Many users of Karuma Bridge are still psychologically enslaved by fear of going over it. Solomon Oleny writes about the mysteries surrounding it.
Isn’t it shocking how myths often evoke fear in us? The most affected are the generations born between the 1940s and the 1980s. Many of them witnessed many atrocities at Karuma bridge between 1970 and 1996.
Travelling to Lira once, I noticed that as the bus reached Karuma Bridge, most passengers on board suddenly went dumb like something evil was about to happen. Before long, some passengers, especially the old women, were making signs of the cross and individually mumbling short prayers in Luo beseeching the Almighty to grant them luck in crossing the bridge.
Karuma bridge’s current look
Interestingly, barely 30 seconds after the 65-seater bus crossed the bridge, overwhelming jubilant noise from within fi red up the bus like Kiprotich had just secured another gold medal. As for the once trembling old women, the goose pimples that had roughed their skin prior to crossing the bridge were history. Puzzled by this strange reaction, I found myself probing a passenger, Pule, an old man in his late 50s, about this strange behaviour.
“The passengers sealed their lips out of fear of evoking the anger of the mighty Karuma god, who is infamous for drowning noisy passengers by derailing buses off the bridge into the roaring falls,” Pule explained. Dissatisfi ed with Pule’s strange account, I could not help but abort my journey to Lira in an effort to fi nd out the truth about the gigantic bridge.
Before the bridge
The gushing water beneath the bridge
Constructed shortly after Uganda’s fi rst anniversary in 1963, Karuma is no doubt one of the Pearl’s first prides, having been built under the reign of the first indigenous administration.
Obong Odong, 56, a retired army offi cer living in the area, also participated in the bridge’s onstruction. He says Karuma was mainly constructed to connect the districts of Masindi and Gulu to help farmers from West Nile ferry their cotton to Nyanza Textile Mills in Jinja via Kampala, for processing. “Prior to the construction of the bridge, crossing over the speeding falls was not for the fainthearted, since the then existing bridge was only made up of three logs joined together.
Unfortunately, since the gushing water beneath the bridge always splashed over it, it was slippery for much of the time and this forced most of the travellers to chicken out of crossing over. Under such circumstances, most travellers were forced to use boats via Lake Kyoga, which was miles away from Karuma. However, since the boat ride always lasted at least one hour, it was also risky because hailstorms were common,” recounts Odong.
These conditions prompted the demand for a bridge over this stretch of river and the new independent Government put up the bridge, which was later named Karuma after its locality.
A bloody nickname
The bridge was never for the fainthearted before its reconstruction
However, owing to the many lives that were lost in the falls in the mid-1970s, it soon arned itself a luo nickname Lamyony jo, which can be translated as ‘consumer of life.’
Mariah Acio, a 62-year-old pensioner who lived in Karuma town in the mid 1970s when Amin was still president, discredits the autocrat’s bloody reign for the bridge’s infamous nickname. “Since it was upon his command that his soldiers turned the bridge into a dumping site for thousands of Langi and Acholi who were viewed as potential threats to the dictatorial reign, the locals developed a strong phobia for the bridge.”
“What hurts most is the fact that many such victims were always fl ung into the falls to drown when they were fully conscious and alive,”Acio bitterly reminisces. But they were not the only victims, Acio claims. Soon, severely disabled people from all over Uganda were not spared from Amin’s wrath. Convinced that the disabled were a disgrace to Uganda, Amin initiated a national campaign to mobilise all cripples promising to ferry them to Koboko in West Nile where they would be treated with special care.
Since the main route heading to Koboko was a stone’s throw from Karuma Bridge, these disadvantaged people heeded to Amin’s proposal without question. Alas! This was just a trick used to ferry them to Karuma Bridge, where they met their painful death drowning in the falls.
To put an end to all the suffering that was ushered in by the dictatorial regime, the Langi and Acholi who happened to be the most affected tribes, formed local militias in 1978 through which they were fought determinedly to overthrow Amin. With the support of Tanzanian forces, the two tribes soon overpowered Amin’s influence in the region. Having restored peace at home in northern Uganda, the forces headed for the West Nile region, which was believed to be the home of Amin’s notorious State Research Bureau and Public Safety Unit troops.
As expected, their confrontation was met with stiff resistance at Pakwach Bridge, where they clashed for close to a week before overpowering Amin’s men. Out of panic that the Tanzanian forces were now destined for Kampala, Amin attempted to bomb Karuma to halt the militias’ journey.
However, his efforts were in vain since the bridge’s strength was something to reckon with. In any case the bombing could not achieve much since it was done in a hurry. To many, it was not shocking when Amin fled the country shortly after it was confirmed that the Tanzanian forces had fi nally made it past Karuma, southwards towards Kampala.
Kony rebels terrorise bridge
Karuma bridge marks the entry into the grassy savannah of the Murchison Falls National Park that became a convenient hiding place for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The area soon had to be marked as a danger zone because of the rebel attacks.
“The rebels used to hide in the bush on both sides of the bridge and attack cars and buses heading in both directions over the bridge. In most cases, such vehicles were burnt with the passengers inside. With such tragedies occurring one after another, the bridge’s nickname Lamyony jo soon stuck on people’s tongues as the new way of reference,” Odongo says.
At some point, vehicles planning to pass over the bridge and through the park could only do so in convoys escorted by the army or risk being attacked. The cars had to be at the stop point by 4:00pm or they would not continue the journey.
Fortunately, with such tragedies occurring no more, the bridge has lost the painful name and regained its rightful name — Karuma. According to the Ministry of Energy, plans are underway to construct a 750 megawatt power station at Karuma Falls, which will further give the area something to smile about, to make of the fear and tears of the past.