Meet Musambwa Islands, Where Dangerous Animals, Humans Chill Together

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Kyotera|Daily Monitor: Musambwa, a little-known group of two rocky islands in Lake Victoria, is famous for several taboos. Some of them include the prohibition of sexual intercourse, against killing snakes (rock cobras), and not allowing women to reside there. Also, places of traditional forms of worship, mostly for those praying for blessings, are ubiquitous on the islands.

That’s not all. The islands are also famous for ensuring humans, more than 30 species of rare birds, and reptiles co-exist. They are known as the largest breeding area for grey-headed gulls in Africa.

The two islands, which are barely 10 acres combined, are named after a spirit locally known as Musambwa. The spirit in question is believed to appear in the form of snakes.

Located in Lake Victoria and accessible via Malembo or Kasensero landing sites in Kyotera District in central Uganda, the Musambwa Islands’ importance has been captured in a new report and documentary film titled: Musambwa Islands, Where Snakes and Birds Live with Humans: Lessons for Sustainable Wildlife Management and Tourism.

The report that was launched on April 4,  at Makerere University in Kampala, presents the findings of the study on how people co-exist with snakes and birds on Musambwa Islands, and lessons for sustainable conservation and tourism promotion that can be drawn from this unique case.

According to the report, Musambwa presents an interesting deviant case. Culturally barred from killing them, humans co-exist with vast species of birds, snakes and other reptiles. The islands are as such home to a biodiverse ecosystem, supporting internationally special breeding places for various species of migratory birds.

The conservation of the islands’ ecosystem is mainly grounded on cultural beliefs and values ensconced in a range of intricate taboos. Studying the human-nature relations on the islands provides an opportunity for understanding their ontological relations and what we can learn from them for wider sustainability practices and the promotion of tourism, it adds.

The study specifically sought to: establish Musambwa Islands’ ecological uniqueness and how humans relate with nature at the islands; understand the cultural value systems on which human-nature relations are grounded; ascertain the transferability of the sustainability lessons from the islands to other contexts; and to establish how the ecological uniqueness of the islands can be sustainably harnessed to boost tourism.

Fishing activities at the Musambwa Main Island

Findings

The study established that Musambwa islands are two small rocky islands in Lake Victoria. These are home to a diverse range of species that coexist. Some of the remarkable features of the islands include sedimentary rocks and a variety of life forms such as reptiles (especially rock cobras), birds, plants and humans. The human population on the islands keeps fluctuating from time to time due to the seasonal nature of fishing activities. It is, however, estimated to range between 50 and 120 men. Women are not allowed to reside on these islands, but they can visit.

The islands are also dominated by over 30 water bird species. These include grey-headed gulls, Egyptian geese, black songbirds, great cormorants, talking birds, weaver birds, water crane birds, black herons, little egrets, black crakes, hornbills, sacred ibises, sandpipers, pelicans, among others. Importantly, Musambwa is the largest breeding ground for grey-headed gulls in Africa. Due to its vast congregation of bird species, it was designated as a Ramsar Site in 2001.

“In addition to the birds and humans, the Islands also harbour rock cobras that freely live with humans – a relationship embedded in taboo,” the report says.

“It was established that the non-humans at Musambwa islands, just like in any other ecosystem, relate following a predator-prey food chain arrangement. In such order, the survival of a given species is dependent on the existence of another in the ecosystem. For instance, snakes on the islands are supported by the abundance of birds’ eggs and chicks, while birds feed on the fish around the island, and on fellow birds’ eggs and chicks,” the report notes.

For most of the inhabitants, the island is more of a workstation; not a permanent home. At any rate, they cannot establish their families there. There are only a few who stay on the island year-in-year-out. Emmanuel Katongole, also known as Mbega or Mutumbavu, is the oldest resident of the islands. He has also stayed there the longest, having first set foot there in 1958.

People reside in about 20 shared wood and iron sheet semi-permanent structures. Much as the residents of the island are not organised under a Local Council arrangement as is the case in many other areas, they have leadership nonetheless.

While birds present an overwhelming population, the islands also harbour a couple of reptiles. The reptiles may not be noticed at first sight as they usually stay under rocks and in bushes. These include snakes (specifically rock cobras) and various lizard species.

Unlike birds with already existing data conducted by Nature Uganda, data on the population of reptiles on the island is still lacking. There are fears that the population of some species of reptiles, especially the pythons and monitor lizards on the islands, could have undergone extinction due to human interference.

 A jealous spirit

Musambwa is a Luganda word that is translated as ‘spirit.’ On further probing, the researchers established that it is believed by residents and people in surrounding areas that the island is inhabited by a spirit which manifests in different forms, especially, through rock cobras.

In one of the focus group discussions (FGDs), participants said the islands has a spirit that often manifests, especially in the night as “a beautiful tall woman dressed in white clothes.” Several residents confessed to having personally seen the spirit manifest in this form. Since the spirit is female, they proceed to note, its jealousy towards women is palpable. For one, it never permits females to reside on the island and does not allow sexual intercourse for good measure.

Many respondents spoke of an incident that happened in the 1990s when a couple visited the island and engaged in sexual intercourse. It is said that the outcomes were disastrous. The waters around the island turned turbulent, with strong winds that resulted in breaking of the violators’ boat into pieces. It is also said a number of people subsequently died, including the couple. 

Since then, residents on Musambwa islands strictly observed the taboo against sex. Carol Namujuzi, a former resident, narrated that while operating a restaurant on the main island, every evening she would be locked in her house with a padlock fixed outside. This was intended to prevent possibilities of sexual encounters. On a lighter note, she revealed that “whenever strong winds blew, [male residents] would shout and ask, ‘who has touched her?’ …”

The report further notes that “either inadvertently or by design, the taboos against sex and women’s residence serve the function of regulating the population on the islands.”

Adding: “With the possibility of establishing families there, the small islands would have easily become overpopulated.”

No ordinary snakes

The other entrenched cultural value is the belief that spirits on Musambwa islands manifest in the form of rock cobras. To the residents, the rock cobras are not ordinary snakes. As such, they hold several beliefs about snakes there. First, it is believed that the cobras do not bite except when disturbed. It is also believed that the cobras are not poisonous.

One of the victims of the two reported snake bites is Mzee Katongole. He reminisces that: “I grabbed [the rock cobra] in my hands when it came to my house and threw it outside. When I looked around it had come back. I grabbed it again and threw it outside. The third time I held it by the head and it bit me. I spent four days there and the situation worsened. This forced me to go to the mainland for treatment.”

Because of their believed spiritual stature, rock cobras are not killed by residents. It is widely believed that if you beat the rock cobra on the island, you die. In a focus group discussion, a resident narrated that: “We don’t beat [rock cobra] snakes. If you beat a snake, you die. The one beat it died… The stomach of the one who poured paraffin on a snake swelled and he died. That is on record. It didn’t take so many days after he had done that.”

Nsibambi from the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda told Saturday Monitor thus: “It is said that the spirit (Musambwa) after which the islands were named manifests itself in snakes, especially rock cobras. Killing them is compared to killing the spirit, which presumably is protecting the humans who stay on the islands.”

Elsewhere, on the main Musambwa islet stands a Mukokoowe tree (ficus branchiopods), which is the main shrine for worshipers of indigenous religion.

“The Mukokoowe tree has both cultural and natural values,” Nsibambi noted, adding, “Culturally, the tree hosts the main shrine at the main Musambwa islet. There is a shrine under this tree where people go and pray for different things – healing and blessings. The tree provides a breeding place for birds which can lay their eggs on the ground. They make their nests in the branches of the Mukokoowe tree, especially during the breeding season.”

Grey-headed gulls at the Musambwa Main Island.

Ecological equilibrium

According to the report, the uniqueness of Musambwa islands lies in the relationship between humans and the non-humans on the islands.

“Whereas in many ecosystems, human-nonhuman relationships are exploitative, Musambwa islands are unique in such a way that humans relate with other species as stewards. They do appreciate the existence of snakes and birds as a vital component of their natural environment,” the report reads in part, adding, “As such, they protect the non-humans from any possible persecution through a system of cultural norms and other rules and regulations created on the island through support from environmental conservation organisations.”

It also goes on to illuminate some cultural norms that have unwittingly led to harmonious coexistence between humans and nonhumans. Take the taboo against killing rock cobras and not engaging in sexual intercourse on the islands, to mention but two.

“Although modern scientists might question the soundness of such initiatives, they have nonetheless supported Musambwa islands’ ecological equilibrium. With such norms (especially not engaging in sexual intercourse), the human population on the island has been kept low hence relieving the island of significant stress due to human activities. Other dos and don’ts that have supported the coexistence include not eating of birds and their eggs,” the report notes.

According to the report, the story of hope from Musambwa islands lies in the fact that, at some point, the islands experienced serious persecution of non-humans by humans. “Bad environmental practices recorded included: eating birds and their eggs, trapping monitor lizards for food and making drums, among others. Such practices caused a significant reduction of these species. However, with the blending of modern conservation practices and cultural practices, the population of non-humans, especially of birds, has significantly increased.”

Emmanuel Katongole (also known as Mbega or Mutumbavu) is one the oldest and the longest resident of the islands.

Main takeaways

The major lessons lie in the need to change the attitude of humans towards other species from an anthropocentric exploitative attitude to a conservation and stewardship-based kind. The study advances two major normative recommendations, including putting in place initiatives that support the growth of knowledge about local ecosystems and carrying out environmental policy advocacy.

“My main take from the research is the uniqueness of Musambwa Islands, which uniqueness lies in the way humans and reptiles and birds on the islands coexist. Whereas in many ecosystems, human-nonhuman relationships are exploitative, the ecosystem at Musambwa Islands is unique in such a way that humans relate with other species as stewards. They do appreciate the existence of snakes and birds as a vital component of their natural environment,” Nsibambi told Saturday Monitor.

Adding: “My other take is on the cultural norms that have supported the co-existence of humans and snakes and birds which include taboos against killing rock cobras (which are considered to be spirits) and not engaging in sexual intercourse on the islands. Although modern scientists might question the soundness of such initiatives, they have nonetheless supported Musambwa Islands’ ecological equilibrium. With such norms (especially not engaging in sexual intercourse), the human population on the island has been kept low hence relieving the island of significant stress due to human activities.”

Lessons

“There is quite a lot in terms of our indigenous knowledge and cultures that we need to mainstream into contemporary climate change mitigation strategies or environmental safeguarding,” Nsibambi reasoned. 

 “Musambwa islands hold a substantial tourism potential that is capable of contributing significantly to the development.”

To offer preliminary tourism support, the researchers installed signposts to direct potential tourists to the islands and as well set up an information board at the main Island. They also designed promotional materials such as flyers, short videos, and a documentary film that can be used by tourist agencies to provide basic information about the islands to attract visitors.

SAMUKA UNPLUGGED

Uganda boasts of several wetlands that have been listed as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention of 1971.

All these sites, including the Sango Bay-Musambwa Island-Kagera Wetland System (Samuka), are recognised by BirdLife International as Important Bird Areas, as well as providing a vital habitat for other threatened plants and animals.

According to the Ramsar Sites Information Service, Samuka spans 55,110 hectares in the central Uganda districts of Masaka and Rakai Districts. A mosaic of wetland types, including the biggest tract of swamp forest in Uganda, papyrus swamps, herbaceous swamps interspersed with palms and seasonally flooded grasslands, sandy, rocky and forest shores, and three rocky islets about three kilometres offshore in the Sango Bay. The area lies in the transition between the East and West African vegetation zones and this biogeographical ecotone makes it biodiversity-rich.

The system supports huge congregations of water birds, hosting an average of 16.5 percent of the population of grey-headed Gulls (Larus microcephalus), and hosts globally endangered mammals such as Elephant, Black and White Colobus Monkey and a subspecies of the Blue Monkey. It is a source of fish to the people of the area, medicinal plants, grazing and raw materials for building and making crafts including luxurious sofa chairs and mattresses. Tourism has been developed on Musambwa Island.

Relatively inaccessible, Sango Bay forests have had no immediate threats; however, as overexploitation of resources and grazing depletes the rest of the landscape, forest reserves become the immediate retreat for the surrounding communities. The site contains Stone Age artefacts, internationally known as the Sangoan industry, which dates to about 200,000 years ago.

The other Ramsar Sites are the Mburo Nakivali System in Lake Mburo National Park; Albert Delta Wetland System in Murchison Falls National Park; Lake Bisina Wetland System; Lake Nakuwa Wetland System; Lake Opeta Wetland System; Nabajjuzi Wetland System; Lutembe Bay Wetland System; and Mabamba Bay Wetland System.

Some information for this report was provided by The Daily Monitor.

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