Imagine losing everything, your memories, your souvenirs, your little life fragments of ten years … It was 2012 and I was packing up to leave Sydney for yet another adventure into the unknown. I decided I should get rid of all my possessions, except my traveling backpack and another medium-sized suitcase containing all the most valuable items gathered over the previous decade. All my diaries, a necklace given to me by a Ugandan tribal chief, a Masai dagger, a painting from Zambian friends, hard drives containing all photos and documents, letters, … So many interesting things of no real monetary value. I entrusted this “time box” to one of my best friends, sure he would keep it safe. When I returned three years later, I was first told I could pick it up, but when I turned up at his place, he had no idea where it could be!
Without that stuff, without the pictures and mementos, trying to remember what took place at Lake Bunyonyi in 2006 isn’t that easy at all. But what happened happened, and letting things go, was definitely one of the lessons I learned in Africa. Even though I haven’t been back to the magical continent for 15 years, I think about my experiences there often and the lessons learned help me every day. You don’t need a big palace to be happy — all you need is a small mudbrick house, living in the moment with a smile on your face.
I had wanted to go to Africa since I was a small kid, looking through books and maps and reading about wild places. So for me, it was completely normal to pack my bags at 18 and leave with a one-way ticket for Dar-es-Salam, the Tanzanian business hub on the Indian Ocean, with USD 500 in my left shoe. I read an article in a Slovenian magazine about Edirisa and their work and got interested. I contacted Miha, and he was more than happy to get extra hands on deck. I was meant to stay for a couple of months and ended up staying almost a year.
Israeli, Tired of Travel
Edirisa was still in its early days, and we were doing so many exciting things! Luka Kotnik was the “top dog”, the volunteer veteran, and was almost at the end of his stint. He had been around for a long while and knew the place and people pretty well. We did weekly motorbike rides to Kabale town for supplies and took many walks over the neighbouring hills. And there were more and more volunteers coming to our lakeside enclave from all over the world.
One of these was Tom Gal, an Israeli kibbutznik. He had worked in Ethiopia for four months, travelled there for two more, then found his way through Kenya to Uganda. He got tired of backpacking and while at Edirisa, he decided to stay on. He was an extremely practical man — as Israelis tend to be — who skillfully installed the newly purchased solar panels and changed our lives.
Tom and I shared the Magic Mushroom Cottage, thus named because of the peculiar shape of its grass-thatched roof. It had been built with the simplest of tools and materials, mud + cow dung + hay. I do hope it’s still there, as it quickly became one of my favourite mud homes ever! We painted the walls and made ourselves a very homey home, and occasionally hosted other folks as well — it had two bunk beds, so there was always room for more.
We took regular night canoe trips to local drinking spots, with stars above us so bright that it looked like Lake Bunyonyi had millions of lights installed under the surface.
Indian Congo Adventure
On one of those night’s outings, we met some Indian UN guys on holidays in Uganda, but who otherwise worked in the neighboring DR Congo. They were peacekeepers, stationed in Goma. Over a few drinks, they told us about the situation there and invited us to visit. Tom and I took advantage of the opportunity. A few weeks later we got on the bikes and made a trip through Kisoro to the eastern borders of Congo.
I had always wanted to go there and it didn’t disappoint. The Uganda/Congo border alone was hectic, and if it hadn’t been for our friends to help us, I don’t know what would have happened. A few dollars lighter, we started driving towards Goma. After only a few kilometers, we got stopped at a roadblock and were told that the visa we had bought 15 minutes ago was not valid and we needed to pay another fifty dollars. We bargained it down to five bucks and a couple of packs of smokes. The second time our journey was interrupted it cost us ten bucks and four packs. After that, we learned to cover our skin and faces and go as quick as possible before they saw us coming.
We arrived in the late evening at the Goma UN base. The whole place was heavily fortified, and the surroundings weren’t very appealing, with a few open fires and dodgy-looking guys checking us out. I knocked on the front gates and got a wary reply from the watchtower: what we are doing there?! They wouldn’t let us in and our friends seemed to be away that night.
We made a quick exit and tried the only other people I knew there. The Slovenian Catholic missionaries had a compound a few kilometres away, thank God! They were happy to see us and we were allowed to stay there. That night you could see traces of rockets flying in the distance.
The next day we made a contact with our UN friends and were allowed to come and stay there in the officer’s quarters and they showed us around. They were great hosts and had amazing food and drinks. They even took us for a trip around the town in one of their armoured carriers. After a few days of boozing around, we tried to see where we could go from there. Everywhere we looked on the map was met with negative answers, everything being too dangerous without armed escort, or the road impassable. Another solution was flying west but with Congo’s poor aviation record I wasn’t very keen on that option.
So, we took the only trip we could at the time, and that was south to a town called Bukavu, using a ferry. After a beautiful ride on Lake Kivu, we arrived in this once-bustling port town only to be pulled aside and told straight away that we were only allowed to stay in one or two places in town.
The hotel where we were taken was previously a grand hotel, but unfortunately was not anymore. There were extra “ventilation holes“ in the walls from the war, no running water or stable electricity, and was still charging premium rates. We couldn’t afford to stay there long, and we returned to Uganda as soon as possible.
My main function at Edirisa was running a swimming program. Being a swimmer since my early days, and having some prior experience teaching swimming, that was a natural way to go. When I arrived, the lessons for Bufuka Primary School were already going on but there was a big need for more.
The problem with Lake Bunyonyi is that it gets deep very quickly and there aren’t many shallow spots to learn from. Kids in Uganda have to start working young and some of them used to fall in while fetching water. Drowning was a real threat.
There were another nine schools in the vicinity, and we wanted to include other children in the mix. I paddled in the dugout canoe to all the schools, sat down with the headmasters, and came up with a schedule that would include as many children as we could possibly manage. We had about six different classes every day and we only taught them the basics. When we were teaching, we noticed a few kids being natural with swimming, so the idea was born to try to teach a few local kids a bit more about water safety and train them to be their communities’ lifesavers. We even played with the idea of creating a lake-wide early drowning detection system, where there would be alarm stations around the lake, and when triggered a speed boat would be sent to that location and try to rescue whoever was in trouble.
An ambitious related project was to build a better jetty and a great swimming area for the Bufuka school kids. We were doing a lot of swimming lessons with a lot of kids and needed a better place. This is how the floating pontoon pool was born, as a swim destination.
Pizza Boys and the Globe
Another task that Tom and I got entrusted with was improving culinary delights at The Home of Edirisa in Kabale town. Until recently, we had only served simple fast food staples but with the steady influx of foreign tourists and with our room offers expanding, we decided it was time to introduce pizzas. We built an oven, trained the local staff, and the result was a big success for visitors and Kabaleans alike. Not to ignore the needs of volunteers at Lake Bunyonyi, we then dug a simple oven-hole into the wall next to the Canteen at The Heart of Edirisa and had regular pizza production there too.
Geography had always been my interest, and I thought it would be a nice touch to add a huge clay globe to the Bufuka Primary School compound. Led by Martin Aijuka, we created an awesome Earth sculpture with all the continents, then added a sign indicating direction and distances to famous places around the world.
There was also the Learn From Africa program, our orientation for incoming volunteers, that I helped organise. In fact, Tom was one of its participants! But instead of talking about it myself, let the ladies do it — at the very end of my writeup.
Busy with all these things, I didn’t get involved much with the new Edirisa Nursery School building. However, it so happened that the lady who set up the first teacher team, Nicole Savage Done from Australia, came in a package with a videographer hubby, Charlie. He would not only polish up The Bakiga documentary but also make the video above that nicely summarises everything that mattered.
Let me share one last adventure! When I got a visitor from my hometown, Jure, we hired a beat-up Toyota Corolla and obtained an extra passenger among our volunteers, Rajka. We headed out for a week’s trip towards Queen Elizabeth National Park. Because the Corolla is not meant to be used as a safari off-road vehicle, we promptly ruptured the brake cables and had to drive 300 km back only with the hand brake and the help of the engine. Thankfully the traffic was light!
Being young and broke hadn’t stopped us from driving around the massive park without a guide, or even a proper map. At one stage we noticed a cute baby elephant that crossed our path. So we stopped and admired the beautiful creature, till his mother showed up. She was the biggest elephant I had ever seen, easily as high as three cars on top of each other! We reversed out of that situation as fast as we could …
After this encounter and a close contact with a hippo family, we decided a swim was what we needed to relax. The river was out of question (full of crocodiles and other dangers), but there was a super fancy resort in the park, with an infinity pool overlooking a massive waterhole, where you could be looking at animals and enjoying a beer. We dusted off, grabbed some towels, and pretended we were guests of that upscale resort. After a refreshing swim and a cold beer, we quickly disappeared back to our trusty and rusty Toyota.
Unforgettable, as was the whole year with Edirisa!
LEARN FROM AFRICA PROGRAM — FOUR PARTICIPANTS’ RECOLLECTIONS
Friedi Winkler (Austria):
My Learn from Africa (LFA) experience was the best thing ever, a great and clever program. For many Europeans, Africa is still a huge unknown mass. It was and remains important to bring the continent, the countries and the inhabitants closer to young people.
Although I had already made many trips to African countries before starting my volunteer service, I was impressed by the LFA concept. The direct contact with the local people, their history, their problems and their pleasure were wonderful experiences. There were touching moments — the conversation with the woman who had been abandoned on an island because she had become pregnant without being married, the visit to the Batwa, who are deprived of their forests and thus livelihood — curious moments — the traditional healer asked for an ointment for his sore eye —happy moments — the festivities with the villagers — and there were of course the special moments — preparing dinner with my hostess in the kitchen hut with laughter, discussions and considerations (hint: never forget to stir the bean sauce simmering on the open fire)!
Beyond LFA itself, what I learned from Africa is that you never have to worry. Every problem finds a solution or it turns out that your problem does not really exist. What always warms my heart when I think back of those days is the cheerful serenity of the locals.
All in all, I remember my time at Edirisa in 2006 very, very fondly. For six months I gave swimming lessons for kids and adults, organised workshops at the primary school in Bufuka, experienced village life and was part of the fabulous team of volunteers from different nations. At that time I was already around 50 years old and it was a special pleasure to spend time with young people. Not only the evening parties, but also the safaris to national parks, the legendary Rwenzori trekking tour, and so on. All are great memories!
Below are some selected passages from LFA diaries written by Rajka Miović (Slovenia), Cat Grainger (UK) and Alenka Čebular (Slovenia). Other participants of that LFA were Christina Minichberger (Austria), James Erickson (USA), Pip Haigh (UK) and Tom Gal (Israel).
6 March 2006
Rajka: We got up late, had a long breakfast, then went on tour around Kabale, under manager Anthony’s guidance. We walked down the main street, around the market and up the hill to White Horse Inn, then back down to The Home, where we had a luscious lunch. Personally, I felt strangely empowered — almost enthusiastic — by the increased number of m’zungus [white people] around me.
Cat: We started this day in Kabale Town, watching The Bakiga documentary, which made an interesting point about the people of Kabale and Lake Bunyonyi losing their traditions in favour of a more westernised view of life, where sadly money is on most people’s minds. The day ended at Lake Bunyonyi; Miha and David took Pip and me to our hut on the Kyabahinga peninsula, which had an amazing view! We had dinner with our host family and introduced ourselves, then sang some songs. The kids came up to our hut to play cards.
7 March 2006
Rajka: I woke up at a usual time — 7 am — and began the day with my usual tea and chapati. I was soon joined by Tom. Since David was still in Kabale, we were the only two people in the canteen, plus Ruthie and Hilda in the kitchen. The enthusiasm over being joined by so many m’zungus was soon over; I now wished there were none around me. Tom seems somehow less disturbing — perhaps because he is not really western — or it’s just the matter of his character (very flexible). Within about an hour we moved over to Fabith’s place [Fabith was one of Edirisa’s first staff, and she now hosted LFA participants in an Edirisa hut built next to her house], where we found Christina and Jim both ready to “dig” [turn over soil], each in their own way. We all followed Fabith to her field. She seemed very amused, almost as much as her neighbours, who saw her accompanied by four whites with hoes on their shoulders. Probably the funniest one was Jim, a short rather reserved American guy, sporting a black baseball cap and dark sunglasses. He added a pair of earphones with loud disco sounds to his “I am out of here” gear, digging his patch at a safe distance from Christina, Fabith, Tom and myself who were getting involved in a series of interesting conversations.
[Tom and Rajka then went to interview locals of the Kyabahinga peninsula — an LFA program item.]
Rajka: We were lucky that day and the Kyabahinga folks were extremely helpful. The story was wholly different with people in Bufuka Village. It seemed as though they had almost had enough of us. This also showed later that evening, at a “drinking party” at Fabith’s place. No one seemed to be too happy to have us there, or too motivated to have a party; they gulped the beer and then literally forced the children to dance for us.
Cat: The party was great and I felt really happy and welcome and even joined in the dancing. Later on Tom canoed Pip, Christina and me to Kyabahinga in the dark. On the other side we slowly found our way up the hill.
8 March 2006
Rajka: I like rowing. It is calming and meditative. So I really enjoyed the long way from Edirisa to Bushara Island and then to the place of the Batwa. The walk from Kyevu market to the village was not too long but was extremely muddy. I found having local porters rather amusing: it made me feel as though I was going on a real expedition, like the ones you see in movies or magazines. We were on a three-day “Canoe Safari” [now called Canoe Trekking], meaning we were officially tourists, and I considered that to be permission to act stupid when you feel like it. Maybe I had been somewhat infected by Jim’s American-style sarcasm and David’s ironic egocentrism (i. e. laziness of a kind). Anyways, I don’t like being a tourist. It’s a short-term thrill.
9 March 2006
Rajka: During our hiking over the mountains we were constantly escorted by local children. We were too tired to be bothered by their shouts and moans of “give me my money”, “I am money”, “how are you” or, simply, “aro” (meaning hello). At one point, a man came and chased them away with a stick; afterwards we were followed by the man with a stick and a long line of giggling children behind him. Eventually they all grew tired and returned to their homes — and we continued down the narrow path along the slope, enjoying fantastic views. It was still bright when we arrived at Habukomi Island. Our nightwatchman Tom, who welcomed us there with his large family, had recently lost his son to the lake. The young man, around 20 years old, had drowned mysteriously one night. It took a week for his body to be discovered.
10 March 2006
Rajka: At least 20 children were sitting in two rows on benches, like in a theatre, observing us crawling out of the tents we’d put up in their yard. The most amusing was Tom (the one from Israel, not from Habukomi) in his one-person worm-style purple tent. I think the children woke up about 20 minutes before us and took their seats from which they would not move until every last of us had washed, brushed and was sitting at the breakfast table; then they turned 90 degrees to observe us eating.
Cat: In the morning we walked around the island and through the swamp where we saw pelicans and crested cranes quite close. We canoed along to see the so-called Upside Down Island and then went to Nature’s Prime Island to lunch and finally back to Edirisa. That night at our Mama’s at Kyabahinga Pip and I learned how to say “a cup of water” and some other Rukiga words — written here phonetically!
11 March 2006
Cat: We spent the day learning how to make handcrafts! I wanted to get some privacy to read my book, so Jim and I canoed to Bunyonyi Overland. I had culture shock when I saw white people in bikinis and speedos!
13 March 2006
Cat: We had a big meeting with Miha and discussed future plans, workshops and the second week of LFA.
14 March 2006
Alenka: Meeting P6 (Primary Six) — first workshop at school. Subject: geography. The children were very shy and didn’t dare to speak loudly, even if they knew the correct answer.
Cat: I helped a group of girls learn how to use the atlas and it felt good to be in the school, helping out at last!
Alenka: In P3, Adrian from Voice of Kigezi was a special guest. He introduced radio work to the kids and then recorded some materials with them. In the evening there was a party at Kyabahinga, at the family home where Pip and Cat were staying.
15 March 2006
Alenka: Birdwatching in the morning. It was a perfect morning. I felt I really had to learn how to deal with the canoe to be able to explore the lake. Before and after lunch Headmaster Stanley distributed gifts from sponsors. I took photos of this event that was all about new pencils, notebooks and soap. I was later told that the whole village was dancing when kids brought soap home.
Cat: We walked up the steep hill to see the traditional healer who wore a crazy hat and often changed his story!
16 March 2006
Cat: We had a discussion with Stanley and his deputy Mbabazi about Africa and Uganda, learned about history and had a general chat. I felt that the key to African development was education and travel, as it may help locals appreciate their country.
17 March 2006
Alenka: A very nice gesture from a nursery school in Slovenia — they had sent toys for our little ones. The children were very happy to get a toy, although they basically didn’t know what to do with it. The interesting thing was to see how the dolls were distributed to both girls and boys, what we would never have done in “our” world. Some would argue that it doesn’t matter as long as a kid gets something to play with, and I agree. Why did it matter back home?!
18 March 2006
Cat: We waited in our hut before descending the hill because it was raining heavily! We made our way down the hill successfully but it was very slippery and we had to go barefoot! Two kids from our host family helped us down and they found the experience highly amusing. We spent the day preparing food for the party at night. We had a feast and enjoyed the Amaraka dancers and singers. Mama’s kids’ come to canoe us home, for the last night of our LFA.