With the exploration and tour of a local Lake Bunyonyi village on the cards for the day, our local guide, Freddie, rocked up to the campsite during breakfast to join us for a bit of a feed before gathering all the crew together, giving us a bit of an idea of the schedule ahead of us and then leading us down to the local dock.
Here, as the locals all gathered around watching our launch into the water with great amusement, we all clambered, 4-5 at a time, into hollowed out tree trunks masquerading as lake-worthy canoes.
With a guide at the back taking care of the steering (which was great considering we had no idea where we were going), we took turns in sharing two single paddles to attempt to propel our canoes forward in the water.
I say attempt as we kind of found ourselves in one of those situations where, you know, the walls of the canoe were so high and the floor of the tree trunk canoe carved out so deep, that to paddle we were literally holding and swinging the planks of wood from above our shoulder line. Awkward to say the least.
Anyway, we managed a full circle around one of the large islands closest to our campsite, before we docked at a small, rickety old wooden jetty and returned to terra firma, greeted by a few of the island village residents who helped Freddie lead us up through some pretty lush looking farming land, to what appeared to be the centre of the village.
Here we found many more of the local men and women who had gathered together to work on some grounds maintenance outside the school block. Freddie was keen for us to continue moving rather than stopping and saying hello, knowing that we would have the chance to meet everyone a little bit later.
With school holidays currently in full swing, the school was vacant of kids so we had the opportunity to poke around one of the simple classrooms. The well-used blackboard was covered in all sorts of scribbles including some surprisingly quite complicated algebraic expressions.
Leaving the school buildings, Freddie ushered us to a clearing further up the hill where there were a number of wooden benches placed out for us to park our bums on. As we did, one of the village elders welcomed us and offered us, through Freddie’s interpretation, welcome shots of a domestically distilled liquor known locally as “Kasese”.
Essentially a potent form of banana gin, the clear liquid was passed around so that we could all have a go at it, with mixed reactions as it turned out. One thing I can say for sure, it’d put hair on the chest of even the most seasoned drinker. Speaking of which, Dave had a good crack at consuming a full glass on his lonesome, a valiant effort he came to regret a short time later – haha!
Once we had all had a taste, the rest of the villagers who had gathered around us then got stuck into the Kasese as it made the rounds, closely followed by a number of large mugs filled with a sorghum porridge drink traditionally consumed for breakfast in the region.
I took a sip of the porridge concoction as well and wasn’t blown away by the taste, or lack thereof, that trickled over my taste buds. So much so, that I recall taking the drastic step of actually reaching for the gin for a second go, to wash the taste away.
With all the welcoming/drinking formalities out of the way, it was time to party! The ladies of the village got things going with a simple clapping beat and song, but the tempo soon kicked up a notch and before we knew it we were up dancing alongside the locals!
I think we put on a pretty lame showing compared to our energetic, rhythm-gifted tutors, but we gave it a good crack nonetheless (see video below).
After about 30mins of song, dance and other assorted entertaining observations had passed, Freddie motioned that it was time for us to move on in order to stick with our schedule.
Before we departed, however, Freddie handed out some coloured pencils to the younger boys who had been dancing and singing for us. I’ve never seen such bright, wide, white eyes light up like theirs did when something as simple as a pencil was placed in their hands. It sure put a lot of things in perspective, as has a lot of things on this journey to Africa so far.
Moving on, we headed once again up the hill leading to the geographic centre of the large island. As with most land ascents, the main reward for the hard work fighting gravity was the ever-improving views. Half way up the hill we got our first glimpse of the village church which, in these parts, often acts as the centrepiece of the entire community.
Further along, views of the terraced farming lands which stretched all the way to the water’s edge, came into view, along with sweeping vistas of the lake and neighbouring islands. It was clear that Freddie was pushing us closer to his favoured lookout point which we eventually reached and suitably abused with dozens of selfies, and other group shots.
While taking in the beautiful views, Freddie told us some pretty crazy stories about life on Lake Bunyonyi, including the legend of the tiny, single tree island of Akampene, or “Punishment Island”. As folklore has it, unmarried pregnant girls were abandoned on Punishment Island to die due to hunger or drowning while attempting to escape/swim away from the island. In leaving these “sinful” girls on the island to perish, it was said that other girls would be educated/warned not to find themselves in the same predicament.
Fear not, my humane, compassionate readers! It seems a common practice was for these girls to be “picked up” by single blokes with no cows in their possession, hence no wealth or means to pay a dowry for a wife. Given that these girls had been disowned by their families, no bride price was claimed. As bad as it sounds, and it sounds terrible, the girls were effectively “free for the taking”. It was a better predicament than dying from starvation I suppose.
The practice of using Punishment Island in such a way was abandoned in the first half of the 20th century, but there are still some women within villages in and around the lake that were rescued and effectively given a second chance at life, back in the day.
While at the lookout point we also had our first encounter with three gorgeous siblings who, as it turned out, were the kids from the family we were heading to have lunch with. “Wise”, “Jonique” and “Boss” (LtoR below) approached us shyly at first, but they were soon more than enthusiastic to lead us along the ridge we were on, straight to their house.
Arriving at the cosy digs proudly built and maintained by our lunch host family, we were escorted into a cool, mud-brick-walled room where we once again took a seat on some wooden benches provided, set around a couple of low tables.
As we took some moments to get our breath back from the final uphill journey, the eldest children from the family brought out plates and a selection of dishes that looked equal parts completely foreign and completely delicious!
Once prompted, we dived in, helping ourselves to a fantastic traditional meal of potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize bread, beans, a purple purée of peanuts and spinach and a form of pickled cabbage. Giddy up!
Needless to say, it was pretty hard to find a plate that hadn’t been licked clean by the time lunch was over.
With the pots and dishes all cleared away, the matriarch of the family took the opportunity to showcase her skill in crafting reeds, taken from the lake’s edge, into an assortment of woven pots, baskets, boxes, animal replicas, jewellery and more.
The crafts laid out before us were “next level” kind of stuff, but we were all keen to try our hand at the clever art form and various members of the family were all too happy to show us the ropes, or the reeds, as it was in this case.
Boss was paired up with Kirsten for the duration of the wrist-band weaving demonstration. While she made good progress and picked up the method pretty quickly, it was really easy to lose track of where you were with the multi-strand, tri-coloured material and I couldn’t help but notice the cheeky grin that splashed across Boss’ face the few times that Kirst lost her nimble finger rhythm.
She wasn’t alone, however. There were faces contorted by immense concentration throughout the room, as everyone struggled to complete the seemingly simple task.
While all this was going on, I was hanging out snapping pics of Wise as he poked his head in the window behind me, and Jonique as she popped in and out of the room from time to time. They were such beautiful, lively kids.
The camera loved them, and they loved seeing themselves on the back of the camera.
With woven bands all completed and positioned, some firmly, others not-so-much, to our wrists, we thanked the family ever so much for their hospitality and for opening their home to us. We said goodbye to the kids who had all been so sweet to us all and set off along another dirt track, hugging the side of the hill as we went, back down towards the water.
Levelling out into a clearing once closer to the lake, we were greeted a final time by all the kids of the village who had assembled to put on a bit of a “farewell and thanks for coming” performance. Lots more singing, clapping and jumping ensued.
As has become customary every time anyone sings and dances in front of us, Kirsten and others were eventually pulled into the action and seemed to join in with ease.
Everything was all dandy until the dancing took a turn to this weird “stop and stare at each other with blank faces” bit. None of us knew what was going on or what it meant, but it always ended in laughter which can only be a good thing!
Our wonderful morning and lunch with the island villagers on Lake Bunyonyi drew to a close and it was time to get back on the water, this time in a motorised long boat. We squished in shoulder to shoulder and headed off in the direction of the Rwandan border.
The plan, as we understood it, was to motor to the other end of the lake, about an hour away, to meet up with and learn from members of a “bushman” tribe.
The customary afternoon storm literally chased us across the lake, but we eventually arrived at the site of a rather chaotic market, disembarked and looked around wondering what was going to happen next. There wasn’t really any sign of any of the tribe we were supposed to be meeting until a solitary bushman appeared with a bow and some arrows, dripping with sweat as if he’d just run a couple of miles to get to us.
The bushman set about demonstrating his bow skills, aiming at a paper target pinned to the side of the hill we were facing. Given we’d travelled a full hour to get to that moment following on from such a good day, it was unfortunately a tad underwhelming. But a few of the crew including Sarah and Iain stepped up to have a go themselves in an attempt to make something out of a situation which otherwise felt a little awkward.
On the upside, we did get some time to observe some of the waterfront activity that was playing out below us – all a good insight into how these people on the other side of the planet live their lives.
With the rain storm still bearing down on us and an hour-long journey back to the campsite (through the storm) ahead of us, it was back to the boat and under a tarp in an attempt to stay dry.
We made it back to the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort as the light was beginning to fade leaving us just enough time to shower, freshen up and head to the bar for a couple of pre-dinner beers.
After all the wildlife we have and are yet to see on this trip in Africa, it was really nice to get the opportunity to meet some of the people that call this corner of the planet their home, and get a bit of a feel for how they live their lives day-to-day.
Despite the odd end to the day’s explorations, chalk today up as another win!
Posted in: Travel