Of funerals and floating islands
In central Africa, on the Uganda-Congo border, a river in flood and a corpse in the car—and all of us prisoners of the rainBy John Ryle • January 1998 • City of Words • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 806 words
The floating islands of Lake Kyoga have an air of myth about them, as though they sprang from a realm of sword and sorcery. But they exist. Or they did until the week before last.
Ten days ago torrential rains caused such a storm on the lake—a vast, shallow body of water in the Ugandan highlands—that the matted papyrus beds forming the islands broke up and cast themselves adrift. This sudden fragmentation caught many of their inhabitants unaware. Far out on the lake in their fishing boats when the storm struck, the people of the floating islands returned to find their houses had been press-ganged by the weather and sent scudding across the lake to the further shore.
Victims of the flood
I read the news as I sat in my car near the Uganda-Congo border, waiting for a river to go down. There was a corpse laid out in the back of the car, the body of a young girl who had died on the way down from her village to a health centre on the main road. We were taking her to the graveyard now; the stretcher she lay in, perched on the baggage in the back of the vehicle, had become her bier. The stretcher-bearers said she died of cholera.
The girl had fallen ill at a funeral. Such occasions, bringing people together from distant settlements, are apt for the transmission of cholera, which is spread by faecal contamination. Thus death breeds death. Rain doesn’t help: torrential rain makes cess-pits overflow; the earth walls of latrines collapse. Those who die from cholera are thus also, in many cases, victims of the flood.
It was still raining as we waited at the river. It’s been raining practically every day all across East Africa. The dry season should have begun weeks ago; but it seems to be raining harder and harder. Dwellers on floating islands have not been the only ones to suffer. From Kisangani in the Congo to Baidoa in Somalia—so we hear on the radio—floods are blocking roads and washing away houses, killing people and livestock and wild animals alike.
In Kenya’s recent election two officials drowned as they carried ballot boxes from a remote constituency by canoe across a swollen estuary. Two weeks ago floods cut off the highway between Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and its airport. Ten days ago they washed away a bridge on the main road from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi, the principal link between the coast and the rest of East Africa. The bridge will be down for weeks. So here upcountry, prices of imported goods, like the floodwaters, continue to rise.
In many farming areas crops are flattened or rotting in the fields; if they have a crop farmers can’t get to market; tourists can’t get to game parks. The damage thus caused is a further blow to economies already sapped by conflict: civil war in Congo, low-level insurgency in northern Uganda and in north-eastern Kenya. On top of all this, after war and flood, comes pestilence: Rift Valley Fever among livestock in Kenya; cholera among humans in outbreaks all over the region.
Water flowing red with earth
The river we were waiting to cross, which had been dry a few days before, was three or four feet deep, and rising. The water was thick and red with earth, flowing fiercely, like lava. The road approaching it was half washed away. A beer truck lay upended downstream, swept there by a flash flood that had swept down the dry river bed without warning: ten tons of metal and a hundred or so horsepower tossed aside by the force of the current.
Yet there was a strange serenity about it all, in the convergence of primal forces: the steady proximity of death, the relentlessness of the rain, the awe-inspiring power of the river in spate. Nature’s force majeure enjoined silence on us. This was not only out of respect for the presence of the dead: conversation between the passengers was more or less drowned by the sound of water—by the drumming of the rain on the roof of the car and the gushing of the river through the chasm in the middle of the road. On top of this there was the clamour of frogs, multiplying in the swamp at the roadside.
There was no present danger; we were just prisoners of the rain. There was nothing to do but wait for the river to go down. It felt peaceful to me. Of course it would have been a different matter if I’d had livestock to look after, or crops to get to market. Or if it had been my daughter who had died. Or if my house were on a floating island. ✭