Tourism is one of Uganda’s most important sectors, contributing almost 10% of GDP, accounting for more than 8% of employment, and acting as a “goodwill ambassador” for the country to show itself off to the more than one-million foreigners who arrive each year. Uganda certainly has a lot to offer, from luxury hotels in Kampala, to beach clubs on the shores of Lake Victoria, and adrenalin-pumping bungee jumping over the source of the Nile. Ugandans are proud of our beautiful country, and tourism is a wonderful way for us to share the beauty of Uganda with the world. But wouldn’t it be nice to give tourists an authentic view into the real Uganda? A new type of tourism offering is doing exactly that, offering homestays, farm stays and community-based tourism.
Imagine the rolling verdant hills of the Ugandan homestead, banana plants growing as far as the eye can see, singers from a local church group welcoming you, and your hosts warmly offer you millet drink and hospitality before showing you to your traditionally appointed room. This is authentic Uganda, the one thing that until recently, tourism money couldn’t buy.
COBATI is Uganda’s leading community-based tourism initiative. Started by Maria Baryamujura in 1998, the unique tourism offering helps Ugandan communities in high tourism potential areas earn income through community tourism enterprises, such as handicraft production and rural hospitality. Baryamujura, who is well known in the Ugandan tourism sector and serves on several boards, came up with the idea to create community tourism to fill a gap she saw between mainstream tourism and community-based projects. She sees COBATI as a way for locals to earn income and provide a cross-cultural exchange.
Baryamujura travels throughout rural Uganda, working with local communities. She notes that many, while surrounded by the natural beauty of Uganda, do not see the potential of their environment, indigenous knowledge, and culture. For many, perceiving themselves without any opportunities, they move to towns and cities. The families Baryamujura works with have not given up. They are often more innovative and willing to work hard to solve their own challenges. With support from MTN, COBATI identifies selected homes to upgrade to a level to host foreign guests. The family is trained in tourism, including nutrition, sanitation, and other necessary aspects for hosting tourists. These “homesteads” become part of COBATI’s Homestead Tourism program, allowing visitors a uniquely Ugandan experience.
“We train and empower communities to harness the economic potential of their natural and cultural resources. And, we innovate ways for communities to enhance and diversify their tourism services and products,” notes COBATI material. Baryamujura’s unique concept began in her native Uganda, but it was soon noticed internationally, including by such major institutions as the World Bank, which saw COBATI as a priority for poverty alleviation and in 2000 awarded it as a Marketplace 2000 Finalist.
Each homestead if different, but they offer a chance to meet local communities and participate in local activities, such as cooking lessons, cow milking, honey harvesting, banana beer brewing, or just the pleasure of listening to traditional storytelling.
For the hosts, welcoming foreign visitors can also be eye-opening. “Until we hosted tourists from Spain, we used to think there was nothing special about our food, like our gurusa (a salty pancake made out of maize flour) or sombe (mixture of cassava leaves and ground nuts),” noted Mama Milly, Homestay Owner at the Bombo Community Tourism Initiative, who is one of the owners featured on the COBATI website.
While homestead visits are a wonderful way for foreigners to enjoy Uganda like a Ugandan, there is no reason why Ugandans wouldn’t enjoy this rural hospitality.
COBATI recently partnered with the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Trust and created an online guide on community-based tourism available at: http://cobatiuganda.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Community-Based-Tourism-Guide.pdf. To support COBATI or book a homestead stay, go to: cobatiuganda.org