Miles of Smiles (Bunyonyi & Kabale 2007)

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

Year 2007 was that breakpoint year for me, when I decided that the Western world just doesn’t have that much to offer to better my state of mind. I felt that Africa might be a good idea for a year or so. And because just being a tourist for a long time is probably not that mentally healthy, I was looking for a volunteering opportunity during my disconnection from Europe. And I found one — Edirisa. “Sure, come down here! You can stay for as long as you want!” They sounded enthusiastic enough so I thought I should give it a go for a month or two … or three … that eventually became ten. How did that happen?

When you first start living in Africa, not just traveling and taking pictures of lions, but actually living, you soon realise that things are dramatic there. The same goes for Uganda. And of course Edirisa. We can find extremes here — in the beauty of nature, the sincerity and honesty of the people, the corruption … and even in the expertise that you soon realise you possess!


2007 was also the year of a rather astonishing story that began with a British reality TV show and ended with Teach Inn, a volunteer hostel deep in the village. Edirisa got the job of orienting and supporting Teach Inn volunteers supplied by a UK company called i-to-i. For more about it please see the hilarious, odd and completely unforgettable Noah’s Blog in our archives.

My journey began with LFA (Learn From Africa), Edirisa’s introductory course to the continent, described in detail at the end of David’s last week’s story. Seven eager Westerners did LFA in what could only be described as a run-down pimp bus that has seen better days, muddling through bad roads from Kampala, ever so slowly, then several hundred miles to the southwest of the country.

After some days of honeymoon and the red soil of equatorial Uganda, our bus windows revealed our new home, the muddy district of Kabale. Miha, our leader, had a grand plan for each of us. And as I said earlier, there is nothing average about Edirisa — the volunteering jobs waiting for us had pretty grand titles. Almost all of us were soon the head or manager of this and that (pictured below: Sampo Olkinuora from Finland who took over multimedia production).

My job after a while became managing Edirisa African Smiles, the section dealing with sponsorships of children in two schools at Lake Bunyonyi and running a nursery school. I had spent some good years working in schools in Slovenia as a teacher and thought I might do just fine. But did I?

Waking up with the lake view, at The Heart of Edirisa, is amazing. But crawling out of a mosquito net on a lower bunk bed is a bit less romantic. The morning routine usually meant one of two options: an outdoor shower (usually cold), or jumping in the lake with some soap and taking a morning swim. Then, after breakfast, heading up to school.

Just above Edirisa’s mud cottages, mostly inhabited by volunteers, are the classrooms of Bufuka Primary School. They are overcrowded with barefoot children in red sweaters. Classrooms are filled with bad air brought on by 50 or more kids sitting in a room designed for 20. But they are all really excited to be there. They seem to like coming to school, despite strict teachers who are not shy about swinging a cane.

The pupils especially love activities with volunteers because it means nobody is going to shout at them. It also means we might bring some new materials to play with that encourage creativity. And they often do. Sometimes we bring new equipment, like balls, from sponsors. Then you can see a flock of boys running after one ball in the lunch recess. Not a team of 11, which is kind of standard for football (soccer) but maybe 20 plus. From a distance they seem like a cloud of red bees.

The football playground above the school is a bit of a challenge in itself. One side is very much up the hill. I once asked the boys from our local staff why not just get a tractor and level it. They gave me a rough number in shillings of how much that idea would cost. Once I deducted many zeros and turned shillings into dollars or euros … hmmm … “Nevermind boys, we’ll keep it up the hill on one side and call it special!”

At the end of the school year we would take a few of primary school kids on a school trip. The journey to Kampala is a ride that at best of times takes about eight hours. Most children have never been to the big city, so it’s quite an adventure for them. But how to select who goes? We only have space for about 16, no more. The teachers insist that school grades should be the deciding factor.

Enthusiastic Western volunteers don’t agree. We think that kindness, helping your friends and such, would be a much better criteria. Western mind frame meets African teachers’ mind frame … it doesn’t seem there is much common ground here. At the end we make some sort of compromise and manage to name 16 students from Bufuka Primary School. But we don’t take the Bufuka teachers. (And that could be the beginning of a story for another time.)

Now, Edirisa’s budget is of course limited and therefore we can’t afford taking kids to a proper lunch during those long eight plus hours to Kampala. So we plan a picnic lunch. We need fresh chapatis. But not the regular ones, we prefer the fluffy ones that really fill your stomach and can only be found in one bakery in town, Hot Loaf, opposite The Home of Edirisa. So, a couple of us call ourselves organisers and go to town on Friday to place an order.

We go in a bit early just to be sure they would be able to make them.

“I need 40 chapatis on Tuesday morning, around 8 o’clock.”

The man at the counter answers, “Come by on Monday to order.”

My British colleague Nathalie Ward jumps into slightly angry persona mode and answers back, “Not Monday, I want them fresh on Tuesday!”

“I know,” says the man, “but come on Monday to make your order.”

“But I’m ordering now,” explains Nathalie.

“But I might forget,” he reasons.

“Well, write it down!”

“I might lose the paper.”

And since you can’t argue with that logic, we come back to order on Monday and sure enough the chapati are nice, fresh and hot on Tuesday.

The trip to Kampala was far more interesting than usual. Although sitting in the front seat, next to a driver can be a bit of an adrenalin sport that is not recommended … So Martin, Edirisa’s artist, occupies that one.

Close to Kampala one of the girls says she needs to pee urgently. Where to stop now? The suburbs of the capital city are overcrowded because of CHOGM. Unless you come from a Commonwealth country, I sincerely doubt you have ever heard of that ordeal. Or even if you do come from one of them. CHOGM is a meeting of leaders of Commonwealth countries that Uganda is part of. For a lot of people it means business opportunity. But for us it just meant that all electricity disappeared from Kabale and that we were stuck in traffic with no toilet options.

After some fifteen minutes we finally found a place to stop. But Doris, our nursery school teacher, says, “No need, she already peed in this cavera!” A cavera is a plastic bag for groceries. A 12-year-old girl peed into that bag, during a mini bus/van ride on a very bumpy road, in her skirt uniform, without peeing on herself?! Now that is the lifetime skill that none of us Westerners possess!

The trip was lovely. We spent the night in a hostel in the middle of the Entebbe zoo that is actually the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre, and it was by all standards amazing. It may not be easy to sleep while lions are roaring at midnight, but it is definitely unique. And the guide for our educational lesson was one of the best teachers I have ever met, ever. Enthusiastic, full of knowledge and a person who genuinely liked working with kids — always a desired (though often rare) trait in teachers. After a few more visits around Kampala we headed off on another adrenaline ride (read: no light on the mini bus in the dark) back to Kabale.

My work for Edirisa Smiles also included: negotiating with primary school teachers that corporal punishment may not be the way to educate; counting the bricks on the new building site of a second nursery; making sure that the money was properly spent (there’s another long story here, waiting to be told); freezing in the lake while trying to teach Bufuka kids to swim on a new swimming platform; being summoned to the local head of Church of Uganda because one of our teachers was not married in church but had a child with her common-law husband … You get the idea.

“Running Smiles” was my general job description. It eventually also became renovating The Heart while preparing and organising the fifth anniversary of Edirisa. And if you had a good enough camera and an interest in photography, you might just become the photographer of Edirisa Crafts! Which I did, for a short time (we did offer some amazing products). And I was a canoe trekking guide too. For a little while again.

It was a wild ride (literally) from the village of Bukufa to the town of Kabale. The best transport you could hope for was a boda boda, sitting on the back seat of a motorcycle. At least once a week we would take a break, stretch our legs and check some emails at The Home of Edirisa, the cute little colorful hostel, with probably the best pizza in town.

You can see that something is different about it at first glance. The design, the colours of the building just don’t match the rest of the town. It kind of sticks out. In a good way. Then Miha explains that this is the work of a young Slovenian (but of course) designer Samo Ačko.

When you enter, you usually meet Ovan at the orange reception counter. With cold drinks waiting, if we are lucky. A few steps forward opens the view of the rest of the weirdly shaped, but definitely made cosy, building. The restaurant with modern Ugandan art on the walls and the entrance to the small Bakiga museum. If you continue through the hall, you find yourself in a blue workshop, a place where Edirisa’s Macs live and sometimes volunteers sleep. And just a few steps further is the kitchen, with our always smiling cook, Stidia. This is the epicentre of fresh gossip, most of it sadly in Rukiga, the language I’ve been listening for almost a year but can’t remember much more than “Agandi!”

And after you ask Stidia for chips with guacamole, a Hawaiian pizza or a giant samosa, stretching legs up at the comfy Nest lounge above is just the thing you need. With wifi, can you believe it?! In 2007! In Kabale! Well, not always perfect, with electricity shortages (fricking CHOGM!), but none the less, wifi.

The Home of Edirisa is the place, where you say “hi!” to volunteering life, but also “farewell” — and that for me came in June 2008.

photo of The Home facade by Andrea Stultiens

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


  1. That’s the Edirisa I knew and loved, B. Thanks for bringing it all back. A fabulous moment in time. Maybe we’ll share a Waragi and Crest in the Nest some day.

    1. Amazingly, thank you very much B for sharing this and for the Big support you gave us “sponsored students “

Comments are closed.