A respected leader in African tourism, Maria Baryamujura expertise is in community tourism in her native country of Uganda. Known for its rich and proud ethnic heritage, and for being a warm hospitable country, Uganda has a number of various tribes making up its social fabric, each with its unique cultural identity. Maria has found a way to showcase her country’s culture while providing opportunities for some of the people. In 1998 Maria founded the Community Based Tourism Initiative (COBATI) which has served to empower rural villages in Uganda to participate in community tourism to improve their livelihoods. Through this initiative, tourists and visitors to the country can learn about local cultures, and purchase handcrafts and goods from the people.
A social entrepreneur, Maria has over 26 years of experience in sustainable tourism development and women empowerment both within and outside of East Africa. She has worked closely with Ugandan government, and local and international agencies to enhance household incomes through community tourism and sustainable environmental projects. Maria also sits on various boards and consults with many tourism organizations and professionals regarding the promotion of Uganda and African tourism and development.
Maria is also an Ashoka fellow. An organization that recognizes inspirational individuals from around the world whose life and work demonstrate how much one person can do to make the world better, Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in at least 70 countries. Identifying women around the globe who are working to put their system changing ideas into practice, Ashoka recognized Maria for her lifelong passion for tourism and community development after an intense two-year evaluation of her work.
Maria is working to help rural households and communities reap economic rewards from tourism. Through COBATI, she is changing traditional perceptions of what constitutes tourism by turning various aspects of rural cultures and livelihoods into tourist attractions that generate income for the communities and rural citizens of Uganda. She is providing non-conventional opportunities and services for tourists to experience, and also creating a new understanding about tourism and how different communities can become involved. Maria offers experiences beyond wild game adventures and upscale traditional hotels. With a focus on people and their cultures, Maria organizes people in rural communities to become complete tourism services providers.
One of the projects Maria is passionate about is the development of homestead tourism. Through COBATI, she is able to link tourism to conservation, cultural heritage and sustainable rural development to enhance the livelihood of the people and to enrich Uganda as a tourism product. COBATI has helped to initiate a Homestay Model Homes Program where selected homes are upgraded to a level where they can host tourists. The family is trained in areas that include visitor handling, nutrition and hygiene. The homestay program economically empowers families while providing cross-cultural exchange between hosts and visitors. The COBATI “Homestead Tourism program allows visitors the opportunity to share the extraordinary experiences that they have with rural communities.
One such program is the Bombo Community Tourism Initiative, a village-based tourism cluster made up of several homestays, a women’s handcraft group, traditional dancers, and a mini cultural centre. Maria worked with this initiative as a community tourism trainer. The initiative is community-owned by Nubians under their umbrella association, Uganda Nubian Consultative Forum. Initiated in 2009 and was successfully launched in 2011, this initiative has empowered the village to become a viable community tourism destination. Over the past few years, Bombo has hosted domestic and international tourists which helped to increase handcraft sales in the community.
COBATI also provides valuable tourism services to rural communities that include training, mentoring, study tours, establishing micro village enterprises and building strategic partnerships. Opened in January 2014 is the COBATI Training Center for life skills training. The center’s objective is to reach out and support the vulnerable in communities and provide basic functional skills training to help communities with challenges. Located in Mbarara Municipality in southwestern Uganda, three hours from the capital city of Kampala in a transitory district to seven of Uganda’s ten National Parks, one of the the training center's goal is to mentor rural women, and village girls and boys to use their hands to tap into some of their indigenous skills and the surrounding environment in order to create their own work.
Establishing a training center has been a dream of Maria for a very long time. For more than 20 years, she has wanted to establish a community training center to inspire change and social improvement. “Our programs will encourage participants to invest in themselves, be ethical, work hard, and move from crime and early marriages. This can help to end the vicious cycle of poverty,” explains Maria who serves as executive director of COBATI. “Our goal is to mentor people to shift their mindset, embrace new ideas, discover their talent, and acquire skills that will enable them to create income opportunities.” COBATI uses the center as a platform to conduct seminars and workshops to help improve the quality of life for community members by equipping them with simple life skills.
Maria’s work has taken her to many areas in Uganda where she meets up with the people in their various communities. Due to lack of information, many of these people in rural areas do not see their potential in terms of what they have in their environment and their culture that could serve as tourism products. However some of the people are catching on and becoming more innovative. COBATI is helping out by showing them how they can use their skills and make money through community tourism. Maria believes that more enhanced market-driven programs that protect the environment, preserve cultural heritage and contribute to sustainable economic development must be put in place.
Maria has been recognized locally, nationally and internationally as a champion for promoting tourism and sustainable environment for community development. She was inducted into the inaugural African Diaspora World Tourism Hall of Fame in the United States where she was awarded for her accomplishments. Her work has earned her various awards not only in tourism but also “For outstanding contributions to improving the lives of others for a better Uganda.” The recipient of Award of Excellence from the Government of Uganda in recognition of her contribution to tourism and women empowerment, Maria’s work has also been praised by an extensive list of media sources. She was nominated by the New Vision readers (Uganda’s Leading Daily) among Ugandans Making a Difference though taking initiative in tackling their communities’ problems in different spheres through social projects.
Currently, Maria is spearheading development of a network of rural tourism clusters around Uganda’s Protected Areas and tourist circuits. She is working with COBATI to train the communities in the sustainable use of Natural resources and in generating income through ecotourism, handicrafts and improving household environment to a level at which rural homesteads can attract and host responsible travelers seeking to interact with nature and culture.
Maria is particularly proud of helping with the development of handicraft products projects that are specific to the culture and traditions among communities and tribes. COBATI works with tapping the skills of indigenous people and rural communities. Maria wants people to realize that tourism is just not restricted to hotel owners and tour operators. “Everyday people and those in rural communities can be players in the tourism industry also,” she says. Despite living through two wars, surviving as as a refugee and twice losing all of her earthly possessions, Maria still continues to think about how she can help others.
“I wouldn't have accomplished all of this without my strong faith in God. I am a Christian woman and I believe that He has been by my side through all my trials and triumphs. I owe all that I am to God and of course to my parents and family," she says. Maria is involved in a number of church women and girls empowerment activities. As an Elder in Ankole Diocese in South Western Uganda, and All Saints Cathedral where she is a member, she a Christian Women Fellowship where she serves as chair.
Maria believes that one of the biggest hindrance to Uganda’s tourism is ignorance of people about their own country's potential as a tourist hub. "Everywhere I go I see so much potential, things that would make great improvements to the communities," she says. One of the places she has introduced community tourism to is the Buhoma community in Bwindi. She helped to identify the sites in the village, and a walking route to them was mapped in 2003. The sites include a tea plantation, an alcohol distilling plant, a traditional healer, the Batwa camp at the top of the hill and other sites that depict the way of life of the Buhoma people.
Maria is continuously working as an advocate for increasing awareness of the opportunities that community tourism can generate in Uganda, as well as Africa in general.
Photos: 1) Maria Baryamujura, 2) Maria with women of Nubian Cultural Cultural Center 3) At the opening of the COBATI Training Center 4) Maria at the African Diaspora World Tourism(ADWT) Awards with Dr. Ewart Brown, winner of the inaugural ADWT Person of the Year award, 5) Handicrafts made by rural communities 6) Maria(r) with Yogi Biriggwa, South African Airways Manager for Uganda and Rwanda.