When the Bujagali dam was erected on Uganda’s White Nile in 2011, the World Bank hired local witch doctors to relocate the river’s spirit gods. The deities that dwell in the Nile’s massive rapids were moved to cataracts on different, unaffected stretches of the river. This struck me as remarkable: the entity responsible for funding construction of the colossal Bujagali dam was also tasked with appeasing and relocating displaced river spirits.
After she tells me about the witch doctors contracted by the World Bank, Dr. Jessie Stone describes a riverbank tree that was once the dedicated recipient of local people’s offerings, a place where rural Ugandans of faith would gather to appeal to and praise the spirits. That tree is now underwater, buried beneath the impounded river above Bujagali.
Stone, a four-time member of the US Women’s Freestyle Kayak Team, paddled the Nile for the first time in 2003. She went to Africa with whitewater legends Eric Jackson and Clay Wright, and she credits Jackson as the man whose misfortune catalyzed her professional trajectory forever.
“EJ’s getting malaria on that trip inspired me to start an educational malaria outreach program in Uganda, which led to the formation of Soft Power Health, which continues up to the present day,” says Stone. “With my work in Uganda, I can kayak nearly every day I am in Uganda on the Nile—which is a huge gift and really makes the rest of my work possible.”
Stone’s clinic provides primary care services, family planning, malnutrition prevention and treatment, domestic violence counseling, and malaria education to communities on and near the Nile River.
Sam Ward was born in the UK but has lived in Uganda most of his adult life. He began working on the Nile River in 2004 and purchased Kayak the Nile, one of Uganda’s preeminent guiding services, in 2011. The first Nile River Festival was organized in 2002 and was, according to Ward, “dreamt up by the original Kayak the Nile owner, Jamie Simpson, with a group of kayakers in the bar.” It has since grown into one of the biggest whitewater festivals in the world.
The festival and the river have together seen overwhelming changes over the last two decades. The festival is no longer a simple celebration of world-class whitewater, but rather a focal point for activism, an international rally for conservation of one of Earth’s most iconic rivers. Ward, for his part, continues to show visitors the magic of the Nile as a guide and instructor.
The participation of native Ugandans in river sports is also huge, in all aspects of festival and outfitter operations. As Montana freestyle kayaker Brooke Hess pointed out after she took third place in the 2017 Nile Festival, the two women who beat her—young local Ugandans both named Amina—are defying cultural norms. In rural African villages, women their age are mostly expected to raise children, bypassing professional development or education. But for safety kayakers, river guides and tourism-related business owners, the river is a powerful source of income, opportunity, and, indeed, identity.
The Ugandan Freestyle Kayak Team—comprised of Sam Ward and four native Ugandans from the White Nile town of Jinja—qualified to compete at the 2017 Freestyle Kayaking World Championships in San Juan, Argentina, but were unable to attend due to funding and travel challenges. The team’s individual members depend upon the Nile’s whitewater industry, working as safety kayakers and making a viable living in a country where a majority of the rural population subsists on $1.50 a day. “The Nile River Festival plays a vital role in allowing progression of the freestyle kayak scene in Uganda,” says Hannah de Silva, the Ugandan team’s manager. “I imagine this will be even more important in the future, by promoting kayaking in the region as the river changes following the [construction of the Isimba] dam.”
Sometime in 2018, the massive Isimba dam project is expected to go online. And like the Bujagali dam before it, Isimba will flood an area with unique spiritual, cultural and ecological resources: a “protected” swath of land called the Kalagla Falls Offset Area. Construction is well underway and the Isimba project, if carried out according to plan, will be huge, submerging Kalagla Falls, displacing over 2,000 Ugandan subsistence farmers and permanently damaging the quality of water used for drinking, washing, fishing and irrigating. It will bury even more of the Nile’s world-class whitewater.
Ward’s tone is surprisingly even keeled—and perhaps necessarily optimistic—when he says the festival will persist after Isimba is finished, as some rapids will remain unaffected by the dam. There’s a sense of resignation in the conversation: the dam is going in no matter what, and like the landscape and biotic communities that it will affect, Uganda’s kayaking community will change.
According to Jessie Stone, the Nile River Festival was originally “a three-day festival and five-day party to bring local and international paddlers together to celebrate the Nile and all it has to offer. Today, it continues in the same spirit but with much more urgency to get people to participate, enjoy the river, and get involved to help save the river, since the Nile’s damming will be completed in just over one year.”
After the 2018 Festival, the Nile Special wave—home of the festival’s infamous big wave freestyle event—will be drowned. “We already have plans on where we can move the freestyle competition,” Ward says, “and the rest of the competition will remain relatively unchanged. The festival will live on!”
The community will adapt.
Both Stone and Ward believe that the festival and the collective struggle to save the Nile comes with a huge commitment to education. “In Uganda for example,” Ward says, “awareness of environmental issues is very low.” He says that specialists and activists “can really help bring issues to light and help educate communities about the long term, and more global impacts of what is happening around them.”
For now, Stone and Ward invite paddlers to attend the next Nile River Festival, in January 2018, to see the river before it is altered further and forever. If more people can see the river in all its magnificence, maybe the movement to protect it, the pressure placed on international developers and US financiers, the collective spirit of conservation, might be greater.
This story was excerpted from “A Displaced Spirit: The Uncertain Future of Africa’s Greatest River” which first appeared on National Geographic Voices.