Rooting for rural routes

Uganda is about ‘the Big Five’, but it is also about the ebyanzi, matooke, luwombo and banana beer. Maria Baryamujura’s Community Based Tourism Initiative (COBATI) celebrates this rustic revelry, taking tourism beyond the impenetrable forest, into real rural homes.

Hosted by a village in Swaziland, over two decades ago, in 1996, is when the idea of COBATI struck Maria Baryamujura.
This was the first time the tourism honcho had experienced Africa beyond wildlife. “We experienced local Swazi culture through food, crafts, hospitality, dance and storytelling. The visit helped me realize that there is more to tourism than the Big Five,” says Baryamujura, who went on to establish COBATI in 1998 and had it registered as a non-profit organisation in 2001.
At a time when Africa was (still is!) about national parks and wildlife, it is hardly surprising that her enthusiasm was met with apprehension. Setting up a tourism NGO in Uganda promoting sustainable tourism and environmental conservation was unimaginable.

“My colleagues in the tourism industry thought I was crazy and wasting my time and effort, as no tourist would want to visit a rural community. Others told me to jump on the bandwagon and make money out of selling the mountain gorilla packages. Rural community members and government officials were unconvinced too,” she says.
She experienced a breakthrough in 2000, when her idea was endorsed by the World Bank, UNDP/Private Sector Development Program. In 2005, she saw support from SNV Uganda, in 2006 by ASHOKA and in 2009 by the MTN Uganda Foundation.

Her dream had found wings.
What started off as two homesteads, one being her mother’s home, today, COBATI has footprints in a number of homesteads in Central and South Western Uganda, including Bombo, Bushenyi, Mbarara, Hoima, Rubirizi, Sheema, Mitooma and Ntungamo districts
“My mother’s first guest was a Canadian lady from Ottawa, who was visiting Africa for the first time. Her shared experience was a big eye opener and reconfirmed my belief in the power of community tourism to connect cultures and dispel misconception about rural Africa,” states the proud founder and executive director.
Baryamujura streamlined her operations at grassroots, so that the endeavour would benefit both host and guest.

“Through training, local people have come to appreciate their culture, way of life and rural environment as valuable assets in tourism development. We give emphasis on utilising local resources, indigenous knowledge and traditional skills that have been passed down for generations to produce authentic products and experiences,” she says.
As part of their rural Uganda experience, states Baryamujura, travellers experience several unique features such as the hospitality skills of the Banyankole women in Masheruka, the traditional basket weaving skills of Nubian women in Bombo, the traditional banana beer brewing skills in Sheema, traditional healers in Kibingo, Ankole long-horned cow culture at Ishanyu, partaking in community events such as weddings, farm tourism at a tea farming homestead in Bushenyi, traditional craft-making from iron ore in Buhweju and pottery and woodcarving in Mitooma.

“It is modelled on the authentic rural African hospitality and way of life. A visit is a planned event, where a home or community is aware in advance that a visitor/s will come on an agreed date and preparations are made in advance. When you visit without appointment, you will find the homesteads /community busy in their daily livelihood activities and you won’t be able to be hosted, as they have been trained not to put their life on hold waiting for tourists. They have been trained about the opportunities and challenges of tourism and they are aware that it is to supplement their economic activities and not to be the only source. COBATI partner homesteads do not therefore host visitors without prior knowledge; otherwise tourism would disrupt their way of life and water down their culture,” opines Baryamujura.
The Ashoka Fellow takes feedback very seriously, and feels blessed that it has been mostly positive.

“We had tourists tell us how amazed they were at the rural African hospitality, where one needs no invitation to visit a neighbour and how much food there is at community social functions, despite the information from international media about hunger in Africa. Many enjoy the integration of agriculture, tourism and rural hospitality and learning how various fruits and crops grow. Once a British tourist told us how much he appreciated the idea of every family he visited living with their very aged parents,” she states.

Going forward, Baryamujura aims to grow their homestead network in South Western Uganda to reach 30 homesteads in 2017, open a craft shop at the COBATI Training Center to showcase/market products of our rural artisan partners and link them to international buyers and register COBATI as a charity abroad, to make it easy for their international donors.
As she signs off, she encapsulates what COBATI symbolizes, “We are a model of community tourism that is experienced, not staged.”
For training in community tourism development or homestead bookings contact: mmbjura @gmail.com or Maria@cobatiuganda.org
Visit www.cobatiuganda.org for more information

Nishitha Shrivastava