Thank You, Thank You, Thank You (Bunyonyi & Kabale 2008)

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

My Edirisa story begins with Learn From Africa (see Danger Dave’s story about 2006), the volunteer orientation that brought interesting visitors to my village.

I would call the moment “from grass to grace”. It was in March 2008 and I was 18 years of age. My Grandma and I were cultivating sorghum at our home on the Kyabahinga peninsula, the place I now call the top of the world. This is where everyone visits to take in the great view of Lake Bunyonyi and its major islands.

I saw some Bazungu (Whites) led by a local guide coming towards me as they tried to capture the best photo of the lake.

“Agandi? Ndigye.” (“How are you? I’m fine.”) we greeted each other and waved.

The local guide was called Moses Nkurunungi, he was working with Edirisa, and right now leading Maja, Vojko and Aljoša from Slovenia, a small country in Europe with only two million people, and Biserka, a Slovenian from neighbouring Italy.

Moses Nkurunungi (smiling) and Martin Aijuka Depories with Edirisa’s visitors

Moses asked me if the guests could join Grandma and me. We welcomed them to participate in digging with a hoe and they saw how my Mukaaka (Grandmother) was scattering sorghum seeds. They were there to Learn From Africa, and they were eager. A short time later our sister brought us lunch in the field and Grandma asked her to go back and bring some spoons … Normally in the garden we just eat with hands but she wanted proper utensils for our special guests from Europe.

The lunch menu had sweet potatoes, bean sauce and pumpkins. Who knew Bazungu could eat such foods? They liked it surely! Moses told us that these are volunteers at The Heart of Edirisa, across the lake, and they would be staying there for some months.

Vojko Balantič in the centre, Maja Strbad second from right

As we ate, one of the volunteers named Vojko asked why I was not studying. “You are a young boy, Owen, who should be at school now,” he said.

In fact, I was in ‘O’ Level (Ordinary Level) vacation, waiting for my Dad to sell a piece of land in order to raise some school fees. I shared with Vojko what was delaying my return to school for ‘A’ Level (Advanced Level) but he insisted that I should proceed with my education. He wrote his phone contact on a piece of paper and gave it to me to call him in two days.

The Heart of Edirisa in 2008

But who had a cell phone in our village those days?! Of course no one …. Instead I went to Edirisa at Bufuka myself to pay a visit to Vojko and his friends.

The Heart of Edirisa was a base for international volunteers and local staff. Unique and colorful traditional huts accommodated young and less young people from all over the world. The Lake House house was special because of its location right over the water but the Canteen was the centre point. Everybody gathered there during meal times and it had an unusual huge window (with time I came to know the logic behind that window and the name Edirisa). The Mushroom Hut above the Canteen also was part of volunteer accommodation, while Miha’s Flower House at the same time acted as a storage for camping and trekking gear. The Sun House at the very top — named so because it was built outside of the forest to host solar panels — is where Vojko and Maja stayed. The two other rooms were reserved for local staff members.

The Canteen at The Heart of Edirisa

Ha! It was a struggle to see Vojko … The locals at Edirisa ignored me and couldn’t imagine why a small boy wanted to speak to Vojko who was by then the Project Manager. I kept behind the Canteen, talking to the artist Martin Aijuka Depories (thank you, Martin, for being welcoming to a young stranger) and that is where Biserka saw me on her way to take a swim. She immediately came towards me and took me to the guy I was looking for.

Vojko and Maja welcomed me with big hugs, and ordered me my first ever African tea with chapatis. They went swimming in the lake and later we took a dugout canoe to Bunyonyi Overland Camp for some internet and computer work. Arriving at Overland, Maja asked me what I would like to drink and soon a ginger Stoney soda was on the table. Then the very very good and surprising news came — Vojko told me that his Mother was going to pay for my school fees! Thus Vojko became my sponsor. I was very happy and I celebrated because it didn’t previously cross my mind that Vojko would want to support me in any way.

Next was lunch and my very first pizza to taste. I will never forget my first pizza day! I liked the meat on the pizza but cheese was a problem and I didn’t want my friends to know that. I tried small small bites and finally I managed to finish the whole thing! Today I love pizza but fresh cheese is still not my preference, so I am just like many other Bunyonyi locals.

What a joyful and great weekend it was!

On Monday I woke up very early, excited to go to school. My young brother Jasper gave me a hand with my luggage, down to the shores of the lake. A local canoe helped me cross to the other side, to the market of Rutinda, at a fee of UGX 200.

I left my school belongings with Auntie Kedress at her Rutinda local hotel (we call “hotel” places where you can eat, not sleep) and walked the 20 minutes to Edirisa.

When Vojko and Maja saw me, they immediately called a special hire car (a cab) to come pick me up. It was nobody else but the legendary Boy D (David) who collected us with a car and took us down to the special cozy Home of Edirisa in Kabale Town.

The Home of Edirisa in 2008, with the mother of all Pocket Guides

Heavy breakfast at The Home was served, and our next goal would be shopping for school. Vojko and Maja took me to Opex Printers for all school type materials. They found second hand clothes, and went to supermarkets and everywhere else shopping for me.

Again a hired car took us from Kabale to Ntungamo, 48km/30mi away along Kabale-Mbarara road, in the direction of Kampala. I was back to my school. The director gave us a warm welcome and invited us to his office. He had a good chat with Vojko and Maja. My sponsors were given a tour of the school and the bursar handled everything financially. At breaktime the school canteen was free and open for all students on Vojko’s bill!

After sorting me out, Maja and Vojko left everybody speaking in tongues, I mean excited and talking about my sponsors. They went back to Lake Bunyonyi, but kept paying me occasional visits at school. (I can’t thank you enough, guys!)

Over the holidays I was asked to come to The Heart of Edirisa on the lake, together with other sponsored students. We spent the time helping volunteers in translation, cleaning the compound, doing some repairs, cooking, eating, swimming, playing football etc. We also participated in Edirisa canoe treks, working as paddlers (canoe boys). This activity earned us some pocket money and skills at the same time. At the end of it all, school supplies and fees were provided.

I was very lucky when Vojko asked me if I was okay with the school or if we could change to a better and closer school in Kabale, easing his visitations. I welcomed and supported his idea, and next term I joined a new school of my choice.

After the end of my secondary schooling I wanted to learn computer skills and the only way to study computer was to move to Kabale Town. I approached The Home manager, Nelco, and shared with him my computer skills interest. I told him I was going to learn computer from the Mpambara Cox Foundation some minutes away, and asked for help. I had a big need to get somewhere to stay during my learning sessions.

“Can I volunteer here, Mr. Manager, and go for computer study one hour a day?” I asked. Then the manager replied to me, “We are looking for a cleaner. Do you think you can manage that job and we pay you at the end of the month instead of just volunteering?” I said, “Yes Sir!” This was another chapter — from a student to an employee! (Thank you very much, Nelco).

My cleaning job paid me a lot, educated me to a higher level, and helped me get a promotion to be a purchaser for The Home. From this entry point I started training and learning how to guide. I was allowed to work with our main guides during canoe treks in the Gorilla Highlands, and that was something I was proud of.

University time found me very busy, happily enjoying The Home of Edirisa with some coins in the pocket, but my big wish was to continue my studies. I thought it was the end of Owen’s good time at Edirisa. I left the place quietly and reported at the Uganda Christian University, Kabale Branch.

Miha, the founder and director of Edirisa, came from Kampala some months later but couldn’t find me around. He was told that I went to school but he insisted to meet me.

Miha Logar in 2008 — we need to own our styling mistakes

He told me to find him at White Horse Inn, the big hotel overlooking Kabale. He asked me why I had left without telling even the manager. He asked me where I stayed and how my timetable at school was. He advised me how I could still work as I studied. He asked the manager to allow me to continue at The Home and give me enough time to keep attending university classes. He even asked the manager to pay me for the previous months when I was not working. (Thank you very much, Miha).

Later on, I was promoted to work as a supervisor, and taking this role at the young age, while being a student at the campus, wasn’t easy — but the Creator helped me. After my Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Administration (Finance Department), I was now given a role of financial controller — call it accountant — and I enjoyed doing the job.

But to speak the truth, I don’t really like accounting as it bores a lot. Guiding is my favorite thing on the planet. Why? You learn new things every day, meet and make new friends and enjoy cultural exchanges!

Jon Lee in 2011 — he has been assisting Owen through the years, most recently with Covid food relief

Edirisa has built me to what I’m today and I must thank all friends, staff, volunteers I have met and worked with at Edirisa and in the Gorilla Highlands Initiative. If Edirisa wasn’t in existence, where could I have met Vojko and Maja, Aljoša, Biserika, Moses, Jon and many many others.

Thank you very much, Vojko, thank you very much, Miha, thank you very much, Jon Lee!

featured photo by Marcus Westberg, others from the Edirisa archives

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