Community Tourism, Uganda - Irish Times, July 9 2011
Living with the locals in Uganda
It’s friendly, affordable and a way to see some of the most beautiful places on earth. Community tourism is win-win, writes MANCHÁN MAGAN after a trip to AfricaTHE TAXI drops you at the end of an umber-hued mud track. Ahead are the soaring interlocking spurs of the Rwenzori Mountains, the myth-shrouded Mountains of the Moon. All you can see are their massive blue bellies and shoulders soaring up into a veil of grey mist. They are called Mountains of the Moon because only at night do they reveal themselves, like great vampires baring themselves to the stars. Steam rises from the lush undergrowth that covers every inch of the valley in a rococo profusion of tropical verdancy. The Irish should be accustomed to greenness, but foliage of this diversity and fecundity is intimidating.
A woman carrying a clay pot of water on her head points you in the direction of the Ruboni Community Camp, her face, to your surprise, breaks into a beam of gratitude. What’s she so happy about? It turns out that her sister works there, and her sons benefit from the school sponsorship programme that the camp funds, while other members of her community are reaping rewards from the tree nursery project and the animal husbandry scheme.
The woman repositions the water on her head and leads you up through the mess of mossy hardwoods and bromeliad fronds to a long wooden lodge with a large balcony overlooking the mountains. She introduces you to the staff who bring passion fruit juice and a bowl of pineapple for you as you sit back into a cushioned bench on the veranda to hear about the various services they offer. Guest cabins with views across the mountains cost €8.50 per night, while elegant safari tents with even better views go for €5. Home-grown meals are around €2.50 and there are guided hikes available for €6.70. Suddenly you realise you’re going to be happy here. It’s one of those places that will be hard to leave. This is the beauty of community tourism – affordable, friendly and offering access to areas that would otherwise be off-limits.
Ruboni Community Camp is a guesthouse, restaurant and trekking enterprise situated in the most beautiful spot of a hidden valley that leads into the Rwenzori National Park. In marked contrast to most other tourist enterprises in Uganda which are run by white ex-pats, or rich black entrepreneurs from the cities, Ruboni camp is run by the Bakonzo tribe who have inhabited the region for over 300 years having been chased from their original jungle home by a more bellicose tribe. The food is all grown locally by friends and family. The walking trails are through hilly rainforest that these people have known all their lives. They can tell you the multiple uses of each flower, leaf and bark, the flight path of each bird and grunts of each animal.
Their territory runs up to Rwenzori National Park, allowing access to a landscape that is as rich in wildlife and vegetation as the park, but does not require the payment of $70-a-day (€48) park fees.
This is what community tourism is all about. A win-win situation, where you get to visit some of the most beautiful places on earth and eat the best food for a fraction of what you’d pay in a normal hotel, while the community gets to benefit far more than they ever would from a foreign-run enterprise.
The various development schemes that the camp funds have been selected by the community themselves to focus on their greatest needs – their child-sponsorship scheme is funding 37 of the brightest Bakonzo children to attend private school. With teacher-pupil ratios in government schools of one teacher per 120 children, a private secondary education is vital for a real chance at advancement. And what a formerly hunter-gatherer tribe like the Bakonzo need is educated young people capable of leading them through the many challenges ahead.
Just down the road from Ruboni on the valley floor is a bland, concrete hotel charging €70 for a room with no view. I could have stayed there and been served badly-made approximations of Western food by uninterested staff who were desperate to extract tips from me to supplement their meagre wage. Their website and e-mail address would have been far easier to find than Ruboni’s. And, in fact most people who do come to the area stay there. It’s why the reputation of tourist facilities in Africa is often so poor; apart that is, from the few snazzy five-star developments.
I signed up for a village tour at €6.80, and spent the afternoon wandering around the homes of the local blacksmith, herbal healer and basket weaver, guided by a Bakonzo youth.
By far my most interesting encounter was with the village seanchaí – an octogenarian former warrior who shared with me his frustration with the government’s policy that was converting his old hunting ground into a national park. He claimed to have grown weak from the lack of wild animal meat in his diet, but nevertheless was proud to think that this land would be preserved for future generations. Brandishing his spear, he recalled with fondness, the lions, monkeys and enemy tribesmen it had killed, and went on to explain the death and marriage rituals of his people and the great tribal war that first sent his ancestors fleeing here centuries ago. I spent four wonderful days getting to know the Bakonzo people and exploring their stretch of paradise.
Although I was right at the gates of Rwenzori National Park, a unique mountainous bogland ecosystem stretching over the highest mountain range in Africa, I never went trekking into them – the chance of seeing rare heathers, orchids and high-montane forests wasn’t alluring enough to face wading through thigh-deep bog in constant rain or fog.
Leaving the camp to visit other community tourism projects might have proved a logistical problem in other countries, but public transport is so extensive and ubiquitous in Uganda that even in the most remote areas all one ever needs to do is stick out one’s thumb and within minutes a scooter, minivan or bus will pick you up. I walked down the track from Ruboni and hopped on a scooter which brought me the 7km to the nearest tarmac road, from where I got a minibus to Fort Portal, the nearest town, and onwards into the gorgeous Crater Lakes area – a lushly forested region of emerald blue volcanic lakes surrounded by tea plantations and wild mango, papaya, banana and ebony trees.
I was heading to John Tinka’s Homestay – a type of BB where you stay in the family compound, getting as involved with the daily chores of grain milling, manioc pounding, fruit collecting as you wish. The owner, John Tinka, was at a community tourism meeting in Kampala, but his extensive family were extraordinarily hospitable and spoke perfect English which immediately circumvented the awkwardness that occasionally accompanies such things. The family were intelligent, insightful, but most especially humorous. I spent most of my two days there laughing with them.
While John Tinka’s wife and daughters spent their days concocting and cooking wonderful meals in a kitchen that was little more than a piece of reed matting on the baked earth, I spent time with the two youngest sons who escorted me around the village, filling me in on all the local gossip: who had which magic talismans and where they hid them when the priest came calling, what rituals were necessary before a man could sleep with his friend’s wife (it involved smearing blood from both men on a coffee bean and chewing it), and the secrets to how a teenager living in a one-room shack could manage to sneak out to all-night parties without letting their parents know.
Although, I am as partial to luxury travel as anyone, this for me was a dream holiday. I’ve always been entranced by African life, and regretted having to occasionally experience it from behind the tinted glass of an air-conditioned jeep. This was an opportunity to really connect with a humorous, intelligent, open-minded family, and to gorge myself on the food they typically eat – a mix of spinach, peanuts, mangos, chickpeas, corn, chillies and various herbs.
After dinner each evening, the family gathered around the fire to sing and dance until late in the night. I got to experience all of this for €14 a night – a proportion of which went to local community projects.
Lying directly between Tinka’s farm and the Kibale Forest National Park is an intensely bio-diverse and beautiful stretch of wilderness called the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary which was set up by a visionary Peace Corps volunteer as a way of helping to conserve ecology and cultural heritage through ecotourism. Early in the morning an armed wildlife ranger led me out across narrow boardwalks into the swamp which was teaming with parrots, cranes, turacos and most especially monkeys – red colobus, grey-cheeked mangabeys, olive baboons, blue, velvet and red-tailed monkeys. The entry fee I paid supports the local secondary school and helps compensate families for crop raiding by monkeys and other wild animals.
Uganda Community Tourism Association (UCOTA) has projects such as those listed above throughout all of the most picturesque areas of the country. These may not offer the retro-colonial splendour of the best safari lodges but they cost a fraction of the price and provide a far more authentic experience. Not only are people not being exploited in pursuit of your Out of Africa fantasy, but you are directly helping to break down barriers between cultures, and connecting with some of the world’s most forgotten people.
Uganda where to . . .
All the places Manchán Magan stayed in can be contacted though UCOTA (Uganda Community Tourism Association) P.O.Box 27159, Kampala, Uganda. Tel: +256-414501866, ucota.or.ug
Felex Kamalha, the efficient and honest head of UCOTA, has his own tour company: Rainforest Community Tours at PO Box 320, Kases. Tel: 00-256-774-195859 or see rainforestuganda.org.
Backpackers Kampala, a campsite and hostel in beautiful gardens in Kampala. Nice private rooms for €16. Provides a unique life experience for the non-backpacker! See backpackers.co.ug.
The Backpackers Place, Entebbe, elegant colonial guesthouse in lush gardens, rooms from €10. See entebbebackpackers.com.
Ruwenzori View, Fort Portal. A Dutch-run guesthouse. Great breakfasts. BB €18. See ruwenzoriview.com.
Dublin to Entebbe, Uganda from €700 on Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) or on Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com). Ethiopian Airlines’ Irish agent can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or tel 01-6633938.* This article was supported with a grant from Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund. For more on community tourism in Africa see Magan’s World this week.