By Andrew Aijuka and Ronald Musoke
Lake Wamala, in central Uganda, has long been a source of water, fish, and spirituality in the Buganda region. For centuries people protected the lake, praying to the spirits they believed to dwell in this lake for life, love, health, and wealth. But today, this mystic lake is at risk of drying up due to over-fishing and farming the lake shores, as the population of Mityana district has grown. The local communities have now taken matters into their own hands to try to save the lake.
Lake Wamala’s origin
Geographers generally agree that Lake Wamala falls within the Lake Victoria Basin, formed around 400,000 years ago. They say Victoria and other nearby lakes were created out of a process known as down warping between two East African Rift Valley faults.
But some people here believe Lake Wamala has supernatural powers because it was born by a human being. Ssenyonjo says he has been to the place where people claim the lake was “born.”
At this spot in Katantalo in Naama parish, Busimbi sub-county in Mityana District, Ssenyonjo says, you can see permanent knees and footmarks that show a kneeling posture. But he also points out numerous spiritual sites where “drums never stop beating,” as people pray to the spirits that dwell in this lake for life, love, health, and wealth.
Yasin Bbira, the Mityana District Natural Resources Officer, also talks about another popular legend surrounding this lake. He says the lake’s name comes from Wamala, the last king of the vast and powerful Chwezi Dynasty, which existed over 1000 years ago. Its territory comprised present-day Uganda, western Kenya, northern Tanzania, eastern DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.
Related Story by Ronald Musoke ; Wamala: The mystic lake dying slowly
In 2013, Beth Timmers, a social scientist, researched gender relations in the Lake Wamala fishery. A fishmonger told Timmers how his grandparents recounted Lake Wamala’s birth to him.
But Timmers was also told the lake’s water is considered the equivalent of Wamala’s mother’s amniotic fluid, and it is taboo for any menstruating woman to enter the lake. It is deemed disrespectful for women to engage in any activity in the lake, including bathing.
However, this taboo is mainly connected to women’s potential to fish. The second taboo is associated with the gender of the lake; because the lake is a man, it is considered indecent for a woman to get into and out of a fishing boat.
Women are expected to wear dresses and skirts, and the simple act of spreading one’s legs over the “male” spirit is taboo. Women engaging in activities in the lake or using fishing boats may then disrupt the spirit of Wamala, causing changes in the lake ranging from storms to declining fish stocks.
But not everyone believes these myths. Ndyanabo, the outgoing Mayor of Mityana Municipality, said that she too has grown up listening to tales of how this lake was “born.” But thanks to her evangelical religious attachment, she doubts the authenticity of the legend.
“Of course, I don’t believe in these myths,” Ndyanabo says with a chuckle. “If the lake were born, there would be an ancestral home where the parents hailed from. But in the many years, I have lived in Mityana, I have never come across that home.”
Sammy Nsereko, the headteacher of Mityana secondary school, one of the oldest schools in Mityana District, says there are different types of lakes in the country, among which include the graben lakes found in the rift valley, glacier lakes located in the mountainous areas like Rwenzori and down-warped lakes like Victoria and Wamala.
Unlike graben and glacier lakes which usually don’t have inlet and outlet rivers, down-warped lakes are shallow and are surrounded by swamps. They also have fresh water, unlike the salty-graben lakes.
Because they have many inlets, they fill up quickly and host many fish species and other animal life. So, where do the Baganda get ideas of the lake being born? Nsereko said that, traditionally, the Baganda had belief systems that went a long way in protecting natural resources.
Nsereko adds that it was the duty of religious leaders in Buganda to explain every event in the community. The traditional leaders found it necessary to say the lake had “parents” to ensure that the people valued the lakes and other resources. If anyone transgressed it, there would be repercussions from its parents. You would have to be careful whenever you went close to the lake.
Emily Drani, a cultural activist and former executive director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), says many communities in Uganda have a special attachment to physical features such as rivers, lakes, mountains, forests, and hot springs and have often found ways of protecting such features since they consider them part of their heritage.
It now appears there are concerted efforts to save the lake. Bbira, the Mityana District Natural Resources Officer, said that the district is currently developing some strategies to protect Lake Wamala. Among these include the restoration of the degraded buffer zones.
This story has been produced with support from Code for Africa and funding from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. Video by Andrew Aijuka.