There is public outrage in Kabale and Rubanda districts following a decision by a State House official Mathias Muhereza, to take over the historical ‘Punishment Island’ aka Akampene on found Lake Bunyonyi.
The island, which borders Bufundi sub-county in Rubanda district and Rubaya sub-county in Kabale district, was, in pre-colonial times used as a dumping site for unmarried pregnant girls. The girls would either starve to death or drown while trying to swim to the mainland.
The lucky ones would be saved by impoverished men who couldn't afford the price of a bride and didn't care about stigma. However, the communities stopped confining the girls on the island in the 1940s due to the influence of Christian missionaries.
The island had until now remained a tourist attraction for both locals and international visitors. However, residents went up in arms on Tuesday when they saw Muhereza, a State House official and former Rubanda West county parliamentary candidate taking over the island forcefully.
According to residents, they saw Muhereza and his workers clearing and erecting a wooden dock on the island under the tight protection of the Police Presidential Guards (PPG). They also erected a wooden foundation to erect a shelter for a bar.
Drake Diaz Owoyesigire, a resident and a tour guide in Kabale, says they are angered by Muhereza's decision to destroy the community owned island to erect a bar. He is also worried that Muhereza might pollute the lake since he has to construct toilets for patrons on the tiny island.
Owoyesigire says Muhereza threatened to shoot him in case he continues objecting his takeover of the island. Of all the 29 islands in Lake Bunyonyi, the Punishment island is the most visited. Owoyesigyire has filed a case of threatening violence case against Muhereza at Kabale police station vide reference: SD33/17/01/2018.
“He is called Mathias Muhereza, he has a presidential guard. And what he did, he called me today, and intimidated and asked me what I have on that island and asked me if I have a share there?," said Owoyesigyire.
"Our punishment island has been virgin for many years and having been a historical site in Lake Bunyonyi, we’re here to defend it because it has been one of the tourist attractions in Lake Bunyonyi. Now, when someone comes in to tamper with our island and to destroy its nature, which has been attracting many people, me as a tourism person and as a tour guide and tour operator, I feel so much concerned to see that our island is being destroyed. If you put something as the reception [bar] as he is planning to [do], then where will these people urinate? Who will be working there, where will they go [when they need to] use toilets," he added.
George Tukwasiibwe, a canoe operator in Lake Bunyonyi and resident of Burimba cell in Rubaya sub-county in Kabale district says that the takeover of the Punishment Island threatens the tourism sector since it has been one of the tourist attractions.
He accuses Muhereza of using his State House connections to intimidate residents opposed to his takeover of the Island.
Engineer Ivan Mbabazi Batuma, the chairperson Kigezi Tourism Cluster, an association and advocacy platform promoting the interests of tourism development in the region, wonders why Muhereza is destroying nature at the Punishment Island without the knowledge of tourism stakeholders. Batuma says that the history of Punishment Island must be preserved.
"That is a national heritage site [and] if he wants to develop it, he has to develop it with all stakeholders and the district leadership and tourism officer because the land ownership we’re sure is either for Rubanda or Kabale. So we need to establish that, its history has been documented all over the place so it should be left in its natural status," said Batuma.
Muhereza says nobody will stop him from erecting structures at the island. He claims that the island belongs to the Bakongwe clan, where he belongs, adding that those complaining are from Basigyi clan and are nonresidents of the area. Muhereza says he is planning to plant trees and natural grass as a way of preserving the Punishment Island.
“It used to be our prison and it is our ancestral and our grandfather’s land. We want to restore it; we want to be there forever...Who are locals, those are mercenaries from Congo, from wherever. You ask [for the origin of] the managers around here, are they from Lake Bunyonyi?…Once they buy land here they think they become locals. It [island] is not for Basigyi…Actually where not doing anything here apart from promoting tourism.
Ramadhan Tai, the Rubanda district police commander, says they have started investigating the matter.