The journey from the Volunteer Uganda lodge to Kampala usually consists of three hours to Rukingiri on typical Ugandan roads – which is to say an enjoyable gravel rally stage at best, a spine shattering minefield of boulders and potholes at worst – before you get to travel on anything that remotely looks like a road network.
This is not a complaint. This is Africa.
Today though, as I travelled to Uganda’s capital for a week of work to prepare for a busy volunteering programme this summer, I deviated from this familiar route in hunt of a short cut to save time, fuel and, importantly, my spine.
In doing so, I stumbled upon this tale which I thought you might find interesting, if not tragic.
From its source in the larger lakes of the arid savannah to the south, the water that cascades from Kisiizi Falls meanders through a lush, green valley before the bedrock that supports its journey comes to an abrupt end.
A drop of 60ft or more leads to a rocky pool where the spray splits the sunlight to form a multitude of rainbows each overlapping the other.
It is, by any standards, idyllic. But the beauty of the falls masks an ugly truth, for water is not alone in meeting an abrupt end at Kisiizi Falls.
Not all that long ago, a woman who fell pregnant out of wedlock was judged to have brought such shame on her family, tribe and community that her crime warranted a death sentence. (This was not uncommon in Uganda. There is an island on Lake Bunyonyi which is simply referred to as “Punishment Island” where unmarried women with child would be abandoned to die of starvation.)
The condemned woman would be led to the edge of the falls by a male member of her family who was responsible for her, be it a father, brother or uncle. This family elder would then, encouraged by the locals who turned up for the spectacle, launch their kin into the abyss below. Then, to celebrate the sin being purged, the community would come together for a feast while the unfortunate woman’s body flowed downstream.
Now, I said that acts like this occurred not that long ago. I’m told by locals that the last took place 50 years ago when a woman, trying to save herself, pulled her brother into the waterfall with her. Instead of one death to celebrate, the community was left with two deaths to mourn.
I’m told that thousands, perhaps as many as 100,000, of women have met their fate in this way over the years.
And although thinking has moved on – the falls are now used for hydro power for one of the district’s best hospitals – the water that flows over the edge of Kisiizi Falls will never wash away, nor the beauty mask, the terrible events that took place there.