After 30 minutes of paddling, we were finally within reach of the island. It was just past noon. The sun could have been more cruel, as it was directly above us and there was no shade in the dugout canoe, but thankfully, there was some cloud cover.
BY ERNEST BAZANYE
After 30 minutes of paddling, we were finally within reach of the island. It was just past noon. The sun could have been more cruel, as it was directly above us and there was no shade in the dugout canoe, but thankfully, there was some cloud cover. The lake was tranquil, only disturbed intermittently by the ripples of the odd cormorant or kingfisher diving for an early lunch. I was relieved to finally get to Akampene Island, after paddling for that long, and grateful because the sun was gone. These days when people reach Akampene Island, they feel relief. It was not always like that.
Akampene Island is better known as Punishment Island. It is deserted, save for two trees, one long dead, one in the protracted process that is the floral version of breathing your last. It is in a thick tangle of reed and tall grass. The islands around it are far busier, with houses, tourist comfort resorts such as those that litter the entire lake and thriving trees.
The health centre on Bwama Island is within sight. But up until the early 1900s, arrival at Akampene was no cause for relief. Its notorious history tells us that this was the island where girls from surrounding villages who were found to be pregnant out of wedlock would be brought, abandoned and left to die.
My guide says they would not arrive in a single canoe, as we did. There would be a whole flotilla of scornful, taunting people to dump the unfortunate no-longer maiden on the island. The judges made certain of it. If only to ensure that the spectacle was a sound deterrent to other girls, the procession that bore her there would be just the first part of the punishment. Shame and humiliation.
The legend tells us that they would leave the girl there all by herself, ostensibly to die. But Akampene banishment was not an execution, as we have been led to assume. It was more like the beginning of an excommunication.
The first time I walked on the island, stepping gingerly over the packed mud that made up its floor, I kept looking down, expecting to see the skeletal remains of those who would have starved to death under the tree. I tried to keep at bay the thought of whether there would be a smaller skeleton curved inside the larger one.
But no, death was not what often happened on the island. What actually took place would easily be the setting of a whole subgenre of romance novels. Picture this one. A young boy braving the lake in the dead of night, canoeing by the light of just the stars, to get to the island and rescue his banished lover, then they steal away together to another island to start a new family together, knowing they can never go back to their homes again.
There will be an argument about how he knocked her up in the first place and just stood there while she got herself all banished and stuff, but the novel will just skim over that part. Another situation they say often happened, was that a passing canoeist would stop by the island and rescue the girl there, and this rescuer would take the girl as his own wife.
My conjuration of a nice lucrative romance novel here is stomped out by my guide. Instead of seeing an unlikely romance developing between the grateful rescued and the gallant rescuer, he dismisses it as “getting a free wife”, because the man would not have to pay any bride price for her. This was the most common event, and there are women still alive today who were rescued in this fashion.
ESCAPING FROM THE ISLAND
The other novel idea, which would likely get to Oprah’s book club, too, would be the scenario where the girl would dare the waters and swim off the island herself.
The usual route, according to my guide, would be to Njuyeera Island and from there to the mainland at Bulimba, and from there to a new life. Not that single motherhood was easier then than it is these days, but then that is what would make it a great novel. The one thing that would make a dull, though infuriating novel, would be the story of the father. Nothing happened to him, I am told.
The girl would not even name him, apparently, as there was a curse associated with the island that said if she snitched she would die there. So he would just go on with his life. If he was anything like some of the dudes around today, he would probably go on to send a few more girls over to the island before he finally settled down to a wife.
Maybe, and this would be the one novel I would love the most — say by some coincidence, the sort of coincidence that occurs in novels, the children of Akampene exiles, now grown-ups, strong, brave and armed get on a canoe one day, paddle back to their father’s village, confront the deadbeat and slap him. It is called catharsis in literary theory, but I prefer to call it good old vengeance. And that is always a great way to end a story.
There are only two trees on the Island, one dead, the other in the process of dying
How to get there
Getting to Akampene or “Punishment” Island is not difficult. From any one of the several tourist resorts in and around Lake Bunyonyi, you can hire a canoe or a motorboat to carry you across to the site. A tour guide could ask for sh10,000 to take you out and regale you with tales all the way, but that depends on where you are embarking from.
Different launching points will cost different amounts, and depending on the resort you come from, you could pay more. If the price they ask for is too steep, just sneak away from the posh resort party and hire a canoe guy and negotiate with him the way you would with a boda. I am told this works, too
Lifeless island on the lake
Akampene Island is the one with the harrowing story of girls abandoned to ostensibly die, the one which draws our attention, but it is, frankly, not much to look at. Found in Kabale, in the astounding Lake Bunyonyi, a place where water and green and sky all sit before your eyes and make the visual equivalent of soothing music, Punishment Island is a singular place. The water is so serene you just look at it and forgive every single wrong every single person has ever done to you in your life because you are just instantly chilled out by the lake.
The high terraces of the surrounding hills, the swooping waterbirds, and the ripple of the paddles hitting the water combine to lull your soul into a peace that you will not know until you go back. It is the only part of the whole lake I saw that was not beautiful. Long spiky drying grass are all that is left of the island, save for two trees, one of which is just the remains of a tree and the other housing decrepit nests long abandoned by birds, which probably decided to go raise their chicks on nicer islands. It is ironic — even the birds do not bring their wombs to Akampene anymore.
My guide told me that the island itself is dying. The lake is eroding it away from underneath, and this is what killed the trees. Their roots do not find soil anymore, so in the future, there may not be any Punishment Island any more. But there will still be that almost narcotic serenity of Bunyonyi. That one that lulled us along as we canoed back, Akampene dying behind us.
The story of Punishment Island lives on