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More than just birds at Uganda’s Lake Bunyony

Bird watching is one of the main reasons that so many tourists ‘flock’ to Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda. Bunyonyi the phrase from whence this tropical paradise derives its name simply means ‘the place of many little birds’ in Rukiga the tribe of the Bakiga people who have inhabited this part of God’s earth since the 16th century. It’s amazing how African dialects can sum up a full statement (in English) in just one word! Some argue that because of this, African dialects are shallow in grammar. However, whichever side of the argument you are, we will at least agree on one thing; Lake Bunyonyi is definitely not shallow! Far from it; it is so deep, dropping to 900 meters making it Africa’s second deepest lake and its mysteries and legends are even deeper as many tourists who have visited this scenic and adrenaline filled destination have discovered.

The lake is dotted with 29 islands whose steeply rising slopes have been ploughed for centuries; the green belts of terraced crop fields giving them a picturesque look. This is just one of the mysteries and thus attractions to the area; why and how, you might ask, does anyone in their right mind take the risk of ploughing a near-vertical surface well aware that 100 meters below lies a 900 meter deep lake? The only way to answer this question is to meet the Bakiga in person. They are a hard working people endowed with an extra ounce of energy which shows in their physic and demeanour. Just to demonstrate; the Bakiga conjured up a dance Ekizino that involves men jumping with vim and vigour on one spot until the earth is bruised and pitted from the thump and thud of the keratinised sole of their feet simply as a means to warm-up before heading to the crop fields in the cold of the early morning. What a waste of energy, you would think, especially when they are going to till acres-on-acres of the slippery slopes of on a steep hillside. And, to drive the point home, they will repeat this after returning from the fields as a way to stretch their muscles after a good days work. Ekizino is still performed for tourists who visit Lake Bunyonyi and you too can join-in if you have the soul or ‘sole’ for it!

Speaking of ‘soul’, this scenic resort has a few tales that would raise the hair on the back of your neck; that is, if you have hair on the back of your neck. Bakiga folklore tells it that up until the first half of the last century, Lake Bunyonyi served a deep dark purpose. Young girls found not to be virgins on their wedding night, or those who got pregnant before they were married, faced a harsh horrifying punishment. They would be tied and bundled onto a dugout canoe by their fathers and brothers, and as if that wasn’t terrifying enough, they were then taken across this deep lake and abandoned on Akampene (a tiny island with one tree now famously but reverently referred to as ‘punishment’ island). But, there is a silver lining; not all the girls lost their souls. A few girls were rescued and married by men without cows to pay the ‘bride price’. Fascinatingly, some of these rescued girls are still alive today, and, if you are lucky you just might get the honor and privilege of meeting them.

OK, that's not on a lake...

You too can visit ‘punishment’ island and many of the 29 islands of Lake Bunyonyi. There are several motorised boats that can take you on a guided tour of the Crater Lake; however, the real experience is in taking this tour using a hand-paddled dugout canoe. After all, why come all the way to Africa to ride in a motorised fibreglass boat rather than paddling in an age-old tried and tested hollowed log?And more importantly, why have adrenaline if you are not going to use it? You will be paddled by Rukiga men, their ebony skins speckled with beads of sweat and glistening in the rays of tropical sun as they row you to the rhythm of the splattering oars while you sit back and glide by the stunning scenery, totally hypnotized by the glimmering ripples on the still surface of Lake Bunyonyi, your peace occasionally interrupted by the splash and flatter of a Pied Kingfisher in search of haplochromine cichlids; whatever they might be. (fish).

However, if you really insist on taking back your adrenaline reserves to where you came from, you too can still enjoy the attractions of Bunyonyi. You could visit the lakeshore markets of Kyevu or Rutindo; the shoreline lined with a flotilla of canoes, and the markets full of the vitality of haggling locals and the vibrant colours of varying crafts and curios. Or, you could take a hike to into Orugano forest and through the villages where you can visit the unique Batwa and Abaheesi (black smiths). You can also walk along the spectacular Bunyonyi ridge, and if you are lucky, you could chance on some Bakiga women planting the fields; this is a true demonstration of human machination. These women, perched precariously on the steep slopes of Bunyonyi, fill their mouths with seeds (usually beans or groundnuts) and then using a hoe, they dig a hole in the dark volcanic soils and then with pin-point accuracy they project one seed from their mouth into the hole. And this, while she digs the next hole in line with the previous and her feet reflexively pushing just enough earth to cover the planted seed. She performs this well orchestrated sequence of steps while she talks to herself, or sings some sweet African lullaby to shush the crying baby tied on her back!

Not far from Lake Bunyonyi are the Batwa people (also known as Pygmies). They are the indigenous and previous inhabitants of the tropical rain forests of south western Uganda who lived traditionally as hunter-gatherers. Regrettably, they are an endangered culture after they were evicted from Bwindi impenetrable forest; their ancestral home. It is a sad story, but in the midst of all this, the Batwa bear no malice or hatred and welcome everyone to share in their rich African culture, filled with ancient rituals and profound knowledge of forests, plants and animals. Well, I will tell you more about this next time. In the mean time, when you visit Uganda, take a chance – PADDLE A DUGOUT CANOE ON THE 900 METER DEEP LAKE BUNYONYI!

Find out more with Peter O’Dur.

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