The Ssese Islands are a collection of 84 islands in the northwestern part of Lake Victoria. They vary in size with some like Bugala reaching over forty kilometers in length. Only half of the islands are inhabited. The rest are composed of fishing islands and private property. Most of the Ssese Islands are under the administration of Kalangala District whose headquarters are in Buggala Island. Entebbe town also controls a few of the Ssese islands. The Islands were named Ssese because in the past some of them were heavily infested with Tsese flies.
Bugala is the largest, most developed and visited island. It has several banks and mushrooming buildings although the roads are still not well developed. Of the 66,000 people living in Kalangala District, about 26,000 live in Bugala Island. Other major islands include Bukasa, Bufumira and Bubeke.
All the Ssese islands have beautiful white sand beaches, palm trees, flowers, rare plants, lush forests and blue waters. The Ssese Islands are amazing for photography and offer visitors the perfect atmospheres for relaxation away from the busy life in Kampala city. One could spend the whole day lying at the beach or playing different games with other island revelers. The Ssese Islands are a favorite for honeymooners who love the privacy and romantic atmosphere they offer. Fishing is the main economic activity in the Ssese Islands. Visitors can also pay a visit to one of the fishing villages and watch the fishermen throw their nets from their small canoes or motorboats. Birders will find the island perfect for spotting some rare resident and migratory birds. Everything moves slow in the islands which is a sharp contrast to Kampala and towns like Mpigi and Entebbe. There is no traffic jam to deal with and the nature is just so beautiful.
The inhabitants of the Ssese islands are super friendly and helpful. The main language spoken is Luganda and Lussese. Lussese is a district bantu language but similar to Luganda and Lusoga. It was the original language of the Islands until residents were forced to flee the Island during the Tsese Fly crisis about 100 years ago. By the time everyone came back in the 1980’s, the original Lussese language had almost become extinct.
The residents of the Ssese Islands live modestly valuing relationships and friendships unlike in the urban cities on the mainland. Many are fishermen while others work in the large Palm oil plantations or rare animals like goats, cattle, pigs and chicken. Prostitution is ripe here and the HIV prevalence rate is higher in the islands than anywhere else on the mainland.
It is important to note at this point that the Ssese Islands were relatively ignored for several decades with very few people exploring them until recently. Although the number of local tourists have grown, the number of foreign tourists visiting the island is still surprisingly small for such an amazing destination – but things are changing.
History and Legends of the Ssese Islands
According to scientists, the Ssese islands where formed about 12,000 years ago when tectonic movements caused an elevation of two arms of the East African rift valley leading to the formation of Lake Victoria and its islands. The Ssese islands are one of the few remaining areas where Buganda’s ancient culture and traditions are still practiced. The local community have their own stories to tell about the history of the Ssese Islands. Legend in the area associates the islands formation with the formation of the Buganda Kingdom. They claim that Kintu (the first Muganda) hailed from these islands.
Another legend has it that the Abassese people lived in the islands for over 500 years. They were not human but incarnations of some ancient spirits because of they were giants with supernatural strength. The Abassese giants believed in a spirit called Mbirimu who would take both animal and human forms. One day the spirit decided to take the body of a woman and gave birth to twins in Buggala Island – a python and a boy. The python was called Luwala. The human twin built a shrine for his brother (the python) were people from the Island and beyond would come and seek his wise counsel and blessings. The python’s brother was the go-between hence becoming the first traditional doctor (emandwa) in the island.
After the death of the twin countless emandwas have replaced him. Each emandwa is chosen by the spirits and ancestors to devote all their life to Luwala. The current Emandwa is not from the python spirit lineage because the real successor was still too young to take on the role. The python spirit takes over the emandwas body and talks through him. During the various wars between the Buganda and Bunyoro Kingdoms, these emandwas played a great part in the outcomes. One emandwa gave the Baganda a special stick (Damula) that was made from an enchanted tree in Bugala island. The stick is still present to this day and is handed over to every new King of Buganda. Bugala island is therefore referred to as the island of Luwala and thousands visit the emandwa every year in search of blessings, fertility, protection and wealth. The Baganda kings in the past often went to the islands to pay respect to their ancestors and the spirit of the Lake (Mukasa).
The Major Ssese Islands
The Ssese Islands are dived into two main groups – the Bugala Group and the Koome Group. The Bugala group is found in the South west of the Bugala island (the largest in the group). They include Bukasa, Serinya, Bubeke, Funve, Bufumira, Buyova and Bugaba. The Koome Group islands are found after Koome Island (the largest in the group). They include Luwaji, Damba and Koome. Let’s discuss the large Islands in detail:
Covering an area of over 205 square kilometers, Bugala Island is the largest of all the Ssese Islands. It is also the 10th largest island found in a lake worldwide. Bugala is arguably the most popular and visited island. It is the most developed of the islands and hence the most suitable for receiving tourists. Bugala Island hosts Kalangala town which is the Administrative capital of most of the other islands. Reaching the island is by ferry which dock at Luku.
Bugala island has got several hills which all offer amazing views of the lake, approaching boats/ferries and human activities within the island. The island has arguably the largest palm oil plantation in Uganda offering employment opportunities to island dwellers. Bugala island is perfect for birdwatching and primates viewing. The most common primate is the Vervet Monkey but there are a few Colobus monkeys, bushbucks and snakes. The southern end of the Island is home to a few hippos. Bugala Island is a sanctuary to three endemic species – a rat and three types of butterflies.
Because of great human activity and revelers in Bugala island it has become the noisy over the weekend. Those who want a quieter place over the weekend should go to the more remote islands like Bulago, Bukasa and Banda. Bugala is quiet during the weekdays.
Ngamba Island covers an area of about 100 acres. Most of it is rain forest. In 1998, the island was turned into a sanctuary for rescued and orphaned chimps. Ngamba chimpanzee sanctuary draws hundreds of visitors to the island each month to see the chimps or volunteer as care takers. Apart from the chimps, Ngamba island is home to over 119 species of birds and creatures like monitor lizards. Hippos and crocodiles also visit the island occasionally.
The key attraction in Ngamba island are the chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are brought here after being rescued from animal traffickers or when their parents succumb to poaching. On arrival the chimps are often traumatized after the harrowing experiences they went through with the poachers or animal traffickers. To avoid bullying by the adult chimps, the orphans are at first separated and introduced to the rest of the community gradually. Visitors to Ngamba island chimpanzee sanctuary have an opportunity to watch the chimps being fed before they return to the forest. Volunteers can take part in feeding the adults and helping the orphans adapt to life in the island.
This island is owned by an individual but open to tourists and other travelers. It retains its serenity unlike the noisier Bugala island. To reach the island, you need to go to the Kasenyi landing site from where you hire a boat or canoe to the island. The more expensive option is to hire a speed boat. Banda island is perfect for camping. You can go with your own camping equipment or hire one once you reach the island. Banda island also has standard cottages at a good rate for those who may not be comfortable with the tents.
Bulago Island is one of the largest of the Ssese islands. It covers an area of over 510 acres (About 2 miles long). The sandy beaches are surrounded by several cliffs and protruding rocks which all combine to give it a unique loo
Given its remarkable terrain and naturel beauty, Bulago island is perfect for nature walks and escaping away from the noisy city. From one of the hills on the island, one will be rewarded with amazing views of the lake and distant islands. Bulago island is a birders paradise with both resident and migratory birds convening to feast on the abundant fish and inland insects. Getting to Bulago island by speedboat from Munyonyo takes 45 minutes. Those visiting Bulago Island stay at Pineapple Bay Lodge.
Main Activities in the Ssese Islands
Bird Watching: The Ssese islands are sanctuaries to countless birds. These birds thrive on the lush forests and unreachable swamps found in many of the islands. While in Buggala island, expect to spot the African fish eagle, barbets, brown-throated wattle-eye, hornbills, Palm nut vultures, paradise flycatcher, pygmy kingfisher, robin-chats, turacos and weaver birds
Swimming: Swimming is arguably one of the most popular activities while in any of the Ssese Islands. The most popular swimming area in Bugala is the beach in Mutumbala. Some of the Ssese islands receive crocodiles occasionally from other parts of the lake but these shouldn’t trouble you so much especially when visiting the larger islands. The greatest risk of swimming in Lake Victoria is getting Bilharzia but this is very rare these days and it can be treated with a few shots. If you are afraid of Bilharzia or croccodiles, then you can swim by in the hotels swimming pool and only go to the beach to relax and enjoy the cool breeze.
Visit Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary: Ngamba island was earmarked by the government and Jane Goodall Foundation as a sanctuary for rescued chimpanzee orphans. You can apply to volunteer at the island or just visit to see the chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Feeding the chimpanzees at the sanctuary is very popular with tourist and primate lovers but you can also go for birdwatching and boat cruises around the Island.
Sport Finishing: Sport fishing is one of the top things to do while in Uganda. Fishing trips are usually arranged to the different fishing villages with the intention of trying to catch the largest fish. The main catch here is Tilapia but the real trophy is getting the Nile Perch (the largest fish in Lake Victoria). To engage in sport fishing, international visitors must have a fishing permit. Although you can hire fishing gear from the islands at a good price, it is better to come with your own equipment. If for some reason you don’t want to go into the water yourself, you can just simply watch the fishermen from far as they lay their nets.
Wildlife Viewing: The Ssese islands are home to Vervet and Colobus Monkeys. As already noted earlier, crocodiles come to some of the smaller island occasionally. Hippos can be sighed in the south western shores of Bugala. These large mammals and the elusive Sitatunga love the marshy shorelines because they are less visited by humans. The Sitatunga in the Ssese Islands have evolved to have larger horns than the ones seen on wetlands elsewhere Africa.
Village and Nature Walks: Most of the Ssese Islands is have good forest cover. You can take a walk and admire the beautiful green plants and flowers. You can go and discover/visit one of the fishing villages to experience the kind of life the local people go through every day. Poverty and backwardness is still a problem in the Ssese Islands. Most of the fishermen spend their hard earned money on booze and women.
Playing Beach games and Cycling: After relaxing by the beach and having enough of the beautiful sights, you can join a group of fellow revelers and play volleyball, football or other beach games.
Agricultural Tours: Agricultural tours are arranged to one of the palm tree and pineapple gardens owned by BIDCO in Bugala. You can also visit the out growers or domestic farmers to learn how they make money by selling to BIDCO. Though the plantations employ many of the locals, conservationists attribute the loss of forest cover and the islands natural beauty to agriculture.
Quad Biking: Using Quad bikes to explore the Ssese Islands is one amazing and fun thing to do. With the bikes, you can visit the beaches, forests and fishing villages while having great phone along the way. The Quad bikes used in Bugala are All Terrain and do not require any prior experience with a motor bike. The bikes can be used by people of all ages and more fun when done with friends or family. There is practice/training session before heading out to the established circuits. Since Bugala Island is quiet large, you need to take with you packed lunch. Quad biking for one hour costs about 70,000 Uganda shillings.
Cultural Visit: The Ssese islands are one of the last strongholds of Buganda’s ancient cultural practices. For those who are brave enough and interested in learning more about Buganda’s traditional religions and culture, visiting the Kihumuro Cave is recommended with reservation. The Kihumuro cave is about 40 meters long with a wide entrance and small exit. Kihumuro means resting place. The Baganda believe that, the ancient gods and spirits rest in these caves. The custodian and his assistants can be seen smoking pipes as they pray to the gods like “Muwanga Jajja”. The cave has a long history that we will not dwell on for now. If you are planning on visiting this cave, prepare to remove your shoes and follow certain rules. Inside the cave are old spears, old bark clothes, coffee seeds and other fetishes. The cave may appear strange and even weird but prominent people in Uganda visit for blessings in their business and careers.
One can also Wanema’s shrine in Bubeke. This shrine is more organized and housed in a large grass-thatched hurt with a fence made of reeds. Women with attend to the shrine and are always willing to share information about the shrine and its origin. Pictures are not allowed and there are other rules to be followed in order not to offend the spirits. Sacrifices are offered in form of goats, chicken, money or even monkeys by those who are seeking answers their worldly problems or those who claim to have had their problems solved. It is important to note that these ancient practices are slowly dying away. The youth are being forced out of island for greener pastures where they discover bigger things instead of remaining caged to these smoke loving gods. Christianity and Islam are now the two dominant religions in Uganda. Although people still visit the shrines quietly, they fear to be associated with them for fear of being seen as evil or backward.
Visit the John Speke House: John Speke is a famous British Explorer who discovered the source of the river Nile. He came to the Ssese Islands in one of his quests to find the source of the great river. While at the Ssese Islands, he constructed a small house in Lutoboka Forest in 1863. Speke abandoned the house was he discovered that the source of the Nile was in Jinja. The house has remained relatively untouched for over 100 years. Right in the middle of the house stands a tree that is also believed to be over 100 years.
Visit the Nanziri waterfalls: These waterfalls are located in Bukasa Island. These mysterious waterfalls are found close to Wanema’s shrine and the sacred Nanziri cave. Because these considered sacred areas by the locals, you are required to remove your shoes and talk in very low tones. Your Guide will let you know of the rules to be followed while in the place. While at the waterfalls you will notice remains of various sacrifices to Nanziri (god of the waterfalls) and other spirits like pieces of meat, coffee beans and coins. People from all walks of life come to this relatively simple place to get blessings, protection, wealth and fertility. The fishermen come here more frequently to seek blessings before going out to fish. The locals even believe that the water from the falls can cure all manner of diseases.
Other activities: Visitors to the Ssese islands can also go for canoeing, boat cruises and horseback riding.