Memories Of Uganda’s Punishment Island Still Live On

Lake Bunyonyi is found in the southwestern part of Uganda near the Rwandan border. Although its deepest point is said to be around 40m, some experts have put it at around 900m, which if true would make it the second deepest lake in Africa. The calm and crystal clear waters, and the surrounding green terraced hills, give the lake an outstanding scenic beauty.

However, this magical splendour and tranquillity is overridden by a very dark history which haunts the surrounding communities to date. Within the lake lies a tiny island with overgrown grass called Akempene or ‘Punishment Island’, where the Bakiga people used to dump their pregnant unmarried daughters as a form of punishment. The Bakiga are a Bantu ethnic group who are found in both Rwanda and Uganda. Before 1911, they were mainly in Rwanda but after the revision and the demarcation of Rwanda-Uganda boundary, many of them found themselves on the Ugandan side.

Pregnancy outside marriage was considered a taboo among the Bakiga because it brought shame and also denied them wealth in terms of bride price. That is why some pregnant girls as young as 12 were woken up in the middle of the night, tied up and ferried to the island where they were left to die. This was always undertaken by the girl’s father or elder brother, and was meant to serve as punishment to the pregnant girl and a warning to other girls. Because of the depth of the lake, many drowned trying to swim back while others died because of hunger and cold.

The only way a girl was sure of escaping from the Island was when a man interested in marriage visited the Island and took her as a wife. Traditionally most African communities attached great importance on bride price as a source of wealth. This was paid in the form of livestock with the number depending largely on negotiations between the potential husband and the girl’s family. Some young men were, however, too poor to afford the number of cattle requested by the girls’ families.

So to them, the only way they could get a wife without having to pay bride price was to visit Punishment Island and find one among the girls dumped there. It was like visiting a market and choosing a woman for free. Many girls survived this way, and lived to tell their stories.

Among them was Mauda Kyitaragabiriwe who was only 12 when she was dumped on the punishment Island. In an exclusive interview with the BBC, she said, “When my family discovered that I was pregnant they put me in a canoe and took me to Akampene (punishment Island). I stayed there without food or water for four nights .” She remembered being very and cold but fortunately enough on the fifth day when she was just about to give up, a fisherman called James Kigandeire came and requested to marry her.

At first Kyitaragabiriwe was sceptical thinking she would be thrown into the water. But after James convinced her that he was genuinely interested in having her as a wife, she agreed to leave the island with him. Although she had suffered miscarriage while on the island, she ended up having six children with James after they moved to the village of Kashungyera. “ He loved me, he looked after me,” she said about her husband who died in 2001. She also recalled her husband assuring her, “ I picked you up from the wilderness and I am not going to make you suffer.”

In spite of her horrifying ordeal, Kyitaragabiriwe now in her late 80s, forgave her family members and reconciled with them. ”After I became a Christian I forgave everyone even my brother who had rowed me in the canoe. I would go home to visit my family, and if I met any of them I would greet them,” she said.

Another victim called Jenerasi, recalled how she saw girls drowning, dying of starvation and others suffering miscarriage. She narrated how girls would desperately parade on the island to attract men who arrived to look for wives. Because of the remoteness of the area occupied by the Bakiga, the practice of dumping unmarried girls on punishment island continued until very late.

Due to climate change, the level of water in Lake Bunyonyi has risen considerably and there is fear that punishment island could soon be submerged. It is for this reason that this piece of history is being highlighted in documentaries, and also being re-enacted through plays in theatres for posterity purposes. Meanwhile, many tourists still flock on the island to share.

Apart from Punishment Island, Kasiizi falls was another place where the Bakiga used to punish their pregnant unmarried daughters by throwing them off the cliff. The girls would die after plummeting 30m down the falls. This was, however, abandoned when one of the girls held tightly on to her brother who had been entrusted with throwing her off the cliff, and the two fell 30m to their deaths.