58 years ago, many young girls who got pregnant before getting married in Kisizi found themselves being thrown down a rock as what they had done was considered an abomination. Today however, that rock is now a tourist site and on the river beneath it is a dam that supplies the town with electricity.
Before 1954, any girl in Kabale, Rukungiri and Kanungu area who would engage in premarital sex and conceive would be certain of dying the moment her clan and family members learnt of it.
There was only one place in the region where such girls would be killed: Eibanga (cliff), the rock on which Kisizi falls descend. The pregnant girl would be thrown into the falls and it became the most feared place in Kigezi. A girl’s clan and family members killed her in that crude way to wash away the abomination she would have committed by having premarital sex.
According to Paul Ngorogoza, the author of Kigezi and its People book, an estimated 100,000 girls are said to have been killed in that barbaric way till 1954, when the clan leaders met and agreed that it had to end. The resolution came after one girl perished in the falls along with her father and brother who had gone to push her down the falls.
As the ritual stood, all women in the region were expected to marry when they were still virgins which would be noted at the first mating of the couples. The bride’s paternal aunt would visit the bed of the newly married couple to check for a blood stain, which if found would qualify the virginity of the girl.
When the girl’s virginity was confirmed, her family would be rewarded with a goat. Virgin girls would be treated with respect. This culture did not only discourage sex before marriage but also held a death sentence for any girl that became pregnant. The pregnant girl was identified by her family and a report made to the heads of the clan who hatched plans to capture the girl and take her to the falls to throw her down there.
The girl’s father and brother would escort her to the rock cliff, and then tell her: “You made it for your future this is what you deserve.” They would then hold her by either hand and throw her into the falls to die. Most of these girls were between the age of 13 and 17 since many got married at the age of about 15 years.
The strict and inhuman culture went on for over 300 years and it was not until 1954 that it came to a complete stop, but after the unimaginable was done. A girl from Kinkizi (current day Kanungu District) from the Abarihira clan who had been brought by her brother and father pulled them into the falls along with her, when they pushed her, and they all died.
The girl had held onto their arms too firmly and took them along with her to the bottom of the falls. A myth has since stood that there is a season when one hears the three voices calling each other and asking where they have gone. After that incident, brothers and fathers feared to take the girls to the falls.
The clan heads later met, discussed it and resolved to end the culture. It was when religion took root in the area that the barbaric culture begun fading and finally stopped. But the falls still looms large in Kigezi because of their nasty history.
Everyone believed that whoever went there would be killed by the overwhelming numbers of the female ghosts whom the locals claimed they heard crying at night and they said they would see a big blazing fire.
When the Ruanda missionaries came in 1956 looking for a place to establish a hospital, as was the practice in African countries, they were given a place that the locals did not like very much. In this case, the Ruanda missionaries were given a place close to eibanga said to be haunted by ghosts, in the hope that they (the missionaries) would die or give up their work soon.
However in 1958, a hospital was established and named Kisizi Hospital. The Anglican missionaries later took over the management of the hospital.
Looking at falls today one can not easily associate the place with the dark history of deaths, terrified wide eyed girls, screaming and shouting for help.
Today, it’s a tourist attraction and source of hydro electric power that lights up very many homes and runs industries. Its waters flows east wards through the precincts of the hospital. Part of it is channelled through turbines where power is generated, serving the hospital and its neigbourhood.
It’s no wonder that the neighbours of the place have no fear about its dark past, and are only reminded by tourists and writers who ask questions.
Ms Edna Natuha 35, a resident of Kisizi Town Board says they no longer care about what used to happen there. What is relevant now is development of the place that has been influenced by the falls.
No load shedding at the hospital
Kisizi Town is one of the places in Uganda that uses hydro power which is never load shed, thanks to the 110Kw mini hydro power station, a Kisizi Hospital power project.
The Kisizi hospital administrator, Mr Moses Mugume says, the history of the place on which the hospital seats makes their work enjoyable.
“We treasure the history of this place because we can’t deny what happened; this is one of the reasons why we can never move back. Very many lives perished here, but many lives have been saved here too, and many more are going to be saved. Our motto is, ‘Giving life in fullness’,” he says.
The hospital boasts of a big health insurance scheme in the country, with over 40,000 resident members.
The facility, that is under the North Kigezi Anglican Diocese management, has a 320-bed capacity although it usually admits more. Mr Mugume says they also get aid from Royal Berkshire Hospital in London and Chester Hospital all in the United Kingdom and also get medical students from many western countries, as well as staff, like the Hospital Medical superintendent Dr Ian Spilman from the United Kingdom.
The hospital attracts patients from greater Mbarara and Bushenyi as well as Kabale, Kisoro, Kanungu, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda because of the high number of specialists who are not found anywhere else in the region. The health facility that is categorised as private and non profit, gets six per cent of its annual budget from the government and receives a minimum of 70 outpatients daily. At the time of our visit, there were about 267 admitted patients.
It employs over 300 workers including 13 specialists, other medical workers and lower cadres. At least 10 women give birth at the hospital daily. The hospital is a training centre for nurses and midwives and also provides antenatal services.
“While we have all these services, we still have a challenge of attracting and maintaining skilled people, we are located in a rural place where a medical worker can never be able to get dual employment and enjoy all that urban life has,” says Mugume.
He adds: “We have internet, we have full time power supply and accommodation but some people don’t like staying here for years, except the white doctors who come and feel at home in this upcountry situation.”
While the hospital is basically a facility that unites the sick and the medics, the social amenities and auxiliary services have emerged near it and the place is taking the shape of an urban setting.
There are bars, restaurants, disco halls, financial institutions, shops and other small businesses including roadside stallsin the town. Kisizi Town board is divided into two parts, Lower Kisizi where the hospital is located, and the Upper Kisizi where one finds most of the businesses. The bars keep open till morning and the restaurants are always alive.
What is missing are the numerous clinics and drug shops that surround other medical facilities in the country. Even though the practise of killing pregnant unmarried girls was barbaric, there are some who today think it was the right thing to do.
“I believe eibanga was so instrumental in restoring and keeping Bakiga girls morally upright. When I see what is happening now, there is no way we can regret having done those things, I feel it was right,” says Mr Remigio Rutagirenda 93, a resident of Bugangari sub county in Rukungiri whose sister was a victim of the practice.
He adds that after a girl had been punished that way, months would go by without them hearing of a premarital pregnancy which is why he believes such culture was helpful.
Rutagirenda however is one of a few. Most residents are keen to forget that past and move on, and looking at the way Kisizi has grown, it shows.
At the Falls
Kisizi falls are located 22km, south of Rukungiri town, 46km north of Kabale town and over 400km from Kampala. The over 40 metres high rock lies about 100 metres away from Kisizi hospital, an infrastructure set up four years after the last girl was thrown into the falls.
Glittering water, which collects from Nyakishenyi hills sprinkles down the rock wall surrounded by a flourishing cocktail of green vegetation. River Kisizi is at the base of the rock, a road passing on the upper part of the falls and Kisizi hospital.
One gets dizzy when standing on top looking down. Many believe it is always raining at the falls. From the top, the bottom feels like more than a kilometre away, it’s only when one approaches it from the bottom that they would have a more accurate measurement.
The place is quiet. Being there alone and thinking of the place’s history evokes fear. The wild imagination that you may meet a ghost of a girl, who died before giving birth, scares you from standing there for more that two minutes, alone.