History and Culture of Lake Bunyonyi

by Steve
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Picture of a traditional Healer at Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda.

Lake Bunyonyi is located in southwestern Uganda.  The name Bunyonyi means “place of many little birds.”  It was formed about 8,000 years ago when one of the area’s volcanoes erupted.  As the lava flow cooled, it created a natural dam which blocked the river flowing through the valley.  What used to be hilltops are now 29 islands throughout this large lake.

At Edirisa on Lake Bunyonyi where I’m staying, the altitude is about 2,000 meters (6,561 feet).  The hills surrounding the lake rise to above 2,500 meters (8,202 feet).  No wonder I’ve been sucking some air on our hikes!!  But the beauty of the area makes it all worthwhile.

A picture of Lake Bunyonyi and the Surrounding Hills.

Lake Bunyonyi and the Surrounding Hills

And the view of the lake continually changes throughout the day and around every bend on the lake or while hiking.

A picture of Lake Bunyonyi on a Partly Sunny Day

Lake Bunyonyi on a Partly Sunny Day

A picture of Lake Bunyonyi on a Cloudy Day.

Lake Bunyonyi on a Cloudy Day

It is surprising how cool it is at Edirisa.  The facility sits on a hillside with much of it shaded by trees.  There usually is a wind which makes it even cooler.  A long sleeved shirt and a sweater have been pretty much the norm for me!  But the advantage is that the altitude and the temperate climate help keep the mosquitos away, so there is a lower prevalence of malaria in this area of Uganda.  But the malaria pills are still a part of my daily routine!!

Punishment Island

Punishment Island is the smallest of the 29 islands in Lake Bunyonyi, but one with a very dark history.  In the picture below, taken from the crest of the Kyabahinga peninsula, the tiny island in the center of the photograph is Punishment Island.  It was here the local Bakiga (pronounced Bachiga) would leave their pregnant unmarried girls.

A picture of Lake Bunyonyi and Punishment Island.

Lake Bunyonyi and Punishment Island

The girls were left there to suffer and die as a punishment for getting pregnant as an unmarried girl.  It was a cultural rule of the local people because it brought shame to the family.  Many of the girls died from starvation.  Many tried to swim from the small island to escape, but drowned because learning to swim during those years was not common.

A picture of Punishment Island in Lake Bunyonyi.

Punishment Island

Many committed suicide.  Some were picked up by poor men canoeing past the island.  These were men who couldn’t afford to pay the bride price such as cows, goats or land.

When I first heard about Punishment Island, I thought this local custom had taken place hundreds of years ago.  I was shocked when I found out it didn’t stop until in the 1940s when the government and Christian missionaries outlawed the practice.

The People of Lake Bunyonyi

There is no better way to meet the people of Lake Bunyonyi than to take one of the Gorilla Highlands treks.  One of the best ones is called Culture on the Crest.  The trek started with canoeing to the point we would start our hike on land.

A picture of five people canoeing on Lake Bunyonyi.

Canoeing on Lake Bunyonyi

The canoeing was easy but hiking up the steep hill on the Kyabahinga peninsula was a bit more challenging.

A picture of Kyabahinga Peninsula on Lake Bunyonyi

Kyabahinga Peninsula on Lake Bunyonyi

We carefully worked our way up the path leading to the crest of the hill.  Part way to the top we stopped to taste some of the local brew called Bushera.  Made from sorghum flour, fermented sorghum or millet grains and water, it was a taste like I’d never tasted before!  But that’s one of the exciting parts about traveling.  Learning about other people’s foods and drinks is always enlightening.  We also tasted homebrewed Gin!!   Now that I’ve had before.

A picture of Tezy Drinking the Bushera.

Tezy Drinking the Bushera

From the sampling of the homebrews, we went on to meet a traditional healer who is the featured image today.  Gad Barera is 69 years old.  It is interesting that everyone we visited always stated their age first.  I certainly don’t find that where I grew up!!

At the age of 35, Gad began to learn from his uncle, Jeremiah, how to mix the various plants, herbs and roots.  And his uncle learned from his father who learned from his father.  The demonstration started with all the different plants laid out on the table stacked in various groupings.

A picture of a Traditional Healer with His Plants and Herbs.

Traditional Healer with His Plants and Herbs

From there he showed us one group at a time and explained what it would remedy.  Most of the plants are dried and made into a powder.  They are used to treat stomach ache, allergy, pneumonia, malaria and other ailments.  And they are also used to treat demons.  Traditional healing is accepted by local medical personnel.  You’ll find some of these traditional healing remedies in the local pharmacies in the Lake Bunyonyi area.

One of the traditional medicines was a herbal powder that would make the mind fresh.  One inhales the powder which eventually leads to a series of sneezes.  And too much of that?  Well, take a look at Paul’s expression in the picture below.  I guess it left quite a buzz!!

A picture of Paul Making His Mind Fresh with a Herbal Powder.

Paul Making His Mind Fresh with a Herbal Powder

Traditional Crafts

From there we made our way to a home perched high on the crest of Kyabahinga peninsula.  There we were served a traditional local meal.  After lunch, Annah Kyomukama showed us how she makes traditional crafts.  Annah started making these crafts when she was 12 years old learning from her mother.  Almost all materials are from the lake area.  Two of the primary materials are papyrus and raffia grass.  One of her sons, Apollo, has been learning how to make crafts and was helping his mother throughout our time there.

A picture of Annah and Apollo Making Crafts.

Annah and Apollo Making Crafts

As you can see from the picture below, she has been working hard to have many crafts available for sale.

A picture of Annah's Crafts Ready for Sale.

Annah’s Crafts Ready for Sale

A Different Type of Travel for Me

Usually I’m traveling to larger cities in the world, particularly in Europe.  I very seldom get out into nature as I am on this trip except for our trip to Jordan and our camel trek in Wadi Rum.  Spending time with the Gorilla Highlands Initiative is a tremendous experience for me.  One of the reasons I volunteered with the Initiative is that tourism is used as a tool for economic and social development.  They are very dedicated to successfully brand and promote the region to bring an increase in responsible tourism.  One of their objectives is to protect the culture and well being of the region’s disadvantaged people, especially the Batwa (Pygmies).  That story will be featured in an upcoming post.

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