First Volunteers & Pet Pests (Lake Bunyonyi 2003)

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

Are we really going to Uganda for 12 months?! It did look like that … Return tickets for exactly one year were bought, Lariams were in our backpacks and already causing havoc in our bodies (oh, how vivid the dreams were after taking this antimarial drug!), and a visa for a couple of months was sorted out.

So off we went, Jaka Burger and I, from cold Slovenia to “hot” Uganda … Well, at least to us it seemed hot, though considering how many layers of clothes locals had on, it seemed cold to them. (By the end of our stay we would be close to being dressed like them — that’s how the human body adapts to a country’s climate).

Miha mentally prepared us for basic living conditions … but I really didn’t expect such simplicity! On the wooden floorboards in the principal’s house, we very quickly became popular flea hosts. Interestingly enough, they bit only around the waist where the elastic from the underpants seemed to invite them. Well, our flea customers got exterminated eventually and the scratching did stop. Not to be allowed any boredom, we regularly enjoyed the nightly fun with our roommate rats. Jaka shared a story about one that would wake him up by night, doing circles in a plastic basin, and then look at him rather annoyed when he pointed his torch in that direction!

After a couple of weeks of “suffering” we got used to the nocturnal negatives, and when we moved into the newly built cottages for Edirisa staff, it was like coming to a Hilton Hotel. But even our new home’s Hilton reception — the canteen built for mingling with other staff and guests — was not immune to pests. The termites had their fun with us, which again led to the purchase of necessary chemicals.

Our purpose in going to Africa was more or less a much needed escape from the dour Slovenian reality. Despite being from the same town, Jaka and I didn’t know each other well beforehand, but by the end of our volunteering stint we knew each other perhaps too well. Our job was to help with the Multimedia Canteen, an information point for tourists and a social place for locals. It boasted satellite radio, movies played on a laptop screen powered by car batteries, books and more.

We were initially kept busy adding finishing touches to what local carpenters built. Then we made Edirisa’s first signposts, constructed the big papyrus heart that could be seen from afar when you were paddling on the lake, and assisted with building the shower, toilet and an additional cottage. All together it became quite a nice place, but only for day visitors as no overnight accommodations for guests were planned at that stage. This was The Heart of Edirisa, the global centre in an African village.

Occasionally we would get the company of other volunteers. In the photo below you see Lise MacDermott from England who painted a big computer on the Bufuka Primary School wall. To be more exact: we magnified a school girl’s drawing, the winner of a competition we organised. The idea was to reward a child who demonstrated a creative approach as most pupils just copied from each other and from the books they had available — that is what schools in Uganda promote, copy-pasting. After the painting was completed, a school assembly was organised in front of it, the young artist received a nice prize and we explained the importance of creativity. Well, soon after that we found teachers bringing children to that wall to … copy the artwork into their notebooks!

My attempt to set up a scout unit was only that, an attempt. I also did grocery shopping for our team in the nearby town of Kabale. But most attractively for me, I got involved in a shared project between Edirisa and Byoona Amagara, a backpacker island retreat — drawing a map of Lake Bunyonyi. The boss of Amagara, Jason Gerber, was a difficult man who wasn’t happy with my topographical approach; he wanted more of a tourist map. But I am still quite proud of the product. Using very old maps and a basic GPS I walked and recorded practically every path that the lake ever had. I visited most of the islands and ended up with a map at a world-unique scale of 1: 29,400, or, even better, 1: 35,714 when it was completed and printed! (Maps are usually 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 meaning that one metre on the map is 25,000 or 50,000 metres in real life.)

Most of the time, Jaka and I were busy with various small projects, but there was also enough time for getting to know the rest of Uganda. In addition to a trip with my father and brother who came to visit, the most memorable one was a backpacking adventure with a nearly 100-year-old gentleman, Miha’s friend Miloš Miović. Moving around with the oldest Slovenian scout was quite a challenge but also a unique experience.

Towards the end of my stay, I went on a hike from Bunyonyi to Kampala, and covered about 340 km (211 miles) in eight days. What a fair walk and a nice experience! I felt like an early explorer, and I still have fond memories of that adventure when I look into my notebook diary, complete with many pictures and drawings. I also reminisce about the marijuana cookies we made with Jaka, the sugar cane we chewed, the green mamba I saw above my head while rafting the Nile, the UFO that paid us a visit, the day we were in a national newspaper … great times.

Jaka and I discovered that days were passing slowly but months very quickly. We were not to leave the place unattended as Miha’s third hometown long-term volunteer, Dunja Jezeršek, joined us to keep the ball bouncing. She would go on to initiate swimming classes for primary school children and start Edirisa African Smiles, a sponsorship program to support the kids of Bufuka Primary School — and wider. Seeing all was in good hands, the two of us returned to the familiar, far less colorful confines of Slovenian life.

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


  1. Matjaz and Jaka – “Edirisa’s originals” together we braved Edirisa’s sweet and sour beginnings! Jaka Jaka Jaka! Had vivid explanations of everything in his Sloveen- English ( yah we always fought about the language – English vs Sloveen vs Rukiga.
    Would be nice to meet again with you guys and all the volunteers! Lovely memories Matjaz, thanks ?

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