People are always relieved on finally reaching Akampene Island, after paddling for that long. These days when people reach Akampene Island, they feel relief. It was not always like that. The lake is now in tranquil, only disturbed intermittently by the ripples of the odd kingfishers diving for a great meal.
Akampene Island is better known as Punishment Island. It is deserted, save for two trees, one long dead, one in the protracted process that is the floral version of breathing your last. It is in a thick tangle of reed and tall grass. The islands around it are far busier, with houses, tourist comfort resorts.
Until the early 1900s, arrival at Akampene was no cause for relief. Its notorious history tells us that this was the island where girls from surrounding villages who were found to be pregnant out of the wedlock would be brought, abandoned and left to starve to death.
We are told that they would not arrive in a single canoe, people who visit the island these days do. There would be a whole group of taunting people to dump the unfortunate no-longer maiden on the island. The judges made it certain to ensure that the spectacle was a warning to other girls, the procession that led her there would be just the first part of the punishment. Shame and humiliation.
The legend tells us that they would leave the girl there all by herself, to die. But Akampene banishment was not an execution, as we have been led to assume. It was more like the beginning of an excommunication. The first time you walk on the island, stepping gingerly over the packed mud that makes up its floor, you keep looking down, expecting to see the skeletal remains of those who would have starved to death under the tree. But no, death was not what often happened on the island. What actually took place would easily be the setting of a whole subgenre of romance novels. Any brave Boy would canoe to the island and save the girl in case they had interest in her or even had for long sought for a wife yet had limited resources. The gallant rescuer, he deduces it as “getting a free wife”, because the man would not have to pay any bride price for her. This was the most common event, and there are women still alive today who were rescued in this manner.
ESCAPING FROM THE ISLAND
The usual route, would be to Njuyeera Island and from there to the mainland at Bulimba, and eventually to a new life. Not that single motherhood was easier then than it is these days, but then that is what would make it a great novel. The one thing that would make a dull, though infuriating novel, would be the story of the father to the unborn baby. Nothing happened to him, we are told.
The girl would not even name him; apparently, as there was a curse associated with the island that said if she snitched she would die there. So he would just go on with his life.
Maybe, and this would be the one novel I would love the most — say by some coincidence, the sort of coincidence that occurs in novels, the children of Akampene exiles, now grown-ups, strong, brave and armed get on a canoe one day, paddle back to their father’s village, confront the deadbeat and slap him. It is called catharsis in literary theory, but I prefer to call it good old vengeance. And that is always a great way to end a story.
Getting to Akampene or “Punishment” Island is not difficult. From any one of the several tourist resorts in and around Lake Bunyonyi, you can hire a canoe or a motorboat to carry you across to the site. A tour guide could ask for $5 to take you out and regale you with tales all the way, but that depends on where you are embarking from.
Different launching points will cost different amounts, and depending on the resort you come from, you could pay more join us on our Uganda safaris for more of these cultural tales and almost forgotten places that shaped African cultures and ways of life.