Tom Karemire really is a living legend around Lake Bunyonyi — ask any lake-dwellers and they will tell you a story about him. At age 76 , he is still walking the hilly Kabale district landscape like a young foal, smiling and joking with all passersby, from older women to youngsters. Tom is the owner of Tom’s Homestay on Habukomi island in the heart of Lake Bunyonyi. He was born on this island, as were his father and his grandfather before him. Habukomi literally means “to tie or to hold”, and in ancient times, those dishonored in territorial clan battles were often detained there. Today, however, brave folk call it home.
Nowadays, Tom is doing everything he can to keep the island in his family so that many more of his grandchildren can be born there. But it’s a battle, as Lake Bunyonyi’s beautiful islands are in popular demand. Both rich Ugandans and foreign investors are anxious to turn them into resorts, but Tom stubbornly resists cash offers. “Even if they give me a lot of money, as long as I am alive, I cannot sell the land. The money can get finished, but the soil cannot.”
Tom’s greatest pride in life is to have completed school and secured a good career. Being a very stubborn child, he used to give his parents frequent headaches. So, as was common at the time, his father decided to punish him by sending him to school. Luckily for Tom, he actually loved his education at Bunyonyi. He paddled a dugout canoe to the mainland every day, covering a distance of 8 miles. When he finished school in 1966, he started working as a prison warden for the Ugandan government. He worked all over the country, from Kisoro in the southwest to Mbale in the east. Tom doesn’t really want to elaborate about prison work, except to say that it was a very hard job.
It was during that time that he met his lovely wife Provia. In 1969, Tom was on a break back home and was visiting his auntie who lived near Lake Bunyonyi. They were at church when all of a sudden, he saw this calm and beautiful girl sitting across from him. Fortunately, his cousin knew the girl and introduced them to each other. He said to her: “I am called Tom. I have seen you, and I have liked you. I think you and I can do something together.” Provia seemed to like him back and invited him to meet her parents and ask for approval. Things clicked by the lakeside, and a lifetime romance bloomed. Her father required two cows, a bull, a goat and 900 shillings for the dowry, which was a lot of money back then. But with Tom’s steady job, he could afford the bride price, and they were married.
Immediately afterwards, Provia moved in with Tom on his island, though not without conditions of her own. As Tom had just been appointed the warden of Murchison Bay Prison, he was working far away. Provia made it clear that she would not be coming with him to his work. She stayed at home, planting, cultivating, and supporting their family while he was away. Over the years he was posted to different prisons in different parts of the country, but on his four off days every month he would bring money home for her and the family. Tom would also help her to cultivate their farm, which was a good way to spend the time together.
52 years later they are still happily married, living together on their island. Though at the time of their marriage it was popular for men to take multiple wives, Tom never wanted to do that. It would be far too difficult to provide land, money, food, and fatherhood to multiple families. “I’ve seen men having two wives, and then their children have to fight to find lunch. When you have one woman the kids don’t fight, they share their mother’s lunch.” Tom says, “If I would have taken another woman, I would be dead right now.”
In 2004 he started working for Edirisa as a night guard, and kept the property safe for 12 years. It is during that time, with help from Miha, that Tom opened up his island for visitors. Over time, he developed a brilliant campsite. Guests can have a unique experience visiting this locally owned island and pitch their tents for a lovely night under the brightest stars. Or people can just enjoy dinner with traditional music and a bonfire. Either way, Tom will welcome you with open arms and will tell you stories about his life. “I like it because being visited by white people in our area is an important thing, people will respect me because of it.”
In 2014, a life-long wish of Tom’s came true. He wanted to be the second person from his church parish to meet mountain gorillas — a priest who works in Kisoro had tracked them before. To celebrate his decade of service at Edirisa, he was given the chance to meet them. At age 72, Tom was able to climb Mt Muhavura until he reached the family of gorillas. It was hard, but it was worth it. Tom didn’t have a camera with him, which was okay, because he considered seeing them in real life so much more fantastic than in pictures. The big one was bigger than a bull, while the small one was the size of a goat. He decided to write down the names of all the gorillas he met to remember them.
One thing that is hard to figure out about Tom is how many children he actually has. Every time someone asks him, he gives a different answer. It is not his old age that is making him forget about his children, rather it is a bad experience that has made him not want to remember. “I don’t want to tell anyone the number of my children anymore. Last time I told a friend how many children I had, and it was many, the man jokingly said that I should slaughter one. That very week, one of my children died, he drowned in the lake. I took that as a sign, and now I don’t give the number of my children anymore.” What he does want to say is that there are 14 households living on his island.
Let’s end this article with Tom’s advice to live a long and healthy life like himself: “Obey your parents, don’t be with bad partners and don’t be too familiar with drinking beer.” By the speed he walks up the hill of the compound, we can guarantee you that it at least worked for him.
photo by Marcus Westberg, Metka Ursic, David Esteban, Miha Logar and Mari Goossen