(From National Geographic. An interview with an Australian family whom we hosted in Western Uganda in 2012 when our organization had just started and was then named Uganda Vision Resource Centre as the story teller quotes it in some part)
Pick up any parenting book and you’re unlikely to find a chapter titled “How to Spend a Year in a Truck With Your Kids in Africa.” But that’s just what the Carroll family did with their boys, eight-year-old Xaver and five-year-old Felix. Earlier this year, Kira, a pediatrician, and Peter, a photographer, and the boys left Alice, Australia, for a yearlong drive through southern and eastern Africa, where they stuffed their lives into a truck, washed in mud buckets, and slept in tents, listening to lions, hyenas, and the occasional baboon. Oh my.
What seems like a case study of questionable parenting to some is, in fact, the adventure of a lifetime for the Carroll clan. “The boys have been experiencing vast landscapes of profound beauty, close encounters with wild animals, and life-changing friendships with children from African villages,” says 46-year-old Peter. “At their young ages, they are nonjudgmental sponges.”
The dusty roads from South Africa to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda were full of unexpected challenges. Simple problems, like warding off insects, became icky trials. Homeschooling the kids in the absence of an actual home was a tricky routine. But volunteering has been a rewarding high point of the Carroll family’s expedition. In Uganda, the clan spent four weeks planting mango trees and laying bricks while living with a host family.
“It’s difficult to put into words the true value of this for the boys, because I’m sure it will continue to influence them well beyond the here and now.” As for the boys, they’ve learned valuable lessons. “Play with the local kids and climb trees,” Xaver says, but “don’t park or camp under marula trees because elephants love them and can push your car away.” Felix also offers a bit of practical advice: “In Botswana, don’t go off by yourself. The animals might get hungry and hunt you,” he says, adding that African travel is hard, “but fun enough to not want to go home yet.”
Even the parents have learned a few lessons. “Trust your children,” says Peter. “They will open doors, bring unspeakable joy, and teach us oldies what we have forgotten.”
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: What gave you the courage to hit the road?
Peter Carroll: Kira and I have always loved traveling. We had dreamed of continued travel after the boys were born but soon realized it wasn’t as easy as we thought. We had holidays, of course, but there is a huge difference between a holiday and extended travel. So it was not so much about finding the courage as arriving at a time in our lives which allowed it to happen. Xaver and Felix are at an age where we believe they will benefit and remember experiences, and at the same time allow Kira and I to travel without constant worry.
NGT: Was planning difficult?
PC: Taking young children on the road camping through Africa for a year has its challenges and logistics and finances are frightening. Once the commitment is made, tasks are ticked off one by one, money saved, house rented, belongings in storage, and before you know it the car is on a ship and you’re in the air heading for Africa.
NGT: What were your biggest worries?
PC: You must accept that your children will be exposed to dangers otherwise not encountered at home. So it was essential to be able to evaluate and prepare for risks and convince ourselves that with the right preparations and research they can be minimized to a point where it was possible to head off relatively confident of their safety. We also left it open that if it really wasn’t working out for some reason, we would accept that and try again another time. There are so many unknowns that you just have to bumble your way through.
NGT: What’s your best travel advice for families?
PC and Kira Carroll: Prepare as best you can. Respect cultures different from your own, learn at least basic greetings and courtesies of countries you expect to visit. Go with an open mind, flexibility, and spontaneity. When traveling as a family, keep an eye on the kids but give them enough freedom to explore and extend their boundaries naturally. Children are great icebreakers when meeting people and they help open doors that you may not otherwise have noticed.
NGT: What are the hardest challenges of being together on the road?
PC and KC: It has been important for us all to find snippets of time for ourselves. Living in such confined quarters for so long can be exhausting and claustrophobic. And communication takes patience. When we’re doing humanitarian work, it can be profoundly rewarding, but incredibly challenging. If the children see and experience difficult situations and conditions, you have to remember to answer the nonstop questions patiently. And when surrounded by children in dire need, all vying for attention, you have to remember your own kids from time to time. It can be difficult for them seeing Mum and Dad giving so much love to other children. Make sure the kids are included, given tasks, and made to feel they are contributing. And give ’em a hug.
NGT: What advice do you have for other kids?
Xaver Carroll: Be ready for it to be different than home. Volunteer your time to help. It’s hard and scary and you see things you don’t want to and can’t even believe, but you’ll make friends and learn a lot. Be ready to wash with cold water in a bucket. Having no power and using drop toilets is fun. Don’t be shy to share your games with kids and play soccer with the locals. Be ready to be surrounded by people saying “Muzungu, Muzungu!” (white person). Have fun.
Felix Carroll: Roads are rough and drives are long. Always carry binoculars and the animal book to look up what you see. Hold in your hunger. You get really hungry sometimes when you’re a volunteer digging and building, and there is no food except sugarcane. Get ready for everyone to crowd around and pull your hair. It is scary but you can climb a tree to escape.
NGT: What are the best parts of traveling in Africa?
XC: Playing with the local kids, climbing trees. On long drives, looking out the window because everything is different from home. Felix and I make up stories together. We do crafts, like knitting and carving.
FC: Looking out the window to spot animals. Going to small villages to play with kids. Learning to use a camera because there are amazing scenes and perfect light. And beans and rice is nice even if you eat it a lot.
NGT: Share some new discoveries.
XC and FC: It’s great to volunteer. You get to build different things, dig, lay bricks, go to schools to play with children, attend classes to see what they learn. You get to know a whole new family and learn how people live. You see children who only eat one cup of porridge all day and have to work hard outside school to earn school fees by carrying water and sticks on their heads. Sometimes they miss school to sell what they grow at market.
NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?
PC and KC: To travel with passion and purpose is to move through as a visitor, learn all you can, and contribute where possible. We are both keen to lend our skills in some meaningful way and get deeper insights into the places we travel through.
NGT: What organizations have you worked with in Africa?
PC: We Volunteered with Beacon of Hope, based in a village near Mokono, Uganda (an hour north of Kampala). It’s a very small grassroots organization that’s doing great work. We developed a Kids Go Green Program and presented it to several schools throughout the district. We assisted in the ongoing construction of an education center and clinic in a small village, and built drying racks for several families in remote villages. The most important thing to come about was a posting to rural Kamwenge, in western Uganda, where we lived with a beautiful family running an organization called Uganda Vision Resource Centre, which works to improve the lives of children through self-starting, community-based, sustainable programs. We experienced full immersion into Ugandan village life. We lived with a wonderful family with two small children. They had no electricity, collected water from a natural source a 30-minute walk away, and cooked on tiny coal burners. And yet the family devoted their time to local sustainable development with a list of projects too long to name and describe. We helped HIV clinics, mothers making crafts, beekeeping projects, banana wine production conflict management in refugee camps, educating remote folk about the evils of child sacrifice by witch doctors—I kid you not. It was a most incredible, fulfilling, inspiring, confronting, and emotional time for us.
As a result, our family has formed a partnership with Uganda Vision Resource Centre (Now Kitara Foundation); we set them up with solar power (a wonderful experience seeing light in the house for the first time), and—thanks to friends and family—have raised funds for various projects with orphan refugees, mothers’ groups, and schools.
The web is a minefield of NGOs, and most require an investment of funds well beyond what we could afford. Many people we have met are volunteering through huge organizations (many of them for-profit) that ask ridiculous amounts of money. Hopeful volunteers are scared to take a chance with grassroots organizations. Our experience has shown that the real work gets done at village level by people living in those villages, organized by a few deeply committed people. With no overhead, all donations support the projects. The difference they make is unbelievable.
NGT: What have you discovered?
PC: Our goal in the beginning was to spend quality time as a family, reassess the direction of our lives, work, and where we are living. To have the time and space to answer some big questions otherwise difficult to tackle. The most important thing is to remind ourselves of how privileged we are as a family, to be experiencing all the wonders of nature and humanity in such an extraordinary way. To see that travel is not always a holiday but that each day brings experiences that challenge or delight in unexpected ways is one of our best discoveries. Along the way, our family grows closer and stronger.