Kyahugye Island: Born of Ambition or Madness?

During my first week as a Gorilla Highlands intern, I got to know about Kyahugye Island. After settleing in for a few days, a couple of colleagues and I found time to pay the 35-acre island and its animals a visit. It took us 15 minutes to reach it by dugout canoe and we were welcomed by the guide, Mbonigaba. Towards the end of our trip he revealed some local island mythology, which intrigued me to do more research about Kyahugye and its history.

Lake Bunyonyi‘s second-largest island, it is currently known for its collection of surprising animals. The mini-zoo was founded by Mr Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, governor of the Bank of Uganda since 2001 and originally from Kabale District. The governor is a colourful man, who can occasionally be seen cruising on his island in a golf cart due to his limited mobility.

He invested a lot of money into Kyahugye, building an eco-resort with several lodgings that are accompanied by a restaurant equipped with a terrace overlooking the far side of the lake. The island has access to electricity via an aerial power line. And because of these developments, the wider area gained access to electricity, Edirisa included — and I would like to thank you for that, Mr Governor!

But everyone who has been to the lake knows that fancy lodges are nothing new at Lake Bunyonyi …

The other investment, however, might have been a little more ambitious. He wanted his island to stand out from the rest and so he decided to obtain several animals from Uganda Wildlife Authority, including a blue monkey, Ugandan kobs, impalas and zebras. The zebras, not used to life on a small island, couldn’t graze or move around enough, so all but one drowned in their search for freedom.

However, the concept of the island-zoo still stands, despite a limited number of visitors. The tour begins with a short hike along the shores, offering clear views of the peninsula across the lake. After a couple of minutes walking the narrow path covered in pinecones, the way curves upwards, leading to an open space between the trees. Stepping in, you meet the island’s donkeys and a zebra, living together in perfect harmony. Moving on, you walk downwards, towards the other side of the island, providing a different view of the lake and many other islands, including Bwama and Akampene, better known as Punishment Island.

The rest of the animals are more nomadic, making it slightly unpredictable to know where you’ll find them. Luckily, the island isn’t too big and Mbonigaba knows exactly where to look for them. Once you reach the opposite shore, you see a small forest of tall pine trees on your left, where you have the best chance of observing other wildlife.

It is important to remain silent during the hike as to not scare the shy animals like the waterbucks, impalas or the related Ugandan kob. As you continue your mini-safari, you will come across papyrus, separating the island from the water. Further inland, you find figs, black wattles, eucalyptus, and a beautiful botanical garden as you look for Kyahugye’s rare monkey.

This all brings up one question: was this island menagerie plan ambitious, or rather … crazy?

It would definitely suit the island’s name. Kahugye means ‘madness’ in Rukiga.

And why did they call it that?

The myth goes that hundreds of years ago, one man lived on Kyahugye island with his 12 wives, worshipping their ancestors by annually sacrificing a cow and serving them a local brew. Unluckily, after several years of abundantly pleasing his rather hungry and thirsty ancestors, the man ran out of cows, leaving him unable to meet the ancestral spirits’ demands. Unhappy with this lack of sacrifice, the ancestors claimed the man’s sanity, rendering him crazy for the rest of his life. Due to his madness, other communities on the lake and other guests referred to his island as the Crazy Man’s place, Kyahugye.

Although Mr Tumusiime-Mutebile is in no way comparable to the mythical man, he might have found some inspiration in the island’s lore to develop his idea of populating it with unusual animals. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that idea was ambitious, eccentric … or just plain crazy?

featured Lake Bunyonyi photo by Marcus Westberg, other images by the author

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Responses

  1. Gathering these wild animals shows how ambitious local island and lodge owners are to attract tourists. They are trying to bring and entertain visitors, and they will try many strange methods to be unique.

    1. True, but in this case, I can’t get rid of the feeling that it might be more about prestige and that the tourists are a nice ‘extra’. But I could be wrong 🙂

  2. I remember seeing the zebras on the island when I had just arrived at Edirisa 4 or 5 years ago. Although I was in Africa, it felt so strange and also wrong seeing them on an island. But I didn’t know about the island story or that he is offering a tour. Thanks for that!

    1. Same feeling here, and I guess the fact that there’s only one remaining today kind of proves our sentiments, unfortunately…
      And you are welcome!

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