William Cheptoek is a tour guide in Kapchorwa, eastern Uganda, who has been in the business for the past 13 years, taking tourists on trips around the Mt Elgon region and making a decent living.
In a good year, Cheptoek, 28, employed by travel company Discover Sipi, interacted with more than 600 clients annually, exploring the various attractions of the region, especially Sipi Falls and Mt Elgon, the eighth-highest peak in Africa. He made between Ush500,000 and Ush800,000 ($140 and $224) per week from his expeditions.
Since the pandemic struck in March 2020 and travel and tourism ceased, he has been had less than 300 since, and most of them are domestic travellers from whom he makes Ush250,000 to Ush300,000 ($70 to $80) per week.
“Foreign visitors are scarce now and we don’t earn much from domestic tourists because they bargain a lot,” he says.
Cheptoek sought solace in farming.
“I have prioritised farming because Covid-19 has taught us not to rely on one source of income,” he says. “But the money I get from farming is not comparable to what I used to earn from tour guiding because agriculture is a seasonal activity and harvests unpredictable due to the effects of climate change.”
Still, farming helped him survive the Covid-19 blues even though his passion remains guiding tourists. He is proud of his Kapchorwa roots and culture. “I grew up seeing Mt Elgon-bound tourists and aspired to be a tour guide since my school days,” he says.
As governments ramp up Covid-19 vaccinations, Cheptoek hopes that tourism recovers. “As lockdown measures ease, travellers are slowly coming back, rejuvenating tourism in Kapchorwa and the entire Mt Elgon region,” he says.
He also credits Kapchorwa’s elite athletes and now Olympic medalists — Joshua Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo, and Peruth Chemutai — who won medals at the recent Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics for popularising the area that is home to long distance running stars.
“Now there is an increasing number of people visiting Kapchorwa simply to trace the origins of these gold medalists,” he says, adding that he thinks tourism will bounce back by 2023.
Cheptoek's fascination with tourism began when, as a teenage boy, he first encountered some tourists who asked him for directions to Sipi Falls, located near his home.
“I took them to the waterfalls though I didn't know the route quite well or even how to brief them during the tour. This piqued my curiosity and passion to learn more about what exists in my home area and what to show to tourists,” he says.
After high school at Sipi Secondary, he took on a career in tourism, learning on the job rather than enroll in a formal tourism school.
“I started tour guiding in my teens as my big brother’s apprentice. Also, since my parents were elderly and not financially stable, I had to find a way to earning a living and support myself,” he says.