Would You Trust a Traditional Healer?

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Meg Whelan pictured in the centre

Meg Whelan’s familiarisation trip was coming to an end. In just a couple of days she had flown all over Uganda, experienced three national parks—Kidepo Valley, Queen Elizabeth and Bwindi Impenetrable—and seen a lot that would help her at Connoisseur Travel. There was something nasty growing on her neck and she was looking forward to showing it to a doctor back in Washington.

But Sylvia Kalembe had a surprise for her.

Sylvia is the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) coordinator for the US and Canada, stationed in the capital city of Kampala. A stately presence, she is incredibly active and inquisitive. She truly wants to promote her country and approaches her job with unusual passion. In 2014 she took part in a Gorilla Highlands Fam Trip, climbed steep hills, survived dugout canoe rides and roughed it camping on a remote island. All those compromises that few Kampalans would voluntarily endure did not blind her to the fact that something special was being developed in the mountains of southwestern Uganda.

Sylvia Kalembe with Paul Cohen of PHG Consulting in Kibaale Forest
Sylvia Kalembe with Paul Cohen of PHG Consulting in Kibaale Forest

So when she wanted to add a touch of culture to what Meg and her colleagues were going through, she knew whom to call…

On Monday 25 October 2016 that led to two Landcruisers turning off the smooth motorway connecting Kisoro and Kabale, onto the rough but undeniably scenic road that leads south on the eastern shores of Lake Bunyonyi. An hour later, following a feeder road on the ridge of the Kyabahinga peninsula, the cars could not go any further.

Two of Meg’s colleagues were too tired after tracking mountain gorillas the previous day, but Loreen Wilson (Main Street Travel), Valerie Wermuth (Fellowship Travel) and Heather Jones (Ker & Downey) were up for a little walking and canoeing adventure. Their UTB host Colin Kakiza was only happy to join; his roots in the region made him excited about the trip.


At the first stop, Omugurusi Jeremiah demonstrated various medicinal herbs. Some would hesitate but Meg did not think twice. She showed Jeremiah the nastiness on her neck. The healer applied some aloe vera, gave her powdered plants that she was meant to mix with jelly and put some of those herbs into her mouth.


The second short break was about the “shy flower”. Before Facebook gave us the chance to like our love interests’ status updates—and Facebook is now everywhere in Uganda—giving somebody this flower sent a similar message. If you received it back, you were game.


Some minutes later they learned about Lake Bunyonyi’s rich history and the stories of some of its 29 islands, and saw the plant that traditionally served as a comb.


But the real highlight, and Sylvia’s only concern, was the fourth stop. Mrs Annah’s job was not only to showcase her crafts but also give the ladies a local snack.


She impressed. Chapatis and mandazis were already on the table, warm and tasty, accompanied by avocados and raw honey. The visitors were not squeamish at all, they fished out any unwanted objects from the honey and had a feast. They said that the eats, and especially the timely delivery, beat what some high-end lodges had had in store for them.


Annah explained how she makes and dyes different crafts. Doing that in a big house that she had built from tourism proceeds gave her words extra weight.


Finally, there was an opportunity to shop for souvenirs as authentic as it goes!


On the way down to the lake surface, a bunch of kiddos showed up and entertained everybody with singing about body parts (including da batoksi) combined with a “China China Chinaaaa” refrain that even guide Owen could not explain.


Traditional dugout canoes then paddled the guests to the other side, to Edirisa, where the cars were waiting to take them for an Arcadia Cottages overnight…


Meg would later write to the Gorilla Highlands team: “What a wonderful day, thank you for guiding us and having us meet both Jeremiah and Anna. The rash on the my collar bone cleared up, and the big bite on the back of my neck is clearing (drying but it still creepy looking). The doctor believes I had a tick bite and has given me an antibiotic, but both she and the nurse could tell it was healing.”

text: Miha Logar