On a windy Friday afternoon, Irene Kauma is seated with her colleagues on a bench, discussing the aftermath of a fire that on Monday morning of October 15, 2017 razed Kimi island, leaving billions of shillings worth of items lost.
Kauma, a mother of three and expecting the fourth child does not know where to go next and what to do. She and her three colleagues also look pensively at far waves crushing against each other on the lake. On approaching her, she beams a smile.
Kauma says on Sunday night after the evening meals, all was calm and nobody foresaw what happened in the wee hours of the next day. She prepared her three children for bed. Little did they know that, this would be their last time to sleep in an enclosed place before fire razed their only place of abode.
“I had prepared for my baby and bought everything an expectant mother requires but, all got burnt on that morning. I don’t know where to start,” the eight-month- pregnant woman with teary eyes says.
“I feel the early signs of labour yet there is no one to help me. I lost household property worth more than Shs3m, the business merchandise of about Shs4m and my savings,” she adds.
The fateful account
On that Sunday evening, they went to bed hopeful of the next day’s luck. Kauma, a food vendor had even prepared part of what would be served for breakfast, only to be woken up by cries for help as the island was ablaze. On the night of the inferno, Kauma says, there was chaos as people ran for their lives while others attempted to save what they could, though with little success.
“I had to run with my children for safety because we did not have the strength to carry anything and we lost everything” she says amidst sobs.
With no one to turn to she needs help before things get out of hand. “Please someone should come and help my family and I cannot handle this…it is too much,” she laments. Asked where her husband was, she started wailing and said she would rather not discuss that subject.
The only clinic on the island from where many of these women have been attending antenatal clinics was not spared either. The clinic that was constructed by Friends of Tasaaga had been serving all categories of patients, including provision of Antiretroviral Drugs, which all got burnt.
The island has a population of 125 pregnant women who all lost everything in the inferno. More than half of these pregnant women are between seven and nine months and with no external support, the situation could head for disaster.
For Edith Berina, the situation looks grim. Originally from Mukono mainland, the single disabled mother of two children, takes care of six other orphans aged between two and eight years. She says she is “finished”. “Where do I go from here with all this? I have worked very hard for the last four years to help these orphans and my children, everything is now gone”, she says.
According to Berina, the fire started when they had all slept. She says deep into the night, she heard people shouting, others ringing bells while many were crying for help. “We tried to save the little we could, but the fire was spreading too fast and we decided to abandon everything and run away,” she says.
Before the inferno, she had just stocked her retail shop with a capital of about Shs6m. Because of darkness, it was difficult to save anything. “Why didn’t the fire start during the day so that we would see it and perhaps put it out instead of losing everything,” she wonders. “Our utensils were burnt and we couldn’t fetch water at night to put out the fire,” she narrates
I cannot go back to my village without anything. I came here because things had become difficult after the death of my husband. Now after working hard, how do I go back empty-handed?” Berina asks.
Like Berina and Kauma, Abdul Karim Kigwa’s 30 years’ efforts were destroyed in less than 10 minutes. Kigwa whose house was close to Matovu’s chicken house was among the first to catch fire. He says by the time he realised there was fire outbreak, it was too late and he had to run away for safety and watch in disbelief as fire consumed what he had built in years. With some scars of fire burn on his left side of the face, Kigwa says he narrowly escaped death by breaking part of the wooden wall to escape.
Originally from Iganga district, Kigwa moved to Kimi Island in 1987 “when life was difficult back home”. He says over the years, he has worked hard and managed to establish a business with capital base of more than Shs50m, which burnt to ashes. He lost fishnets valued at Shs30m, two boat engines at Shs16m and household items valued at about Shs 20m. “Where is the government? We are finished and we need government to help us so that we can start again,” Kigwa says.
According to him, many islanders borrowed loans from the banks, which they were already servicing. He now wants the government to intervene so that they can start afresh. “We are not asking government for free money but they should give us affordable loans maybe through Sacco so that we can start some small businesses to service the bank loans,” he says looking pensive.
Across the island, different people have different stories to tell about the losses they suffered as a result of inferno. Many say they will never recover from the losses they have incurred; saying what they have lost in few hours is what they have worked for in the last several years. The fire that started at around 2am caught the residents unawares and all they could do was run for safety. Kigwa says the fire started from the shallow part of the lake where residents could easily draw water was the first to be hit, leaving no chance for them pour water on the fire. He says thousands of litres of petrol for boat engines on the island also worsened the situation making it impossible to save anything.
How the fire started
On Sunday night, James Matovu, a chicken farmer on the island reportedly left a candle burning to provide warmth to the chicks. According to Abdul Karim Kigwa, a resident the candle might have fallen down from where it stood and fire spread to the wooden structure and across the island. The island has wooden makeshift structures. The houses are close to each other that a fire accident in one room would automatically burn the entire island. Most of the houses are separated by wooden blocks.
Within a few minutes, the entire island had caught fire and everything happened so fast that nothing could be saved. Two people have since then been confirmed dead, with over 200 injured. Kigwa describes the fire accident happening like a movie action, so fast that you are not given a second to think about the next action, all they had to do was run and save their lives and the lives of the children.
Matovu has reportedly vanished from the island for fear of being lynched by the residents. The residents put the cost of the destruction at about Shs40b though one resident who lost eight boat engines claims the cost is Shs400b.
“We need help now because if the situation continues like this, many people may end up jumping into the lake instead of suffering here,” says Charles Ingabire, a resident from Bushenyi who came to the island in 1998.
The often bubbly island found in Busonga Parish hosts people from all over the country and beyond, including citizens from Tanzania, DRCongo, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda and a host of other countries.
A walk across island shows the misery of both young and old, with many children scattering every bit of the rubbles to sort out what they can lay their hands on. The only school on the island, Kimi Nursery and Primary school has since closed doors to pupils, with the centre turned into an emergency accommodation centre for those displaced.
A relief campaign championed by the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Trust is already underway to help the affected victims. About Shs20m worth of items have reached the island donated by the trust, with help from other donors. Different fundraising drives have also been launched globally with Friends of Tasaaga raising $4,520 already.
A collection fund basket has also been set up at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe, Uganda Wildlife Authority, Uganda Tourism Board and the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Trust at Entebbe.
Despite efforts by the private donors and some government agencies, the response from the relief and disaster preparedness ministry has been slow. Though the government has formed an interministerial committee to assess the extent of the damage and devise a plan to either relocate the islanders or offer relief help to settle them, many residents think enough is not being done.
When asked, the Minister of Relief and Disaster Preparedness, Hilary Onek said he had directed the commissioner for disaster preparedness and management Martin Owor to assess the magnitude of the destruction. So far, government has provided 400 mosquito nets, 400 blankets and 400 bags of posho and beans have been dispatched to the island. Other items such as jerry cans and other cooking utensils have also been delivered.