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Koome Island: the Reality of HIV, and Poor Transport

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Written by George Matovu

The last time I had traveled on water was around 2009, on the MV Kalangala. Two weeks ago, when my editor assigned me to travel to Koome Island in Mukono district for a health-related story with Makerere University Water Reed Project (MUWRP), I found all kinds of excuses.

Lillian Mutengu, the MUWRP Communications Officer, gave me the brief: we would travel by boat from Katosi landing site. She even offered advice on what to wear. But her answers to all my questions did nothing to comfort me.

On the ride to Mukono, the conversation centered on water transport, with frequent water travelers sharing their worst experiences. Some were near-death experiences; others told of boats capsizing and burying lives. I listened keenly, silently praying that these stories do not repeat themselves with me on board.

At the hotel, Mutengu briefed us on the travel plan. “We shall pick you here at 5:00 am, and you are advised to wake up early so that you have your breakfast before we set off. We were advised that one has to eat something before they travel on water…,” she went on.

I was awake by 4:00 am, perhaps due to the anxiety. I was only able to have a cup of milk for breakfast, because I couldn’t help thinking that the end of me was close.

We reached Katosi at 6.30am, and the place was flooded with wooden fishing canoes. But two bigger boats were docked on the side, spared for our traveling team.

As the MUWRP staff packed their supplies for the event, we were provided with life jackets. By this time, our team had been joined by the district officials, and the number had grown to approximately 30.

A group of young men queued up on the boats, helping the travelers to get on board. I was about 20 people away from the front of the queue. Then it was my turn. I had suspected the young man to be weaker than I, but he told me to turn around—with my back to the lake— lifted me on his shoulders, and deposited me on the boat.

“Now more chance of survival. No turning back!” I thought to myself. We set of for what is supposed to be a one-hour journey to Koome.

A few minutes in the water and the boat engines started failing. Opinions and possible solutions on what to do about the engines were offered. That’s when one of the MUWRP staff, a guy called Moses, said something that should have been remembered before we hopped onto the boat. “We forgot to take a test, ride that is why the man is struggling. Hopefully, we shall be safe,” he said.

My agony grew with the distance between us and the shoreline, regardless of the fact that I had been given a demonstration on how to use my life-jacket and whistle. I had sat in the center, and I sat still, even we were asked to shift positions for the boat to gain balance.

Meanwhile, the boat was being powered by one engine at a time, and you could tell from the different sound the two engines made. The team from MUWRP complained of being short-changed, but we rode on.

Along the way, we passed what was referred to as the lake stone. The landmark is meant to caution water vessels about a non-navigable part of the lake, and I heard that this one was set up by the late president Idi Amin Dada.

The news that we would be docking in 20-minutes provided some relief. At about that time, we came across a fisherman, who we came to know as Dan Kagame, rowing his boat in the same direction as us. He had just caught a huge Nile perch that sparked some excitement on our boat. As we light-heartedly haggled over the price of the fish, I temporarily forgot my worries.

Kagame rowed closer to us and a photojournalist jumped onto his boat, and I was left wishing I had his courage. The two reached land before us.

Koome looks like no place, or even landing site, I had ever visited in Uganda. One of the most striking things is the lone car on the island; a yellow, old Ford (UXB 574). From the landing site, the Ford is the only public means of transport to any place on the island. It would have been our taxi to Koome Sub-county Health Centre, had we not decided to walk the one and a half kilometers.

The Makerere University Water Reed Project (MUWRP) was launching the first Anti-retroviral and out-patient clinic at the only health centre on the island. In a place where the HIV prevalence rate is 18 percent, almost three times higher than the national average (7.3%), the clinic was more than welcome. But it is interesting how the politicians took over the function with long speeches, at the launch of a service they should have advocated for, for their people, which was now being provided by an NGO.

The endless speeches accounted for us finally setting off for the mainland at 3pm, and getting caught up in the high afternoon wind. The strong waves shook the boat and awoke those who had drifted off into sleep. I instinctively ‘took cover’, not stopping to think that it would be of no use if the boat capsized.

The waters grew calmer as we drew closer to Katosi, and I sighed with relief when we finally got on the mainland.

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