Amos Wekesa on Tourism

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Amos Wekesa (AW) on Tourism.

RK: Amos, David Kangye asked that we begin the session by going back home.

AW: No problem.

RK: Mulembe

AW: Kamakhuwa uwaye

RK: Kasiila wakyinyala

AW: Uwaye ndio umulaayi

RK: Uloma shiina uwaaye?

AW: Aaah ife khuliyo. Ingo?

RK: Abe nayimbasaandi uli umusamba metsi

AW: Aa ta

RK: Baanomele bari  wamila inaawuyu, ilwakhakha

AW: Eeeh indi umundu uwe lwakhakha uwaaye

RK: Matsima ilala matsima ilala

AW: iwe uli umunakenya suuli umunauganda taa ari khwakhumanyiile

RK: Aatata uli ni khusoma ihistory iye Bagisu

AW: Let me tell you something that might be of interest to the listeners. Us the Bamasaba, believe that the first Bamasaba were Mundu and Sera. The two gave birth to Khundu and Masaba. Khundu is believed to have run away partially because of circumcision and he wanted to live in the low lands. He is believed to have become Kintu in Buganda. Masaba who remained gave birth to three sons, the youngest was Wanale (there is a hill named after him), Mwambu (went to the northern part of Bugisu) and the 3rd is Mubuya (went to the southern part of Bugisu). We are about 7.5 Bagisu with the same descendants 2.5m live in Uganda called Bagisu and the 5m live in Kanya called the Babukusu.

RK: Amos, there is a question I always ask every guest who comes on this show; were you born? Were you born a tour guide?

AW: I don’t think so. I just landed into this space. The reason I was called Wekesa is becuse I was born during harvest during Likesa, a season of harvesting millet.

RK: You are a man who has always been harvesting? This takes me to my next question, I take it out of David Mpanga’s post; how do you manage to be consistent and resilient even when you are faced with a lot of difficulties, how do you manage to get going? You’ve great humour!

AW: Thank you Robert, you are doing a fantastic job. I think Uganda needs mentors. There needs to be someone who can tell Ugandans that they can be the greatest they can be. When I see what you are doing I am moved. Sorry to digress; I have done a few samples; one time I spent a whole year, anytime I was at Serena, I asked every Uganda I met; do you dream of ever owning a hotel like Serena? There were two main answers;

  1. It is not our space as Ugandans
  2. No. it’s not our level.

That affected me so much. Then I took another year, I would ask any person I met; have you ever thought about owning a bank? Robert, I met only one guy who told me that one day he would own a bank. This was after a whole year of asking random people.

Why am I telling you this? If we don’t tell Ugandans that owning a bank is okay. Owning a telecom is okay, owning a five star is okay. It is okay to dream about it. If you don’t dream, you won’t achieve it. Many of us think that every good thing must be owned by a foreigner. But Kenyans give us a very good example. They have four Kenyan banks which Kenyan owned.

RK: Amos, I should tell you this. I will own the best coffee farm in East Africa in the next five years.

AW: Fantastic! That’s where it begins.

RK: God willing!

AW: I was born in a place called Lwakhakha in a smuggling family in 1973. My family was very desperate. Iddi Amin had taken over power. Many of the soldiers had camped on Mt. Elgon. The smugglers would pass through our villages. My family had just moved over for survival. Smugglers are like hunters and fishermen; they always think the fish will always be there. I am told that in 1941 in some parts of Kampala there were elephants. 1941 is not very far from now but the hunters then never thought that the animals would one day be done. The same was true for my family. The areas of Kyebutayi and Kyebukube. I joined my family in the trade at the age of 7. IDs were used in smuggling because Kenyan side was very friendly to the kids.

RK: Amin’s soldiers would never bother kids.

AW: Not at all.  As kids that’s what we need. We stayed in a very bad hut. You could see the stars from inside the hut. We used to cover ourselves with our mother’s gomesi. Every time my family made some money, they would just drink it.

RK: First of all, when they went to Kyebukube, they bought salt and a record player and they drank the rest.

AW: Absolutely! I am giving you this background for you to see where we are coming from. By the age of 10, I had never put on shoes. I had never been in a car. I had not started school at 10. We were so poor. I remember when we were celebrating 10 years of Great Lakes Safaris, my mother came. I asked her why she cried every time she saw me. She said, when she gave birth to me, she did not have a baby shawl. She said she wanted to kill me. She was so desperate for a long time. On the day she had decided to kill me, it was a Friday. Not because she hated me, but because she had seen me suffer and she wanted to relieve me of the pain. But that night in her dream, a voice (I believe of God) told her not to. That’s how I was saved.

I joined Salvation Army and I enrolled for school to join nursery at 11 years, but the headmaster said I was too old for P1. He sent me to P2. Fast forward, there are things that I loved. I loved football, I loved scouting and debate. I got aggregate 12 in PLE and that was the last time I ever saw a first grade. I went to S1 and performed fairly well but deteriorated thereafter. I couldn’t even fill in PJAB forms.

RK: Why?

AW: I knew there was no miracle for me to go to the university at that time. I hadn’t invested in the books. I had spent my time in other things which have come to pay off in my life today. Things like debate, leadership and scouting.

I was at Wairaka College in Jinja for O’ level and St. Peters College Tororo for A’ level. In school, they only gave us school fees. The times were tough. I went to the dining hall every single day of my school time.

RK: From day 1, you were a regular, and you even knew the cook by name?

AW: Absolutely! They knew me. That’s why I made sure I was a leader throughout school.

RK: Like they even knew you. They knew your portions. Hahaha

AW: True. They knew my story. I have never been afraid of my story.

RK: You shouldn’t be. That’s the authenticity of it.

Aw: I am not responsible for where I come from. I am responsible for where I am and where I am going. I never chase to be Uganda or to be a child of my parents. But here I am.

RK: After St Peters Tororo, how did you end up in tourism?

AW: I had failed completely and I was written off. In the first week of May, 1996, I asked God for another chance. I said God if you give me another chance again, I am not going to take it for granted.  I remember that prayer very well.

Robert, we all fall short in our lives…

RK: Yes, we do.

AW: … but I have learned to make a commitment every day of my life. That first week of May I made a commitment and on the 22nd of May, a Canadian doctor who was working at the Tororo Hospital came to our home (the children’s home). He asked the guardian to send me to Kampala to study a certificate in tourism. That’s how I boarded the bus to Airways tours and travel school. It was such a beautiful school.

RK: It was a good school. I remember it.

AW: It was run by a Kenyan gentleman called Muturi, a very hands-on gentleman. During that school time, Robert, I could not compare to any of the other students. All I had was school fees. I was staying in Kikubamutwe slum where I rented a room of Ugx 5,000. I knew my background but I never let that hold me back. I did so well, Robert. I had committed myself to a new beginning. The course took me 9 months. Salvation army was now done with me. For me to survive, I was working for people in their homes.

RK: You’re a houseboy, you accept.

Aw: I wish I could lie. That’s what I was doing to raise money for my food and accommodation. I was now staying in Kamwanyi.

I went to look out for my first job. I knew no one. I never knew I had relatives. I only got to know them when I had made some money. But…….

RK: Let me go and ask my mum’s people, we may be related.

AW: Hahaha… Anyway that’s a different story. I committed myself to find a job. I was ready to do anything as long as I was given a chance. I went to Bailex Tours at Sheraton, Hotel. They used to do tour and travel. It was run by a guy called Mucunguzi. Robert I have learned that if you commit to what you are doing, it is going to be so clear in your mind that it’s time to move on.

RK: True! And you are never in doubt when that moment comes. You move with no hesitation or fear.

AW: Absolutely! I moved to another company called Travel Centre. Meanwhile I was earning ugx 20,000 a month. There was a lady in Kamwanyi who used to make for me cassava and beans every day.

RK: I am sure by the end of the week you had a terrible heartburn.

AW: No. Poverty doesn’t give you that luxury. At the end of the day, if hunger can’t inspire nothing can. If poverty can’t inspire you, nothing will.

RK: Let me ask you a question Amos; do you ever get hungry at 2am in the morning?

AW: Now? I had so much appetite when I was poor.

RK: I know that hunger of 2am – 5am. It is very difficult. In the 90s, you had nowhere to go and grab a bite. But anyway that was the life then.

AW: I went to Rwakisheta’s office. I told the secretary that I had a special message for the boss.  Waited for a full hour before the opportunity was granted. I told him the truth that I had no special usage for him but I was willing to sweep or clean or do anything for him. But Robert, even when I earned 20,000, I always saved up. I remember I had a small account in post bank. I had enough food and I had paid my rent.

He asked me whether I could drive and I said yes, by faith.

RK: But could you drive?

AW: No. So he called a friend called Bakeine who owned Nile Safaris and he asked him to give me a chance. I went to Bakeine and he gave me a driver called Livingstone to go for road test. When we reached that place where British Airways used to be around Kampala club, he asked me to go to the driver’s side to drive. I told him the truth. I told him my life was hard. I was willing to be an office messenger. I could do anything.

When we went back, Livingstone told the driver that I wasn’t a good driver but I would do better as a messenger and as a cleaner. That’s how I got my job there.

RK: Where is Livingstone now?

AW: He went on to do well for himself. He runs a tour company as well.

RK: Are you still in touch with him?

AW: Yes, I am.

RK: That guy; he gave you the break for your life, man!

Aw: True. So many times in life, we have so many turns. There’s always an angel. There’s always that one guy.

RK: God gets that one guy in the strangest of ways.

AW: Absolutely!

RK: It is always your responsibility to look out for those people. Who is God sending you and why?

AW: Boss, as an office messenger, you know what my role was? Making sure the keys were kept well and the office was clean. Then I would go to the Post Office. At that time, tourists were sending in remittances. Every guy at the post office knew me. They all knew me as a good guy.

One thing I have learnt in life is that you need to make a character that makes you survive.

RK: Be likable.

AW: Yes. The world does not owe you anything. But just creating a liable character has opened for me opportunities all over the world. Robert, do you know that today, there is no country I go to and stay in a hotel just because of that.

RK: Wow!

AW: Yeah! I worked with that man and he trusted me so much. I was the only person he could give his phone to take to Kampala Casino to load airtime. He had a big phone and I would take it to the Celtel office.

I worked with him and after one year, I moved on. I went for an interview at Habari Safaris. This new job was paying me per day. He interviewed about 200 guys and I was among the few he took in. I started my journey as a tour guide. Every tourist who came into the country through the company, I would know them by name. I had to work with all the tourists. I would be awake till 3am when the last Dutch man had his last smoke. And I would be up by 5am. I remember God is my witness, I was so exhausted, I fell in a fire in Lake Mburo and they had to pull me out of exhaustion. The boss gave me Ugx 1000. I cried in that taxi. But I had no gift.

But you see Robert, the first thing you need in life is not money, it’s a skill. Find a skill that you are good and that everyone around you wants from you. I knew I needed to have a skill. I honed that skill close to no cost. The guy was not very good though. He would always tell the tourists that we Ugandans were beggars and that he was doing us a favour and I hated that. The tourists would ask me at the end of the trip, how come you have not asked for anything?

One day we bought a watermelon from Kabale and we were driving toward Mbarara. We stopped at Panafric Hotel at night. The tourists were curious, they asked the boss, why aren’t you paying these guys anything? My boss said; I told you labour in Uganda is so cheap and this Amos you see can never be better than this.

I had already discovered my gift. I had seen the country. I knew who I was.

RK: How did you split from him?

AW: That very evening when he said the labour was so cheap. I don’t even know where the confidence came from. I told him off before the tourists that I would never work for him again. And I promised him that I would never be poor. I left and came to Kampala the next day and that was the end. I looked for my next job with AFRIC Voyage, Annet Kironde.

She didn’t like tours, she liked ticketing. But I was willing to work, and I worked for her. I worked for 18 years, and I still do.

RK: Tell me, Great Lakes and Uganda Lodges, when did you take the leap of faith?

AW: One day I went to Annet and said in future, the internet was going to take over ticketing. But, she was not convinced. I left. I had saved up Usd 200. I changed them and started in briefcase with a receipt book and an invoice.

RK: Which year was this?

AW: 2001. But remember that I had discovered myself. I had managed to live on my own. I had managed to save all through. Robert, there is no single day I have ever lived above my means up to today. I have always had something for the rainy day. Even in covid, as a company, we have not borrowed.

I went to parliament and started meeting the MPs. Anyone who had a 4WD, I would tell them that I would find a job for their cars and remember all their names. One of them you know him, Rwakoojo. I would give them 100,000 daily. I also looked around for anyone who had a Mercedes Benz 190 and a Toyotya Kibina. I would stop anybody. People would abuse me but when you are poor you don’t care.

I would go and attend wedding meetings where I had not been invited. At KPC, National Theatre, Nsambya Sharing Hall.

RK: Amos! Continue…

AW: Opportunities go to those who are prepared. So I had my briefcase, whenever they would ask for cars for hire, I would remove the photos and show them. None of them was mine.

RK: Man, you should be the founder of uber!

AW: And those were the only times I dressed nicely. I had my two old suits which I would always wear. Man, when I look at those suits, they looked horrible. That’s why I don’t like suits anymore.

RK: You man!

AW: Then would also go to tour companies and tell them. I had cars and I would drive. Every Saturday at 5am, I would be at the washing bay of KPC.

RK: Between the Indian social centre and watoto, there was a car wash there.

AW: Anha! And I would not drive any of the cars just in case I knocked any of them. But guess what; there is no single person that gave me their car that can say, Amos cheated me. None up to now.

RK: Wow! That’s profound!

AW: I aided everyone. I also saved for the bad. After 9 months, I got my first office at Rainbow Arcade. I had to rent an office with a lady called Lydia.

RK: The millennials now call it a co-working space.

AW: But by this time, people were starting to know me. I made a good name. But you know what, I never left my Ugx 5000 room. Even when I had Usd 5000 on my account.

RK: Wait, you were still staying in Kamwanyi?

AW: No. I had improved. I was now paying ugx 70,000 in Nsambya. But don’t forget that what I stayed in now, was far better than what I had ever stayed in before. That’s why I only built a home in 2019. Everything for was an improvement.

RK: When do you pivot into the actual business of tourism.

Aw: In January 2002, a lady goes to an online segment called Thorn Tree on Lonely Planet. On that platform, someone would ask; I am going to Uganda, which company can you recommend?

A lady from Holland recommends Cynthia who was working with World Bank. I gave that lady the best service I could ever give. At the end of the trip I went to Sheraton to meet her. I could not meet her at my office. One thing, Robert, I had dinner with every client that travelled with us. I still do when I can. On that dinner I shared with clients my past, present and future plans. Foreigners take that personal. As we wound up our dinner, Cynthia said she was going to do something for me. I thought it was just another muzungu have sympathy for another African.

In May 2002, she recommended a group from World Bank. I gave them a tour guide and Martin Okot. Okot knew the bird species off head. We had no books or binoculars but he could tell you the story for each bird upon sight. One of the guys on the team was a keen birder. He crosschecked with his bird book for all the information Okot gave them and it was true. On his departure dinner, he told me Okot is the bird man of Uganda.

Robert, when it comes to birds, Uganda has 1078 species of birds. That is 11% of the world’s species of birds. 50% of Africa’s species of birds. And 73% of East Africa’s species of birds.

America has got 1007 species of birds and America makes 36 billion dollars from those birds every year. Yet they have 600 birds less than Uganda, for you to see 500 species of birds in the US you will spend years yet in Uganda, to see 600 species, it will take you 14 to 21 days. America alone has 60 million people who call themselves birders. If those guys ever discovered through marketing how good Uganda is, we would become a donor country. But I digress.

In December 2001, I had deposited ugx 7 million on a mini bus with Ani Malik. In February 2002, I went to Holland for my first marketing gig. While there I received a call that the car had been smashed. I still had a bill of ugx 5 million to pay. People told me Amos you come from a poor family, who told you to handle these things? When I was younger, I took that personal. Today at 48, I know that what people say is not about me but a reflection of their personal fears. If you take their personal fears as your own conviction, you are going nowhere.

RK: That’s true.

AW: When I came back, I told Malik that he had two options; to put me in jail and get nothing or to give me a few months and I pay him back the balance. He agreed and I paid him all the money. By July I had contemplated closing business and moving on. But something told me to hang in there.

On 22nd November 2002 I got a call from Tom Cotter. So I was like, how can I help you sir? He said, “I travelled with you in May and I am an Editor with Washington Times. I have written an article on Uganda which is still on my website till today. The man did not know what he had done. I was told, if I had paid, I would have paid Usd 200,000 for that article.

Groups of tourists started coming in. For each group that came, I made enough money to go and buy a car from the bond. Boss, I started making money.

At that time, I had no relationship. I was focused. Us the Bamasaba we get circumcised at 17, the next year you are expected to marry. I did S6 at the age of 23. I refused. I promised myself I would only marry if I could handle a family.

When I was going to marry, I moved to Nsambya estate and got a house of Usd 200 a month. I had my office in the garage but the experience was not good. So I moved the office to Susie house next to American Embassy. I lived in Nsambya for a long time. Even when I was making Usd 1million a year, the most I paid for rent was Usd 200.

RK: Could you breakdown for us a few things,

  1. What are the unique things that this country has in terms of tourism?
  2. What opportunities do they provide?

AW: First of all, you must know the size of Uganda. Uganda is 0.2% of the world land mass. God in this wisdom, placed Uganda in the grasslands of East Africa and the tropical rain forests of Congo. This is one of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. When you talk about bio diversity, you are talking about an abundant supply of flora, fauna and the general eco system.

Uganda has got 10 national parks and 12 game parks combined.  Each national park has something very unique. I was a tour guide in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The most miserable trip would be where we began from Uganda and went to Kenya and ended up in Tanzania. They would be in Uganda and see all this beauty then you enter Kenya and people begin asking questions. By the time you reach Tanzania they would be dissatisfied.

Being a tour guide made me love Uganda. I didn’t know why they were taking things so emotional. Most of us Ugandans look at Uganda based on the boda boda guy we don’t like, the politicians we don’t support.

But you also have coffee.

RK: Uganda’s Robusta is the best for cappuccino.

AW: Kibale is the primate capital of East Africa. Then you have got 7 different species of mammals in that same park. You’ve 351 species of birds. Some of the trees in that forest are 55 metres high and they are as old as 200 years old.

Do you know that there is no country in Africa that has many rivers and lakes of fresh water as Uganda? In fact, Uganda could be having the highest concentration of fresh water bodies in the world. This is a pride issue we don’t understand.

We go to the Rwenzoris; you know that the Rwenzoris are the 3d in terms of highest peak. The first is Kibo in Kilamanjaro and then Mt Kenya and the third is Mt Rwenzori. In terms of single peak, Mt Rwenzori is the largest. Robert, none of those mountains is as close to Mt Rwenzori in terms of beauty. The Rwenzori has so many animals and birds. It is one of the top 10 beautiful mountains in the world. That mountain is 120 kilometres long. 43 kilometres wide on the Ugandan part. It is the most technical mountain on the continent.

RK: What do you mean by technical?

AW: It means you have to use some scientific methods when climbing. Robert, let’s go to figures. Do you know that Mt Kilimanjaro hosts 65000 foreign climbers who pay averagely Usd 5000 in the economy? Kilimanjaro alone makes over 350 million dollars a year. The Rwenzoris have the ability to make at least Usd 500 million if well marketed.

The world is not about what you have but what you do with what you have.

Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s second largest national park. It has about 680 species of birds. That is the highest concentration of birds per sq./km of any protected area in the world. Queen Elizabeth, if well marketed could make us at least 3 billion dollars from birders alone. It is only that. Queen Elizabeth has some special features probably you will not find anywhere else in the world. You drive on a grassland and come across a gorge 100 metres deep with a tropical forest. There are chimpanzees in that forest. it is called Kyambura. There is just nowhere else you will find that. You have a channel that is 45 kilometres connecting two major lakes; Edward and George. It has probably the highest concentration of hippos in any place in Africa. You have a number of rests; Maramagambo, Kalinzu. Then there is salt mining. It is also a biosphere where animals and human beings can co-exist.

RK: Do you know we have the highest concentration of saints in the world? But Bethlehem makes Israel about Usd 2 billion a year. Vatican makes about Usd 6 billion form tourists. How much do we make from Namugongo a year?

AW: Taj Mahal, on e-building makes Usd 4 billion a year. Do you know that there are more people named Kizito in Nigeria than Uganda?

RK: There’s a Uganda Martyrs Church in Washington

Aw: Anha! But you see, Robert, it does not matter what you have, but what you do with what you have.

Uganda has averagely the best weather in the world. We are crossed by the equator and the lowest point of 620 metres high that is at Lake Albert and the area of Bundibugyo. The highest point is on top of Mt Rwenzori at 1109 metres high and distance between the two is 100 metres.

Tourism used to be only for rich. They took advantage of it because it gives you a chance to learn. It gives you a chance to discover opportunities. According to Visa international, between 34 and 36% of the reasons why people travel is because they are looking for good weather. If we marketed Uganda as a country with the best weather, we would be a donor country.

Uganda has got the source to the longest river in the world. English people took 200 years to find the source to the Nile. For the longest time, Uganda had the best rafting space. Unlike many rivers which flood and have both a high and low water season, in Uganda there is a small difference when it comes to the water levels. That gives you a chance to raft throughout the year.

River Nile has got the most powerful water falls in the world. The whole of the Nile struggles to pass through 7 metres falling 43 metres deep, there is nowhere in the world where you find water gushing through a canyon like at Murchison/ Kabalega falls.

If we are to market ourselves, we must use this as a red symbol but we do not understand that.

Then you come to the world’s largest fresh water and tropical lake in the world. I read a report recently which said Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania miss out earning 63 billion dollars a year because of underutilisation of Lake Victoria through underutilised water transport, fishing and marine tourism.

Uganda has about 41% of the lake. We have a group of Islands called the Ssesse Islands. They are about 5 of them. The biggest is called Bugala and the other is called Bukasa. Lonely Lantet considers them as some of the hidden treasures of the world.

Can you tell me what the first hotel in Uganda was?

RK: I don’t know.

AW: Masindi hotel. It was built between 1923 and 1926. The guys who used to come from Europe would come through the Suez Canal and join the Nile. They would take the bus where Aswa was built all the way to Nimule and all the way to Uganda.

RK: Oh, that is why there’s Masindi port?

AW: Yes. They would come and do tourism at Murchison Falls National Park. From Masindi port, they would take a steamer ship to Namasagali from where they would get a train to Kampala. That is how tourists were moving.

Comrade Otoa: Amos has pivoted away from tourism into agribusiness.

RK: You know what Tony? Amos and I debated about 3 years ago. He thought that I was mad by going into farming. I, too, thought he was mad doing tourism. Now that he has crossed into agriculture, I am now also considering going into tourism.

Comrade Otoa: How do we work around promoting our country away from the politics?

AW: I would like to say, Uganda’s tourism has not yet begun, we have not touched even 5% of the tourism potential that we have. If you want to know that a country is doing well in tourism, you look at the number of rooms a country has got, the chain of international hotels. If you look at East Africa we have 1200 rooms that are sensible for tourism. 80% of them are in Kenya. Uganda and Rwanda are going about the same. All our parks and game reserves combined, we have less than 1200 rooms in them. Masai Mara alone across the border has 5000 rooms. Uganda has one airport with 1.8 million arrivals before covid. That’s the same size as the Moi Airport in Mombasa. Jomo Kenyatta had about 10 million. That shows you the opportunities of where we are going. If each one of us committed to marketing this country. If the government was pressured to put money in this industry, jobs would be created overnight. In tourism, no one can keep more than 10% of the money they get. Tourism has got the highest trickle-down effect.

I must encourage you all to market this country. It belongs to all of us. From today on, fight the negative energy. Let’s look at the things that make Uganda shine. Goodnight everyone.

Comrade Otoa: Thank for being such a wonderful guest, Amos.

8 thoughts on “Amos Wekesa on Tourism

  1. I Love my country more now after reading this, I am going to make sure I twit and share to my international friends about my country.

    Actually am starting to visit many tourism sites he has mentioned.

  2. I have always known Uganda to be the true pearl. What an inspirational story of hard work, resilience and faith. The younger generation has grown soft esp. about hardwork – its great to hear these stories of pple that have made it ahare about hardwork, good work ethic etc

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