Today, our group traveled to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens and finished the day with a trip to southwestern Uganda to visit the Equator, a significant global point at which the northern and southern hemisphere are separated by an invisible division. The day’s activities played into everyone’s tourist side as we took pictures at the Gardens and visited the village shops at the Equator, which was a nice change of pace to start the week off with.
After breakfast at the MUBS canteen, we took time to discuss some of things we had learned about life in Uganda and some of the issues the country faces. Both Drake and MUBS students and our professors took time to reflect on the differences between our education systems, the election and operation of the Ugandan Parliament in comparison to other legislative systems including the United States’, our experiences from the Owino Market, and the concepts and issues Ugandan entrepreneur Patrick Bitature discussed. This open dialogue helped us answer each other’s questions and relate each activity to either helping or hurting Uganda’s path toward sustainable development.
After the discussion, a bus ride took us to the NARO Entebbe Botanical Gardens tucked into the countryside outside of Entebbe. Many of us were surprised to learn that the gardens were located in a park in an outside, open area. This falls in stark contrast to the Botanical Gardens in Des Moines, where they are located within an artificial environment in a large biodome. Here in Uganda, we were surrounded by the natural beauty of the country’s flora in its native environment.
We toured the park, observing the fragile ecosystem that exists in the country. There were 5-feet-tall termite hills and we were constantly surrounded by a swarm of two or three species of dragonflies. Our tour guide explained that when visitors walk through the gardens, it helps the dragonflies survive by stirring up flies from the ground, which they then consume. This is one of the few places in Uganda where humans are not considered a negative intrusion.
When talking to the tourist guide, he told us that he was not paid for his job and only received tips from visitors as payment for his work. I then wondered where the funds went from the admission we paid to enter the gardens. If they’re not paying their employees, where is the money going to? Is it going back into the garden, which would be a positive contribution to sustainable development, or is it “disappearing?”
We saw many different species of flora including eucalyptus and camphor trees, which leaves are used to help treat illnesses like the flu or a cold. Many of the trees were most commonly known by their nickname, usually due to their appearance or the features of its leaves or fruits. We encountered the Alligator Tree, whose roots look like giant resting alligators on the ground; the Rabbit Fur Tree, whose leaves are covered in “fur” and when dried look like a rabbit or mouse skin; and the Sandpaper Tree, whose leaves are rough and are used by rural women to file their nails.
We also found a flower called the Angel’s Trumpet, an Arizona Cactus, and a ground plant whose leaves close when touched just as a Venus Flytrap’s do. We walked on a path and climbed up a stairway through a natural canopy featuring swinging vines where the original 1930’s Tarzan and Jane was filmed. As some of us were not excited about, we also managed to find a couple dragon spiders, one of which had caught a dragonfly in its nest—a feast conquered for the day.
As I was walking through this beautiful landscape of natural plants and wildlife, I was reminded of the fragility of the country’s ecosystem and its need for protection. As the population has shot up dramatically, the people of Uganda have shown a general disregard for the protection of this ecosystem. Housing developments have cut into the areas where wildlife once thrived, and poor waste disposal has contaminated the water and soil that can be used to support not only the Ugandan people themselves, but also to enable producers to increase exports. Policies to support the preservation of the country’s ecosystem as well as building a solid infrastructure to support proper waste disposal will help Uganda reach their sustainable development goals.
After this visit, we took a long bus ride to the southwestern region of Uganda to visit the Equator. Most of us had never even stepped foot into the southern hemisphere of the world, so this part of our trip was a moment that will never be forgotten. When you reach this point, it is clear that it is a significant tourist attraction because there are shops along both sides of the road for a city block-long stretch.
These shops feature gifts and crafts that tourists look for when coming to Africa—small and large animal figurines, painted and carved wooden crafts, jewelry made out of natural materials, animal hide drums, scarves, bowls, and other trinkets. As we started to walk through these shops, it was easy to tell that the majority of them had almost identical merchandise. Little differentiation existed between one shop and its neighbors, so we had to go in and out of each shop to figure out which were the best things to purchase.
This undifferentiated selling method perplexed me. In the United States’ capitalist system, one business prospers above the others by providing a competitive advantage for customers in order to ensure business. The only reason for a customer choosing to buy from a certain shop in this system was because one of the similar products was slightly different or its characteristics better suited to its purchaser. There is no potential for sustainable development with this undifferentiated strategy.
In addition to their unsustainable selling practices, these business owners also base their livelihood on the fact that tourists will continue to regularly visit this site year-round. As any business person can tell you, when the economy goes down, tourism goes down. Tourism is an industry based on the expendable income of the population. When the economy goes down, this expendable income decreases or, in some cases, is even depleted, leaving less or no money for people to travel and visit these attractions.
These business owners cannot base their livelihood off of tourists, because they may or may not come. Since this tourist attraction is buried deep in southwestern Uganda in a continent that is expensive to reach in the first place, this income from tourists cannot be guaranteed. These owners also do not possess any resources to provide any leverage for them to counteract their decreased income during these slower times.
Their undifferentiated selling practice and the instability of the income they base their livelihood upon leads me to believe that these Equator shops do not positively contribute to sustainable development. Sustainable development can only be achieved when these business owners figure out a way to ensure a steady income for their family through leveraging these slower times. In order for Uganda to reach a level of sustainable development, people like these small business owners must use business practices that ensure continued growth instead of focusing on instant gratification.