Kisiizi Falls: From Tragedy to Hope

Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo

I consider myself privileged to live right beside of one the gems of the Gorilla Highlands region, the 30m/98ft Kisiizi Falls. This beautiful waterfall gives life to Kisiizi Hospital, Uganda’s remarkable upcountry health institution where I work — in stark contrast to the tragic history of the place. Having experienced the peace and tranquility around the Falls, visitors are shocked to hear the whole story …

Have You Ever Been Moved by Concrete?!

Five years ago, two young local artists were hard at work on a dramatic monument commissioned to express what had happened at Kisiizi. Observing the construction, we were quite worried to be honest. The figures were moulded naked in grey concrete behind a scaffold structure and … looked terrible!

But in the last few days the artists added the pigments and used a fibre-glass concrete mix to clothe the figures. They got dressed in traditional garments made of bark cloth that hung completely realistically.  When the wooden platform was removed and the unique statue was revealed at last, we were astonished and greatly moved at the extraordinary power and beauty of the end result.

Ever since, the Kisiizi Falls Monument has depicted the transformation from tragedy to hope, from darkness to light, from despair to hope. It shows the horrible historical practice of girls being thrown over the Falls to their death. Their crime: they had become pregnant but were not yet married! A clan court would meet and pass sentence if the young woman was found guilty. Tradition reports that the custom stopped when one of the victims held on to her brother who then perished as well.

Kisiizi was by no means the only site of such cruelty. During the same era, girls would be taken out to Akampene Island on Lake Bunyonyi and Gahiza Island on Lake Mutanda. Not knowing how to swim, they would be abandoned on these islands without food or shelter, and would either die there or be taken by men from the surrounding area who wanted a wife without paying a bride price. In neighbouring Rwanda, Lake Burera’s Rusumo Falls would serve the same dark function as Kisiizi.

Our monument graphically portrays the tragedy and horror of this practice but also wonderfully shows the startling and enduring transformation.

Harnessing the Powers

During the second world war, in 1944, Italian prisoners-of-war built a flax factory under the waterfall. It utilised channels taking water from a dam behind the top of the Falls, around the contour lines before dropping it down to power the machinery. Some years later the factory closed, but later on its structure was selected to become a hospital, on recommendation by Dr Len Sharp, whose Lake Bunyonyi impact we covered previously.

The planners from Church of Uganda recognised the potential to generate hydro-electricity as well as the availability of good drinking water from natural springs on the hillside. This led to the beginning of Kisiizi Hospital in 1958, bringing healing and hope.

In 1985 the original small generator was upgraded to a 60kW turbine. In 2009 Kisiizi Hospital Power Limited was established to provide power to the local community, utilising a 300kW generator. Visitors to Kisiizi Falls may request a tour of the Generator House and the channels carrying the water and see the power distribution lines that run 7km/4.3mi up the valley — but there’s much more to experience.

All Colours of the Rainbow

Nowadays Kisiizi Falls is a rather special combination of a beautiful waterfall viewed and enjoyed from different angles, mountain biking and zip-lining, all enhanced by excellent coffee blend being served and sold. The proceeds all go to help the work of Kisiizi Hospital.

In the morning, whenever the sun is up, there is a spectacular rainbow at the Falls as light is split into a spectrum by a cascade of millions of water droplets in the spray. Later in the day when the sun is behind the Falls the rays and beams are seen shining down from the trees that line the tops of the surrounding valley sides.

Guests love the soothing environment where the only sounds may be the water plunging over the Falls and the calls of many different birds of all sizes and colours, each with its own habitat. A duet from a pair of Ross’ turacos, the raucous harsh sound of the hadada ibis, the call of the eagle soaring on a thermal, the songs of the friendly robinchats — all mingle with the honking of the crested crane couple breeding on the meadow below the Falls.

Some birds are single or in pairs, while others are in large flocks such as the chestnut-winged starlings which nest on the cliffs behind the waterfall and are seen every evening flying across the face of the cascade. They love to perch on the cables of the suspension bridge which gives visitors the best view of the waterfall and valley below.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

An unexpected tradition has developed since Kisiizi Falls was formally launched as an attraction in 2016. A number of couples have become engaged on the bridge and others have come for wedding photographs in this stunning setting. Perhaps for some it has the symbolism of a “bridge over troubled waters” as one stands peacefully looking down at the fabled turmoil of the plunge pool.

Climbing higher, visitors can walk to the dam behind the waterfall and reach a series of smaller cascades. If lucky, they may spot otters along the river as well as the many birds. Traditional beehives hum in the trees, and local people may be collecting baskets used to catch mudfish.

If one desires an exhilarating way back down, the Kisiizi Falls SkyTrail, a 3-stage high-altitude zipline, is the adventurous alternative! The final stage runs high above the Falls and the forest canopy before landing high in a tree. Riders must be over 16 years old, but there is mini zip line for children too.

Star Struck!

There is ample accommodation available, in Kisiizi Falls round-houses, guest rooms and in a private hotel nearby, so you should surely consider spending more than a day here.

The air in Kisiizi is very clean as vehicles are few — we are a 50-minute drive away from the nearest tarmac road — and there is absolutely no industrialisation nearby. Located far from any big towns, there is no light pollution either. As a result the night sky may be breathtakingly beautiful. Being just south of the equator, Kisiizi is below the ecliptic so planets are frequently visible, as is the Milky Way galaxy. With a small telescope the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter may be seen as well as some nebulae.

Out of this world!

For more information on Kisiizi Falls please see the official website.