From impotent men looking for the liggwalimu plant (Citropropsis Artituculata) which is believed to fire up potency, to birders, campers, conservationists, students and eco-tourists, Mabira Forest seems to offer something for everybody. Locals from Buvunya village, are likely to warn the Youth Forum delegates from the Commonwealth countries who are scheduled to visit the 312sqkm forest today (Sunday), not to tamper with the liggwalimu unless they have a prescription from the village herbalist. They claim that the western viagra is no match for the thorny plant.
The plant is one of the many highly-valued medicinal plants in Mabira Forest, the only remaining tropical jungle in central Uganda. Neighbouring communities, in collaboration with the National Forestry Authority (NFA) are trying to conserve it. The forest is located about 50km east of Kampala. Mabira is home to many plant and animal species, including 312 tree and shrub species, 199 species of butterfly, 287 species of birds which constitutes about 30% of the country’s birds and about 20 small mammals.
The forest plays an important role as a water catchment area because it is located between two international lakes – Victoria and Kyoga and two rivers – the Nile and Ssezibwa. Lake Victoria, measuring 68,800sqkm, is the second biggest fresh water lake in the world and the largest in Africa, while the Nile is the longest river. Mabira has a diversity of plants some of which are used by the community to treat impotence. Other plants like the Prunus Africana are used to treat prostate cancer that is prevalent among old men. In addition, Mabira helps in sinking waste gases from the atmosphere. The forest stores carbon that is worth $315m per year. The forest contributes to the heavy rains that are experienced in the surrounding areas throughout the year.
According to testimonies from farmers, when the forest was encroached upon during the 1970s and 1980s, the amount of rainfall in the area greatly declined, but when they were evicted in 1989, there was a significant increase in the amount of rainfall in the area.
Mabira Forest is an important eco-tourism destination and is one of the most important attractions between Kampala and Jinja, where the River Nile begins its long journey to the Mediterranean Sea.
Hundreds of bird and butterfly species call the forest home. Notable among the endangered bird species are the Nahan’s Francolin and the Papyrus Gonolek. The most common birds, which are a must see in the forest, are the Great Blue Turaco and the Black and White casqued hornbill.
The forest also hosts a wide range of animals, including endangered primates. A primatologist working in Mabira Forest announced in February that monkeys in the forest previously thought to be Grey-cheeked Mangabey (Lophocebus albigena) were in fact a new species. There are leopards, antelopes and snakes. Elephants and buffaloes were once plentiful and roamed the forest but became extinct about three decades ago as human intrusion started taking its toll on the forest. The forest is beginning to recover after the current government evicted encroachers.
Former Ugandan President Idi Amin encouraged Ugandans to settle in the forest and grow crops in what was termed "double production." They not only settled here but also built their own capital city known as London in the heart of the jungle. ‘London’ was razed to the ground when the encroachers were evicted by the Government.
It is claimed that one of its inhabitants – a drunkard – burnt alive in his house. Ironically, Mabira is still the only forest in the country where one finds legal settlements. When it was officially gazetted as a forest reserve in 1932, some people had already got titles for big chunks of land inside the forest. Today, these people’s land forms the 27 enclaves (settlements) inside Mabira Forest. Most people mistake, or for political reasons, brand these settlements as encroachment.
Recently, there was a proposal to give away part of the forest to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (Scoul), a sugar company owned by the Mehta Group, to increase cane production. The company was established by Indian immigrant Nanji Kalidas Mehta. Asian immigrants formed a prosperous trading community in Uganda before they were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. Many returned following Amin’s downfall. One of the arguments the Government fronted was that Mabira had already been heavily encroached upon. The plan sparked off mass demonstrations in which three people lost their lives. The debate continues.
However, the manager of Mabira Forest, Leo Twinomuhangi, does not agree with the encroachment argument when he explains how the forest is managed.
Mabira Forest is nature’s seventh heaven. Because of its beauty, location and biodiversity, the jungle is now one of the most visited eco-tourism spots in the country. It is because of this that the Rain Forest Lodge was born. The $2m lodge is a tropical jungle paradise whose owners market it as the place where honeymooners have a high chance of producing twins. Its self-contained cottages blend with natural beauty. The paved walkways evoke a magical spiritual-like charm that points to romance, while the lodge’s swimming pool and heavenly beds make it a combination of many centuries. Nights in the forest are marked with the melodious chirping of crickets, hooting of owls and the forest’s trademark wails from the tree hyrax. In addition, the NFA also runs an eco-tourism centre with accommodation facilities located in the forest.
The main tourist activities include, bird watching, camping and nature walks. One of the most beautiful sites in Mabira is Griffin Falls, deep inside the jungle. The falls are as exciting as they are dangerous to reach. There is a good camping area near the beautiful waterfalls. If you visit Mabira, you will not have a story to tell if do not see the trees that devour other trees. These deadly trees, known as stranglers, develop around the trunks of their victims and suck life out of them. Over time, they swallow the victim and inherit its size and shape.
As the debate about whether to give away part of the forest for sugarcane growing continues, the proponents of the idea insist that the forest has been overdegraded and what remains is only a strip of trees along the road.
To prove whether the 312sqkm forest is nothing more than a strip of trees along the highway, armed with a compass and a hand-held Global Positioning System device (GPS), we trekked through the forest for 11 days. We got lost on the sixth night inside the forest because of the density of undergrowth in the strict nature reserve zone. Some villagers mistook us for ghosts and nearly brought us offerings.
Locals believe that ghosts of small stature but large heads known as Nakalanga roam the forest. They probably mean the pygmies that once lived in the forest. They claim that whenever these spirits are angry, they emerge from Mabira, cross the road around Najjembe leaving fatal accidents on the highway in their wake. During our trek, without food and water, we had contemplated drinking our own urine. Fortunately, we were rescued by NFA officials and our adventure through Uganda’s most controversial forest continued uninterrupted.