Uganda: The Pearl of Africa
Project Have Hope’s interview with a community based tourism expert, Yvonne Hilgendorf, CEO Manya Africa Tours
I consider Uganda to be my second home, and a beautiful home, indeed, it is. The people are extremely friendly and the country, infinitely lush and diverse. I’ve been fortunate to have visited most of the national parks and to have experienced trekking to see the mountain gorillas on two occasions. But even so, there’s so much of the country I’ve yet to explore. I find myself often encouraging people to visit this amazing country, both to see it’s natural beauty and also to dispel myths they may have. I sat down with my German friend, Yvonne Hilgendorf, who calls Uganda home. She’s been working in the tourism industry for over 12 years. Passionate about sustainable and community tourism, she started her own company, Manya Africa Tours, in 2019 so she could share her love and knowledge of Uganda with others. “When I first reached Uganda, I felt home for the first time,” Yvonne confesses. “I never had this feeling before in Germany, and I was always looking for a purpose.” She found that purpose in Uganda.
PHH: What prompted you to first visit Uganda and then make it your home?
YH: I have studied Tourism Geography at the University of Trier in Germany and was looking for a diploma thesis topic so I visited Uganda in 2008 for the first time to do the research for my thesis. I lived in 3 communities for 1 to 3 months which were Ruboni at the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, Bigodi Wetlands near Kibale National Park and Bushara Island on Lake Bunyonyi.
PHH: What’s your background in tourism in Uganda?
YH: I have worked for 12 years for different international and local tour companies and hotels, in the roles of director of sales, sales and marketing executive, and assistant to the executive director. In these capacities, I’ve gathered a lot of experience by solving problems on the job. In Uganda everyone thinks that you know everything if you come from a developed country, so it is expected that you don’t fear and just do.
PHH: You’re the author of Community Based Tourism in Uganda, what was the inspiration?
YH: My professors inspired me to write the book since there is very little information on Tourism in Uganda. Community based tourism provide tourists with exceptional experiences and a real insight into Uganda.
PHH: What are the benefits of community tourism for both travelers and the community?
YH: Both sides can learn a lot from each other. Culture in Western countries is disappearing more and more. Forests and wildlife, as well. So we include different community projects which keep the culture alive, such as traditional meals with Ugandan families and projects that protect endangered animals like the Rhinos Sanctuary and the Uganda Carnivore Project, which protects the big cats. Communities learn to value their nature and wildlife and won’t poach or cut down trees. In turn, they receive an income to support their families and their own projects. We really like to give back but also that people don’t expect the outside world to only give. We love the idea of an exchange between the two worlds or totally different cultures.
PHH: Why do you think it’s important to promote sustainable tourism efforts in Uganda?
YH: Sustainable tourism in Uganda is vital to protect the beautiful nature and biodiversity and culture of Uganda for future generations. To do that, while also educating both the tourists and the local people is key. More importantly, local people earn an income through tourism and are more independent from outside donations.
PHH: Why did you start Manya Africa Tours?
YH: I am thankful to have worked for other tour companies for so long, but I also realized
that there must be something bigger and more challenging. I wanted to create a sustainable company. For example, we try to reduce plastics on our tours. We plant trees. We give back through certain projects. We want to show the different aspects of Africa and not the typical, often quite negative, pictures that are shown outside. My son, Leon, was born 12 years ago, and I want to give him a start for his future. I honestly hope that he will work with me one day.
PHH: In what ways does Manya Africa Tours immerse tourists in Uganda’s culture?
YH: We use only local guides. Though they all speak different tribal languages, they are also fluent in English and some speak French and German to accommodate our clients’ needs. Our office team is also composed of a combination of expats, like myself, and Ugandans. We like to support women, as well, because they are the most in need, but also the strongest I have ever seen. We always include different projects in our safaris, like a traditional lunch at Tinka John. We also have a matooke project where the tourists can actively participate in the production of banana juice or the so-called “war gin.” We can even arrange a visit to kraal of the Karamojong, or an overnight stay with them and their cattle, an unforgettable and unique experience.
PHH: What makes Uganda unique and a destination everyone should visit?
YH: Uganda is lush green compared to our more dryish neighbors ,Kenya and Tanzania and has a welcoming climate (not too hot, not too cold) and welcoming, friendly people. The landscape of the country is ever changing. Highlights include the Rwenzori mountain range, Lake Bunyonyi, the Nile, national parks like Murchison Falls, and, of course, the chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. To see them is a lifetime experience that brings goose bumps or tears to the eyes.
PHH: What are the top 5 destinations or experiences in Uganda that you think shouldn’t be missed?
- Kidepo National Park including the Karamojong
- Wildwater Rafting on the Nile
- Hikes to the Sipi falls or Mt Elgon
- Chimpanzees in Kibale National Park
- Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi
- And if I may add, Lake Bunyonyi is absolutely beautiful or Lake Mutanda
PHH: What do you think the greatest challenge is facing the tourism industry in Uganda?
YH: The biggest challenges are around infrastructure, bit there is improvement. There are few investors (especially during covid many have left). Roads are slowly developed. And some international hotel chains are slowly coming. More airports are being built.
But since Uganda is a relatively young tourism destination compared to her neighbors, we are still learning a lot about the dynamics. Standards and quality are not on a 5 stars level. And hotels or other capacities are still small. But this might also be an advantage for eco-tourism. We really want to keep the tourism in Uganda as it is now, not the mass tourism that is found in Kenya during the high season.
Credit: Karen, Project Have Hope