African Journey Mentality:
Kasenyi and the Isles by Night
I was back where I started, on Entebbe pier looking out over Lake Victoria. Entebbe had been my first home in Uganda. I had walked down Lugard Avenue to this pier trying to get a grip on the disorientation of arrival in Africa. As I looked out onto the vast expanse of water and luxurious vegetation, heard the chatter of monkeys and the screech of storks, my anxiety lifted and I thought, “How can it possibly not be worth it?”
And now I was back, this time to catch a boat to the Sesse Islands, an archipelago of 84 islands about 55 kilometers off shore. While waiting with a snack of simsim balls (roast sesame seeds and honey), I was told that no boats were expected into Entebbe today. So my journey began by land. A matatu back towards Kampala dropped me at the Kasenyi junction where I waited for a pickup down to the lakeside village. I began to slip into my African journey mentality. Time and timetables are of no consequence. You just wait and enjoy. The journey is the purpose. Arrival is incidental.
Kasenyi was a market waiting to happen. In empty rooms, the smell of which gave away their purpose, women waited to gut fish, hawkers to sell products from the islands. And I stuck around for a passage across the lake. It was a long languid afternoon in the shade of a thatched shelter. Dust blew and the heat clicked. I read the national paper, ate popcorn and learnt Luganda phrases from other patient passengers. “Ogende-wa?” Where are you going?
A shout hailed the first boat to break the horizon. Suddenly the shoreline was full of them. Noise and activity burst out of the hush. Their naps over, men waded through mud and lilies to haul metre-long Nile perches off the boats to the rafters where they were hung to dry. Tiny fish were spread out on carpets in the sun. Lorries and cars reversed seemingly from nowhere to take a cargo of fish away to Kampala and beyond. The market was open for business.
After the unloading, the loading. As I contemplated the boats down at the shore, I was suddenly scooped up into the arms of a man who said his name was Charles. Introductions made, Charles waded me over to the boat he said was fastest. There I sat while the wooden craft, about 15 metres long and barely two metres wide, was filled with an assortment of goods – fowl and finally, people. Before long, Charles was back. He deposited a baby in my arms. “Don’t worry muzungu,” he cried, already half way back to the shore. “Its owner is coming soon!”
Tugende! We’re off! There I was, a lone muzungu, chugging out over Lake Victoria, travelling the “local” way in an over-crowded and rather leaky boat equipped with colourful plastic bailing beakers to keep the lake on the outside. Somewhere out there we crossed the equator. The sun set over the lake and the full moon rose opposite, reflecting the pink of the sunset.
The short equatorial dusk was long gone when we reached the islands. At our first port of call, a small canoe slid soundlessly across the silver reflection of the moon. Next, a chorus of frogs rang out like glass chimes across the stillness. On the main island of Buggala, the Mwena landing beach was lit by campfires where men warmed themselves waiting to unload the boat.
I walked up the two-kilometer rocky track to Kalangala with Bruno and his friend, natives of the island, home for the weekend from their mainland boarding school. Electricity had not yet come to the islands. Kalangala was lit by the full moon and the flickering glow of candles and lamps. That night in a little hotel room, I wrote my diary by the light of a paraffin lamp made from a margarine tin. All was well.