Daring: She treads where only a few women have gone; over rough terrain and through thick forests in order to give her clients the best tour experiences.
Lilian Kamusiime has got rave reviews as a tour guide but is also well respected among peers and local practitioners in the tourism industry.
Her bounce as she walks disarms those who think a woman’s place is close to home. She drives the long, furrowed dirt roads with fierce resolve slowing down at speed bumps and smiling for police officers who wave her by.
“She knows where to stop for roasted corn unmatched in taste, that is safe to eat; she spots the baboons nursing their young ones close enough for a feature photo and sights trees adorned with dozens of weavers’ nests,” reads an excerpt contained in a poem titled ‘Never Underestimate the Women Guiding Safaris in Uganda’, written by tourist professor Elane Gutterman.
Gutterman penned the literature at the tail end of her expeditions in Rwanda and Uganda. Her poem was to appreciate tour guide Lilian Kamusiime who took her on safari tours where she was baffled by the unique offerings of Uganda.
In her poem, the highlight of Professor Gutterman’s trip after seven days on the road was her interface with a baboon holding its baby and a boda boda rider carrying a pig.
This left Kamusiime stunned how that incident on their return to Kampala could have stood out. They had seen a buffalo carcass in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Kamusiime is one of a handful of tourist female guides you might cross paths with. “It is lonely being a female guide among so many male guides so I have always called on more ladies to become female guides and to also explore becoming safari drivers,” the 45-year-old guide explains.
Many visitors feel confident when she takes them on a safari because she is careful and takes every precaution when driving. Often, she has to deal with cheeky male counterparts in the tourism trade who tease her about taking on a career that has traditionally been considered a reserve of men.
Nonetheless, the men respect her and always offer her support through gestures such as stopping to help when her car is stuck or share knowledge on safaris.
Of the people she has met on her life journey, Kamusiime says she owes her aspiration to Harriet Kemigisha. The two met during a birding excursion in Mpanga Central Forest Reserve, where they were connected by Herbert Byaruhanga, one of Uganda’s top birding experts.
“I took keen interest to talk to her and she told me to take learning as a daily discipline,” she recalls. That was in 2005. Birding was one of the new things she was keen to learn.
In 1996, when she graduated from National Teachers College Kabale, she started to read up on tourism and the opportunities therein. The interaction with Kemigisha was more like a practical discourse of what she had read about.
Her disappointment in a small teaching salary of Shs40, 000 spurred her on to read more, dreaming of a career in the tourism sector. How was she to survive off that paltry sum of money? She went looking for an extra skill. She made a friend, Joka Musasizi, an artiste who used to run a studio.
There, she honed skills in painting and soon added printing t-shirts to the list of her sources of livelihood, so she would split her time between teaching Literature and drawing. Her art was of portraits and animals, still showcasing her inner yearning for tourism.
In 2001, Compassion International in Rukungiri was looking for a correspondent between children and their sponsors. It tickled her adventurous side because sponsors would always ask her to tell them about Uganda.
“I would find myself describing Uganda and while doing so, I understood both worlds; Uganda and the western world,” she recollects. Reading up on motherland Uganda and its tourism potential was complementary to her job.
One of her friends, Adrine Nankunda, who had observed her budding passion for tourism tipped her about training for tour guides in Kabale by birder and tour operator, Byaruhanga. “Sitting in the training for one week unveiled a lot of things including the tourism potential in Kabale. Herbert told us that tourism does not require a lot of money but knowledge and skills,” Kamusiime recounts.
Byaruhanga implored trainees to take time to learn about Kabale, beyond concentrating on animals as tourism attractions. Kamusiime’s mind immediately went to her clansman, Festo Karwemera, a 94-year-old man who is knowledgeable about Kabale and Kigezi as a region.
At the time, she had just lost her job as a manager at Heritage Lodge and was re-organising her life and re-aligning her priorities. After the training, she decided to focus her energy on tourism so she would wake up every day and read literature on tourism.
She would tend to her vegetable garden in the afternoon and read more in the evening. One evening she hosted a friend, Dr Geoffrey Anguyo. He was surprised at the volume of books on tourism she had bought and collected. She explained to Dr Anguyo that she wanted to become a tour guide, and told him about the eye-opening experience during a training session with Byaruhanga.
She had learnt a lot from her interactions with the elderly Karwemera, so when Dr Anguyo asked her about Rwanda, she had a wealth of knowledge. She had also made contacts with fellow trainees from Rwanda.
The doctor was running a volunteer project and had students flying into Kigali and wanted a guide to handle their transport and guide them to Uganda. At the time, Kamusiime had not travelled to Rwanda but could not lose the opportunity so she immediately called a friend in Rwanda to help her headline the trip.
The next morning, the two met at Nyabugogo Taxi Park from where they went to Kigali International Airport to pick up the students.
All went well. They took the students for lunch and to the Genocide Memorial and drove them to Kabale. It was her first opportunity to tell tourists about the town and its attractions. “I was looking at the market as an attraction and same for Makanga Hill because in the training, we were told that almost every feature in the town had a story behind it,” she recounts.
From then on, Kamusiime made sure she gave her best whenever she came into contact with tourists or stakeholders in the tourism sector. She kept in touch with Byaruhanga.
He guided her and advised her to invest part of her savings to start her company Kigezi Biota Tours which specialises in attractions in Kigezi. These include Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the volcanoes in Virunga and Lake Bunyonyi. She joined Uganda Safari Guides Association (Usaga) which had training and excursions that further cemented her knowledge of how the tourism sector operates and widened her network.
Back home, with like-minded people, she formed Kigezi Tourist Guides Association from which many tourist companies were born. In 2014, a friend approached her, with an offer to buy Kabale Backpackers.
“I told him that I did not have money. I had only concentrated on guiding tourists but when he asked me to buy the backpackers facility, something crossed my mind. I needed an office to use as a point of contact with travellers. I also wanted a place to put up a tourism information centre,” she explains.
She bought it and at the time, it had eight rooms. Kamusiime decided to change it, and transformed the bandas into dormitories to target budget tourists who were okay with sharing.
Her wish is to encourage more women to join tourism and specifically guiding tourists.
Tips on work
She advises guides to disciplined. “Be able to manage your time and visitors’ time. You are handling people who have two days or less. When you mess up one hour, they are losing,” she adds.
“Learning something new every day is good because you can authoritatively share information with tourists. Be ready to work hard because when you are on a trip, you wake up early and sleep late.”
Favourite tourist destinations
Murchison Falls National Park is her favourite tourism destination because of its diversity; it is in Murchison that you can see everything in big numbers; giraffes, elephants with many species of birds then the falls.
“I like Bwindi because it is a tropical rain forest and gives you a rural outlook. I also like Rwenzori National Park. I did a two-day trail. I could not believe there are lakes and rivers,” she adds.
What others say about her
“I have known Lilian for a number of years now. She came to one of my classes for tourist guides. I have found her a very honest person who respects people in their categories. She loves professional services. She is a very committed leader and no wonder she is the vice chairperson of Uganda Safari Guides Association. She is the leading female guide in the South Western region of Uganda and she is the only trusted female guide by the tour operators and guides from Rwanda.”
Herbert Byaruhanga, Managing Director of Bird Uganda Safaris
“When her Rover rolls into a ditch, she hoes the mud and pads the hole with branches, staying paced as a lion stalking its prey until the car is freed. Never married, she adopted children, siblings and singles, six in need of school, food and shelter, her mom tended them while she guided tourists to ensure their care. Lilian recounted the journey to aid her children after a fire consumed their home, then the return to her foreign guests to show elephant mothers linking tails with their young and a concert of hippos grunting and grazing at dusk.
Professor Elane Gutterman, tourist