Below is a copy and paste job I am particularly proud of. Not because of the quality of my copy and paste skills, but because of the content therein.
Alex Twinomugisha is a resident of East Africa, living in Nairobi and Kampala and working right across the region.
He is one of my favourite Ugandans for a long list of reasons, some of which will be evident to you shortly if you pay attention all through the article he has written below and shared with the Uganda Tourism Board.
Please don’t let your anger, reading his piece, distract you from the content, ideas and possibilities around what YOU could do to improve things in Uganda.
Sadly, some people are going to go on the defensive and engage in some whataboutism instead of applying soap, water and polish to those antique limousines and doing other childishly simple things they are paid salaries to do.
By Alex Twinomugisha
Dear Management of Uganda Tourism Board,
I write to you to share my recent experiences as a local tourist and offer my humble suggestions for promoting tourism in Uganda. In August of this year, I traveled with my family (kids aged 6-15 years old) to Jinja and to Kabale. We also visited the Uganda Museum. The travel and visits were aimed primarily at showing my kids the richness of our great country. We were in short, local tourists.
Our family experience and my kids’ feedback led me to wonder what we, as a country and specifically the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) and the Ministry of Tourism is doing to effectively promote Tourism both local and international in Uganda.
I have lived or worked and traveled extensively within East Africa (limiting my comparison to our neighbors only) and I believe that no country in the region has better tourism potential than Uganda. We are indeed gifted by nature. Unfortunately, I can also unequivocally state that Uganda has some of the worst tourist infrastructure, support structures and information services of any of our neighbors, in spite of our better ranking in our tourism sector. We have so much potential.
We can do better, with limited resources, just by applying common sense and better planning. Now to specific observations during our trip. This is fairly long because I want to capture my observation in detail.
- Visit to Uganda Museum
This was a long planned visit and the kids were excited to visit. However, by the time we left, the kids were disappointed with the state of affairs of our museum. Yes the kids! As for me, I was left speechless and seething with rage that we can allow our cultural and social heritage to rot. The first shocker was the state of past presidential cars. In any serious museum, these would be kept immaculate and even visitors allowed to sit in the car and/or take a peep inside to see how the cars’ interior looks. At the Uganda Museum, the cars are kept in an open shed in a dilapidated state (see picture). How on earth is this allowed to happen? What is so difficult with building a simple concrete floored shed to house these cars with a regular wash and polish? My daughter (14) asked why the cars can’t be kept in storage away from the public if we can’t afford to display them properly!
We moved on past the cars to the cultural village. At the first “hut” we visited (the Hima hut), my son (9) excitedly started exploring the construction design (he took a course on human housing a year ago) while I prattled away telling the youngsters how our grandparents lived in these types of houses. A few minutes later, he interrupts my guided talk, points at the reed walls and says “Dad, this is a big scam!” I ask him what he means and he says “Dad, the walls behind the grass are made of concrete. You just told us that grandpa’s house was made of mud.” As I confirm that indeed the reed is covering a brick and mortar wall, he proceeds with this bombshell… “Dad you mean there is no one in Uganda who can still build a real old house that grandpa grew up in?” He added…” This is a total scam!” I was left speechless. That was the end of his and his brother’s excitement. As we walked around the cultural village, we found rotting huts, huts with rubbish strewn around and inside the hut, half built or most crumbling huts etc. At some point, my youngest (6) asked why “they” can’t cut the grass around the village to have a nice lawn. Yes, why not indeed?
But wait, we were not done yet: As we were leaving the cultural village, things got worse: the kids visited the bathrooms. In their own words ”this is the stinkiest (sic) toilet in the whole world”. I concur.
Really, what is difficult about keeping our Museum in decent shape? What do the tourists who visit think of Uganda? What’s wrong with us? What will we tell future generations about our past and culture? Why can’t we keep public toilets clean? Why not privatize them at this rate? And what the heck is UTB and the Ministry of Tourism doing?
- Visit to Source of the Nile at Jinja and my search for Ugandan Coffee
Here, we generally enjoyed the experience with Brian, our excellent guide. Until it started raining. And we entered one of the restaurants. And I asked for a coffee. Remembering my friend, Simon Kaheru’s insistent lectures on BUBU, I asked for Ugandan Coffee. The waitress looked at me blankly and responded (in Luganda), “what is that sir?”
I proceeded to tell her that I wanted a hot coffee preferably with milk made from Ugandan grown coffee. Still – blank face.
I asked her to call her manager (turns out the lady behind the counter who all along was listening to our conversation was the manager). She pointed at the manager lady and walked away.
I thought ‘Welcome to customer service Uganda-style.’
I got up and walked to the manager-lady-behind-the-counter and told her I wanted a coffee, for example “African Coffee” (some establishments I have been in call coffee with milk African Coffee) or a Cappuccino (thinking with all the foreign tourists that visit surely this should be familiar) provided it is made with Ugandan grown coffee.
Same blank look and an amused, “I don’t know what you are talking about sir.” At this point, I call Simon and rant.
But this is about UTB.
Really? At a major tourist attraction such as the Source of the Nile, we can’t promote Ugandan grown coffee and tea?
I will not get into the quality of the restaurant infrastructure.
By the way, I ended up having a Cappuccino at The Source Café in Jinja since Brian, the guide at the Source of the Nile, told me that was “where all the Bazungu have coffee.”
Suffice it to say, at the Source Café, the waiter didn’t know whether the coffee was Ugandan but he did make me a great Cappuccino.
What does serving Ugandan coffee at a tourist attraction have to do with UTB? Everything sirs! The reason we (should) attract tourists to Uganda is not only to admire our beautiful country (that too is important) but spend their hard earned cash in Uganda on Ugandan products!
If they spend on Nescafe, then most of that money goes back to Europe! So much for the lost revenue to Uganda’s toiling coffee farmers and processors.
- Stop over at Namawojjolo (and Lukaya) for “Lolipop Chicken”
One of the truly unique foodie experiences (aside from Rolex and the good old roast pork joint) in Uganda is the chicken or meat on a stick at our highway stop overs.
I travel a lot and often marvel at how my colleagues (mostly Muzungus) want to experience unique local cuisines and specifically street food. It’s a global trend (tune in to CNN or BBC Lifestyle for numerous programs on street food). I think our Rolex and Chicken-on-a-stick-on-the-highway are authentic Ugandan street food.
And I have made sure my kids partake of this experience (these things are not for Muzungus only). And they love it! We should be promoting these foodie experiences in a big way. My Kenyan colleagues always ask me to bring back some “Chicken Lolipops”. I give them credit for this name.
Now to my gripes: why don’t we have a proper rest stop with sitting areas, proper parking (and Ugandan coffee plus Ugandan tea with Lemon Grass plus Ugandan made fruit juice) developed at Namawojjolo, Lukaya and other stop overs across our highways?
Incidentally, I have never seen a tourist van stopped over at any of these stops. Perhaps because there are virtually no facilities or the guides don’t want them to fall sick eating in a dingy place.
And incidentally (again) there are no public bathrooms at either Namawojjolo or, Lukaya (except the bush as someone pointed out to me). And before you say “its not our job to develop high-way rest stops”, I checked.
In many countries around the World, high-way rest stops are public projects typically developed by governments to promote local jobs.
May I request that UTB plan to develop proper, safe (no people running around on a highway), high-way rest stops at Namawojjolo, Lukaya etc with proper parking, bathroom facilities, sitting places to enjoy the local cuisine and proceed to promote these unique dining experiences in Uganda. If you Sirs, think it is not your job to develop and promote roadside stop areas, may you coordinate with the appropriate local and national governments.
And attract local entrepreneurs/ local investors to develop the facilities while protecting local jobs and livelihoods.
- Stop over at the Equator and my continuing quest for Ugandan Coffee
On my way to Kabale, we made the obligatory stop over at the Equator along Masaka Road. First observation- every tourist probably stops here. Not a single one (in all my stops over the years) seems to spend a shilling here. Local travelers stop over at the “katogo place” off the Masaka town bypass. Anyhow, I again asked for coffee made from Ugandan grown coffee. Same as for Jinja- no idea what I was talking about.
Interestingly, they had a sign outside one of the restaurants listed “Americano” and “African Coffee” (see photo). I didn’t bother ask what coffee they used for these coffee (in hindsight, I should have asked!). But I wondered why the sign appears to promote Coca Cola (who probably paid for it) and not UTB!
Well, there goes BUBU I thought!
So what’s the point of this (long) article? It is not to lay blame. It is to highlight some of the short-comings in our Tourism Promotion Strategy.
It is seemingly “small” things like investing in preserving our heritage at the Uganda Museum, clean bathrooms, promotion of unique Uganda food and drink and smart decent rest stops that will linger in the minds of tourist and lead them to spread the word. Instead, we probably have negative word of mouth such as “I couldn’t find a clean bathroom in Uganda!” that dent our image. Exhibit A- Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear.
Ask Simon, and no let’s not get into the Top Gear Uganda debate. The Source of the Nile is a major tourist attraction- a unique attraction in the whole of Africa. But the facilities around the Source are a disgrace frankly. Give it a face lift.
Moreover, promoting things like Uganda coffee also has an impact on our export potential. Focus on the small things.
Before I sign off, one last thing: our planned trip to visit the Queen Elizabeth national park was postponed. The rates are simply crazy- even when I inquire for local/ resident rates (a concept that sounds strange to the proprietors of these establishments). Shouldn’t UTB be heavily promoting local tourism and educating local hotels on the strategic role of local tourism?.
As for me, I will take up an offer I have for the Mara in Kenya to the Hemingway Ol Seki open only to East Africa Residents. Offers me better value for money. Look it up on the web too.