Project trip to Buvu Island

The Buvu Island team, from left: me, Pilot Simon (from Switzerland), Pastor Sam (Ugandan) and MAF administrator Adrian (from the UK)
This past Tuesday, I was a part of a team of 4 guys who travelled by boat about 45 miles out into Lake Victoria to visit and assess an island for the feasibility of putting in an air strip. The group leading the trip was MAF, Mission Aviation Fellowship, an international missions group who use their expertise in air transport to assist other mission groups in spreading the gospel as well as to help the poor with humanitarian aid. Our group consisted of the administrative director of MAF in Uganda, Adrian, the chief MAF pilot Simon, a local pastor named Sam and myself, ‘the engineer’.

The team strapping on life jackets and some wet weather gear next to the boat. We were blessed with good weather all day. A big thunderstorm out on the lake (they occur almost every day) would've soaked us in a hurry and there would've been no option but to forge on.

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.

On the boat, heading to Buvu Isle. The boat driver actually had me drive for about 20 minutes while he switched gas tanks and then took a seat. We'd talked about boats some and I'd mentioned I grew up with one, and apparently that was all the qualifications I needed to satisfy him. Driving by GPS was interesting though, and a first for me.

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.

Lake Victoria, looking out the back of our semi-rigid boat. The lake creates the vast majority of the weather for this whole region. It's roughly 350 miles long, north to south.


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.

Buvu Island, as seen from our boat arriving around 10am. The canoe pictured on the water (right-side) is typical of the canoes that currently provide the only access to the island - for both people and supplies.


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.

The 'Community Meeting'

After arriving, we walked through "Main Street" of the largest village on the island. We were quite the spectacle as many of the villagers hadn't seen a white person in a long time. Most people just stared & waved from their porches, but the kids were more willing to approach us.


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.


For the last half of the trip heading out to the site, I was on the boda with 3 other guys - I about caused us to fall over trying to get a good picture of us all!


The area where I took some soil samples and slope measurements to check the feasibility of the island for installing the air strip. It was very sandy, which isn't great for overloaded boda rides, or air strips.

After we finished up checking out the airstrip, we had to stop at yet another village on the island to sign a guestbook (#5 if you're counting). The process of welcoming and receiving guests is very formal in Ugandan society (and I think many African ones too).

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.

As we were leaving, the pastor's wife and one of the other community leaders really wanted a picture taken. Though they look fairly stoic in this shot, they were anything but afterwards as they looked at the picture on my camera!


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.

No matter how remote, and how primitive, apparently TV satellite dishes are standard equipment even for mud huts on a remote island in Uganda. Unbelievable.


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.

The MAF guys brought over some bibles to hand out, so they gave a copy to some of the community leaders we met with. They were very excited to receive them.

Comments

I've been loving all the updates Brad.

You guys gonna be home anytime soon?
brian c. berry said…
loved this update. So wish I was there and could have joined you. This sounds like a really fun trip. I have no idea how to do a soil sample, but I'm stoked that you do.

See you in 2 months!

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