In Uganda, on Lake Victoria there is a particular islet for sustainable tourism, it is called Ngamba, and it is a haven for chimpanzees injured, or rescued from abduction. Yes, because the trafficking of chimpanzees for the exotic gardens of wealthy eccentrics is good business. When the rangers manage to rescue some, they take them to Ngamba Island.
The eco-friendly island
On that wonderful island everything is eco-friendly: power comes from solar panels, no plastic is allowed, those who set foot there agree to live in total respect for the environment. There are a few tents for “eco-tourists,” a visitor center, cages for injured animals, and everything else on the island dedicated to the delicate phase of reintroduction to the herd.
Lilly and dr.Carlo Spagnolli
We reach Ngamba Island on a small motor boat. There is me, my crew and a missionary doctor, Dr. Carlo Spagnolli. We are welcomed by a proud and determined young Ugandan woman, Lilly Ajarova. She is the director of the island and also the founder of the first eco-sustainable tourist center, a chimpanzee refuge. The embrace between Charles and Lilly tells deep and ancient stories. She was a small child when he was a medical surgeon in West Nile, and his wife Angelina was a nurse. Lilly was welcomed into the family as a daughter, and Carlo taught her the secrets of creation: how to read the dating of stones, sneak up on chimpanzees, name each plant. Carlo, originally from Trentino, a man of the mountains, taught her the love of the peaks, and of the Ruwenzori in particular.
Lilly and sustainable tourism in Uganda
With his help and a lot of determination, Lilly graduated in Uganda and then went on to specialize in tourism management in Austria. On her return, she went to work at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, where she succeeded in getting legislation passed limiting the number of tourists visiting the mountain gorilla and chimpanzee park. It was a not insignificant step forward for a country undergoing a rebirth after years of wearisome wars.
Lilly then landed on Ngamba Island to head the “Chimpanze sanctuary”. She has organized a form of tourism that is truly sustainable, with very low environmental impact, and with real and concrete effects on the productive activities of fishing villages on Lake Victoria.
The beauty of creation
Immersed in the beauty of an African sunset, as we dine in the common area, with local food cooked in a very refined way, Lilly talks to us about her relationship with creation: “Nature is our source of life, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food. All our life comes from nature. Sustainable tourism is the best way forward for the African economy. Agriculture alone is not enough, because it can wear down the environment: forests burned, wells dried up, trees cut down. But we need to give farmers an alternative for survival, as tourism interpreted in the best way for nature can be.”
After a night contemplating the stars on the tent porch, we go to feed the smaller chimpanzees. Almost all of them have been rescued from traffickers, but they carry deep traumas inside that, if left untreated, prevent them from fitting into the herd. Lilly picks them up, bottle-feeds them, and moves competently and gently at the same time. She had to fight hard to make this center, a pilot experience for many more to come, hopefully. As a woman she has so many difficulties in getting respect, and as a deeply environmentalist woman, she has to fight harder and more persistently.
Commitment to a better world, and sustainable tourism in Uganda
When I ask her about the origin of all her commitment, her eyes light up, “It was Dad Carlo (Dr. Spagnolli) who made me love creation. He also taught me to work on the world of politics to promote good laws; his father had been a minister and president of the Senate in Italy. Without good laws, it is difficult to carry on our struggle. And my faith also leads me to care for creation.
I believe that all nature is God’s creation. God put us in the world to be good stewards of it. We are told in Genesis that we must become good stewards. We need to stop being so irresponsible. I have been blessed with my work because I can experience nature every day, with animals and plants. It is a way to praise God. In nature I feel God close: I am lost in the forests, but inside God.”
Dr. Spagnolli died in February 2020, and Lilly to remember him succeeded in the feat of climbing Cima Margherita on Mount Stanley in the Ruwenzori, 5,109 meters above sea level. The peak has an Italian name because in 1906 the Duke of the Abruzzi first climbed it, dedicating it to Margherita of Savoy.
Today Lilly Ajarova has become the most important person in Ugandan tourism; she is director general of the Uganda Tourism Board. From her wheelhouse she can really generate change.