Briarpatch Magazine

Fair Travel

by Sophie Watson

Getting to Bushara Island Camp from Edmonton, Alberta is a bit of a production—it feels like you are going so far east you just might end up west. First stop is Calgary. Then London, Rome, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, until landing in Entebbe, Uganda where you begin the 8-hour truck drive over rambunctious pot-holed roads.

After all the airtime and grueling truck journey my travelling pal Ruth and I finally board an outboard motor boat for the last segment of our journey. We cruise on Lake Bunyonyi (Lake of the Little Birds) past various islands and lake people in their dugout canoes. The islands are mostly terraced right to the top; it looks gorgeous and Asian and it means that every bit of land is being farmed. We pass Bwama Island, home of a former leper colony that now houses primary and secondary schools and an agroforestry project and Njuyera (Sharp’s Island) where the first missionary of the area came to work—Dr. Sharp arrived in the Kabale district in 1921. We also pass by Akampene (Punishment Island) where unwed pregnant women used to be exiled. We go past the national bird of Uganda, the Crested Cranes, with their funny mohawks, performing their mating dance on the lakeshore. Children from a faraway island scream: “Hey Muzungu! how are uuuuuuu?”

After roughly ten minutes on water, up ahead we can see our home-to-be for a week. It has graceful supermodel Eucalyptus trees fronting the west shore. The slender trees have been peeled naked by clans of Cormorants. Pif and Paf, the resident Pied Kingfisher birds, are waiting to greet us at the dock.

I am here to meet Canadians Tim and Joanne Specht and their Ugandan colleagues  and to experience their Bushara Island Camp. The first of its kind, the camp is a stopover to and from gorilla tours, a bird watcher’s haven, a private place for retreats and most importantly a community project. The Specht family (Tim, Joanne and Judah 17 months) are Canadian missionaries/development workers from a Canadian organization called the African Community Technical Service (ACTS). ACTS together with the Lake Bunyonyi Development Company (LBDC) offer an organic approach to sustainable development. An eco-tourisitic, fair travel camp, Bushara is a pioneer in Uganda.

The island has no electricity, no running water, no flush toilets. The camp has solar panels, revolutionary dry latrines, a whole lot of candlelight and kerosene light, and a mandate to be good to the land and people.

The beautiful environment of Lake Bunyonyi is not sufficient to feed the Bunyonyi community beyond the point of subsistence farming. Soil degradation, over-farming and the decreasing size of land holdings are all problematic factors of subsistence farming especially as the population increases. This and the obvious poverty of the area’s people motivated the Lake Bunyonyi Development Project. The one major resource that the area did have to offer was beauty and so in 1992 the idea for Bushara Island Camp was born. The well-treed Bushara Island was turned into an income-generating campground which would support an agroforestry project that would educate the local people about higher yielding farming techniques. This ongoing agroforestry extension work on Bwama Island helps to prevent malnutrition and soil erosion while introducing new cash crops.

The Lake Bunyonyi Development Company started the camp with no tents, just camping grounds. Soon they bought one tent and eventually another and they built a canteen. They developed the camp slowly over the years; only building as they could afford it. In the beginning, the staff were not earning a salary, just one meal a day. Now the camp has eight tents, a group campsite and one cottage for rent. The company has forty paid employees. Tourists are able to contribute to the land they visit in a positive way; their revenues are now beginning to fund scholarships for local students. After getting to know the island and the Bushara staff, tourists leave with a deeper understanding of the environment. In tourist culture, this kind of cross-cultural exchange feels like a new kind of travel—fair travel.

Uganda was once known as the pearl of Africa but during Amin and Obote’s regimes, the country’s economy plummeted and human rights violations soared to horrifying levels. Agriculture is the most important sector of the Ugandan economy, employing between 80 and 90 percent of the work force. Women are responsible for up to 80% of the agricultural production, which involves both subsistence and cash crops. There are currently almost one million orphans under the age of 15 who have lost their mother or both parents to AIDS. Uganda’s GNP per capita is $170—the seventh lowest in the world. On all 4 of our flights and stopovers Ruth and I saw the same man and his son. They were obviously going to the same place as us. The father explained that he was bringing his son to visit his own hometown. During Amin’s years, all Asians who were business owners were kicked out. Their businesses were given to Amin’s friends and family members who mismanaged them and wrecked the economy. Since 1986, President Museveni has gone a long way to stabilize and improve conditions in Uganda, and has invited many of the exiled Ugandans to come back to the country; in many cases he has given them back their properties. Many of the exiled came to Canada in the 70’s like the dad we met in the air.

The island has no electricity, no running water, no flush toilets. The camp has solar panels, revolutionary dry latrines, a whole lot of candlelight and kerosene light, and a mandate to be good to the land and people. With its equatorial climate, Bushara Island is truly ideal. There are no snakes except for one kind of harmless oversized worm (garden snake). No hippos, no crocodiles. There are no leeches. Or flesh-eating lake viri. No Bilharzia (beaver fever). The only wild animals are genets (harmless cats), birds and a couple of frolicking otters. No mango flies laying eggs on your clothes only to hatch later from a sac under your skin. This is an island for serious chilling out, away from the pervasive red dust and noxious diesel fumes. And, as I couldn’t help declaring almost hourly, “It’s a birder’s paradise!”

Our new home is called the Robin-Chat Tent. On a private patch of island we have a large green canvas safari tent. With its own patio, outdoor shower, flower garden and lake view, our new home is gorgeous—it feels like eden. Nature here is very noisy. Bou bous, Robin-chats, Weavers, Finches and spiders busily weaving webs make a whole lot of noise on this little 1.8 hectare island.

What to do with your days? Start with breakfast at your tent. Then an outdoor shower. Every morning at the time you’ve specified a staff person comes with a jerry can full of hot water and climbs a ladder and fills the overhead reservoir. The camp provides flip flops for guests to wear on the pebbled shower floors. You are shielded from view up to your head by a stall made of bamboo sticks.

My first activity of the day was to run the Eucalyptus trail twice round. By my second lap, I would’ve cleared most of the tiny invisible spider webs and I could see the staff canoeing to work, parking their dugout canoes in the reeds. I’d catch the first set of the day’s bird music. Later in the day you can take a birdwatching tour of the island with Enosh. At any one time, in the tall Eucalyptus trees you can see more than 110 different birds. Enosh will give you a checklist that lists the hundreds of birds you might see and/or hear. After you’ve done the bird tour you will be able to distinguish between the Crested Crane’s pre- and post-dinner songs. The post-peas-and-beans meal happy noise is quite different from their early morning hee-haw moan. During our bird tour we spotted over 25 birds, starting with an Augur Buzzard and finishing with a White-Eyed Slaty Flycatcher. You can also take a canoe tour to one of the nearby islands, visit a primary school, see some traditional dancers, or just canoe for the thrill of the paddle.

Meals up at Swallows Restaurant at the top of the island include fantastic tummy pleasers like Crayfish Masala, Chicken Curry, Lemon Cinnamon scones, Banana Fritters topped with passion fruit. Uganda has four different kind of bananas that you can sample. You also have the option of ordering lunch to be delivered to the Kingfisher Dock in a picnic basket or, later in the day for the afternoon sun, you might order an African tea down at the Jacana Dock.

For entertainment we have our view from the Robin-Chat tent. Catfish jumping, otters frolicking, Kingfishers diving. For music, the Tropical Bou Bous, Weavers, Cranes, or the church drums calling the villagers to service. Lying on the dock is in the top five favourite activities of most guests. Swimming laps around the island in the volcanic lake is always a good challenge. On windy days windsurfing becomes an option. On Mondays and Fridays a flotilla of canoes can be seen moving toward the local market at Bufuka. Any evening of your stay you can do a starry nighttime tour of the lake by canoe.

Local dancers from nearby island.

At the camp you also have a rare opportunity to do good by shopping. Buy some gifts for your friends from the giftshop up at the restaurant. Sarongs, dresses, baby rompers, ties, homemade baskets are all made by local women who have been trained in sewing and crafts. When you make a purchase, you receive a brochure explaining that Bunyonyi Wear comes from a cooperative of women who sew on foot treadle machines. They come from various villages around Lake Bunyonyi and have been chosen for the cooperative due to their inability to fulfill their traditional roles within their families—roles which always include heavy physical labour. Each of these women has a health problem or disability—making them burdens to their families and sometimes causing them to be “unmarriageable.” The cooperative trains them in sewing, style and pattern making. They are also learning book-keeping and marketing so they are fully able to run their cooperative independently. The proceeds from tourists’ purchases go directly back into the cooperative and into the hands of the women.

Currently there are 40 people working for the LBDC. The general manager, William Tibamwenda, is 39 years old and is from the nearby Mukoni village. He is married to Maudah who works on the island as part of the Bunyonyi Wear sewing cooperative. They have 4 kids. He has been with the company since the beginning when he started as a latrine digger and a night watchman. He worked his way up to foreman, then assistant manager and finally became general manager in 1997. He has written a journal about his experience on the island which he reads to us from. He explains that back in 1992 the top of the island was all bush, so they cleared it in order to build the restaurant there. To this day they use pangas to cut the grass. Pangas are large knives like machetes. There are no mowers available not even non electric ones. When I asked Tim why they couldn’t fundraise to get a push mower, he explained that having a crew of 10 men do it with pangas gives each man a job for a couple of weeks, push mowers would give only 2 men work for 2 days. This reflects their organic approach to development—if you introduce machines prematurely you can eliminate jobs before they are even created, or you create a non-sustainable situation where people become dependent on foreign machines, foreign parts and contributions.

“The partnership between Ugandans and Canadians is benefitting the local people,” William tells me. “Before there was no development, no money, no education, no jobs, no agroforestry, just soil erosion. This campground here is the mother of all campgrounds in the Kabale district. Others have copied us. Now there are 6 others in this area. The island was just used for cultivation before. The Canadian missionaries saw how poor the people were and wanted to create some revenue. We have never failed to pay the wages, or taxes and we have never failed to buy what we need. Tim is a good economist,” William explains proudly.

The Staff at Lake Bushara camp.

Tim and Joanne Specht are the directors at the Island, but they don’t do the day-to-day business as much as the planning and training. This has always been the Ugandans’ camp to run. ACTS’ contribution is human investment, not capital and the Spechts try to ensure that all the training they do and anything they add to the Island, the Ugandans would be able to carry on if the Spechts were no longer there. The Spechts train the staff in hospitality, guest services, marketing research as well as in business and product development. They have trained the kitchen staff, the sewing cooperative. They have had the staff trained in birdwatching. They have auditioned and hired a troupe of traditional dancers to perform for guests. Along with William, they oversee the agroforestry project, an orphancare program, a micro-loan program, a sewing cooperative, and other community projects which the camp revenues fund.

The Spechts say a lot of their training involves trying to inspire the Ugandans to have a long-term perspective. Ugandans underwent so much instability and war during the Amin and Obote regimes that they are used to thinking just for the day. Not to mention that their average life expectancy is only 45.5 years. The Spechts have worked very hard to instill in the Ugandans a vision for the future and together they have developed a five-year plan featuring the expansion of each of the programs and new projects for more people—clear, specific goals. After five years on Bushara, the Spechts will soon be leaving. It might be at least another year before more Canadian missionaries show up. The downfall of a lot of development projects in Africa is that as soon as the Muzungus leave, projects often deteriorate for various reasons. William is very conscious of this and he says, “I have seen a lot of projects come and go. I know how to budget and predict. We have to care for the properties of the company so that our brothers, sisters and children can replace us one day.” When the Spechts leave the island, William knows he is running the company by himself but is not alone, he can always email Tim and Joanne and ACTS for advice.

Jackline Tumubweine is 28 years old and has been working for seven years at Bushara. She says, “I like it here cause it is peaceful, it is near to my family. And for us working here—we are helping our families. Crayfish were not being used for food before. Fishermen used to just throw them back in the lake.” Jackline is the restaurant manager.

The Lake Bunyonyi Development Company offers a remarkable model of sustainable development by being largely independent of foreign donors. The LBDC continues to represent a harmonious relationship between Canadian and African partners, offering a holistic approach to development—it has tailored projects to suit the environment and the community while keeping an eye to the future. Revenue for Bushara Island Camp has grown from $27,000 in 1997 to $110,000 in 2001. This revenue is being directly used to nurture a community, to help with school fees, educate farmers about new crops and as long as the business continues, the community will grow. It is a homegrown way of providing for people’s needs.

If you are in East Africa, on your way to see the mountain gorillas, or just looking for a retreat, visit Bushara Island Camp. For a great price you are getting a piece of paradise and helping a community grow and develop. William and Jackline will be waiting for you with a torch to lead you to your tents and a strong cup of African tea. Fair Travel and ecotourism benefit the environment, the community and tourists. To make reservations or for more information about Bushara Island, the LBDC and ACTS please visit

This article was produced with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It was published in Briarpatch magazine ( February, Vol. 32, Number 1)  2003, Photo Credits: Ruth Linka 

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