Katengeeto, Uganda’s forgotten population

By Faith Barbara Namagembe at 2004 EAT on Wednesday 8th March 2023.

Just like any other festive season, many people go beyond their usual work shifts to earn that extra income.

On December 24, 1992, Levi Otobaiti, now 50, was fishing on Lake Nyansala in Kobwin sub-county, Ngora district, when he extended his fishing nets to areas he had never reached, targeting the biggest fish to sell for Christmas.

It was not long before his eyes landed on a very fertile island with no occupants. After the festivities, Otobaiti sailed back to explore his discovery and decide what to do with such neglected fertile land. He took the risk and set up a hut, brought his family and made the island home.

He immediately embarked on agriculture to fully utilize the fertile soil. His first yields were overwhelming, throwing other fishermen into panic, wondering about Otobaiti’s magic. It was not long before other fishermen abandoned fishing to follow his direction.

The community grew day by day, attracting people from neighbouring areas including Serere, Gogonyo and Omoro, among others. To date, Otobaiti occupies 20 acres of land on the island; he is one of the committee members that vets who joins them and allocates portions of land to the newcomers.

About 5km away from where Otobaiti stays, is Julius Omonuku. His family relocated to this island when he was 10 years old. This is Katengeeto island, in Kobwin sub-county, Ngora district. Access to Katengeeto is one hell of a journey. Between Ojoroi landing site and Katengeeto, there is no other access; one has to brave 40 to 60 minutes of sailing on Lake Nyansala with canoes, because there ́s no single engine boat. Nyansala is a tributary of Lake Kyoga.

The only access to Katengeeto is via this lake. After crossing over, one has to walk for 7km to the centre of Katengeeto because there is no other form of transport save for bulls, used in all chores; however, it is by chance to have them on the island.

The population has grown from Otobiati and his family in 1992, to 400 homesteads with more than 1,000 people. The community is well- organized and coordinated, from managing their own security, performing cultural marriages to a weekly census to ascertain who is missing.

Joseph Onyanga, the LCI chairperson, says they set up a committee to handle all insecurities and concerns. There is a visitors book to register the identities of whoever visits the island. If any of them commits a crime, the community court decides his or her fate before the matter is referred to police which is over 15km away.

Here, one would rather settle the matter amicably than incurring costs of hiring a canoe, and those energetic guys on the island to take the suspect to police.

“Because we are so isolated, we are each other’s keeper. Every week, we do rollcalls in every home to ensure everybody is alive. You never know what could happen to someone,” Onyanga said.

You will find many of the faces at island smiley, because they have somewhere to call home. Some of them were displaced from their land in Pallisa and found Katengeeto accommodative. However, behind the smiles is disappointment and loss of hope.

Malnourished children in torn clothes, sleeping on mats. All the structures are temporary, made of simple poles, papyrus and elephant grass. There is no better door here than pieces of an old jerrycans put together, or pieces of iron sheets.

Esther Kiyai struggles to raise her three children. The hut in which she resides has deprived her of privacy and she cannot perform marital duties as expected because the house is too small to allow the husband conjugal rights.

The population of children below the age of five is much higher than any other age bracket. Kiyai attributes it to early pregnancies and lack of access to reproductive health services. For a population that can hardly find space and privacy to have sex, they are a fertile lot!

“We can’t hide. There is no privacy here, so our children grow up seeing what we do. Before you know it, they too start engaging in sexual activities. You cannot access any protective gear or contraceptives, so our girls get pregnant just like that.”

Kiyai’s experience is no different from what other women on the island go through. The island has no government or private medical facility. Those that fall sick have to depend on herbs.

Rhoda Apio has been on the island for 23 years. She has had three children from here. Her last born gave her the worst experience after getting labour pains before finding any possible means of safe delivery.

“I went into labour but it had flooded everywhere. My husband had to get bulls. A boat was tied to the bulls and carried me up to the lake where I boarded another canoe to the mainland. From there, we got a boda boda to Opot health centre II, where I delivered from,” she recalls.

Survival on Katengeeto is indeed for the fittest. Christine Ajalo is still mourning her six- year-old daughter, who is suspected to have succumbed to malaria in November 2022. The family failed to get any first aid to cool the child’s high temperature that spiked in the night, and with no health centre on the island, she died before dawn. The body was taken to Serere for burial.

It is open defecation at Katengeeto, because none of the families has a pit latrine, and the obviously shallow water table does not help matters.

The chairperson Joseph Onyanga says it is costly to build a pit latrine – more technology and labour would go into building one than what they use on the structures they sleep in – so, everybody has to go to any nearby bush to respond to nature.

In the 2018/2019 financial year, the district constructed a two-room pit latrine for the island at a cost of Shs 25m, but it got filled up within two years.

The community of Katengeeto has never tasted safe clean water. The same lake that absorbs all the filth from open defecation is where water for drinking and home use is fetched. Christine Ajalo is not bothered by the health concerns. Just like health, education is another challenge at the island.

Many children cannot answer a basic greeting like “How are you?”

Fifteen-year-old Stellah Alonyo enrolled at Alos primary school in Serere district but dropped out before completing the first term. With the help of her father, Alonyo would sail to and from Katengeeto and school. It required two hours of travel, going to school.

When the task became harder for her well-intentioned father – sacrificing four hours of a day – Alonyo was left with no option but to drop out. Serere is the closest to access any schools. The other option would be Kodike primary school located more than 10km away.

Alonyo at least tried her luck; many don’t even dare. About 10km away from Katengeeto is another isolated island called Osuwat. Godfrey Mugisha was displaced from his land in Kyetume village, Kazo district. After several consultations, Mugisha was directed to Katengeeto island to try his luck there.

He instead settled at Osuwat village and started a new life. Mugisha’s life cannot be separated from cattle rearing; so, he acquired one at a time until he reached a comfortable number.

“There is no life here. People come with notebooks and red pens and threaten to evict us. They claim to be working for NEMA and they don’t leave your house unless you give them some money. If you fail, they threaten to torch down your hut.”

Still, Mugisha has managed to educate all his four children and is determined to leave the island in two years.

“The major problem is an access road to this island. If we get a road, the rest we can handle,” he said.

Osuwat, unlike Katengeeto, is a community of 173 homes and more than 500 people, all engaged in pastoralism. However, just like Katengeeto, there is no social service in the area. Families struggle from accommodation, to health care and education, among others.

Steven Kiweweta left Nakasongola and settled on Osuwat following land wrangles that saw him displaced. Kiweweta would rather stay in an environment without toilets, clean water, a school or even a health centre, than go back to ‘nowhere’.

More than 10 years ago, Osuwat, Nakabaale and Katengeeto islands were recognized and gazetted under Katengeeto parish, Kobwin sub-county, Ngora district local government.

The communities have actively participated in the electoral processes, with 148 voters registered at St Peter’s Catholic church Katengeeto, while others vote from Serere and Pallisa. Due to access hardships, political leaders have shunned the community even during campaigns, but somehow manage to get the ballot boxes to them.

Claire Grace Amule, a former contestant for sub-county councilor, says it is very risky to go to such an island to look for votes.

“Many politicians send campaign agents. They go with T-shirts and any other freebies, then the entire community decides who to endorse for any position.”

Duncan Musani, the Kobwin sub-county chairperson, says they have petitioned the district and relevant ministries to intervene and extend social services to this community, in vain.

The parish development model, a poverty eradication government initiative, is likely to be the first program to be extended to this region, if their leaders are kind enough not to ‘eat’ the money as has been reported elsewhere.

Vincent Opio, the Katengeeto parish chief, says 120 people have been selected from the island and trained to benefit from the parish development model. How an illiterate community can put the PDM money to good use, is a question of time.

Ashraf Ssebandeke, a health advocate, believes this community has been intentionally ignored. Ssebandeke believes the ministry of health can have serious interventions and extend medical services through medical camps, village health teams and sanitization sensitization.

For now, they embody the saying, ‘in a world of their own


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