In Summary
  • Lake Bunyonyi is one of the attractions in the Southwestern region that an initiative of tourism and media stakeholders has turned into a must-visit beyond the famous endagered Mountain Gorillas.
  • The government and the private sector most especially hoteliers have embraced the initiative with both direct and indirect benefits. Uganda Wildlife Authority and Uganda Tourism Board reach out to the local communities around the national parks and benefit from the supplementary tourism promotions respectively.

The view out of the window was picturesque as the bus climbed, inclined pleasant valleys and lush terraced highlands. I held my breath in awe. We drew nearer to Kabale town, about 420 kms from Kampala. Approximately a seven-hour drive. My ultimate destination was Lake Bunyonyi, eight kilometres off the main road in Kabale.
Lake Bunyonyi boasts 29 scenic islands surrounded by a protective ring of highlands in Southwest Uganda. It stands at 2,952ft, hence the second deepest lake in Africa after Lake Tanganyika. It was christened Bunyonyi, a local word to mean numerous little birds which justifies the 200 plus bird species recorded there. The birds such as pelicans, sunbirds, fly-catchers, grey crowned crane, and Pied Kingfisher.

Lake Bunyonyi is one of the attractions in the Southwestern region that an initiative of tourism and media stakeholders has turned into a must-visit beyond the famous endagered Mountain Gorillas. It explores the cultural experiences surrounding the the custodians of the great apes such as the Bakiga, Bafumbira and Batwa “pygmies” living on a hill overlooking Echuya forest, who are indigenous to the area. Southwest Uganda, Northern Rwanda and Eastern DRCongo have been branded as the Gorilla Highlands. Amidst the security threats in Congo, this informal association of people is willing to tell the African story and unlock the tourism potentials of DRC. “We want Gorilla Highlands to be a bucket list destination,” says Mihar Logar, team leader of the initiative.

Logar hosted a boot camp at the Edirisa. Edirisa is a social enterprise that organises canoe treks on the hippo and crocodile-free Lake Bunyonyi with an interest in culturally sensitive economic development of remote communities that have few other opportunities. “Just like a window, we want the world to see Africa and breathe Africa. This region has two shutters, one outside, one inside; we hope that the people see it from all sides,” he says. Every dugout canoe made from eucalyptus wood had at least three tourists equipped with paddles and life jackets; none of us could risk life on the deepest lake. In less than an hour, our next stop was Bushara Island, a paradise of botany, which was once home to doctors working at Bwama leprosy colony. Andrew Tusingwire, the tour guide, introduced us to a garden of special and rare plants. “We use eucalyptus tree for electric poles, paddles and the leaves while boiled to cure cough,” he said. He further showed us the black wattle used to control soil erosion, ferns used by the Batwa as blankets and other herbs that relieve high blood pressure.
The climatic conditions in the gorilla highlands are unpredictable, but always turn cooler overnight. During day, the weather is unsettled, cloudy with abrupt rainfall.

Sipping from Kigezi
After an early morning hike to Kyabahinga Village, the hospitable Bakiga welcomed us with obushera, a local drink made of fermented sorghum. Traditionally, men are served the drink in half calabashes unlike in the changing times where it is served in mugs.
Twenty minutes away is a homestead with a mud-wattle house roofed with corrugated ironsheets. In the compound, are sheep and goats tethered to nearby tree stumps. The 65-year-old Gad Barara, a herbalist and traditional healer, welcomed us with zeal to share his knowledge on herbs as both medicine and charm. “I cleanse folks from evil spirits, bad luck, boost sexual prowess, bless marriages and treat all sorts of ailments,” he boasts. Barara has been in this inherent practice since he was 35.

Gorilla Highlands Initiative also empowers women such as Anna Kyomuhendo who is a success story of tourism sustainability. Visitors to her home on a hill overlooking Lake Bunyonyi continue to purchase her handmade crafts such as bracelets and wall decors made from papyrus. Besides the sales, she offers a participatory experience in making of some of them. This has motivated and improved her livelihood.
The community experience stretches to Tom’s home stay, a tented community on a beautiful remote island. The charming “Uncle Tom” treats visitors to a traditional village life consisting of campfire tales, traditional music played by the 80-year-old Mzee Eric and meals enriched by crayfish and honey. His guests are served cold drinks and he boasts a natural refrigerator. “ Here in Bunyonyi, we do not need refrigerators because our drinks are cooled by the weather,” he laughs heartily.

Benefits
The government and the private sector most especially hoteliers have embraced the initiative with both direct and indirect benefits. Uganda Wildlife Authority and Uganda Tourism Board reach out to the local communities around the national parks and benefit from the supplementary tourism promotions respectively.
“ It is a win-win situation for Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable national parks; for instance we offer the initiative special access to the parks, and recently they shot a free promotional video for Mgahinga, a park with 10 mountain gorillas in one family,” says Moses Turinawe, the assistant warden of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. The Batwa living on the edge of Echuya forest reserve in the community of Rwamahano, one and half hours away from Bunyonyi are beneficiaries.

Did you know?
Gorilla Highlands markets and promotes hotel businesses in the Bunyonyi area. “It is not about an individual business, but as a region and we all derive a fair share of tourists”, says Charles Kalyango, manager Bird Nest lodge. “ The initiative has diversified the tourism products.