A middle-aged but stunning woman comes out of a wooden structure carrying her four-year-old-child. She crests the hill behind her house to a new semi-permanent house made of wattle and new iron-sheets.
As if pulled by a magnet I follow her direction undetected by her. One of the children playing in the compound, sees me, turns and calls to her mother excitedly. “Toto obya, epejo noni (mother come, there is a visitor at home),” the child says in her mother tongue. She turns and her eyes move to the camera and notebook in my hands. She moves hesitantly towards my direction.
Beatrice Yeko 34, a single mother of four, is one of the beneficiaries of Sipi falls in Kapchorwa district.
“How can I help you?” she asks, almost impatiently. As we talk, Yeko receives three calls from people who ask about how her children are doing.
Manna from strangers’ pockets
Yeko says she lost her husband three years ago to an unidentified disease leaving her with four children aged 15, 12, nine and four. Having been a stay-at-home mother when her husband was alive, Yeko did not have any skill or investment to fall back on.
Her only option was to share her story with tourists who came to enjoy the sipi water falls and gave her handouts in form of money or clothes for herself and her family.
“I was so poor and did not have anything to eat or dress my children; I approached one of the tourists from Canada. When I told him about the struggles I was going through, he was very generous, he gave me money to buy something to eat,” she narrates.
Through the generosity of tourists, Yeko has been able to educate her children and construct the semi-permanent house which has relieved her of the wooden structure, which she says had been infested by bedbugs and would allow in a lot of cold air.
“One of my children was diagonised with pneumonia because of the coldness. This place can get very chilly,” she says. Yeko, however, is not the only native who has taken advantage of the tourism boom because according to the Uganda Bureau of Standards, Kapchorwa has about 113,500 people and many of them are directly or indirectly benefiting from the region’s biggest natural resource.
Saleh Naminya, Chief Executive Officer of Casa Uganda Safaris and Lodges, says Sipi falls has more than lodges and over 90 per cent of the employees are locals.
“We have three major lodges at Sipi falls and at least four out of every five employees at these lodges are from within the community. At Casa Safaris and lodges, we have 22 workers and only four of them are from outside the district or the community,” he notes.
Other players in the game
According to Naminya, many youths are employed as tour guides and carry out many other odds jobs, from which they earn a living.
“Some of the boys and girls are always interested in working and they work as and when they can. We have many of them working in different capacities,” he says.
Little wonder, as I am moving back to the main road from the valley, having feared to get involved in the abseiling activity, a small voice calls me from behind. I turn to see a 13-year-old boy who identifies himself as Peter Chebet trotting and panting. He is clad in a pair of trousers, which was formally white but has now lost its colour and an equally faded blue t-shirt. He wears a charming smile and sounded confident.
“Is this your first time here?” he asked candidly. Blown away by this bold approach, I answer in the affirmative. Assuming the tone of a seasoned tour guide, Chebet tells me he pays his fees of Sh47,000 and fends for his livelihood with the money he gets from showing tourists around. He does not have a standard pay for the service.
“You pay me as you will. I have to buy scholastic materials, some clothes for Christmas and buy food for myself. I live with my uncle since my parents are not around and life is all about me. My uncle does not have a formal job,” the Primary Four lad at Sipi Falls Primary School narrates.
Steven Asiimwe, the Executive Director of Uganda Tourism Board says there is sensitisation going on to help members of the community get basic knowledge on how to handle tourists and be hospitable.
“These people have been handling tourists without any basic knowledge and we are trying to help them. We are also making sure that the people who own lodges in this place do not import food. We have encouraged the natives to grow vegetables and other things used so that they provide readily available supply,” he says.
More to Sipi Falls
The people who live around Sipi falls comprise a cocktail of tribes especially the Bagisu on the eastern part and Sebei on the western. The main valley if occupied by different tribes like Itesots, Basoga, Bagwere. These tribes have since become a big source of tourism, according to Asiimwe.
The falls are divided into three and the highest fall drops from an altitude of 100m, referred to as the main fall since it is the last fall in the series, this fall is a little bigger than the other two falls, but all give Uganda a beautiful scenery. In fact, most people say that Sipi falls are the ‘most romantic falls’ in Uganda.
This area is majorly where most hikes to Mt Elgon start. Hiking up to these falls gives a beautiful scenic view of Lake Kyoga, the Karamoja lowlands, coffee plantations and other surrounding areas.
Asiimwe says the topography of Sebei land has given it a big advantage in tourism causing the area to grow rapidly despite the fact that not many have been taking it as a priority.
“More Ugandans are embracing Sipi and they make over 50 per cent of the regular visitors daily. The many rivers that flow from Mt Elgon because of the tectonic forces and caldera provide the water. Glacial composition of the area makes water stay for a long time in the place. Since it is entirely on a higher altitude, there are many falls,” he says.
The fact that the areas is 3000 metres above sea level, temperatures can fall to five degrees centigrade. This keeps the green colour throughout the year.
Asiimwe says this makes the breeze of the place extraordinary. “In good weather Sipi falls is a place you do not want to miss. The breeze and the weather will definitely blow you away,” he says.
Other than the good topography, Naminya says you have a chance to interact with the Ugandan gold medalists in athletics, shooting two birds with one stone.
“There are very good runners who have become tourist attractions and as you go there you will enjoy talking to them, and interacting with the gold medalists. You will find Stephen Kiprotich, Joshua Cheptegei, Edna Kiplagat and others,” Naminya says.
Naminya says the nearby communities have hospitable people and majorly the Sabiny and Bagisu who live around this area and do farming such as growing of Arabica coffee.
This is the major cash crop in this land, this coffee, is grown on very high altitudes (1,600metres to 1,900metres).
“You will be taken around the families’ coffee gardens and told the history of the area. These visits can be organised by local guides in the area and this is the other way the locals have gained from this tourist attraction,” he says.
“Many domestic tourists have began to embrace the tourism with different occasion such as honeymoon, conferences and many others,” Asiimwe adds, “Kenyans have started coming over to see lions and birds. We have not been tracking the finances but the trends have grown exponentially.”