By Ernest Bazanye
School football is always chaotic, no matter where you go. The boys kick the ball wherever. It is mayhem. But the boys here play hard as the girls watch and the pitch is alive with exuberance and energy.
Meanwhile, all around them, Lake Bunyonyi shimmers in the late afternoon sun as the children wait for the school boat to arrive.
Yes, school boat. That is the school bus that goes over water.
Bwama Primary School is on the largest island in Lake Bunyonyi. Half-a-kilometre to one-and-a-half kilometres from land from any of the three docks that serve the school. And it is a day school.
Lake Bunyonyi is gorgeous, as calm and serene as the surface of a glass of wine and to see it is to fall in love. It is dotted with island resorts, therefore, to cater for world travellers seeking whatever beauty an airport will lead them to. Most of the islands here will cater for such tourists, but not this one. Bwama Island is as far from a tourist resort as you can get. It is a former leper colony.
Aaron Twinomujuni, introduced and fondly referred to as Teacher Aloni during my visit, tells me, in a gruff teacher’s voice and the careful intonation of a lecturer on a familiar subject that “Bwama Island used to be a leper colony.”
This was in the 1930s, when Dr. Leonard Sharp, a British medic and missionary, was tasked with managing a quarantine for those afflicted in the region. The idea was to keep them isolated while a cure was sought. At its height, Bwama Island had 600 lepers resident on it.
Teacher Aloni, one of the teachers at Bwama Primary School caters for the children’s welfare
In time, success was achieved.
Teacher Aloni speaks of Dr. Sharp with reverence. The leprosy outbreak had affected the area deeply and there is pride in his voice when he declares that Dr. Sharp enabled those cured and now free of the disease to go home off the island.
But the people who had been on the island had children. And for these children, a school was built. Even after the disease was tamed, the school remained.
And that is how, amidst resorts, lodges, lay-back-and-relax establishments, you get to hear children’s voices singing in the morning; their voices carry well across the lake.
I was rowed to the school by Friday Kato, a former headboy of Bwama Primary School, who now helps manage Byoona Amagara Island Retreat on the neighbouring island of Itambira. Byoona Amagara is a backpacker sort of resort — it is not opulent, but it is picturesque, with thatched cottages and a campsite. It has a charm that draws largely from the lake that surrounds it.
It is not just the retreat, however, it is also the Byoona Amagara Community Project.
The money from the tourists goes to assist the local people. They pay fees for a secondary school nearby and, support Bwama Primary School next door.
The current major project is the school boats: two large canoes which seat 20 or 40 children of different ages and ferry them home and back every morning and evening.
When the bell rings for home, the children sprint down to the shore. Some of them carry their own paddles. The more hands, the faster the boat moves.
The first ones to get to the canoe are the first to go. The teachers will not allow any overloading, so if you do not want to wait for the second trip, you have to be chop-chop. Hometime is the same in all schools, just like the way city children swarm the gates when the bell rings.
As the last of the children sail away I ask Kato: “Really, why have a school you can only get to by canoe?”
He reveals the answer later when we tour the island after the children are gone, pointing to the tip of a distant island hill.
That is his house, where he still lives. That is a long distance to travel to school, I remark and he replies that there are children who would have to travel greater distances if it were not for the Bwama Canoe Bus. For many children in the area, the nearest mainland school could be up to two hours walk away, which is what prevented many, especially the very young children, from starting school until they were close to 13.
“These little ones,” Kato says, cradling the shoulder of Teacher Aloni’s son in his hand, “They cannot walk that far.” A canoe ride certainly beats two hours’ hike uphill.
If you can tell a school by its fruits, Bwama is a productive school. Kato is a smart, articulate man, astoundingly encyclopedic on matters of the lake, the island and everything around it and Teacher Aloni, with his gruff voice, shows me the list of distinctions the school has produced with pride.
The children were playing football when we arrived. The school team practised with a real leather ball, while smaller children chucked around plastic bag balls, expertly bundled.
They were bashful about questions but not about being photographed. Teacher Aloni explains: “They are used to visitors. Tourists often come from other islands and sometimes leave gifts.” The island school is a tourist attraction itself.
Though Bwama Primary School is still a poor school with its own financial struggles, for people who are used to seeing African children in pictures starving or ill or caught in wartime crossfire, it must be revealing to the tourists to see African children who are healthy and happy and full of potential.