could go, so she gave her permit to a hotel employee who had never seen the gorillas.

The next day, Cindy said she opened a book and prepared to rest on her hotel room deck. 

“The hotel staff couldn’t stand that I was alone and that I was sad,” she said.

The staff kept bringing her tea and pastries, and another hotel employee soon appeared to take her on a tour to the school and “cheer her up.” 

But when Cindy saw the children sitting on the floor and on benches in a makeshift building with only one piece of paper, she broke down in tears.

“My heart is breaking,” she said. “In the U.S., the classrooms have everything. I’m just beside myself with the inequity of it.”

The children sang for her and Cindy gave the teacher a $20 bill for supplies. 

She was also taken to a pygmy settlement, but the living conditions were bad, with 35 residents on 2 acres of land. Their children also were not allowed in school — and that’s where most of the children get their meals, Cindy said.

When Don returned from his hike, Cindy told him and the other couples visiting about the school conditions.

It wasn’t long after they returned home that the Andersons arranged for 80 desks to be built for the school by a local craftsman. On each desk was stenciled, “Donated by Cindy and Don, U.S.A.”

Cindy later received an email from their hotel housekeeper, Moses Agaba, asking if they would help him start another school. Part of their donations funded a latrine, which bears the same stencil.

Moses sent them pictures of the progress for the Bwindi Plus NPS (school), and friends visiting from the U.S. verified the work that was being done.

Another investor from Germany provided funds for new buildings.

All this time, Moses continued to work at the hotel to help his family and the school. And when his grandmother died, he asked Cindy to be his honorary mother and come to his wedding. Cindy said yes, but she was unable to attend the wedding.

It wasn’t until after her goddaughter was born that the Andersons were able to return to Africa for the child’s baptism. That event was attended by 900 people and went on for five hours. After the baptism, everyone went to the school for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and another hours-long celebration.

The Andersons learned prior to this that the original school they helped had fallen on hard times with a headmaster who mismanaged their funds. The Andersons started donating to that school again and are working with Tri-Cities-area residents who also want to donate to it.

The Andersons’ neighbor, Ron Lukasik, who runs the Tri-Cities Youth Soccer Organization, donated 50 old soccer balls and T-shirts they didn’t use anymore.

Cindy said anyone interested in helping the schools may call her at 616-846-7981.

The Andersons plan to return to the village with their grandchildren in four years — that is, if Cindy can stand to wait that long.

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