By Caroline Ariba
Its environment is serene and the people are welcoming...
When I first learnt of Tisai Island in Ongino sub-county, Kumi district, from Patrick Amuriat Oboi, the area Member of Parliament, I thought it was a fairytale.
Curiosity got the better of me, so I called up Charles Achoda, a reporter with a sister paper, Etop, who had done a health feature on the island and he agreed to accompany me there.
At Kumi town council stage, Achoda hired a motorcycle, which he said was the cheaper option. We stopped at the Red Cross office, where the area manager had insisted we pick life jackets. We also met Kizito Adome, the LC3 chairperson of Ongino sub-county, for some tips.
“Keep your hands away from the water, there are snakes in the water!” he warned. He also said it was common to see wildlife roaming the island, all the way from Karamoja’s Kidepo National Park. It turns out that when you cross the water, on the other side is Karamoja.
We travelled about 20km from Kumi town before Achoda announced: “Here we are!” I heard it, or more likely smelt it — the waters of Tisai were but a whisker away. As we moved closer to the water, what looked like a swamp with overgrown grass suddenly came to view. Two canoes sat at the edge, not a thing in them. To the left, a handful of men lounged under a tree.
One of the men was in charge of a canoe preparing to go across. The others were travellers waiting for more travellers to come, so it would make business sense to cross the river. One man walked up to us and asked if we were crossing to the island and when we answered in the affirmative, he asked if he could load the motorcycle too.
A few minutes later, we got into the canoe. All the men pushed it until we were well past the shallow, sandy waters. Then they all joined us, and each of them grabbed a large oar to row the canoe.
SAILING ON THE WATER
This river seemed to have a designated route through the water. The sides had what looked like swampy papyrus weed that seemed to fence the path. The waters were covered by leaves and from afar, one would think it was a garden of sea weed. As we left the papyrus behind, a foul smell suddenly took over the air; something had definitely died in the river. Indeed, a distance away was a dead crocodile floating on the water! The men in the canoe said it had been dead for some time and they were quite used to this sort of thing.
Suddenly, the men increased the rowing speed as we got into a slimmer path. They said we were entering the deep end. They took turns to sip some water from the river. One used a calabash and the other just scooped it with his hands. “This water is clean and cold, cool like it is from a smoked pot!” one man remarked.
Despite the prior warning from the chairman, I touched the water and indeed, it was cold, it could have passed for water from the fridge. They said the waters stem from Lake Bisiina within Teso region and go past the ever fl ooding river Awoja in Soroti district and enters Lake Kyoga.
We got to the wider part of the river and encountered a canoe full of people crossing to where we were from. The water surface was covered in a carpet of lily pads, hiding these waters from full view. This river is like an abandoned house, all it needs is a fi ne tuning and its beauty would emerge, I thought to myself.
How romantic it would be to just come out there and relax. The route narrowed again, fenced by the reeds which also provided a shade. It was like a hide and seek game; going in and then out of the reed fence again. I looked at the strong men rowing the boat and wondered if they ever took a moment to sip in this gift of nature, but they appeared unconcerned.
APPROACHING OUR DESTINATION
The writer (left) with some of the residents
As we approached the dock, we saw a couple of canoes loading to make the return journey. This is like the business hub of the island, though it had a handful of people. A woman hurriedly bathed a baby outside a makeshift restaurant, while nearby, a giant mud fish was spread out to dry. Nothing else catches the eye here, so the canoe owner led us deeper into the island. At first, it was a bushy and rather awkward walk, until we noticed the birds sitting still in the trees, as if taking note of the visitors to an Island that rarely got any.
We approached an abandoned roofless hut. Our day’s guide said the old man that lived in that hut had died of HIV/AIDS, not more than a month back. Like the island, he was abandoned with not a means of survival. The guide added that it was better that he had rested. We heard voices and moved closer to a homestead — a couple of grass thatched houses with a bunch of people gathered to share in the local brew.
When they saw us, they could not hide both their shock and excitement at seeing new faces. We introduced ourselves, and upon hearing that we were journalists and that somehow we might be able to tell of the horror that is their life, they quickly offered us chairs and insisted that we join in the drinking or at least just hold the straws. They said it was their lunch, which was the cheaper option, since everyone had to contribute only sh500 to partake of the brew.
LIFE ON THE ISLAND
No car has ever reached Tisai Island... no, no, no,!” Steven Akileng, one of the men drinking, stated in Ateso. The rest nodded their heads in agreement. “No permanent structure has ever been built in Tisai!” he added. Samuel Emach said
Tisai did not even own a school. He said they were grateful to the Government for helping them stop the Karimojong cattle rustlers that had turned the Island into a ghost village, but they have nothing — not a school, not a hospital.
“When you put that aside, the wildlife crosses over from Karamoja and terrorises us, destroy our crops, yet we are already abandoned,” Agnes Kedi, one of the residents, said. They said even catching the few fish in the water is not safe anymore, because all kinds of animals hunt them in the water.
“During the day, it is hard to spot the animals which range from wild pigs, monkeys to snakes, but at night it is another story. We kill pythons quite frequently on the Island,” another added.
One of the people offered to take us through the Island, via a tiny path that revealed a lot of tree cutting and charcoal burning, an activity that the islanders had embraced. As soon I was off the island, I called MP Oboi for a comment. “If only the people of Tisai could be given a bridge to connect them to the outside world, that would be a starting point!” he said. He hoped that someday, the authorities will value the island.