Remembering the beauty and terror of water after the Ukerewe and Templar lake tragedies  

Wednesday March 18 2020
By Austin Bukenya

Only a few months after we reflected on the Ukerewe boat tragedy in Tanzania, the Lake has claimed yet another grim harvest. I might not have commented on this latest disaster, but it happened almost literally on my doorstep.

Indeed, I should say it is happening, because even as I write, desperate efforts are still being made to re-float the MV Templar vessel that sank last Saturday on a leisure cruise off the lake shores a few miles east of Kampala.

The rescuers hope that moving the boat will enable them to search for the many missing bodies, some of which might have been trapped either beneath it or within its chambers.

Just over 30 of the passengers were rescued alive, and 30-or-so bodies have been recovered so far, but it is believed that there might have been well over 100 merrymakers on the boat.

The passengers were mostly from the cream of Kampala’s middle class and upcoming socialites, including royalty, tycoons and pop stars. A handful of our Makerere students are believed to have been aboard. In the lake traditions, funerals should not be held for those drowned on the same boat until all the bodies have been recovered. Otherwise, the belief goes, premature funerals would complicate and delay the recovery of those still missing.

But the belief has been either eased or ignored and several high profile funerals of some of the victims have already been held in and around Kampala.

Among these funerals have been those of my landlords, Mr and Mrs Bisase. Mr Bisase, popularly known as “Templar”, was the proprietor of the ill-fated boat and he and his wife were on board when it went down near Mutima Beach.

You see what I mean when I say this hit quite close to my heart (mtima being an archaic Swahili term for “heart”).

Anyway, the tragedy triggered in me a stream of recollections of my own indissoluble attachment to water, despite my understanding of its potential threats and terrors.

I have been on cruises on both Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean, and I confess I find the feel of floating absolutely thrilling. Even when the boat is just floating at anchor, as did our “Jazz Boat” in Lagos, the caress of a sea or lake breeze on the face as you stand or sit on the deck is inspirational. When it is enhanced with appropriate effects, like the live jazz of the Lagos crowd, or the taarab on some of the Mombasa Dhows, the ambience is truly refreshing.

I am an Aquarian, having been born in early February, and that may be the reason why I love water in all its forms. “Aqua” is water in the Latin languages, so I am a water man and I am infinitely fascinated by the aqueous element, ranging from Soyinka’s “dog-nose wetness” of the dew, through the crystalline first drops of the shower gently dousing the afternoon sun to the interminable expanses of the oceans.

But if I were to volunteer another explanation for my (and other humans’) obsession with water I would probably go for the hypothesis that we all started from the watery fields. Swimming tentatively as fish and venturing out as amphibians and reptiles towards the dry land, we diversified as dinosaurs, birds and the rest.

Although I am a believer, I will not, today, take you into the intricacies of there being no contradiction between evolution and creation or intelligent design. We should note, however, that Nature, in her graceful generosity, ensures that we start our life’s journey in the comfort of liquid suspension, in the womb.

Anyway, back to the “terra firma” of historical fact, my own love affair with water derives from my having been born, raised and domiciled near water. My Nairobi residence was probably the longest spell I ever spent at a distance from a large piece of water, although I took comfort from the reasonable closeness of the Nairobi Dam, and the elaborate network of swimming pools, of which my family and I took full advantage.

My childhood village near Kampala was a couple of hills and valleys away from the Victoria shores, but it was bordered by an expansive marsh, with streams and rivulets flowing into the rivers that eventually drain into the Nile.

It was in that marsh that we played our youthful water games, stripped to the skin, boys and girls, waddling and paddling in the muddy pools and puddles. Our mother, poor woman, did not like our games one bit but she could not stop them, and we could not understand what she was getting so upset about.

But looking back now, I realise that there were all sorts of dudus and parasites that clung on to our delicate bodies and curled up in our hair. It was sheer providence that we were not stung or otherwise harmed.

There were also snakes lurking in the reeds and other grasses in the marsh. Indeed, we once encountered a python, which slithered past us with contemptuous benevolence. It also took several pots or debes of water to wash the dark mud off our bodies at the end of the day.

I graduated from the marsh to the sparkling waters of the Victoria when, in 1957, I went to junior high school, in the suburbs of Entebbe, the main lakeside city, then still the capital of Uganda.

The school had its own private beach, where we were given formal swimming lessons. There was also a private landing site, where the fishermen delivered daily catches of fish for our dining tables.

Kisubi cemented my attachment to water, and the later exposure to the magnificence of the Indian Ocean on the Swahili Coast seemed to be just an extension of my watery devotion.

But I remain aware that water, whether in a pool, a lake or an ocean, can be “cruel and changeable”, as I wrote in one of my pieces of verse.

Love the water, but love it prudently.


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]