Travelling in Uganda | Soul Searching

Rwenzori MountainsRwenzori Mountains
Information on Eco-tourism in Uganda. When Palusi smiles, her entire face lights up. She smiles with her being, exuding a rare fulfilment. Her joy is palpable, indicating the elusive sense of satisfaction that comes from doing something you are passionate about, something good and meaningful.Palusi lives at the foot of Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains. In theory her work is simple — she owns and operates a tourist campsite and self-catering cottages beside a beautiful crater lake — but her efforts are far-reaching. She has planted over 1000 eucalyptus trees for a renewable forest to provide firewood; the community is welcome to use her gravity-fed water system at any time. She has galvanised local women into creating handicrafts that are sold on site and all the staff employed at Crater Valley Kibale campsite are from the community.Recently her efforts were noticed and she was awarded the Arch of Europe Gold Category award for her part in environmental and community conservation. She still doesn't know who nominated her and couldn't accept the award in person (the airfare to Frankfurt exceeds her budget), but she doesn't mind. Maybe she'll go next year, but right now she has work to do, founding an association of women from the community to address salient issues like education, healthcare and trading. Meanwhile, tourists from America, Europe, Australasia and Africa enjoy the views and the warm, sunny welcome.Palusi is an active member of the Uganda Community Tourism Association (UCOTA), established in 1998 to support numerous small community-based tourism ventures scattered throughout the country. Members range from the wetlands conservation group which makes beautiful woven furniture and baskets from papyrus and water hyacinth, to the guides who lead mountain walking tours to visit a revered medicine man. Campgrounds and bandas outside several national parks offer tourists alternative (and cheaper) feel-good accommodation. All members have the community at the heart of their operations.Conservation in Uganda is beginning to mean much more than wildlife and habitats. It also means people, heritage, culture and tradition — a more holistic view. Further east in Kampala, Ronald Mutebi, the current Kabaka (King) of Uganda's Baganda tribe, has reason to smile. Not long ago Uganda's kingdoms were abolished by a nefarious dictator, but a sense of pride in one's heritage is a difficult emotion to suppress and several kingdoms have since been reinstated. Concerned by the impending erosion of Uganda's heritage, and with assistance from UK-based Action for Conservation through Tourism (ACT), the Kabaka conceived what have become known as "Heritage Trails". This series of tourist sites showcases the country's diverse heritage and in doing so, protects it.A year ago surveys were conducted among tour operators, citizens, schools and resident expatriates to determine which of the many potential sites in the Buganda kingdom were most suitable for inclusion. From many suggestions, ranging from coronation sites, shrines and battlefields, to tombs and places of contemplation, six were selected and the surrounding communities trained and motivated to keep their culture alive. Proceeds from tourism go straight back into the "guardian community". Interpretative guides lead tourists and tell the rich stories attached to each site. Some places have dress codes and sacred areas where people may not tread; these traditions are respected.The surveys also yielded an alarming statistic: while the older members of the Baganda tribe were well informed about their heritage and culture, and familiar with traditions and legends, the younger generation were not. Their cultural identity was severely eroded. Kabaka Mutebi's timing could not have been better. "The Kabaka's Trail", the first of the Heritage Trails, was launched in November 2001 and a recommendation has now been made to Uganda's Ministry of Education to re-introduce cultural studies to the curriculum.Now an established NGO, Heritage Trails is in the process of selecting sites in other Ugandan kingdoms. The shortlist is fascinating, including ancient rock paintings, archaeological earthworks, ceremonial circumcision grounds, pygmy caves and healing hot springs. There are palace ruins, medicinal gardens, a "mystery tree" and a memorial stone commemorating the blood-brother ceremony between Stanley and the Prince of Ankole. These sites are scattered around the country and representatives of the various kingdoms deliberate the selection. More focus groups will be held with stakeholders to ensure that it is fair and that the new sites have the potential to be self-sustaining. It's a long, involved process but the benefits are enormous: cultural pride, the preservation of heritage and a richer, more fulfilling experience for the tourist. People are back in the picture.Contributor: Pamela Kertland Wright
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