Bilharzia. Shistosomaisis. That snail thing. Whatever you call it, you’re almost guaranteed to get it if you swim in Lake Victoria. And when you do, this parasite that lives in snails, swims through the water, up through your feet, and eventually lays eggs inside you, will knock you on your butt. And if it doesn’t, the medicine you take to get rid of it will. Just ask my friend Nicole—she’s been sick for a month.
So when I decided to go to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria the other week with my friends Aneri, Sylvain, and Chris, the choice not to swim was an easy one.
At least I thought it would be until I saw the boat we’d be riding on to get there: a 60-foot by 8-foot wooden cargo canoe laden with everything from Coke to goats, it was at least 20 feet from shore in waste deep water. How to get to the boat without getting bilharzia?
The answer: for 500 shillings (about 18 cents) you can pay a porter to carry you on his shoulders (or if you’re a girl, in his arms like a sack of matoke) from the shore to the boat. In fact, there are more porters than customers, so as soon as they see muzungu approaching, they all rush to get to you first, shouting “muzungu, muzungu!” while pushing each other out of the way in annoying competition. In typical Ugandan style though, my porter didn’t offer 500 shillings: he started at UGX 10,000. I ended up paying him UGX 1,000 after clambering off his shoulders onto the boat; after all, it wasn’t just me he was carrying—I also had with me a hiking backpack, boda boda helmet, and a sack of banana gin, all of which added to the weight he was carrying.
Now sitting safely on a sack of rice in the boat and away from the bilharzia-infested waters, I surveyed my surroundings and quickly concluded that bilharzia was probably less of a concern than the fact that this overcrowded boat had no lifejackets. I spotted a jerrycan (plastic jugs used in Africa for carrying water, fuel, and cooking oil), which I endeavored to make a dash for as a makeshift flotation device if the boat ever looked in the remotest of danger.
Things didn’t feel any safer when, after about 30 minutes on the lake, I heard water splashing to the side that was being dumped from the boat—realizing that a major job for the person in the back of the boat was to bail water out that seeped through the cracks of the boat, already filled past capacity with beer, Coca Cola, matoke bananas, rice, animals, cooking oil, generator fuel, a small solar home system, and human cargo.
But the ride was uneventful—painfully so, in fact. The particular island we were headed to, Banda Island, is only about 40 km from the mainland (about 25 miles), but the ride took 3 ½ hours. Exposed for that length of time under the noonday equatorial sun, my muzungu friends and I constantly slathered sunscreen on ourselves while our dark-skinned compatriots feared not the rays (and were in fact a bit amused at our kind’s helplessness against the sun). After a couple hours we saw the island and we thought we were close… until you realized that being close in distance had nothing to do with the time it would take you to arrive. As long as you were watching the land, it didn’t so much as even creep closer. And all the while we heard the periodic kerplunk of water being bailed over the side.
Finally, though, we looked up from our sun-daze and saw that indeed, the island was now close. Men were running into the water to receive the boat and haul its precious cargo onshore and off to Banda Island’s only village: rice for cooking, beer for passing the time, and Coca Cola for, well… opening happiness?
Yes, here on Banda Island was the end of Coca Cola’s distribution network: some guy in a wooden boat with a notebook and three crates of Coke. It’s a testament to the magnificence of Coca Cola’s marketing and distribution prowess that “guy on a boat in Africa” is nonetheless part of one of the biggest corporations on earth. Even in this remote village with no electricity, you can still enjoy a (warm) bottle of Coca Cola.
If such resourcefulness were going into an endeavor other than selling sugar water, I can’t imagine how many problems would have already been solved. And as someone charged with building a distribution network for a solar company, I couldn’t help feeling somewhere between envious and inspired.
But we were not destined to follow the Coca Cola bottles into the village; instead, we jumped from the big boat to a smaller one, where the four of us muzungus were the only passengers. The boat pilot switched the motor on and took us around to the other side of the small island (Banda is only about 2 km long). Finally we rounded a corner and saw our destination: Banda Island Resort.
Resort is a bit of a strong word. The compound consists of 3 or 4 corrugated metal tents where we were sleeping (albeit enclosed with glass doors), a dormitory with attached kitchen, a building that looks like a church, a bucket shower, volleyball net, and a 3-story building called “The Castle.” There’s no electricity, and the only hot water is what you carry from the kitchen to the bucket shower in a jerrycan and hoist above your head.
But it’s a friendly place. We were greeted by Jolobo (sp?)—a dreadlocked Ugandan who runs the place and, despite looking Rasta and singing excellent reggae, professes not to practice Rastafarianism. There was also an English couple there who turned out to be quite fun. And for 50,000 shillings a night ($18), you get lodging and all three meals included! Not bad for an island getaway.
The setting, moreover, is beautiful. On this secluded corner of the island, you are completely cut off from everything. From the Castle you walk down to an area 20 feet from the water where you can sit peacefully or lay in a hammock and watch island fishermen paddle lazily by, while white-and-black kingfishers dive dramatically for their dinner in the Lake.
Indeed, my only complaint about the whole place was the swarms of bugs which greeted us as soon as we stepped off the boat and onto the sand. It must have been bug mating season, because like some scene out of Planet Earth, these gnats swarmed throughout the island in giant clouds that you could see and hear from a distance, twisting in the air like a dancing plume of smoke, or maybe a school of fish. So thick they were that you could not walk in or out of your tent without frantically waving your hands in front of your face to keep them out of your nostrils and eyes.
The bugs reached a climax our first night there, when the staff lit a bonfire in an effort to chase the bugs away. But the plan backfired (no pun intended). Attracted by the light and then repelled by the heat, the bugs flying suicidally into the flames were matched only by the bugs flying away from the danger—and right into us. The ground became a swarming mass while the air turned to nearly a jelly of bug. Only after about an hour of this disgustingness did the plan finally work, with most of the bugs chased away or burned to death. With the bugs gone, we were able to enjoy our dinner of fresh fish caught that day in Lake Victoria.
It’s at that point that we looked out on the Lake, till now lit only by the myriad stars in the moonless sky, and marveled to see ghostly lights kindling mysteriously on the black water. One by one, these lights came into being, until the horizon was lit by a line of about 30 of them.
These lights were actually fishing boats. The predominant fishing method in the islands is for fishermen to sleep during the day and sail out onto the waters after nightfall, lighting their lamps to attract fish to their doom on the surface. (The other primary method is to troll about the waters, beating the surface with a giant hammer-type device to spook the fish and drive them into the nets).
After dinner we moved to the “castle,” where you drink beer, gin, ginger ale, and Coke to lantern light on an honor system—simply put a tally next to your name for each that you drink, and pay at the end. Of course no one cheats; it’s amazing how trustworthy people can be when you trust them.
Best of all, Jolobo brought out an acoustic guitar and invited me to play. I had not played a guitar since arriving in Africa, so it was a welcome arrival (albeit also a painful one for my callous-less fingers). As the night went on, we sang steadily more boldly, I on classic rock, Jolobo on reggae. Jolobo became not only more bold, but also more drunk as he swilled waragi (banana gin) from his green tea kettle, until he was asking us repeatedly “why you like Beatles?” and why we didn’t know Kenny Rogers–Ugandans love country music. (A highlight was Jolobo singing Kenny Rogers country songs in a Jamaican reggae accent). Until finally around 3am, it was time for bed.
The next day we planned to hike to the village on the other side of the island. This required a solid breakfast of eggs with mildly spicy chili paste—just enough to add flavor. Then after lunch, we actually set off for the village.
I have never seen so many spiders and spider webs as in the woods we hiked through on the way to the village. And no wonder—with so many bugs, the island is a veritable spider feast. Such abundance has probably never been seen in the bug world, with each web completely covered with so many bugs that the spider probably cannot think where to start.
Spiders aside, the hike itself was uneventful. The village on the other side consists of maybe 50 structures, a few vicious dogs, and countless children who are so excited to see muzungus in their village. They followed us all the way through the village, and were especially mesmerized to see a camera, which they enthusiastically posed for. When I put my sunglasses on one of them, the boys passed the glasses around, each tried them on, and then dutifully handed them back. They followed us nearly 1/3 of the way back to our side of the island, until finally we had to tell them to go home!
On the way back, we passed the home of the only man in town rich enough to own both a television and a generator. We learned that his abode would be hosting the watching of the Manchester United-Arsenal match the following day. Perhaps the only western entity with greater reach in Africa than Coca Cola is the English Premier League.
That night after a bucket shower, we had a dinner of fresh fish and rice. Finding it good but a bit in need of an extra kick, I decided to put on a bit of the chili paste from the day before—a bit more this time considering the mildness. Only something had happened to the chili paste in the few hours since, because this time it was HOT. Five trips to the rice bowl to dilute the chili paste did nothing. Even the girl who had lived on Thai chili for the past four years admitted it was hot. The only solution was to power through until done, and cool down with a warm gin-and-Stoney (the local ginger ale brand, which is of course a Coca Cola product).
The after-dinner festivities saw more of the same—honor system drinks and lantern-lit guitar songs, which devolved into an interestingly medieval discussion on the role of women in society around 2am before finally going to sleep.
The next day it was sadly time to leave the island paradise and head back to the real world. Back on the large wooden canoe (this time carrying goods FROM the island to the mainland), I sat down on what I thought was a sack of rice. Only this one was surprisingly more comfortable. That’s when I noticed the smell: fish! I was sitting on a sack of tiny fish! Rice for a seat on the way over, fish on the way back.
Looking around for an alternative encampment and finding none, I resigned myself to smelling of fish the rest of the day. The only person more affected was Aneri, who as a vegetarian found “pile of dead animals” an especially unappetizing seat.
Not long after sitting down, a woman handed her baby to my friend Sylvain, a Frenchman who works in carbon finance selling energy efficient cook stoves. A bit startled, he had no choice but to accept, holding the baby for some 20 minutes before handing it back.
Not 20 minutes later, the woman handed her baby to ME… and then promptly curled up for a nap. With the most trustworthy mother in the world fast asleep, I had even less choice than Sylvain but to hold little Kenzo. The good news was, Kenzo was probably the best baby in the world. While other babies on the boat cried and threw up, Kenzo sat still and dry for 45 minutes, until finally the mama woke up and took back her child.
That’s when it started raining. Besides the fear of the rain turning to a storm and flipping the boat, we were also not wearing jackets, so he four of us muzungu had to huddle together under a scarf for warmth and dryness. (The locals were smarter—most brought trash bags and tarps along for this purpose).
The final stage ended as it began – with bilharzia-infested porters carrying us across the water and onto the muddy mainland. Only this time I only paid the 500 shillings.
That brings me to 2400 words. For one weekend, I’d say that’s a pretty good amount of laziness to describe.