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Secrets of Kasese’s river of death

By Ronald Musoke

Tracing the origins of River Nyamwamba’s fury

Whenever it shines a lot, usually it is an indication that someone will drown in the river,” says Janet Kyakimwa.  The 35 year old woman knows a thing about River Nyamwamba in western Uganda on the edges of the Rwenzori Mountains. She has grown up on its banks in the shadows of the mountain in Kasese Municipality’s Bulembia Division. She recalls how, as a child, her parents told her never to play in the river.

She says she in turn has passed down this belief to her own children. She has heard stories of people who defied this counsel to their peril. Some, she says matter of fact-like, have stayed stuck still in the middle of the flowing river until chickens and goats had to be slaughtered to free them. She says she knows at least two children who disappeared in the river.

Kyakimwa belongs to the Bakonzo, the dominant tribe in this part of Kasese district. They are mainly traditionalists who venerate River Nyamwamba. Ndyoka— the god of all rivers— dwells in this river. They believe when Ndyoka is unhappy with people who have violated it over the years, River Nyamwamba unleashes its fury.

Nyamwamba last showed its fury in May this year. It left some damage. But it was nothing like happened the same month in 2013. The devastation from those floods can be seen to this day, along a stretch of close to 10kms— right from Bulembia School near the Kilembe Mines offices downhill to the Kabarole-Kasese highway. The boulders it carried remain in their various sizes and shapes. At the nearby Kilembe Hospital, tales of dead bodies being washed away from the mortuary are still fresh. By the time the river calmed down, a dozen deaths were reported by Police while the Red Cross recorded up to 10,000 displaced people.  Thousands of pupils from the eight schools in the municipal division were blocked for days as the floods destroyed bridges. At the nearby Kilembe Mines, administrative offices and residential houses were extensively damaged or swept away.

The Bakonzo believe the new danger is because the Bathahwa (spiritual mediums) who are responsible for regularly cleansing Nyamwamba are dying fast and leaving the community without intercessors with the river.

One of the prominent Bathahwa was called Mburamushenyi. The story goes that he used to study the mood of the river and throw herbs and sacrifice animals to calm down Nyamwamba. But since he died, the river has been more devastating.

Godfrey Kabyanga Baluku, the mayor of Kasese town says traditionally people believe one way the angry gods show their anger is by sending floods down the mountains.For this reason, the Bakonzo have clans or families associated with managing the river. “Once Ndyoka is annoyed, he unleashes his fury,” Kabyanga says while laughing in a suggestive manner that shows he possibly does not mean what he says.

Yet very quickly he recalls an incident that, he says, happened 36 years ago. This time, it was the god of the mountains, Kitasamba who punished the Bakonzo by denying them rainfall for a transgression the mayor does not name.

He remembers seeing elders, both men and women, climbing the mountains with brooms.

“They swept all the curses down and performed sacrifices. After the rituals were done, they descended the mountains and threw the brooms in the nearby Lake George. It rained immediately. May be the gods are angry, I don’t know,” he says.

Even Augustine Kooli, the senior environmental officer of Kasese District recounts the Nyamwamba legend. He says that if one wishes to understand the traditional beliefs, one needs to study the names behind Nyamwamba’s tributaries.

There is River Muryambuli which is associated with eating sheep in Rukonzo, and River Nzuranja which is associated with beating, and River Sine which is associated with a type of coloured goat.

“Our elders say River Muryambuli was the most stubborn river and was difficult to satisfy. Possibly people used to sacrifice animals to calm down these rivers,” he says.

But Israel Masereka, a middle-aged retired teacher who is now a local trader says although his grandfather, Kalemire Kasereka, told him many years ago about the same things, it is possible the lost children Kyakimwa is talking about drowned in an accident as they attempted to swim in the river to cool off. His tone sounds scornful of the traditional beliefs.

Canon Josephat Bwalhuma, the Diocesan Secretary of South Rwenzori Diocese also seems to disagree with the traditionalists. He says what has happened in the past three years is nothing but a natural disaster which can be tamed.

“When something of that magnitude happens, we tend to attribute it to the super natural and other superstition,” he says.

Beyond the Nyamwamba myth

Beside the Nyamwamba legend, there is one other important aspect, perhaps more scientific, to explain the recurrence of the Nyamwamba floods.

All the people interviewed by The Independent concurred on one thing: River Nyamwamba has always flooded.

Alex Kwatampora Binego who is the project manager of Tibet-Hima Mining Co. Limited, the new concessionaire trying to revive Kilembe copper mines was raised in Kilembe. His father, Michael Binego, worked at the copper mines between 1957 and 1992 for the then vibrant Kilembe Mines Limited.

Kwatampora says when Falconbridge Africa, a Canadian firm, came in the 1950s and realised that the western side of Kilembe was more mineralized than the eastern side of the valley, they needed to tame the environment around Kilembe to ensure easier exploitation of the copper ore.

Kwatampora says Nyamwamba originally flowed straight through the current premises of the Kilembe Mines offices as you face Kasese town downhill. But the Canadians diverted it from its original course to reclaim the land for infrastructural development. But the diversion came at a cost: Nyamwamba started flooding every rain season, as it perhaps tried to get back onto its old path.

In response, Falconbridge Africa came up with a flood management plan. They built retention walls and gabions and they also installed an early warning system—a siren. This would alert people to go to safer areas during the onset of floods.

Kwatampora says his first experience of floods was when he was at the nearby Bulembia School in 1982 when he was in P6. The floods came and ravaged the retention wall near the school. The pupils had to be evacuated from the school.But that was the time Kilembe mining complex was still well managed and well-equipped.

He says there was an excavator permanently stationed at the river’s banks to keep the channel clear while the geology department would monitor the river and give timely advice and warning.

“Falconbridge never left anything to chance; between January and March, they used to de-silt the river, widen the channel, check the walls and reinforce them in case of wear and tear,” he says.

“They would repair the walls and put new gabions in case some had been washed away, big boulders would be blasted and removed. By the time the rains would come in April and May, the water would find a clear channel and there would be no effect at all,” he adds. Kabyanga also confirms that the excavation equipment (D8 and D10 excavators) was there and it was stationed in the river all year round. He says Nyamwamba is only trying to get back to its original course following three decades of neglect.

“The bunkers and gabions have never been rebuilt or maintained for the last 40 years and if you ask engineers, the lifespan of a gabion is 40 years,” he says.

“You can imagine from 1982 (when he last saw excavators working in the river), nothing has ever been done for a river that deposits about a million tonnes of boulders every time it floods,” Kwatampora adds, “If you don’t de-silt it, you get the results that you got in 2013—a 31 year accumulation of boulders.”  Kwatampora, who is a geologist, says the volume of water that flows downstream is not extraordinary but because it has no clear channel, it moves on top of the boulders, causing it to burst its banks whenever it rains.

“Given the gradient, the velocity is quite high and so the river will always try to find its way with all its contents,’ he says.

Still, other environmental experts insist the recent flooding is not only down to the poor management of the river channel over the last 30 years.

Kooli the environmental officer told The Independent that in February this year; he was part of a team comprising experts from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Rwenzori Mountaineering Services that did a seven-day expedition to the mountain peaks to establish the status of tourism services in the Rwenzori National Park.

He was interested in finding out the status of ecosystem degradation following the wild fires on the mountain in July, 2012.

The mysterious conflagration destroyed up to 300 sq km of dry bog. This is mainly dry vegetation and dry mud. Usually it is this bog alongside other endemic vegetation such as tussocks which controls water flow down the mountain. The team discovered that the entire western part of the mountain was completely burnt down.Only bare rocky ground remained. Soon, the rains came in March-May, 2013 and swept everything downhill leaving behind only a rocky ground down the valley.

The endemic vegetation is growing back. But it could take years to recover. Kooli says, this explains the Kilembe flashfloods and if his prognosis is spot on, the flashfloods will continue to happen for at least the next five years.  “As long as the intensity of the rains continues, there is a high possibility that Kasese will continue to suffer from flashfloods as the tussocks grow back,” he says.

Heavy toll on Tibet-Hima  mining operations

The floods that have occurred in the last three years have proved a challenge for the Chinese who acquired Kilembe Mines Ltd about two years ago.  “The big floods swept away everything,” Kwatampora says,“We had equipment and other important geological data but this was swept overnight.”

He says fortunately, the management had captured and transferred over 90% of vital geological information.

Tibet-Hima is doing costly remedial work to strengthen the banks of the river.  However, they say, the government needs to begin building the gabions and the retainer walls which collapsed during the 2013 floods. The environment officer also adds that because Nyamwamba’s banks have over the years lost their riparian vegetation which used to hold the soil firmly together, thanks to the vegetation’s elaborate root system, there is urgent need to plant bamboo to fortify the banks.

In addition, Kooli says,the integration of climate change and the environment into socio-economic planning will need to be adopted by the central and local governments to avert future losses.

“Unless they do that, they might as well have to put up a budget for reconstructing the bridges every year.”

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