AdvEntURe @ Amasiko Community Based Eco-Camp, Southwestern Uganda

View from the Amasiko peninsula, Lake Bunyonyi (Uganda)

Uganda's Lake Bunyonyi has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Sprawling through valleys created by southwestern Uganda's very old volcanic mountains, it's said to be Africa's deepest lake. Mountains caught in the middle become islands, large and small. I've been told there are over 100 of them, mostly family owned and terraced to grow crops which are ferried by canoe to a small dockside market near the main road to Kabale, South Western Uganda's largest town.

My family has a decade of gorgeous memories from weekends spent at Lake Bunyonyi. It was the ladies in these mountains who originally inspired what would become the Life in Africa logo, almost 10 years ago, and there is an energy there that calls us back every 2-3 years. We've stayed at many places on the lake. This past weekend, we visited the future site of a wonderful community based eco-tourism project that our old family friend Wilfried van der Veen is developing there.

Wilfried, his his adopted daughter Viona and his partner "Nice" (pictured above, that's her real name!) have spearheaded the establishment of an Association for community development called Amasiko, which means "hope" in the local Bakiga language. So far, the association has purchased 12 small lakeside agricultural plots at the tip of a peninsula in Lake Bunyonyi, easily accessible from the main road to Kisoro - a popular gorilla tracking destination at the Rwandan border, about 60 km away. Since kids under 15 aren't allowed on the mountain gorilla trips, the site could offer families an affordable place to stay where parents could safely leave their kids in a supervised eco-learning environment, while the grown-ups spend the day tracking in Kisoro.

Abroad, the site could be promoted as an organic retreat facility for groups and/or individuals who participate in alternative communities of practice like ECOlonie and others in Europe which Wilfried has ties with. The plan is that proceeds from the eco-tourism and organic farming activities will not only sustain the site's operations, but also finance additional projects in the neighborhood that they will invite the local Bakiga community to design. Friends in Holland have established a foundation that can help raise additional funds for community-developed projects. What Amasiko needs most right now is to get the eco-tourism site ready for visitors and volunteers.

Identifying a source of funding for some basic construction has been Wilfried's main occupation for the past year or so. After a recent trip to Europe he's hopeful but still essentially empty-handed. This week, he's taking up residence at the site to start planting some organic plots and doing what else he can to the landscape, until his promising leads on funds for construction start to come through.

I have a lot of faith in Wilfried. I've known him for 10 of the 19 years he's been in Uganda. He was actually a good friend of the kids' dad in grade school. Shortly after we moved to Uganda, their parents ran into each other randomly in Holland after years of not keeping in touch, and discovered the coincidence of their sons both being in Uganda. Wilfried showed up at his old friend's office unannounced within a couple of days, and has been like a part of our family ever since. Like me, he loves to explore the cutting edge of new ideas in holistic approaches to development. What he's shared with me from his experiences with alternative community building techniques like appreciative inquiry, and personal healing approaches like The Journey have had a major impact in shaping some of my own project ideas.

Wilfried first came to Uganda as an agriculturalist, so when N. and I needed help with a plan for developing our farm project, we hired him as a consultant. I knew his report was good when we then traveled to Thailand to witness sufficiency economy based farming methods practiced by the Asoke communities there, and saw some of Wilfried's key recommendations in practice (like planting a biofuel producing hedge-crop called jatropha, for example.) While he was with us at our farm, we also talked a lot about his plans for Amasiko. It was always clear to me that there were a lot of parallels in terms of what we wanted to accomplish. Now that I've been to see what he's got to work with, I find my mind involuntarily puzzling through ways that I might get more involved. Ally? Promoter? Investor? Partner? Any of the above is fine with the kids, of course, as long as we also get to be occasional visitors. They had a great time!

In How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, David Bornstein concludes that all of the truly innovative social entrepreneurs he studied had a very personal story that led them to discover the unique impact they could make. That's the part that anchors my faith in Wilfried. His vision for the ultimate impact he's out to make with Amasiko is about helping troubled girls, and it comes through his personal story as Viona's adopted dad.

Though Wilfried has never fathered a child, circumstances brought the orphaned Viona into his life about 10 years ago and gave him the chance to excel at fatherhood. By engaging Viona in his life as an active explorer of innovative personal healing and community empowerment approaches, he has watched her blossom from an orphaned, abused and withdrawn child into a hopeful, intelligent and outgoing young woman with extraordinary insights into other people's needs. She's now in Senior Secondary school (S5) and has plans to study social work in the Netherlands. The Amasiko project is her dream too.

When the full scope of Wilfried and his daughter's dreams come to pass, the Amasiko Community Based Eco-Camp will offer a haven where orphaned or abused girls and young women like Viona was can come for a while to work, receive hands on training in sustainable living and hospitality skills, heal their emotional wounds, and come to life - as adults at peace with themselves and well prepared to make an impact in their own homes and communities, wherever they later go.

As it happens, life's circumstances have also brought an orphaned girl into my own care. Through my experience with her and with some of the children I've worked with through Life in Africa, I have also seen first hand how culture and traumatic circumstances clash very often in the lives of girls and young women in Uganda, to quash any sense of self they may have once had. Wilfried and Viona's compulsion to help girls in emotional challenging circumstances find the best in themselves is something I can really relate to. It's a great idea.

The more I think about how this project fits together with my own passions and convictions, the more excited I become at the prospect of investing of myself in it in some way. What shape and form that might take is what remains to be puzzled through - Wilfried and I talked a lot last weekend, and my still head reels with ideas. I somehow doubt this will be the last time I talk about it here.

Meanwhile, should any of you party guests be on your way to Uganda an want to pay the Amasiko Community Based Eco-Camp a visit, let me know and I'll do what I can to help arrange it!

To you, Wilfried, Nice, (and Viona who we didn't see this time) thank you for an absolutely wonderful weekend, and hats off for your family's vision and meaningful dedication to creating such a very special kind of "hope" in your little piece of heaven on earth. From the bottom of my heart I wish for you nothing but blessings and success in achieving your beautiful dreams.

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