Black porters in Uganda’s Tourism Industry; Service provision or colonialism?

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Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Uganda- Porters carrying tourists

This photo of porters at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park carrying tourists has polarised Ugandans on Social Media.

I have not been able to establish the source of the photo, but as far as I can work out the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) intends to use this photo in its promotional materials. This is what has divided opinions amongst Ugandans.

Some have argued that the country fought imperialists and won its independence from colonialists but the actions of the UWA threaten to take the country back to colonial days.

They drew a comparison between  the explorer Speke being carried by porters in 1862 and argued that, there was no dignity in this and called on Ugandans to resist such practises.

John H. Speke rests while porters carry him Photo credit:

On the other hand, are those that do not find the carrying of white tourists by black porters problematic. They say that those  that do are being hypocritical. They argued that, porters provide a vital service to less able tourists who would otherwise not access Uganda’s parks.

In addition to the porters’ service is a way for communities around the park to tap into the  tourist dollar as there is often no other way for them to earn an income.

On the issue of dignity, they accused the other camp of having double standards. In doing so, they used the analogy of home helps or house maids a common feature of middle class homes in Uganda. The maids/home helps work long hours and are often poorly paid and according to proponents of UWA this is less dignified  work than the work tourism porters do.

Amongst these voices is a well respected and a voice of authority on Uganda’s tourist industry and has used the porters services; Amos Wekesa. Wekesa is the founder and Chief Executive Great Safari Lakes and had this to say on the matter

I have read several comments about the picture posted of a group of porters carrying some tourists in Bwindi 

Trekking gorillas especially in Bwindi is an awesome but very tough experience and depending on where the gorillas are, one can walk in a very steep terrain for between 4 to 13 hourrs.

Unfortunately some tourists under estimate their physical fitness and are challenged by the trek.  I last trekked gorillas on 15 February 2015. The trek lasted 13 hours and amongst us was a 72 year old man who had spent the day before trekking gorillas.

The old man was reluctant to get help but it was apparent that he was struggling to keep up. After we had been trekking for 10 hours, his son decided to hire some of the porters in the group to carry him back to the starting point.

The porters were paid $300 (£194.31). This was a good fee for the porters and I could tell they they were pleased with the fee as they don’t usually earn that sort of money.

Tourists do not take up Porter Services for the sake of it as the service is expensive and the walking makes the gorilla experience more enjoyable.

The porter service is more likely to be taken up by tourists with disabilities whose life dream is to see the gorillas or the very elderly most especially the baby boomers with deep pockets  and the ability to pay $600 (£388.61) for a day’s gorilla trekking experience.

When my wife I went trekking, we had two porters who carried our bags and lunch. We paid each Uganda Shillings 50,000 (£12.50) for a days work. For me that was intentional as I could have carried the bags myself but I wanted to give the porters an opportunity to earn an income that day.

Some of the sentiments on the Social Media, are uncalled especially those that have brought race into the debate. As a reminder, the world is controlled by 3 things and those are SEX, MONEY And POWER.

That said, there is nothing like color, height, tribe, nationality, education etc all those are used as excuses to attain one of the above.

If we as Ugandans want to have power and money we must rethink our strategies otherwise, we are being colonized by the Chinese, the Indians, Kenyans and South African who seem to control our economy now.

Others are controlling us remotely via aid programmes, they actually don’t want to be here!! We Ugandans( myself included) must get off our behinds and work hard for dignity which is the essence of life!!

There is no dignity in being given money, dignity is in earning money!! The only outward evidence of input is output and we must therefore question our input because our output is pathetic if we look at our GDP!!

Amongst the things we should take UWA to task about is wildlife conservation  and the improvement of facilities at our National Parks but not services provided by porters.

My Take

The advent of Social Media, has meant information spreads fast and we are quick to express opinions sometimes, without taking a step back to examine the issues were commenting on. This is one such issue.

It is not as black and white as it might seem and the photo needs to be put into context, the sort of context that comes with having first hand knowledge of communities around Uganda’s National Parks as well as their circumstances.

Tourism in Uganda presents an opportunity to impact poverty and Worklessness for those communities closest to National Parks. The challenge for the government and UWA in particular is to ensure that such communities benefit from such opportunities including a share of the park fees, gorilla permits fees as well as jobs.

Finally if folks in those communities are paid for the work that they do, who are we to complain?

So there you have it, have you got a view on this matter, if so please share it by leaving a comment below.

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