The Survivor

Julius Wetala of Coffee Tours on the Edirisa tree house platform; photo by Miha Logar

Julius Wetala of Coffee Tours on the Edirisa tree house platform; photo by Miha Logar

Confined to my house for a little too long, I was excited when Julius Wetala WhatsApped me one recent Sunday morning, wondering if I was around. He was with a lady mortally afraid of the lake (as most Ugandans unfortunately are), so it took a while for them to be convinced that you don’t necessarily need to use a boat to reach the Gorilla Highlands HQ.

I call him Wetala because I like that name. If you are not from Africa, you may ask why I am calling a friend by his surname instead of the first name, so let’s get this out of the way: the non-Christian name in Uganda and Rwanda is not the family name. It’s the African name. Some fathers pass it on to their children, creating a family name in the process, but that is rare in rural areas. Most brothers and sisters share no surname.

Julius (oh yes, I will also use “Julius” because I strive for variety in my writing) is 37 years old and originally from Eastern Uganda. He suffered from a long time illness at the age of 11, and was unable to take his Primary Leaving exams. He had to reapply, and that is when he changed his name to “Wetala”, a “survivor”. That name goes back to his dad, actually, who was one of only three children who survived in a family of 10, the rest succumbing to sicknesses, so he became “Wetala”. Wetala Senior therefore named Wetala Junior -almost like a family name.

They were coffee farmers for generations. Julius, however, didn’t get seriously into the nitty-gritty before 2003 when he was emplyed by a tea factory. He was introduced to tea tasting and that led to coffee tasting and three months in a coffee lab.

His formal education was otherwise accounting. He got employed by the Israelis building the motorway from Kampala to the borders of Rwanda and Congo. He lasted three years before getting fed up with his bosses “uncoordinated working methods” and lack of interest in Wetala’s ideas how to improve them. My family lived in Nkozi at the time, close to the road route, and that is how the connection was made.

Some years later I met Wetala in Kisoro; he had requested to see me to share his tourism plans. USAID, the organisation he had worked for, had no understanding for his thinking.

As an USAID business manager he was meant to help farmers in Kisoro introduce improved coffee, organic farming and good handling of produce. During his walks around the area, touched by the beauty and encouraged by the closeness of two national parks, he came up with a proposal to link coffee with tourism. His proposal was rejected and thus he decided to go alone.

Coffee Tours was born. In March 2012 Wetala got his first client, a traveller and photographer Piercarlo Smith. Piercarlo was impressed by what he saw and began supporting Julius’s work; he still translates for Coffee Tours and caters for Italian guests. Some years later I got a chance to become a supporter too… After some clients here and there I took a Press Trip group to Wetala and finally put Coffee Tours onto the East African Playgrounds Gorilla Trek itinerary.

It is quite amazing what I can do with the fact that 100-150 English students go through my hands every summer. Those numbers can actually make a difference. During their 4-day trek I can direct them towards Gorilla Highlands partners who offer something special, boosting their businesses.

So it was great to finally get Wetala to our place at Lake Bunyonyi, to get out of my room, sit on the tree house platform above the lake surface and chat about how lousy the last two years have been for Ugandan tourism. Even better, he could give some assessment of the gifted Slovenian coffee as we sipped it: “Not enough aroma, slightly bitter taste”.

Then we got an Italian to chip in! Sirio Zabberoni, part of the team working on the legendary never-finished documentary about a legendary island, soon arrived by motorboat. Moreover, Cassie R. Cullins, an American traveller, was expected later that day.

From my solitude I was thus thrown straight into global humanity… At a lakeshore at 1,950 metres, close to the centre of the African continent. I felt how much I loved my life.

Tomorrow we will hear from Cassie how she liked sharing it with the boys of Edirisa…

text: Miha Logar

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