I fell in love with Uganda when I landed there in 1973, fresh from graduate school. Steeped in Pan-Africanism, I had come to do my share. The Ministry of Education assigned me to Nyakasura Senior Secondary School, a renowned coed boarding school in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains — the locals call them Mountains of the Moon — about 4 miles from Fort Portal town in Toro Kingdom. A retired Scottish naval officer founded Nyakasura in 1926 and to this day the Scottish kilt is its uniform.
Last November, I returned to Uganda for the first time in 40 years, this time for the Africa Travel Association’s 39th Annual Congress, themed “Tourism Is Everybody’s Business.” For host Uganda, it was an opportunity to show off the strides it had made in promoting tourism and the contribution of tourism to socio-economic development under the Destination Uganda campaign.
Driven by the Uganda Tourism Board and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, tourism has become Uganda’s main foreign exchange earner, with receipts of $1.4 billion and more than 1.2 million visitors in 2013. The government elevated the sector 10 years ago under its Vision 2040 national development plan with the creation of the ministry. In terms of gross domestic product, tourism now ranks in importance with oil, energy, finance and agriculture, and is “gearing for position number one,” boasted Tourism Minister Maria Mutagamba, Ph.D.
In the three days preceding the Nov. 11–16 Congress and the three days after, I traveled with tour operator Around Africa Safaris from west to east in the land that is home to more than half of the world’s gorillas, 10 national parks, more than a thousand species of birds and three UNESCO World Heritage sites. I crossed the equator, recalling the first time I had done so with my parents four decades before. Resurrecting my local empaako (pet name), Abwooli — given to me by the gardener I inherited from my English predecessor at Nyakasura — and the Rutooro and Luganda greetings I had not forgotten, I renewed my love of Uganda country and its proud, soft-spoken, slow-to-anger people that I had come to know in a period many still deem the most infamous in its history. For me back then, in the cool balm of the picturesque Rwenzori, 200 miles from Kampala, the capital, and the politics of Idi Amin Dada’s regime, I learned much about myself as a human being and as a young Guyanese-American woman of African descent experiencing Africa for the first time, with nothing to remind me of the way I had lived in Guyana or the United States; and neither family, corporation, nonprofit, nor embassy for a shield.
Progress had come to Uganda in 40 years, with tourism receipts footing some of the bill. I saw solar panels of all sizes lining the red earth beside the main road of a rural town, on sale. They are popular for private use, even in traditional thatched dwellings.
My Destination Uganda experience began with the long drive from the Congress venue at Speke Resort Munyonyo, Uganda’s leading five-star resort, to Kyaninga Lodge, in the very western region I once called home. Built six years ago and comprising more than a thousand eucalyptus logs and thatch, it took six years to erect this architectural feat high above the ancient volcanic crater lake and village from which it takes its name, with the spectacular Mountains of the Moon in the background. The lodge was the vision of English master carpenter and owner Steve Williams. “He would drive his tractor to wherever he would reach within three hours and back, every day. People in town started calling him a crazy musungu [‘foreigner’ or ‘white man’]. They didn’t even know what he was doing,” the manager recounted as my colleagues and I enjoyed lunch in the main building, with its blazing fireplace, rain streams on plate-glass windows and magnificent views of the lake, mountains and lush vegetation.
From there, we visited the Rubona Basket Weavers Association, a project of the United Nations Development Program, with technical assistance from the World Tourism Organization, to bring more tourism benefit to local communities through micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and jobs. Here, women weave colorful baskets of every size and shape, using grass and plant dyes they prepare themselves. Tourists can buy them at the association’s shop.
We spent two nights at the luxury Mweya Safari Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda’s preeminent wildlife haven. I hardly recognized it from my 1973 visit. Daytime brought game drives in the park, along the Katunguru Channel Tracks and looping trails, and on the Kasenyi Plains; along the Crater Lake Drive with a stop at Baboon Cliffs Lookout; and a boat ride on the Kazinga Channel that links Lake George and Lake Edward in the Albertine Rift Valley. It was an eye feast of elephants, buffalo, warthogs, lions, birds of all kinds, and on the channel, hippos.
We visited Katwe Village and Katwe Salt Lake, where salt is still mined the way it was in the 16th century. A German company attempted to modernize the processing, only to see its machinery eroded by salt. The towering heap of rust stands witness to the company’s spectacular failure. A short walk away, thousands of pink flamingos adorned Lake Munyenyange in their annual August-to-November meetup.
Returning to Kampala, we stopped at Rwenzori Founders Art Centre, an artisan shop and repository of Uganda’s finest works in bronze — prices begin at US$1,000 — cradled in 60 idyllic acres below the rolling Rwenzori. “We’ve been known for wood carving, a little bit of stone carving, a little bit of clay, but nothing really in bronze. So we tried to bring a new thing to Uganda and we wanted our artists to embrace this new thing,” said Emmanuel Basaza, the center’s director.
Lunch at Rwenzori View Guest House in Fort Portal, a small family-run property in the Boma suburb of Fort Portal, included the best gazpacho I had eaten since my student days in Spain. I could not be in Fort Portal without seeing Nyakasura. Our tour leader, a colleague from Italy, and I peeled away to allow me 20 memories-swamped minutes on the campus. My two-bedroom cottage, with its expansive garden, had been torn down. The building being erected would serve the students.
We arrived in traffic-strangled Kampala in time to buy bags of Ugandan coffee at 1000 Cups Coffee House and souvenirs at the Arts and Craft village across the street before they closed for the night.
Still experiencing Destination Uganda, we drove east to Jinja, Uganda’s second-largest town and second-largest commercial center after Kampala. Here, the Nile River begins its journey to the Mediterranean Sea. We planted trees. Conservation is a big deal in a country where trees too often mean firewood, and poaching for ivory tusks and exotic animals and birds is still widespread. No matter how much oil is discovered, Uganda’s “sensitivity atlas,” forbids any kind of infrastructure in ecologically sensitive areas, such as a breeding ground for cranes or in migration corridors.
Conservation is evident in national parks where oil companies were required to replant vegetation they had dug up during exploration; in the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary for “white” rhinos — a misnomer for the “wide”-mouth variation (one of the rhinos was named Obama because its father came from Kenya and its mother from a zoo in the United States); at Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake; and at Entebbe Zoo, where the tall, sky-blue shoebill — a stork so named because its beak resembles Dutch clogs — walks in peace, and where school children learn about coexisting with animals and birds. In partnership with the United States, Uganda will spend $10 million over the next four years on biodiversity conservation.
Entertainment in Jinja was a raucously cheered race of dugout canoes on the Nile, a slow cruise to the very source of the river, and lunch at the Jinja Sailing Club overlooking the Nile.
We headed northwest to Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest, spending the night at Samiya Safari Lodge, where electricity is provided by generator from 5:00 a.m., or the earliest wake-up call, to 7:00 a.m., and from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and by solar power in between. Early in the morning, we crossed the River Nile by ferry — a daily roll-on/roll-off barge service operated on a fixed schedule by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority — to enter the park on the Paraa Safari Lodge side. “Special crossing is charged separately,” a sign warns. The crossing area is a breeding ground for fish and men come out at night for illegal fishing. The Paraa Marine Ranger Station, funded and equipped by the Uganda Conservation Foundation, keeps careful watch.
Although the park is still recovering from a massacre of its wildlife by poachers and troops in the 1970s, giraffe were in abundance, staring at us coolly through sloe eyes and super-long lashes. There were plenty of hartebeest, Uganda kobs, patas monkeys, waterbuck, elephants, maribou storks and myriad other bird species. We marveled at the corridors of borassus palms that mark the food trail of migrant elephants. The elephants scatter the seeds of the palms in their dung as they lumber across the vast savannah. On their return, they shake the grown trees for the pulpy nuts they enjoy. We climbed to the top of Murchison Falls, chased after rhinos, and gaped at a pride of lions chilling in the shade after a night of plunder.
Awaiting the ferry in the evening, we were entertained with music by the Mubako Community Group artists, led by a blind youth on the harp-like adungu. They play at the ferry stop every day for tips.
Heading back to Kampala, we lunched at Kabalega Restaurant in historic Masindi Hotel. Built in 1923 by The East Africa Railways and Harbours Co., Masindi is the oldest hotel in Uganda. Author Ernest Hemingway stayed there, as did Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart when they filmed “The African Queen.”
Uganda tourism is a work in progress. There is need for investment in affordable accommodation, heritage sites, marinas and water activities. Like Nyakasura School, the caves in Fort Portal, with their splendid stalactites and stalagmites, are not listed among tourist attractions. They were a hiding place for locals when British slavers came through. Forty years ago, a youngster who worked for me in exchange for school fees took me through these caves. I hope they will become a heritage feature in Destination Uganda.