- Posted by Nelson Tumwesigye
- On June 9, 2014
- 0 Comments
Within an area of five acres and a population of less than 100 people, Musambwa Island is a pack of 3 rocky islands on L. Victoria about 5kms off shore from Kasensero landing site in Sango Bay region, Rakai district. It is located at 310 35’E, 000 55’S at an altitude of 1,130 m above sea level. The largest of the islands is about three hectares, the medium sized one about 2 ha and the smallest are rocky outcrops protruding out of Lake Victoria.
The name ‘Musambwa’ means a spirit or a demon in Luganda dialect. The Island derived its name from the overwhelming number of snakes in the area which are believed to be spirits rather than normal snakes. Unlike other Islands, Musambwa boasts of one of the highest morality rates in the world as it is believed that no one can play sex from there or else the spirits will humiliate him or her and the entire population there. This has saved the inhabitants from deadly sexually transmitted diseases like Aids that is a common epidemic on other islands and landing sites in L. Victoria and elsewhere.
The Island only shelters a population of men, and women are strictly prohibited from accessing the island as they may lead men into sex. The residents believe they are mere visitors but the land owners are the spirits that appear as snakes. According to Mzee Emmanuel Kaberenge one of the first people to settle on the island in 1964, living in fear of superstitions harmonized nature and mankind. He asserts that he found only 4 people on this island who informed him about the taboos which he also passed on to the later fishermen that came to the island.
According to the legend, two spirits; a male and a female came to the lake and separated, each occupying one of the islands. The female musambwa (spirit) is believed by the inhabitants to occupy the smaller, uninhabited twin island and is said to hate women. The male, purportedly went to the busier twin island, and is also said to hate women. As a result, to appease the spirits women and sex on the islands are prohibited.
According to one Katongole, 67, who has lived on the island since 1965, one day, a couple had sex on the island and the spirit reacted harshly.
The lake turned wild, with an angry storm carrying away houses, deracinating trees and covering the rocky island in a cloud of dust, so it is said. The spirit reportedly possessed the woman in question; she started speaking perplexingly and pointing out the man who had slept with her. The two were banished from the island after the elders had sat and resolved so.
As one begins to ponder about the traditional explanations of the harmonious co-existence of man and reptiles on this Superstitious Island, science looks at it in a more obvious way with little wonder. Herpetologists (snake experts) have it that snakes are peaceful creatures and cannot attack you unless in self defense or if you come into their way during a pursuit for prey. Thence, it is not surprising that the snakes on this island are friendly to people, so they say. They further argue that due to constant exposure to humans, the reptiles may have adopted to that life, a process known as habituation. This would however be taken with skepticism as there are no any recorded incidences where the reptiles could have attacked or injured people even before getting used to them. On the other hand, tradition has it that the snakes on this island are only spirits and cannot attack any one as long as you obey the rules.
The vegetation on two of the islands is mainly shrubby dominated by Erlangea sp. and stunted trees mainly of Ficus sp. The shorelines are largely rocky with no fringing swampy vegetation or sandy beaches. However, some crops of the water hyacinth and bits of wetland vegetation can be found in about five percent of the coastline and these turned out to be important amphibian habitats. The island can be accessed through Kasensero landing site though the route is full of rocky outcrops submerged by water which are a threat to the boats. A better route accesses the island via Dumu in Masaka which provides a much clearer and safer water to sail in.
If you are still enjoying the peace and comfort of your home, the sobering call of the magnificent and enormous life of man and other creatures on Musambwa island will not leave even a blanket on your head neither will you have a cup of coffee from your usual dining table. Where else on earth but on this mirthful Island will you ever see man living in great harmony and sharing a house with pythons and cobras as beautiful and colorful birds sing for them sweet melodies while enjoying the breeze of the lake and a taste of fish. It is a remainder of the Biblical beginning of mankind where man lived in harmony with all creatures including snakes before the existence of a woman. If you look back at the case of the woman and the snake before God, then will you probably understand why women are prohibited on this Island yet men live in friendship with the reptiles.
The sweet whisper of nature on this island is indeed a manifestation of God’s joy and happiness in seeing the harmony and tranquility his creatures live in and the morality and discipline mankind has exhibited to fulfill God’s divine intension of creation.
Musambwa Island is not only a gem of mythical wonders, but also a place where wildlife calls home. There are over 2000 snakes and reptiles of all sizes as well as enormous bird species. It is a breeding site for the Grey-headed Gulls, Long-tailed Cormorant, Greater Cormorant and Little Egret, all of which breed in internationally significant numbers.
You won’t cease to wonder from the moment you set your foot on this island. Having seen a population of over 100 men without any woman, some in groups boosting, others roasting fish, as you walk keenly not to step on napping pythons and staring cobras while avoiding crushing the eggs and newly hatched birds in the rock beds. The spirit they call Jajja Musambwa hypothetically stays in a tree shrine, where residents visit regularly to seek blessings. Amazingly, next to the tree lies an empty boat with an inscription ‘Jesus cares’. You will be welcomed by about 30,000 grey headed gulls springing into the air from the island in big swarms that appear to be dancing for the approaching visitors at the sound of a motorboat.
Due to its attractiveness, the island suffered a heavy influx of fishermen who in turn caused a negative impact on nature. Fish began to diminish, as the fishermen resorted to the sale and eating of the bird’s eggs. With the poor disposal of garbage and the overwhelming population, the fate of the Musambwa Island was at a great danger of destruction which would have probably led to the conflicts between man and other creatures on this island especially the reptiles. Trees were being cut down at a very worrying rate to get wood fuel for smoking fish before transporting them to the mainland.
Lucky enough, the coming in of Nature Uganda and other conservation partners like EcoTrust led to the formation of conservation associations made up of the local members tasked to oversee and implement conservation laws. Sensitization was successfully done and a number of laws agreed upon. Among others included, prohibition of picking birds’ eggs except those that have fallen off the nests and prohibition of deforestation. Ice boxes were introduced to help in preservation of fish before transporting them to the mainland instead of smoking them which required wood. EcoTrust constructed an Ecosan toilet, which is better than the ordinary pit latrine. It separates urine from the stool and uses heat from the sun to dry up the waste and this has seen off the diseases that used to erupt as a result of poor sanitation like Cholera.
This move has seen the coming back to life of the variety of birds like the grey headed gull that is believed to breed only from here in the whole of Africa.
The island is a recognized ramsar site and its classification as one of the 6 IBAs (Important Bird Area) in Uganda was based on a tenet that it contains congregations of breeding birds in globally significant numbers especially the Grey Headed Gull, the Long Tailed Cormorant, Greater Cormorant, and the Little Egret. The Island is known to have the largest breeding colony of the Grey headed Gull in Africa.
Tourism is picking up in the area with a few visitors arriving on the island for bird watching. Female tourists are also welcome since they do not have to stay for an overnight. It should be noted that women can be allowed on the island as long as they do not spend more than 24 hours according to a local guide, Ntale.
Musambwa Island offers opportunities to watch the Grey Headed Gull breeding as well as a chance to watch several other species of birds. Some of the birds here include the Long Tailed Cormorant, Greater Cormorant, the Little Egret, White-winged Black Tern ,Sacred Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Spur-winged Plover, Black Crake, Cattle Egret, Yellow-billed Duck, Grey Heron, Lesser Flamingo, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Common Moorhen, African Fish Eagle, Pink-backed Pelican ,Open-Billed Stork, Water Thick-knee, Common Sandpiper, Herring Gull, Green-backed Heron, Hamerkop, African Marsh Harrier, Black-headed Heron, Pied Kingfisher, Squacco Heron among others. These can be sighted with ease unlike other birding sites where one has to have binoculars.
Owing to the great bird diversity on this island, it is no wonder that the island harbors several reptiles which feed on these birds and their eggs. They include the African rock pythons, cobras, vipers and monitor lizards among others but inimitably have never harmed the people but instead share beds with them. These can be easily seen as one takes a walk along the island.
Activities available on the island for tourists include nature walk along the rocky island, bird watching, seeing reptiles, sport fishing, and guided water boats among others.
Come and discover the gem on this superstitious island which may be the only one of its kind and the one that has embraced harmony between man and snake since the fall of man in Genesis chapter 3 of the bible. The harmony has been superstitiously attributed to the laws said to have been put by the land owners (spirits). The laws conserved nature and ensured harmonious living and included;
Never to disturb any snake on the island, Prohibition of sex and prohibition from eating or selling the birds’ eggs.
The law prohibiting people from eating or selling the eggs of the birds on the island was later broken as more people flocked in and competition for survival increased. However it was restored by the conservation groups that now operate on the island.
You don’t afford to miss being one of the great explorer’s of modern time as you discover the yet undiscovered on this Island and appear on the same pages with the historic explorers like John Speke and James Grant. Come and experience the magical experience and the real touch of the African Chemistry.