We all know that there is only one Source of the Nile and located in Jinja. It is the source of the longest river in the world. This means that the Source of the Nile because, of its uniqueness and the special position it holds in the world heritage, is recognized as a significant an endowment that must be protected and sustainably conserved.
Hence, the Source of the Nile is not a site that belongs to a particular entity or organization or a grouping of specific people. It belongs to all Ugandans. Anything that is to be done in terms of developing the site must be in the spirit of benefiting the country.
All those that wish to develop or run any developments at the Source of the Nile must do it as trustees for the people of Uganda of this natural endowed resource.
After having made that important preamble, we now need to assess what has been happening at the Source of the Nile.
Although, the site is a tourism destination and a tourism product, the status is that Jinja Municipal Council (JMC) is the administrative body that has been running the site. JMC has been collecting revenue in terms of entrance fees , rental fees from the Craft-shop owners and advertising fees from the Corporate companies that have been using the site to promote their products such as Bell Beer.
Although, there has been this arrangement, many times, maintenance and development of the site as a tourism destination has been very minimal. The result of this has been recorded low visitation, poor visitor’s experience and short duration of visitor’s stay. The sum of it all is that there has not been full utilization of the potential of this site.
As a result, there have been several discussions within the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife & Antiquities (MTWA) about the need to redevelop the Source of the Nile to give it a face it deserves and to create befitting activities that will make the site a preferred visitor’s destination.
In 2014, the former Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, the late Hon. Dr. Maria Mutagamba launched discussions of the redevelopment of the site. In July 2014, she led a technical delegation of three Chinese experts and a South African together with staff from the Ministry to the Source of the Nile. I had the privilege to be invited to this visit in my capacity as the Chairperson of Busoga Tourism Initiative (BTI), a Regional Tourism Cluster that promotes tourism in Busoga.
Later, discussions were held and some preliminary working papers were produced. The gist of the discussions was to the effect that since the Source of the Nile is a very important national asset, there was a need to develop a comprehensive development framework for it and its environs. It was suggested that a stretch of 10 kilometers starting from the source itself stretching along the Nile on both river banks be earmarked as the Source of the Nile Development Area.
Recommendations were made for government through its various relevant agencies to be engaged in order to have this stretch of land be secured for this purpose. In fact, through the office of the Speaker of Parliament, some significant steps had been made towards this goal.
Furthermore, the Chinese consultants had gone ahead to produce pro borno preliminary drawings of the designs of the development area. What had remained and probably stalled the process was for the Ministry of Tourism to secure government funding or government guarantee for the feasibility study and designs to be made by the Chinese.
As we know it, the Ministry of Tourism did a feasibility study and designs for this development area are underway.
Based on the draft designs, the Source of the Nile (SON) Development Master Plan, the following developments are envisaged: Green belt, SON monument, modern hotel (s), theme restaurants, cable car, leisure park, modern entrance, a visitors information center and a modern boat docking area.
Others are a mini zoo, sports arena, modern car parking and an observation deck.
The SON master plan demarcates the development area in three zones.
• First zone -> Core zone i.e the source of the Nile itself
• Second zone -> Supporting amenities
• Third zone -> Sports Arena, Mini zoo etc.
Information from the Ministry of Tourism indicates that the SON master plan and the designs are underway and will soon be unveiled to the public. This is good news and commendable initiative by the Ministry.
Now, recently, we have learnt that the Prime Minister of India while on his State visit to Uganda pledged to offer the government of Uganda a grant for the establishment of a Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Cultural Center at the Source of the Nile. We are hearing that it is going to be called a Mahatma Gandhi Heritage Park. We are told that the Heritage Park will comprise of the following; an observation deck, a swimming pool, conference rooms, a yoga center and an entrance gate to the site.
All of us who value international state partnerships do laud the Indian government for this gesture that underscores the long standing friendship and solidarity relationship that has existed between Uganda and India over years.
However, there must be very pertinent questions that must be asked and the decision to construct a Mahatma Gandhi Cultural site at the Source of the Nile be interrogated fully.
Many of us who have been involved in the quest for the development of the Source of the Nile into a world class tourism destination contend that the Source of the Nile is NOT the right place for the proposed Indian Heritage Park. We believe that this park can be well suited at a different site in Jinja other than at the source of the Nile.
Here are some of the reasons why we think the source is not the right place for the Indian Heritage Park.
Indian cultural center not in tandem with SON Master Plan:
Although in their proposed components for development, there are some similarities with those in the SON master plan, the process and packaging of the proposed Indian cultural center doesn’t seem to rhyme with the SON master plan. Therefore there is a real danger of clash in implementation. It is our view that since we are seeking to serve the same interest of enhancing tourism, there must be synchrony in what is envisaged and the location. Since the SON master plan demarcates the development area in three zones, there ought to be an agreement as to which zone the Indian cultural center will reside. It can’t be that this project component will be placed anywhere as if there is no logical development plan.
Expected Visitation Experience:
Jinja for many years now is known for its adrenaline adventure activities such water rafting, kayaking, bungee jumping, quad biking and horse riding along the Nile River. These are the tourism products that make Jinja and if improved upon should make Jinja’s Universal Selling Point (USP) as the Ultimate Adventure Capital of East Africa a reality and meaningful. It must be noted that in conformity with modern tourism promotional strategies, UTB working together with the regional Tourism Clusters, each regional tourism area had identified and crafted a Universal Selling Point that expresses appropriately the promotional aspiration of the attractions potential in that particular area.
Given what the Indian Heritage Park seeks to comprise of when constructed at the Source of the Nile, it is hard to see how it fits or will enhance the USP of this destination.
Secondly, without demeaning the beauty that comes with a swimming pool at any place, one fails to see how those proposed components of the Heritage Park will actually translate into increased number of visitation to the site.
It is worth noting that although Yoga is said to be a good mental health activity, it is not a practice that is familiar here in Uganda. Hence, a possibility that a Yoga center at the Source of the Nile will attract large numbers of visitors is very remote.
It is also worth noting that although as a people, Ugandans are very welcoming to any culture; the Hindu culture is not yet part of Uganda’s tourism genome. Therefore, establishing a Hindu based Heritage Park at the Source of the Nile will be imposing a foreign culture at this national iconic tourism site to which most Ugandans don’t subscribe.
Actually, the fear is that we shall be setting a precedent that might in the long run present issues for our tourism development. What will stop the Turkish from also asking and offering to construct their Turkish Cultural Heritage Park at the site? What about the Chinese if they want to construct a Chairman Mao Tsetung Heritage Park? or what about the Ethiopians if they want to construct a King Menelik Heritage Park? Whom do you allow and whom do you reject?
By the way, some three years ago, the Turkish Ambassador to Uganda had written and presented to BTI through the Speaker of Parliament an expression of interest to construct a monument at the Source of the Nile in memory of the Turkish State founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Lack of Investment Framework
Although it has been mentioned in certain circles that the development at the Source of the Nile by the Indian government is going to be carried out in partnership with the government of Uganda through the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, no investment framework has been shared or made known to the various key stakeholders to this investment. It is not yet known who is investing what, how much and the scope of the project. It is not known what the management of this project will be in terms of administration, revenue collection, and maintenance of the site. What will be the role of Indian community and that of Jinja Municipal Council particularly in view of the fact that this is a national asset and not confined to JMC.
Given the aforementioned issues, we think there are too many unknowns and that as a country; we shouldn’t be seen to surrender our only national iconic heritage site of immense prestige to our country to be given away to a foreign culture.
Furthermore, it is our submission that by allowing the Indian Heritage Park to be built at the Source of the Nile, we shall have in effect sadly and naively transformed this site and Jinja as a whole from being a water sports adventure destination to something else. Jinja cannot be a cultural destination site because that is not what it is by nature.
In conformity with Jinja’s universal selling point of being a destination for adventure, it is our strong view that what is needed to be developed at the Source of the Nile is a Leisure Park.
The Leisure Park developed to comprise of among other leisure activities, Water Park and Water Slides, an Observation Deck and an Underwater Restaurant would fit in well with the theme of the site and the overall description of the destination. It is our suggestion that the development of the site should be in collaboration and should encompass the northern bank. In order to achieve this, there should be a cable car running and joining both banks. This will serve to offer the visitors a complete experience of the source of the Nile.
We also believe that Jinja needs a five star standard hotel to handle the increased number of visitors that will be coming to the destination.
Increased numbers and enhanced visitor experience
Jinja’s current adrenaline adventure activities coupled with the introduction of a Water Safari Park and Water Slides, an observation deck and an underwater restaurant would definitely make Source of the Nile the most sought after destination for not only the locals but also for people from all over East Africa. Instantly, weekend visitations for families, groups and individuals will be enhanced.
This means that visitors will stay more days, experience more and spend more in Jinja due to the variety of adventure activities offered at the site. Hotel owners will benefit as much as other stakeholders in the entire tourism and hospitality value chain.
It must be made very clear that in this article and our articulation, we are not opposed to the generous grant from the Indian government; however, we just don’t believe that it is wise or even value for money to establish a cultural heritage site at the source of the Nile.
On the contrary, we suggest that a process to design a Leisure Park at the Source should be commenced with a view of interesting potential investors.
Proposed Leisure Park components could include; An observation deck, under water restaurant, water safari park, water rides/slides, a cable car, a five star hotel and ferris wheel.
Now after all of us appreciating the value of the Source of the Nile, we need to convincingly talk to the people in Jinja Municipal Council, most particularly the Clerk and the Mayor, Ambassador Baswaale Kezzaala, the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife & Antiquities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. We need to be able to articulate to them our position.
This must be done on the knowledge that there is currently limited free development land in Jinja as a whole and in particular at the Source of the Nile. So whatever is planned for the site in terms of attracting investment, must be carefully looked at and evaluated upon the its relevancy and contribution in enhancing our tourism agenda of increasing tourism visitation numbers in the country.
It must be emphasized that, we do welcome and appreciate the Indian offer for establishing a Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Center and efforts should be made to find appropriate land for this project within the environs of Jinja.
We need to point out that efforts are being made to interest different investors in the proposed Leisure Park at the source of the Nile. We shall continue to work with the Ministry of Tourism to ensure that this aspiration is realized.
Baliddawa, is a Member of the Board of Trustees at Uganda Wildlife Authority and former Kigulu North MP