Shockingly Humble Beginnings (Lake Bunyonyi 2002)

This is the second instalment of a weekly series that marks 20 years of Edirisa and 10 years of the Gorilla Highlands Initiative. Click here for Part I.

On my second day at Uganda Martyrs University a collision occurred. A “front of the library, books dropping” kind of affair, ha ha. Little did I know that it would take me to the remotest corners of my country, and deep into the adventure-packed world of Edirisa!

Not only was Miha the only muzungu (white man) on campus but we actually became a couple at a (then) very strict Catholic institution. That naturally made us the talk of the academic village. Because of his Slozungu show I became the Slozunye girl, another play on words based on the Luganda slang for muzungu.

Ever since 1999, Miha had been in love with Lake Bunyonyi, some five hours by car from our equatorial university. He spent most of his free days in that southwestern tip of Uganda, and in 2001 he invited me to visit. I had never been to Kabale District, so I delightedly accepted. It was exciting for a student to have a vacation by the most beautiful lake of her homeland!

… And so the real Edirisa experience began! What started as a holiday destination turned into my home within less than a year. To headline this article I chose the photo that reminds me of the extremely basic conditions in which we lived on a Bunyonyi peninsula. It was a little room in the terrible looking Bufuka Primary School headmaster’s house where our mattress was laid on a papyrus mat on the dry cow-dung floor and mice were skittering over us by night. A true definition of tough life for a city girl like me!

Mind you, I grew up in a village myself, in Kasenda amidst the pretty crater lakes of western Uganda. But when I was seven years old I moved to the town of Fort Portal to study. And later on I would even make it to the capital, thinking that poor lifestyle was behind me … only to come back full circle, to my utter dismay! But I stood strong, because I loved my muzungu and believed in his ideas — you know what they say about love …

Around Kasenda we had many Bakiga, and I knew them as hardworking people who didn’t know how to be polite, how to respect one’s privacy or how to not eat excessively. My mum wouldn’t allow me to dine at others’ houses, so I hadn’t tasted their unpeeled potatoes that, years later, were Headmaster Stanley’s signature dish at Lake Bunyonyi.

I was embarrassed to show these conditions to a group of schoolmates that we took to Bufuka in March 2002. These were members of the Edirisa student and staff club at Uganda Martyrs and they made the trip to mark the completion of the “Lake Bunyonyi through Children’s Eyes” project — again something that you see in the featured photo.

We had encouraged pupils from several primary schools to ask their relatives about Bunyonyi legends, history and other stories. We translated them and eventually photocopied the first ever Edirisa booklet. This is how the world learned about the wicked tale of Upside Down island!

The Legend of the Upside Down Island

A curious legend has it that a group of twenty men were brewing sorghum beer on the island when an old lady passing through asked for a sip. They rudely refused her and told her to “Get lost!”. She then asked for someone to take her to the mainland, to which they agreed as they wanted to get rid of her. When a young man delivered her to the mainland and was starting to return, the island turned upside down drowning all the brewers… The only survivor was a chicken that flew away!

The student team led by George Mukasa and composed of Baine Aneurin, Ellen Steen, Emmanuel Mulo, Emmanuel Tugume, Joan Kalagala, Marieke Hebinck, Paul Mutanga, Paula Ganyiyo, Prossy Mbambu and myself (Ambrose Kibuuka and Joe Sengooba couldn’t make it) slept on Far Out island just opposite Bufuka. The colourful hotelier, Nicolas Jelkemo, was so kind to offer us a free stay at his resort, making the first island night for many of us truly special. It was horribly cold and dark but the fireplace and the music kept our spirits high. Another plus was tasting the Bunyonyi delicacy, crayfish!

The following day we met the Bufuka community and different dignitaries from the district at the award ceremony for “Lake Bunyonyi through Children’s Eyes” winners. The turnout was impressive.

That was also the opportunity for Miha to explain his Heart of Edirisa concept that was to take place on Bufuka Primary School land … The ideas were well received and local parents soon helped level the hilly plots that laid only a couple of metres from the lakeshore.

Several weeks later, a couple of mud structures had been erected for the first volunteers to arrive — but I am leaving that chapter to one of them to relive next week!

Click here for Part III of the series or check all Edirisa/Gorilla Highlands history stories out.


  1. A nice reflection on where it all began. This is a rich history of idealistic involvement by Miha, someone who respects the culture and loves the land, written by Pamela who joined in on these initial ventures. Kudos to you both.

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