The right cultural experience
Have you ever visited a zoo? It’s a popular daytrip but almost everyone would agree it is not quite the same as visiting a national park such as Kidepo. The difference is that there is some excitement in the unknown. In a National Park you are always on the lookout, you don’t know what you will see next. Another difference is that the animals are seen in a context: the lion in the park might be hunting, the giraffe on the plains will be roaming in groups, the buffalo will be protecting its young. Visitors to a national park will learn about the animals actual behavior, not watch a show created by the zookeeper.
A much heard complaint about cultural tourism is that it is like watching animals in a zoo. Visitors to local communities often see people perform a wedding dance but find there is no actual bride. They buy a spear, but have not seen anyone use them. Some visitors think it is a little bit awkward. The tourists watch people perform a show and it somehow doesn’t feel right.
Local communities around Kidepo have been told that their authentic and traditional culture is one of their most valuable resources. They are more than willing to tap in to it. The problem the communities face is that for most of the people in those communities it is quite hard to understand why exactly their culture is worth a visit of some tourist from the other side of the world. This is why many cultural attractions in Uganda end up with communities showing you how their ancestors lived. It would never occur to them that the way they live themselves is much more interesting!
How to make cultural tourism seem natural
A good example of how cultural tourism can be done is the way Karamoja Arts in Kotido handles it. Their organisation arranges visits to the nearby village of Nakaperumoro. They give you a translator as a guide and you drive to the village. Once there, you can talk with people, ask questions about the many things that you do not understand and get an impression of how people actually live. Through this interaction you will learn things about a culture that is vastly different from your own. The setting that is created by Karamoja Arts is not a zoo with contextless dances, it is like a national park where both parties learn from each other.
Working people in Karenga (the biggest village bordering Kidepo) enjoy sitting together in the evening while drinking Meruwa, a local beer. They discuss the day’s events, local politics and generally just have a good time. The Buffalo Base can introduce you to one of these drinking groups. Try the beer (or buy a coke) and have a chat. People will give you some fantastic perspectives on life.
In Karenga, there is a seriously good dancing group. The group dances on festivals, weddings, funerals and other traditional functions. They contacted the Buffalo Base and told them they want to dance for every tourist that comes to Karenga. While most visitors would be interested to see the group, simply forcing the dances on visitors (as was their plan) would create some uncomfortable dilemma’s with the tourists: Should they pay for something they didn’t ask for? Who do they pay? The chief? The people that danced? Is it morally sound to enjoy the show? These questions will make the performance a bit awkward.
The solution is to market the group as a show. If visitors can book tickets in advance and pay a set amount, most of the discomfort will disappear. Tickets can now be booked through the Buffalo Base and the show is a definite must see for every visitor to the region.
Community tourism doesn’t have to be a painful experience. Try to interact. Even if you find a bit of a zoo element, remember that the cultural resource they posses is not easy to exploit. It requires insight in your way of thinking to make it work. Just give the community some feedback, so they too can learn something about culture.