From a distance, the green-forested cover set on a white-sand-blanket strikes excitement among first time visitors to Ssese Islands, as MV Kalangala docks at Lutoboka pier on Bugala Island on a Thursday evening. It is December; the Christmas season has set in. So, the boat is teaming with holidaymakers, families, young lovey-dovey couples (some on honeymoon) and business people who permanently reside on the Island.
As a third-time visitor to Bugala, one of the 84 islands that make up the Ssese archipelago (now known as Kalangala District), I am fascinated by so many hotel employees standing by the pier with placards advertising their respective facilities. When I first visited the island in 2011, this wasn’t the case. There weren’t as many hotels. Those that were there didn’t have the luxury of sending cars to the pier every time the boat docked, to pick guests.
As we stepped out, the ‘hospitality assistants’ looked out for clients who had booked with them. But they also engaged those who looked seemingly stranded. My photographer and I, hadn’t made reservations. We thought having visited the Island before, it would be easier to secure accommodation on arrival. I stopped to speak to one of them – from Pearl Gardens Beach Resort. The guy was so friendly; I couldn’t ignore him.
“Sir, are you looking for accommodation?” to which I replied “Yes”. “We have nice rooms at Pearl. I can show you some photos on my phone,” he said as he reached out for his phone. With my short memory; I couldn’t remember that I had actually once stayed at Pearl Gardens. My colleague, whose memory was better, had misgivings about Pearl Gardens. We made calls to other hotels in vain. Before we knew it, all the hotel shuttles that had lined up the pier had left with guests. So, we were just left with Pearl Gardens, as our only Choice.
“Let me take you to see our rooms. If you are not happy, I will let you go,” he pleaded with us. At this stage, we were willing to board his car for a lift to the hotels’ area. The hotels aren’t far from the pier. It is a walk-able distance. But when you have luggage, you want the comfort of a car. As soon as we got to Pearl, he called out to Gloria, the receptionist. “Bano bagala rooms,” he said, meaning “they want rooms” in Luganda.
“Let me get the keys,” she responded. Once she was ready with the keys, we began moving towards the cottages, before another young girl came running towards us calling Gloria’s name out. “Those rooms are already taken,” she said. My colleague hadn’t given up calling and fortunately Victoria Forest Resort, one of the most luxurious facilities, accepted to accommodate us for one night.
They were fully booked for the rest of the weekend. Most hotels were actually fully booked out that weekend and the entire month of December –being their peak season. The guests are mainly domestic tourists who are were either on company retreats or as friends and family. Ssese Islands have become a tourism gem among especially local tourists. And because of the increase in tourist numbers, MV Vanessa has scheduled weekly trips every Friday to Bugala Island, from which it takes tourists to Virgin Island before returning to Entebbe on Sunday, supplementing MV Kalangala’s services.
Apart from the serenity of the white sand and its beach hotels, one of the biggest attractions drawing visitors to Ssese is its mythical sites. Among them is Kihumuro cave, a 30-by-40-metre cave with a wide entrance and tiny exit; tucked away in Kalaya village. According to Daniel Mukasa, its caretaker for the last three years, Kihumuro means rest. It is believed that this was the arrival point for the man who first claimed ownership of this Island, Ssenyondwe Lugamukiro SseBugala. Bugala Island is named after him. On arrival at the Island about 35 generations ago, SseBugala first rested in this cave, which he named Kihumuro. His spirit, and those of his offsprings, visit the cave quite often, according to locals.
At the entrance, a woman was sleeping with a smoking pipe (mindi), laying by her side. She had apparently come to pray to the gods. She declined to speak to us; or even take her photos. Instead, she called the caretaker, Mukasa, who guided us around the cave. The floor is covered with dry grass. Only the barefooted are allowed inside. We removed our shoes and proceeded to check out the cave. Inside is a stream that never runs dry. There are old spears in the middle of the cave. According to Mukasa, these belong to spirits: Dungu, Kiwanuka, Kibuuka, Musoke, Mukasa we Nyanja and Wanema. He narrated that once someone is possessed by one of the spirits, one of the things they do is to identify their spear before beginning to prophesy. There are also calabashes from which food is served to the spirits. The roof of the cave is littered with bats. The cave’s environment looks very conducive for them.
The cave is steeped in myth, tradition and history. According to Sekabira Edrine Simon, a guide, Kihumuro is a cultural site for the Nkima clan (red-tailed monkey clan). “When the king of Buganda comes to the Island, he visits the site for some cultural ceremonies,” Sekabira said. “Other people go there to seek blessings. A sizeable number returns to appreciate the ancestors. They bring with them animals as gifts to the spirits. But they don’t slaughter them in the cave. They are taken to the abattoirs for slaughter and meat brought back to the site and distributed amongst those who want a share,” he added.
Sekabira, who has taken tourists around the cave for years, said he had witnessed visitors getting possessed by the spirits. “It is mainly the locals who get possessed with these spirits. The most recent was a Mukiga man,” he said. “Nothing bad happens to them. But the person begins to sweat and talk about what is going on in the lives of everyone around. After that, things get normal.” When I ask him how those around respond, he says: “In the end, you see people shying away, seeing their secrets are being made public.” he added. Sekabira says that he has taken pastors and church leaders to this cave and they too have prayed, although on these occasions, nothing really happened.
Lugo Cultural Forest
Situated in the heart of Bidco’s Oil Palm tree plantation is a tiny forest, measuring about 4 acres. The area was left in its natural form because of its cultural significance to Buganda kingdom. It is from this forest trees that the Damula (the royal mace) is curved. The mace is a symbol of authority/power that the king of Buganda hands over to the Prime Minister (Katikiro) to rule on his behalf. In case this ‘stick’ goes missing, it is in this forest that another is cut. Luckily, the mace has never gone missing. So, the forest has remained intact for hundreds of years. According to Sekabira, for this, Lugo is treasured and protected. It is protected by a local chief, Omutaka Ssegaluma.
Taboos of the Island
Any domestic animal can be brought to the Island, except sheep or its products. Apparently, no boatman will allow you on-board if you are carrying sheep or its products. Locals believe that a boat sailing with a sheep or its product to the Island will be struck by lightning. The spirits don’t allow sheep on the Island. Period!
Everything on the Island is a myth, literally. Millet, a popular staple in Uganda, cannot be grown on the Island. Women are not allowed to fish on the lake! Men with fresh cuts on their body will not be allowed to catch fish! The list is endless.
The cave-minder has mastered his trade. He creates anxiety in many tourists that as you leave, you are undecided whether to ever go back to Kihumuro Island or thank your ‘spirits’ that you are still alive! I would go back a hundred times, if you asked me!
Omutti refers to a tree in Luganda. Omutti Ssese is situated at Mugoye village and is believed to be over 100 years old. Given its haggered appearance, people believe it possesses supernatural powers. This inspired people to build shrines around it and worship it. According to Sekabira, its neighbours believe that whoever comes with a problem/illness is cleansed using the local herbs planted around it. The spirit residing in the tree is Omusambwa Ssese.
Kalangala Fact Sheet
Ssese Islands are an archipelago of 84 Islands northwest of Lake Victoria in Uganda, of which about 43 are inhabited.
The largest Island in the archipelago is Bugala Island, with its largest town called Kalangala, which serves as the headquarters of the District that carries the same name –Kalangala District
The Islands comprise two main groups. The south west referred to as the Bugala Group, after Bugala Island. The north-Eastern group referred to as the Koome Group, after Koome Island, the largest in that group. The two groups are separated by the Koome Channel
The Islands got their name Ssese due to the numerous Tsetse flies that were found in the area, which was thick forested.
How to get there
Located 51 kilometres (32 mi), across water, southwest of Entebbe, Bugala Island can be accessed through Nakiwogo in Entebbe where MV Kalangala departs at 2pm daily. Transfer between Nakiwogo and Bugala Island is usually 3½ hours. Recently new executive shuttles, Vanessa and Nathalie were Introduced to sail the route, cutting the time from Entebbe to the islands by half.
You can also access Ssese Islands through Bukakata in Masaka District, where Government operates a free ferry. The ferry sails either directions every few hours from early morning to late afternoon, and the sailing takes about 50 minutes.
From Kasenyi landing site in Entebbe, there are small wooden boats to Banda Island.
Fishing is the main economic activity – Nile Perch, with much of the catch being exported. Overfishing is a huge concern on these and other Islands in Lake Victoria. Other industries include agriculture, forestry and tourism.
Livestock farming is also practiced on the Islands. It is estimated that 3,000 cattle, 250,000 poultry (chicken and ducks), 1,235 goats and 7,000 pigs are reared on the Islands.
BIDCO, a private palm oil processor based in Jinja District, on the mainland owns in 15,000 acres (6,100 ha) plantation on the Islands. In addition, outgrower farmers grow palm trees on contract with BIDCO and sell their produce to the processor.
In 2010, the palm oil plant began generating 1.5MW of electricity through the burning of bagasse and some of the oil. The power supplies the oil processing plant and the excess is used to light up Kalangala town.