Kisizi: A former death spot-turned goldmine

The aheibanga at Kisizi Falls, where girls who became pregnant before marriage were thrown as a way to instill fear among others not to engage in pre-marital sex. Photo by Perez Rumanzi

KISIIZI- A strong wind ruffles through towering trees, bowels of water hit and bounce off rocks to produce a hushed monotony, as different species of birds, hurdling in nests whistle, producing a sweet melody.

The gravel, bumpy and notoriously-dusty road leads me to a sharp corner with makeshift barricades of sandbags constructed on roadsides to prevent a “wayward” vehicle from thrusting into this deep ravine.

Welcome to Kisiizi Falls - it is a misty, cold Sunday morning.
Waters here cascade from a 40 metre-high cliff down into a ravine that hosts a combination of rocks from all sizes and shapes - some sharp others long, making for a spectacle to behold. Only the brave hearted can dare stand on the top and enjoy a bird’s eye view down the ravine, risking dizziness.

From the rocks down, the falls meander through a valley of lush green vegetation.
If you are passionate about birding, this is where the party is. Birds usually breed in trees that are hosted near water sources and Kisiizi Falls is no exception.
The climate here is fairly humid, providing an ideal relaxation setting, a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban settings.

However, the old adage - all that glitters is not gold - might have applied to Kisiizi back in the years. The spectacle masks a ghastly history about Kigezi.
Kisiizi Falls might pass off as any other cliff where water falls violently off into a rock-infested ravine, but that is before you listen to tales about this place.

Back in the years, Kisiizi served as a guillotine for girls who were adjudged to have fallen short of the Kigezi culture.

It is said that back then, once a girl engaged in pre-marital sex resulting in a pregnancy, she would be brought to this ravine by her paternal relatives led by the brother and father, and violently thrust into this ravine known as aheibanga (the cliff) in the local Rukiga dialect.

That was the Bakiga method of exorcising the dishonour, shame and embarrassment the offender would have invited to the family, tribe and community.
Mzee Petero Bafaki, who hails from Nyakishenyi, where the Kyabamba stream pours into Kisiizi, estimates that more than 100,000 girls lost their lives in the most despicable ways then.

“But the harsh punishment was worth it because it helped instill a sense of morality, which is absent in today’s passive generation,” Bafaki, who is in his late 70s, tells me in Rukiga.

But this cruel way of enforcing morals could certainly not last long. Nevertheless, it had to get worse before it got better, as old tales have it that this punishment was brought to a halt in a tragic way.

A pregnant girl who had been steered to meet her death did the unthinkable; as the father and her brother pulled her down, she dragged them alongside and the trio plummeted into the gorge, Mzee Bafaki recounts.

He adds that there is an old laughable myth that on some days, voices from the deceased trio can be heard calling out for each other.

Kigezi has many such places. At Akampene [punishment] island on Lake Bunyonyi, women who got pregnant before marriage would be abandoned there and left at the mercy of wild beasts, not forgetting the freezing coldness that envelopes the lake areas.
Such an unprecedented macabre act forced elders of Kigezi to rethink this method of punishment, and that is how it was gradually abandoned.
As a child growing up, lullabies would be sung to us about those horrific happenings, to lull us into sleep or scare us from being naughty. That is the cruelty masked by the beauty that is Kisiizi Falls.

Dr Ezra Mugyenyi, the Kisiizi Hospital Estates manager has lived in this area since 1979. He says Kisiizi started experiencing a renaissance when a thread manufacturing flux factory was established in the late 50s.
Dr John Sharpe had been distressed by treatable diseases that were ravaging the local community.

The factory was on the “shores” of the falls but when it collapsed around 1956, Dr Sharpe, through the Church of Uganda, requested that the facilities, that had been left behind by the factory, be transformed into a hospital.

He says in the late 1950s a power dam was established by the flux factory after realising that the velocity of the falls was enough to generate power.

When Dr Sharpe and his wife opened the doors to Kisizi hospital in 1958, the idea of looking at Kisiizi as a hanging place were banished, although people cannot help but want to have a feel of a place that claimed the lives of thousands of girls.
Perhaps, few sites in Kigezi are held in esteem and reverence like Kisiizi, which is billed as the birthplace of morals in the area.

“It is now a tourist attraction because people have heard about the falls but many have not experienced them. People also come here to get spiritual healing,” Dr Mugyenyi says.

To rake in revenue from sight–seeing at the falls, the hospital constructed guest rooms on the bend of the falls, which offer a clear view.
No records are kept about the tourists who visit, but according to Dr Mugyenyi, they range from Ugandan citizens to foreign nationals.
Travelling to Kisiizi from Kampala can either be through Rukungiri via Kebisoni or through Muhanga, on the Mbarara-Kabale highway.