The Nile is the most precious resource that land locked Uganda has. As Africa`s main artery, it impacts the survival of millions of people over its 4,253 mile course. The Nile is in high demand for hydro power with a World Bank/Government of Uganda partnership plan to build 5 dams over the next several years. As part of this project, the Bujagali dam was completed in 2011 and Isimba Dam is slated to finish at the end of this year. Uganda has been providing hydro power to its neighbors since the first dam was built at Owen Falls in the 1950`s, but the Nile`s flow also concerns its northern neighbors of Sudan and Egypt as well since the agriculture in those northern countries depends on the Nile’s flow.
On this particular morning, the entire staff of Soft Power Health are gathering at Nile River Explorers campsite for breakfast before heading across the river to put in below Kalagala Falls for a rafting trip that will end at the Hairy Lemon Island. After Eric Jackson’s experience of having malaria during our first visit to the Nile in 2003, I was inspired to help local people understand and prevent the disease. So a year later I founded Soft Power Health, a Ugandan based healthcare non-profit. Since that time, I have spent 4-6 months a year in Uganda running Soft Power Health and paddling here. On this trip, I am kayaking along with Dr. Burgess Norgaard, a visiting family practice doctor and paddler who is volunteering with us this month. This is Burgess’s first time down the Nile, and I am thrilled that after much planning and organizing, this river trip is finally happening. I am really excited to share this experience with our entire Soft Power Health team.
This is a big event for a number of reasons. First, it’s our staff Christmas party and yes, it’s now March so we are seriously running on Ugandan time to make this happen, but better late than never! Second, this year is the last opportunity we will have to paddle the Nile in its natural and wild state unimpeded by dams. The ongoing construction of Isimba dam, 15 kilometers downstream from Kalagala and Itanda Falls, will be completed by the end of 2018. Very unfortunately, the formerly protected Kalagala Offset Area will be flooded, and this biologically diverse and unique section of the Nile will be under water for the foreseeable future! It’s possible to still voice your dislike for this plan with the World Bank via a click and go petition.
The third and perhaps most important reason that this trip is happening despite some serious trepidation by most Soft Power Health staff, is that very few of our 70 person Soft Power Health family have ever been down the Nile before! And this is true for the majority of the Ugandan population of 41 million people - only a very small percentage of Ugandans have ever been down the river. Soft Power Health employs an all Ugandan staff except for our country manager who is Irish. All our doctors, nurses, lab technicians, drivers, local educators, social workers, DIG gardening team, cooks, cleaners and maintenance people are Ugandan. Most Ugandans do not swim - this is true for 95% of our staff - and are afraid of water. The cost of going rafting is far out of reach for the vast majority of local people - including our staff. For all of these reasons, most Ugandans have no idea what they are about to lose in the coming months with Isimba dam`s completion - our staff included.
I have always found it a strange contradiction that the very people who the Nile belongs too, if it belongs to anyone, have the least idea of how amazing the river is and have a very limited ability to find out. Rafting and kayaking are for the most part available to foreign visitors who can afford these activities. Though there are local safety kayakers, kayak instructors, and raft guides, they are in small minority compared to the rest of the population. Since the dam`s construction marches on daily, time is running out for the possibility of getting more local people like our Soft Power Health staff to see and experience the river first hand.
As the day progresses, the initial trepidation by our Soft Power Health family of getting into the rafts and doing the needed safety drills - which include swimming, rescuing each other from the raft, and flip drills - has given way to excitement and pure thrill of riding through the rapids! After the first waves of Vengeance crash over the line of 7 rafts, shouts of joy and exuberance can be heard. Once through Hair of the Dog and Kula Shaker, people begin to jump out of the rafts and float in the large pool below. Even some of the most frightened are smiling and enjoying their surroundings, saying they had no idea the river was like this. All are beginning to understand what has drawn so many of us back for the last 15 years to this magic river. The final rapid, Nile Special, delivers its special embrace to all. Elated choruses of rafters making it right side up through the rapid echo up and down the river corridor. Once on shore at the Hairy Lemon, the big grins and nearly speechless crews apart from Aah - Hah, is all that needs to be said. Seventy Ugandans who never imagine they would see and experience the Nile first hand are learning why so many of us have loved the Nile for years. They have a new perspective on their home river and a window into a world they would never otherwise see. If I had to guess, I think they have become converts to the Nile!