“I call the Nile my foundation for what I am today.”
This post is part of a series of portraits looking at the individuals affected if the Ugandan government’s plan for a large reservoir feeding a hydropower project at Isimba go ahead. Construction of a dam this large would destroy the tourism industry in Jinja the country’s second largest city and have large effects on the surrounding communities. Based on the information provided options of a smaller dam are viable and would protect or even boost the tourism here as well as providing electricity to the area surrounding the dam.
If you haven’t already read the introduction to this series then please read this post first.
Any thoughts, questions or other comments please add below.
Juma Kalikwani grew up at Itanda falls, one of the spectacles of the Nile in Uganda. As a child every Sunday he would walk to the falls to see the newly introduced rafting trips. 18 years later, Juma is one of Africa’s most recognisable river guides and has built up a career around the Nile’s whitewater. Juma was the Ugandan and African representative at the 2012 Olympic Games. He was one of the team of paddlers given the honor of representing his region to introduce freestyle kayaking to the crowds in London. Along with the photo session I was able to sit down with Juma and get him to answer a few questions such as how he started working in tourist industry, what it has given him, and what the different options for Isimba would mean for him and his family. The following is his words:
I first got to know about rafting back when I was a kid. When rafting started at the end of 1995, we would go to the falls every Sunday to see what the Mzungus (local language for white people) were doing. At the time, it was just a weekend thing and the companies used to pay us to carry the boats around the top of Itanda, which is a serious class 5/6. I was too young and small to be able to carry the rafts but I used to go to the kayakers and carry their smaller boats for a small amount of money. This was great because it meant that I became very close with the kayakers and eventually we started talking about me learning to kayak. Paulo was a key person in this, and probably the person that I had the best relationship with. It was him, who in 2000 that told me to go upriver to Bujagali and Nile River Explorers Rafting Company, who were looking to employ more safety kayakers. I could swim but I had not had any official training for kayaking, but knew that it was something that I wanted to do.
The training was a long process but I guess it shows the skill that is required by the people working on the river. I spent about a year as a trainee. At the time the only equipment that we could get here was in a very bad state. We would have three sprayskirts (a piece of wetsuit material that seals the cockpit of a kayak and keeps water out), each would have a hole in but we would arrange them in such a way that each hole was covered and we could keep most the water out of our boats. The boats too added in a extra element of risk, at the time we were using Dancers and Swallows, which if you were unlucky or went into a piece of water that was too strong would just bend the boat. I don’t think that any of the boys working as kayakers now have even either of these boats and are glad that they don’t have to deal with that same issue. Each day we would get on the water and I would try my best to understand how the water was moving, how the raft guides were working with the clients and I would try and spend the day without swimming. This normally went ok until Bujagali falls, which nearly always resulted in a swim. It was pretty bad really [Laughs]. The days were pretty tiring and when I first started I used to ride my bicycle from Itanda to Bujagali (around 20km on bumpy dirt roads) every morning and night, which was really tiring. In order to keep training I used to sneak into the bar at Bujagali after everyone had left and would sleep there, no one knew about this except from the nightwatchman, who thankfully understood. Each day I would feel more comfortable in my boat and I really enjoyed playing down the river, I then started to sit on the rafts next to the guide and would learn more about moving the rafts around in the water. Eventually, in 2003 I qualified as a guide and could lead a boat of people on my own, that was a pretty important day.
The Nile is my home river, and I am very lucky because of that. If it wasn’t for the Nile and it’s whitewater I would not have met those people who introduced me to rivers such as the Zambezi taken me to international competitions in France, Australia and many other places. I don’t want sound like I am bragging but this river enabled me to do something that I am really very proud of. Introducing freestyle kayaking to the crowds at the London 2012 Olympic games was something I really have to count as a highlight. I felt especially fortunate because not many African athletes that were entered into the main competition were given money to go and had to source the funding from somewhere. Even Kiprotich, Uganda’s gold medal winning runner had to borrow shoes from the Kenyan team for his race. Uganda doesn’t normally spend a lot of money on its athletes. I was extremely lucky that everything was organised for me to be there at that event. For me, it was really special because I wasn’t just representing Uganda, I was representing the whole of Africa. I was the only African man on the water there at the Lee Valley site. To me it was a very big thing and something that I am so grateful to have had that opportunity to do, which came because of the Nile.
To put it simply, I call the Nile my foundation for what I am today. I don’t know, but I think with the qualifications I have, the training and the experience I will let me work anywhere in the world. This world that exists right now in the Jinja district is one where you can study at Itanda primary school in a remote community and be able get a job in America, Canada, France or England to name just a few. For me this is true and I am not the only one. There are many Ugandans who have been able to get work abroad and make a career out of the skills that they have learnt here on the Nile. I did not go to university, but with the business here I have still been able to be successful. That has all been made possible because of the activities here around Jinja.
At the moment, as far as I understand, there are three potential outcomes for Isimba:
The first and second is the construction of a dam that creates the bigger reservoirs. If they build the dam that will wipe out the rapids and the tourism, then I will have electricity. But for what? I will have no job, I will not be able to help my brothers. I’m not just talking about brothers by blood, I employ people to look after the places when I can’t be there, and I have created jobs for them and their families. Normally people think that if the rapids are gone then there will be no rafting, “ah, that’s fine, it’s just rafting!” but rafting is the big bone in the Busoga skeleton ( Busoga – a district of Uganda), we don’t have mining, any oil, no chimpanzees, gorillas or big game like elsewhere in Uganda. The business is booming in Jinja because people want to come and see the colossal rapids here where the Nile starts.
If you take away the rafting then you take away many other businesses too. People come to Jinja to go rafting or kayaking and then have maybe two or three days where they ask themselves what can we do. This is when they go to the shops in town or into the villages or help with a community project. If the biggest dam is built and the rafting and kayaking is taken away, the man who has just built a 300million USH ($119,400) hotel is not going to get any business. By building the big dam you remove the demand for the electricity we have been told is needed and then who will pay the electricity company? If you leave the river there drawing people into Jinja then those people will come to the expensive hotels with their electronics, they expect hot water and they expect electricity and the hotelier will be able to pay his bills.
The last option is one that makes complete sense in my mind. If they build the small dam, it will not affect rafting. That one is going to be very good for me. Rafting will still be here but also a dam is put near where I come from. There, there is no power. This is the reason why I rented in Jinja for many years even though I have a house in the village back at Itanda. A dam built there will mean that we get power there and then we may start to see many other developments in that area. We have seen factories like those near the Bujagali Dam being built and I predict that this could be a by-product of the dam at Isimba too. If there are factories and goods of value being made then they will have to improve the road. By improving the road there will be many people who would want to buy land on that side, people would want to invest into that area. I predict new businesses will emerge. At the moment, Itanda falls is a major draw for people but it is impossible to get a cold drink there or food other than local rice and beans. So if the small dam is built leaving the tourism industry intact, then I will really support that with all of my body. It will change my life, my fathers life, my brothers lives. and all their neighbours lives. A good road would save lives. Right now, if there is an serious emergency and we need to rush someone to hospital, Jinja is our best hope, and it is 40 minutes away at the best of times, if there is rain that person is definitely going to die.
Thanks to the Nile and the tourism industry I can get on a plane and go and work somewhere else, but what about the person who has been selling bananas for 2000 instead of 100. what about the boda-boda man (motorbike taxi) who has been able to charge 5000 for a journey to town, what about the man who supplies milk to the hotels in Jinja, where is his business now going to go. Who ever invests in Jinja whether they are Indian, Chinese, Ugandan, Japanese, Australian, South African, British or any other nationality relies somehow on the tourists that come to Jinja. Maybe they know but I suspect that they don’t that 95% of the tourists that come to Jinja come because of the water that we have. We take maybe 30-40 people per day on the river; there are 3 major companies all of which have similar numbers. When these people finish rafting they do not just sit next to the raft racks, they go out into the world and go to town, go to the shops, go into the villages and support all the small businesses around this area. If I had the opportunity to meet with the decision makers I would explain that to them. The number of people affected does not stop at those who work on the river.
There are so many people who have invested in Jinja that will be left crying. If the big dam goes ahead, yes of course we will cry because we know the fate that has been set and that will make us very sad.
Let me finish with this; I am not against a dam at Isimba, I just want an option where everyone is going to make a living.