My friend, Maria Baryamujura, well known to my readers over her work at COBATI, the Community Based Tourism Initiative and Ashoka Fellow, more recently tried to get me to come with her to visit the Nshenyi Cultural Village. She tried but, due to my limited time, has not yet succeeded in getting me there, but then I did the next best thing by writing a trip report, which I promised her I would publish on my blog.
Of course, I know Mary Mugenyi, too, and her daughter who used to be a workmate of my daughter, so when the name was dropped I was all ears.
My own visit to Nshenyi will follow soon enough but for now, read on and enjoy Maria’s impressions, explanations and most important, her pictures.
This opens the eyes to a very different dimension of Uganda’s tourism landscape, one less explored, one almost hidden and yet, one which arguably offers one of the richest experiences of what life in rural Uganda still is like, of course refined a little to suite the tastes of the tourists who dare trod their own paths and not follow the herds …
As a community tourism consultant, I am sourced out to guide, advice and support individuals, organizations, and communities interested in developing and participating in community tourism as a supplementary activity to enhance household and community incomes. My role is to conduct an assessment survey and advise the interested party on how best to package and link their activities and products to tourism to participate in the tourism marketplace.
Nshenyi Cultural Village
On the 18th November 2015, I traveled to Southwestern Uganda, to a village called Nshenyi in a beautiful corner of the countryside, where three countries Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania meet on the edge of Ntungamo District. Nshenyi Village is a one-hour drive from Mbarara Municipality on a newly tarmacked road up to Kikagati trading center, then a detour on a good all-weather marram road which easily connects tourists to the mountain gorilla sanctuary of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
My destination was Nshenyi Cultural Village, a family owned working farm practicing agricultural cum community tourism. The owner, Mary Mugyenyi invited me to survey her place and advise on how best she could scale up her community tourism enterprise. The Mugyenyi family are pastoralists who have been conserving the culture of the legendary Ankole long horned cow and the environment through tourism.
Along the way, the countryside is very green and the traveler will enjoy the rolling hills, dotted villages, roadside open air markets, schools, grazing cows, banana plantations, and local people going on with their daily lives – all which make the journey to Nshenyi very rewarding. Approaching the Nshenyi Cultural Village entrance, you see Kabobo River which is a tributary of the famous River Kagera. Kagera feeds into Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile that connects Africa to the Mediterranean Sea!
I arrived at the Cultural Village in the late afternoon; it was so easy to find as everyone knows the Mugyenyis, who have lived in Nshenyi for many years. I was directed by a young herd’s boy to drive up the hill to the Nshenyi Cultural Village signage, which was very prominent. At the entrance, there is a small forest of cypress trees, which is a greening project where every tourist to Nshenyi Cultural Village plants a tree to commemorate their visit and at the same time, conserve the environment! The first impression of the place is the blend of the traditional and modern, showcasing the comfort of modern amenities in a traditional setting. Nshenyi Cultural Village cum the Mugyenyi Farm Stay is a collection of different accommodation facilities, ranging from a traditional grass thatched hut with a cow kraal around it, four modern bandas under thatch, and a beautiful modern farm house in the midst of a huge compound with mature local acacia trees, floral shrubs, and rolls of neat flower beds. Mary Mugyenyi is an accomplished hostess. Visitors are welcomed with a glass of cold passion fruit juice at the spacious gazebo which forms part of the entrance to the main house. Mary like her Cultural Village, is a blend of tradition and modernity. She is a simple pastoralist woman who loves cows and farming, a successful entrepreneur, and is among the new breed of African women politicians from East Africa. She retired at the rank of Deputy Speaker of the African Parliament.
From the balcony, the view is to die for! The beautiful landscape stretches far away towards the mountains that border Uganda and Tanzania. During the village tour, Mary shared the story of how the Cultural Village started with her late husband’s passion to retire at his ancestral home to farm and practice agritourism. We began at the big hut in the middle of a cow kraal showcasing a traditional pastoralist homestead. Inside the hut is the family room – the floor is covered by beautiful cow skins, the walls are decorated with traditional patterns as well as paintings on the ceiling. At the center is a raised platform with the milk pots used for storing milk and ghee processing. The hut has a sleeping area and a flushing toilet with a shower. Mary explains the idea behind the kraal set up as being able to give visitors a glimpse of the way pastoralist families lived and an opportunity to participate in chores such as milking, traditional ghee and yogurt making and tasting. The rest of the bandas / huts are also tastefully decorated with traditional motifs, comfortable beddings, and ensuite bathrooms.
The tour ended back at the main house. It is a beautiful bungalow, uniquely designed as a collection of four round cottages. It has a spacious verandah / gazebo where most of the dining activities take place. Inside are a dining room, lounge with comfortable chairs and cozy cushions, and four self-contained bedrooms. The home is part of the Cultural Village establishment and is open for visitor use.
Mary introduced me to Moses, the pleasant housekeeper, cook, and general caretaker who showed me my room. It had twin beds, was very comfortable, and beautifully furnished. During dinner, Mary briefed me about the joys and challenges of the Cultural Village and her wish for more exposure to increase the number of visitors. She shared the income generating activities at the farm which include cattle farming, goat rearing, a banana plantation, and maize growing, among others. The activities form part of the overall visitor experience which include, participating in the cow culture activities such as milking, traditional milk processing, visiting agricultural homesteads to learn about crop harvesting methods, cooking lessons, nature walks, hill climbing, tree planting, bird watching, visiting a Batwa(pygmy) community to see their pottery works, and learning traditional fishing techniques. There is also opportunity for visitors to participate in cross cultural exchange interactions. One can visit a local trading center or village market to observe and join in the activities, buy a craft or fresh fruit while engaging in the joy of price haggling which makes shopping in Africa very interesting. Dinner was served in the dining room; the food was delicious, fresh from the family farm gardens, including the juices and fruit salad.
A Day at Nshenyi Cultural Village
As at all farming homesteads, the day begins very early. At the Cultural Village, milking begins at 6:00 AM and visitors interested in sharing the experience can participate in milking their own breakfast milk using a traditional milk pot and hearing about the legendary Ankole long horned cows culture. For those who opt for this experience, after milking and breakfast, they can go with the herdsman to see off the cows for the day’s grazing and watering in the late afternoon. For the visitors who opt to sleep in, by 7.30 AM, Moses has already laid out a sumptuous breakfast of fresh fruit juice, whole wheat bread, cereal, millet porridge, and English tea. At Nshenyi one can also taste African Chai tea, which is a mixture of hot water, tea leaves, spices and milk boiled together. Locally grown and brewed coffee is served as well as a variety of fruits including pawpaw, watermelon, bananas; and eggs from free range chicken prepared according to personal taste.
After breakfast with Mary at the gazebo, she outlined the different itinerary options available for visitors which include visiting the family farm, a local homestead, trading center, Batwa community to see pottery, community school, and a nature walk. I chose to do the farm tour and visit one of the community schools. The farm has a big banana plantation intercropped with pawpaw trees. Apart from giving visitors the opportunity to learn about the banana gardening culture and types of banana, one can also get a cooking lesson with bananas; the staple food of the people in Southwestern Uganda. At the goat section I got to see how over 70 goats are housed, how the young ones are aided to feed, and how the droppings and urine are used as manure. A herd’s boy was at hand to answer all my inquiries.
My tour ended at the community school of which Mary is very supportive. The school is a very good model of the social benefits of tourism to a local community. The relationship between Nshenyi Cultural Village and the community school stated when some Dutch visitors on a village walk went to the school and interacted with the pupils and teachers. They took note of the challenges and went home and raised money, pens, pencils, and other items including soccer balls. They have since been friends of the school and have raised funds for a kitchen, dining place, library which they also equipped, electricity, improved sanitation with a new toilet block, clean water, and supported for the head teacher to pursue a Master’s degree. The community school also offers opportunity for volunteer tourism.
Over 20 families directly and indirectly benefit from visitors to Nshenyi Cultural Village. The farm employs local people from the surrounding villages who benefit from their labour, entertain visitors for a fee, and make crafts that are sold at the craft corner in the gazebo. Other income generating activities for the community members include storytelling, guiding, and thatching the huts.
From my perspective, Nshenyi Cultural Village is on the right track as a community based tourism enterprise, where the culture and environment are conserved through tourism. It is a convenient stop over for tourists going to the mountain gorilla sanctuary of Bwindi Forest National Park from Kampala. It is also a good base for a trip to Tanzania across River Kagera and to Rwanda via Mirama Hill border. The Cultural Village is ideal for travelers who appreciate nature, culture, and a green environment. I highly recommend it for those seeking to breathe clean fresh air, eat fresh food with the shortest journey from the garden to table, participate in unique cultural exchange experiences, or book writers looking for a serene and tranquil environment. I left Mary busy arranging to receive a group of 12 tourists from Germany who were staying for four days.