I’m Jon Lee, a consistent California connection, who has been writing, editing stories, and narrating videos for the Gorilla Highlands initiative for over a decade.
I lucked into the discovery of these magical mountains. I was safely ensconced in a post-retirement life of plenty in a beach town, nursing an ember of long-ago third world adventure. I’d been a traveller, not a tourist, for years of my early life, all over Mexico, Central and South America and Europe. I’d lived for years in Mallorca and lazed on dozens of Mediterranean beaches. But I’d ignored Africa.
When my best friend’s daughter was assigned to a Kampala hospital for medical training, I decided to visit her and see what was so dark about this continent. It turned out to be illuminating, indeed.
After officiating a volleyball match in Santa Barbara, one coach who’d heard of my proposed trip, told me of her adventures with Edirisa, in a land called Kabale. So I grabbed my keyboard and a few strokes later had volunteered for several weeks doing who knows what, who knows where. As a 25 year English teacher, camp director, volleyball coach and professional TV and print journalist I had certain skills, but no idea how they’d be employed.
I found myself ambushed by the warmth and charm of Ugandan people even before I’d left the Belgian airport, bound for Africa. Kate, a waiting fellow passenger, turned out to be from Kabale, and she gushed about the local foods and gave me a quick course on new vocabulary I’d find useful. She also arranged for a family to host me in Kampala, show me the town, and guide me to the bus that would reveal the gorgeous mountains of southwestern Uganda, and Edirisa’s headquarters in Kabale.
During my weeks with Edirisa, I wrote small articles, worked on video productions (through regular power outages), built several volleyball courts in villages with exotic names like Kashambya and Kamarunko, and deepened my love of this amazing people I found everywhere. Most of Edirisa’s volunteers were 20-something Europeans, and though I was 59, I felt right at home amongst them. It reminded me of the Costa Rican hammocks and hostels of my youth, warm and welcome.
The hospitality of the Bakiga culture I’d first encountered at that airport was reinforced over and over as waiters, coaches, teachers and musicians I met invited me to their village homes to meet their families and dine with my fingers. I soon became a fan of that matoke and posho I’d heard about in the airport.
The common bond of sports and education and family is rich in the Bakiga world, and I felt right at home. When I left I felt that the spirit of life I’d encountered in these lovely mountains and lakes and villages was a blessing — one that I wanted to share with my family and friends in California. And I have.
This blessing also proved seductive, and through the next 10 years I’ve maintained communication with the many friends I made. The severe financial trials of Ugandan life, the elation of new children, the heartbreak of deaths and injuries, the pride of accomplishments have all been shared. And I’ve shared my similar highs and lows with them — through the magic of the internet and four return visits to the Pearl of Africa. I’ve come back to work with the Gorilla Highlands team, visit new babies, and to show my wife this very different world,… and she, too, felt entranced.
I’ve helped dozens of families in ways that I can, but they have helped me far more. I have found the fallacy in my preconceptions about Africa and discovered the glory of its ancient customs, values and lifestyles. In a dugout canoe unzipping the surface of Lake Bunyonyi, at a school for the disabled in Gisenyi, in a gorilla family in Mgahinga, on the glistening plumage of a sunbird — I’ve seen a continent’s true face and come to love it.