We met at 7:15am not far from my house, and travelled about 5 miles to the lakeshore, where we boarded a boat operated by the National Lake Rescue Institute, a search and rescue outfit that is not only saving lives on Lake Victoria but also educating the local people about safety out on the water. According to our boat driver, Mike, over 5000 people die from drowning each year on Lake Victoria! The vast majority of these deaths are either children or fishermen, many of whom are on the lake in poorly constructed wooden canoes that simply sink in rough water. It is rare for Ugandans to know how to swim, and even rarer still for them to have a lifejacket. As a result, the NLRI has developed a program where the fishermen’s wives are being taught how to make life jackets! Mike’s goal is for one day to have all fisherman on the lake wearing life jackets. The boat trip to the Island took around 2 hours. When we arrived, we were greeted by the local pastor who had originally approached MAF 18 months ago with the idea of putting in an air strip. The Island is a part of a chain of islands called the Ssese Isles (seh-say) and is quite secluded from the mainland.
Everything on the island arrives there by canoe, with the closest point on the mainland about a 3 hour ride away in the motorized canoes. These canoes are very dangerous, especially with the massive thunderstorms that can form very quickly on the lake. (Our boat driver said that a few years back he had encountered a 30-foot, breaking wave out in the open portion of the lake!) Consequently, very few missionaries or humanitarians make the journey. One of the gentlemen in our group asked the local pastor when the last time muzungu’s were on the island, and he said that he couldn’t remember the last time.
After coming ashore, we walked through one of the 3 villages on the island. I was surprised at how similar it felt to villages on the mainland, though it was even more simple. The island has about 5000 people on it, and a ‘fleet’ of 4 boda bodas (motorcycles) that constitute the entire motorized transportation system on the island! End to end, the island is around 5 kilometers (3 miles) long.
We walked to the church, where we sat down in front of a group of about 40 community citizens and leaders to hear us present the mission of our visit. In typical Ugandan fashion, each leader was recognized and allowed to speak – the police chief, the school teacher, the head pastor, the landlord (owner of the island), the leader of the beaches and water areas, the LC1 (local chairperson, similar to a city council member) and a few other dignitaries. It’s always a bit comical to be a part of the pageantry and hear the hierarchy of people say their piece! After the ceremony, we had to sign 4 separate visitor’s books! It was interesting that the muslim Sheik for the island attended the meeting. He seemed pleased by what was said, though the only person there who seemed skeptical and had a number of questions was the head of the beaches and water areas – who happened to be sitting right next to the Sheik. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a coincidence.
At the meeting, Adrian, the administrative director of MAF here in Uganda, shared that the air strip would be owned, built and maintained by the community and that MAF would only be using it to bring people and supplies to the island to help. The example given was of a neighboring island where there is already a strip, MAF is flying in a team of eye doctors later in the week to treat some of the people there. According to Adrian, these doctors are often able to restore vision to people who have fallen blind from infections.
After the community meeting was over, part of the team got back in the boat to head to the other side of the island where the air strip was being proposed, and the rest of us hopped on the 4 bodas and drove to the site.
Riding the boda through the narrow main path of the village was awesome - one of the most authentically 'African' places I've been to yet.
At the site, I used a hand auger to check and sample the soil down to a depth of one meter where they were proposing the 20 meter wide x 1000 meter long air strip. Unfortunately, the site was very sandy and soft, which is not good for landing planes. However, as we moved up the hill, we found more suitable soil with more loam was mixed in with the sand. I then used a hand level to get an idea of the slope and cross slope of the air strip.
After about 5 hours on the island – meeting with the locals, observing the land, and performing some basic tests of the soil and site, our mission was complete and we headed back to the boat. Overall, the report will be good back to the church in the UK who is playing a big part in raising the funding for the air strip. Though not as ideal as they were hoping for, we were able to identify a specific location for the strip where the soils were acceptable.
The boat ride back started calmly, but ended in some pretty rough water that made it a little more interesting. We were fortunate to have encountered no rain despite the large thunder clouds looming to the south of us earlier in the morning. We arrived back to the mainland around 5pm, so I even got home in time to head down to the school for the second half of Tuesday night basketball! Overall, it was a good day, and it was great to finally work on a project with MAF, who I’d previously heard so many good things about.