The first time you enter water, you really feel that your life is on the line, but after persevering through the dread, you find that the lake offers both adventure and joy, writes Elvis Basudde
There is nothing as terrific as getting onto a lake for the first time. As you start to sail into the waters, you feel that your life is at stake. The best thing though, is that after persevering through the dread, you come out with a story to tell and it is one of enjoyment.
This is exactly what happened when I had a boat ride on Lake Victoria recently. My editor had commissioned me to accompany the Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP) that was going to launch an OPD/ART facility in Koome sub-county.
Koome sub-county is located on Koome Island in Mukono district. The only means of transport to get there is by boat from Katosi landing site. It takes slightly over two hours using a two-engine boat or five to seven hours using a smaller one (the only boats acceptable at Koome).
Passengers being carried by boys who charge sh500 per person they carry Photo by Elvis Basudde
The harrowing journey
The boat departs from Katosi at 7:00am. The lake is calm early in the morning. We decided to spend the night in Mukono, about an hour’s drive to the landing site. The evening passed calmly and we hurriedly had our breakfast before setting off at 5.30am for Katosi landing site.
When I entered the boat, I was so scared and would have cheerfully opted out, had there not been some people there before me.
The life jackets and swim rings, in addition to the clinic supplies, were already loaded in a local boat that MUWRP had hired. In order to board the vessel, you are carried onto the boat by people who earn a living by doing that. This enables you not to be soaked in water, and each person is charged sh500.
Strangely, I found being carried an exciting experience. Chills ran through my spine as I was being carried and a shriek escaped my lips. I do not remember ever being carried in my adult or even adolescent life.
Neither did I have confidence in the person carrying me. I weigh 75 kg and I could not imagine being lifted by a mere 56kg young man. But of course that is what he knows best, it is his trade.
The surface glistened silver in the morning sun, while the water bounced with low tides. We were a team of 12 journalists from different media houses and a few MUWRP staff. Most of them had never travelled by water before, so the fear was palpable among them.
Many Ugandans do not swim and fear lakes. When a colleague at the office learnt about my trip to the island, she said even at gun point, she could not travel on water, unless it is a ship or ferry where she can find a place to hide and forget that she is on water. “But a boat where I can easily see that I am going to capsize? No way,” she said.
“I confess I have phobia for travelling on water. I am sailing on a boat for the first time,” said one journalist on board.
The first-timers were intrigued by things they had never seen before, like little beautiful islands that seemed to have broken away from the greater lands and the small row boats sailing all over the lake.
The uncountable sandy beaches, monkey sanctuaries within a number of natural tropical forests, the smiling faces of people travelling from all sides, all made our trip worthwhile. I was fascinated by the loud grunting emanating from the spectacular lake. This sound has to be heard to be believed.
About 40 minutes into the ride, a huge monument of exquisite shapes and designs in the middle of the lake interrupts the view. I was told it warns boat riders not to go near as the water is rocky around there.
We watched, mesmerised, as a playful young man in a boat sailing nearby entertained us endlessly with his unique dance strokes. He was returning from fishing with a few big catches on board.
The writer infront of the numberless Bedford lorry, the only means
of transiport at Koome Island. Photo by Elvis Basudde.
He would steady the boat in the right direction, then leave the motor at the back to work independently and run to the front of the boat to grab something, perhaps a fish that slid away, then run back to the motor before the boat got off course.
He would proudly show off his biggest catch of the day and receive applause and pleasant teasing from all of us. He soaked up his 10 minutes of fame in the spotlight, and indeed it was amazing to watch his amiable antics and ease on a boat in the open waters.
Cheekily, one scribe asked the boat pilot: “My bladder is bursting. Where do I pee?” The pilot just smiled at him. It was a two-hour ride and naturally if one’s bladder was not strong after having a cup of tea, you can imagine what could happen. “Just do it inside,” a colleague advised.
The journey to the island, I must say, was beautiful as we passed many small villages and islands. The amazing lake breeze captured this world poetically.
Over one hour into the drive, it threatened to rain. We saw the rainbow arc across the sky, and just like the promise of Noah’s day, it did not rain. But I kept imagining what it would have been like if it had rained. We were in the open with all our gadgets, video cameras, laptops and other delicate items.
We landed at Koome by 11:20am. Immediately, I noticed the clean air and the quietness of the island, the trees and fertile soil, far from my busy urban setting of Kampala.
I was also overwhelmed by an atmosphere of friendliness and the warm welcome of the people that lived in the small village near the landing site. All the homes were semi-permanent, mud-and-wattle structures.
You could see children running around without shoes and clothing. The women of the village were cooking, undoubtedly for many of the men that were just returning from fishing on the lake.
It is about two kilometers from Katosi landing site to the newly refurbished health centre we are headed to. There is only one old rickety Bedford lorry without a license plate for transportation on the island. We loaded it with the hospital items that we brought from Katosi, and some of us walked to the renovated clinic.
The clinic was already hopping with people in anticipation of our arrival and the ceremony. People were dressed in their very best clothes and radiated with pride for their new gift that will, hopefully, make great changes to their quality of life.
The refurbished Koome Health Centre III which was handed over to Mukono district by
Makerere University Walter Reed Project
The ride back was hot in the late afternoon sun and a bit rocky as the wind had picked up. In the middle of our journey back to Katosi landing site, we experienced some roiling waters.
We witnessed the full tide in the evening, which rekindled the memory of my good friend, James Ndalise, who died after he and his young brother, Joseph, were thrown into the water when their boat capsized in Lake Kyoga.
Both men were wearing lifejackets, but only Joseph managed to make it to the shore. He climbed up rocks and crossed sand dunes, before managing to raise the alarm. It is over a decade since it happened, but that evening’s experience brought back all the memories.
I did not want to reflect on it, but the more the waters became rough the more I visualised it. Subconsciously, I started sharing that experience with my colleagues.
One of them jumped off the seat, his great bulk quivering with rage, “You man, are you crazy? We are in the middle of the lake and you are talking nonsense! Don’t you know that we can all capsize? (sic),” he shouted.
Listening to my colleague’s theories following my story would make you giggle. People always have some of the most interesting perceptions of things. So many metaphors, misconceptions and superstitions in their cultures.
I saw most people keeping their hands crossed, saying all sorts of prayers in their different languages. That was a little ditty of my experience, but thanks to God I lived to narrate this tale. It was a real worthwhile experience.