In November 2009 my hubby and I were on our way back to South Africa after 14 months living in Kenya. To end an amazing adventure in style we decided to go gorilla trekking in the Impenetrable Forest (accessible only by foot) at Bwindi in Uganda. A friend from South Africa was visiting us in Kenya at the time and so decided to join us on our detour to Uganda. Upon arrival, after the 45 minute flight from Nairobi, we made our way across beautiful Kampala via a hotel that had messed up our booking to the Hotel Rooch where we ended up staying. Although we all agreed the hotel’s name was uncomfortably close to “roach”, it was very good value for money and staffed with very friendly, kind and helpful people. Early the next morning we met our tour guide, Farouk, and started the day-long drive across the entire country, through the Queen Elizabeth National Park and on to Bwindi. Immediately we were impressed by how efficiently the traffic ran and even though the row of cars in front of us seemed endless it caused very little delay (unlike Nairobi, London, Johannesburg or New York!) and we were soon on our way. Our first stop was at the equator where in addition to taking the mandatory touristy photos with the Equator sign we also did a little shopping at a local craft centre. After spending time in Kenya we were immediately struck by the lack of hecklers, no one was hassling us, no one telling us sob stories as motivation for buying their goods and certainly no fighting between vendors. All were (justifiably) proud artists who had set prices clearly marked on all their goods and you could buy or not – simply demand and supply of quality goods, no charity needed or accepted here.
An easy, relaxing, and very pleasant drive later we arrived in Bwindi just as the sun was setting and knew instantly we were in for an unforgettable adventure of a lifetime! We were surrounded by thick, green, lush forests and every now and then a clearing had been made and a home created. It wasn’t long however before the forest starting claiming its space back and the houses (please note houses NOT shacks) just disappeared into the trees. There was a village that was abuzz with the usual activities of that time of the day – adults heading home from work, often via a shop or two, the kids playing in the streets and a large amount of catching up between the villagers who all knew each other’s names. And then there was a smell. A clean fresh smell of nature that you just do not get until you are far far away from any sort of industrial activity to areas where humans have not yet started to change the environment on a large scale industrial sort of way. This was the only place on earth (so far) where I have smelt that smell. It was all these things and so much more that made Bwindi immediately impressive.
Bwindi is locally managed and governed but the area’s people work in partnership with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to ensure the area’s biggest resources (the forests and gorillas) are not only preserved but managed for the benefit of all. Managing protected areas with ‘community’ participation is one of the key strategies of the UWA management style as laid out in the Uganda Wildlife Policy (Republic of Uganda 1999).The gorilla permit at the time was US$500 (worth every cent) and this money is spent on much more than just the staff costs, admin, the gorillas or the forest itself. How do I know this? Because we were shown! That’s part of the deal: you see the gorillas and then you see the village that enables the gorillas to still be there, as well as how they have adapted their society’s activities and methods to ensure preservation of the environment. This does mean that the forests and gorillas need to subsidise village needs that would usually be funded by activities that are limited because of their existence. But that’s ok because they do! The money clearly goes straight to the thriving community, no corruption since the finances are all public, and just a few examples of what this has led to which we actually saw were:
- The Bwindi Community Hospital which is not only run with gorilla permit funds but was built with them too. The hospital provides healthcare to over 40000 locals and visiting tourists if required. The hospital is small but state of the art.
- The provision of infrastructure, health and education services to the formally re-located but then not re-settled Batwa people
- Maintenance of all roads in the area – which although not great, would be impassable if it were not for the daily efforts of locals
- The Bwindi Primary School, the building of which was funded and is maintained through gorilla permit revenue.
The management of this area surely has some issues, but which are in the world doesn’t! Anyway truly successful people see constant room for improvement regardless of success. However this system is as close to perfect as I have seen anywhere else in the world. The area as a whole is thriving and developing. It flies in the face of the African stereotypes of corrupt officials, dysfunctional societies with no or poor healthcare and education systems, non-participatory governance and a general inability to be successful. Please be clear these are not my perceptions but ones I encounter all the time – hence me writing this blog in the first place.
I haven’t even started telling you about our visit to the witch doctor, also an engineer, who is very clear on what he can help with and when not refers people to the local clinic. Or the banana breweries pioneering new products and markets. Or the criminals who, thanks to a local initiative, are made to work on farms that provide food back to the communities they committed crimes against.
And so while I really don’t want to get into a debate about the validity, accuracy or efficiency etc. of Kony 2012 I do want to highlight another side of Uganda. I don’t know exactly who is guilty of what in that whole saga but I do know that all of what I have written above is true because it was my experience. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues but it is certainly not (or at least not all by a LONG shot) the war-torn, dysfunctional country of starving gun-carrying children some now believe it is. The country and its innovative and entrepreneurial people are so much more. I do hope people will listen to my personal experience of efficient, fun, safe (yes it was safe, even to walk around Kampala at 04:00 in the morning!) and exciting Uganda but I don’t expect this to sway you on its own – in fact please don’t let it! All facts and opinions should be verifiable by other sources and so my next blog will be an infographic with some good news about Uganda in the form of hard numbers. If you haven’t yet thought twice about the current portrayal of Uganda, hopefully these two blogs will encourage you to…