HERBERT BYARUHANGA: My journey to becoming a popular birder in Uganda

Birds in Murchison falls national park are easily seen during game drives, nature walks through the savannah grasslands & Budongo forest and on the boat cruise along the Nile.

Birds in Murchison falls national park are easily seen during game drives, nature walks through the savannah grasslands & Budongo forest and on the boat cruise along the Nile.

In 1995, a life-changing opportunity presented itself in a newspaper advertisement seeking Tourist Driver Guides. I decided to take a leap of faith and applied. To my amazement, I was one of the 12 selected for an interview and subsequent training session at Lake Mburo National Park. Upon completion, only four of us were deemed successful, and while two were offered permanent positions, I was fortunate enough to secure a temporary one.

Our journey began in Bunga, a then-suburb of Kampala. I joined a small team comprising drivers, driver guides, mechanics, camp attendants, office administrators, and our boss, Collin Stuart. Upon arrival, I realized that my job would revolve around interacting with tourists and answering their questions. Driven by a passion for birding, I occupied myself with the book “Birds of East Africa” (Collins Field Guides), eager to equip myself with the necessary knowledge.

My first few days were filled with surprises. My supervisor informed me that, in addition to my guiding duties, I was expected to participate in various tasks around the office, including cleaning the compound, washing cars, and occasionally driving office staff. Although this was not what I initially envisioned, I embraced these responsibilities with a positive attitude, despite the modest pay and the long commute of 20km.

Three months into the job, I was given my first significant assignment: a tour to Bwindi with two American ladies. One was a tour operator from Tanzania, and the other, her client. We embarked on our journey in an old Land Rover, navigating the then pothole-ridden roads. We arrived late in the evening at a temporary camp located 15km from the current Gorilla offices in Buhoma. The following morning, we set out early for a Gorilla tracking experience, which turned out to be a remarkable success. The ladies were thrilled, and their excitement was contagious.

However, the journey presented its challenges. During our drive to Bwindi, one of the ladies asked about my marital status. I explained that I was culturally married and saving up for a formal church wedding. She then expressed her interest in an African man who had children but was not married, hinting at her willingness to take care of the children if he agreed to move to the USA. I remembered the training’s strict warning: never propose or accept any romantic advances from clients. Despite the persistence of the conversation, which lasted over five hours, I remained firm.

Later that evening, the lady tour operator asked the camp manager to invite me to her tent, where she had set up a chair, two glasses, and a bottle of wine. Dressed in a body-tight black jumpsuit, she welcomed me with a hug and invited me to sit and have a glass of wine. I politely declined, citing company policies and my role as staff. Although she seemed furious and disappointed, I assured her that we could meet at dinner.

After their dinner, we planned the next day’s drive back to Kampala. The following day, as we traveled, she recounted to her colleague how I had disappointed her by refusing to have wine. Her colleague added that I had also turned down an offer to travel to America. Upon arriving in Kampala, they invited me to dinner, but I declined, as I had not been given an allowance for dining at fancy hotels. One of the ladies requested that I accompany her to her room to pick up a parcel and my tip. I declined, explaining that I was awaiting an office staff member to pick up the vehicle for repairs. Eventually, I accepted their dinner invitation, opting for affordable local food.

After dinner, they handed me an envelope, which I opened later to find a $300 tip, which delighted me. The next day, a surprise letter arrived at the office. The tour operator had written a glowing two-page letter praising my knowledge, honesty, and professionalism. She requested that my boss never let me leave the company, stating that I had demonstrated a level of discipline she had not encountered in Africa. My boss read the letter aloud to the staff, using it as an example of professionalism. Unfortunately, my immediate supervisor felt insecure and orchestrated my departure from the company shortly afterward. However, this experience laid the foundation for my journey in the tourism sector.


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