NRS Presents Juma of Itanda

Juma of Itanda | Photo: NRS

A Story of Humanity, Hope and the Fate of a Mighty River  

“The life in Itanda Village is difficult, but it is difficult because I know better. If I wasn’t working for this company, I think that life would still be the best life for me.”

Meet Juma Via Kalikwani: an enterprising village boy in Uganda. His beginnings are humble. Growing up on the banks of the Victoria Nile, he finds work helping rafters carry their boats to the river. He eventually gets hired as a safety boater for an outfitter on the Victoria Nile, and later becomes a guide. His earnings make him one of the wealthiest people in his community and help him pay for his education. Life for Juma is good.

“The first day I went to Itanda and saw Mzungus, we were not sure what was happening. They had like these throw bags. They had the helmets. They had knives. And they had paddles. It looked like our village had been attacked by commandos.  Most of the people ran. But by not running these guys talked to us.”

Juma of Itanda | Photo: NRS

Today, Juma is the Director of Operations for Nile River Explorers, a large Jinja, Uganda-based rafting company. But then comes a dam, and then another. Now his livelihood is in jeopardy, along with the village, the river and the rapids he loves.

“When the dam came not many people continued coming to Bujagali. The rapids were not there. Some people ended up thinking that there was no rafting…even though we had moved just farther down. Yes, the dam created jobs, but it lasted for like the time they were building the dam. The botabota cyclists, they had to go out of jobs, the people who had shops—out of jobs.”

Juma of Itanda is more than the story of one young man in Uganda. It’s the story of hydroelectricity in our times. Over 45,000 large dams were constructed in the 20th century; today, thousands more are under construction or being planned, mostly in developing nations.  These projects’ ostensible purposes are commendable: to provide reliable electricity, to prevent floods, and to ensure safe and stable water supplies for people and agriculture.

Juma of Itanda | Photo: NRS

“People in my village believe that there are spirits in Itanda. These spirits stay underwater, when they wake up one day and they realize their gods are not there anymore and they want to know where those gods have gone.”

But these benefits are often eclipsed by the enormous social and environmental damage that large-scale dam projects can cause. And in far too many cases, political and corporate interests rule at the expense of communities and ecosystems.

“Yes, I’m going to lose the job, but then the aspect of not seeing these rapids. My kids not finding these rapids. My grandkids not seeing these rapids. Yes, I can take photos and I can take videos and keep for them…It’s just a photo. The Nile used to have the best rapids in the world for rafting. And I know that if the rafting stayed in Uganda, maybe I would be able to have that life until I die.”

Juma of Itanda | Photo: NRS

For those who recreate on rivers, or whose jobs or businesses depend on them—who understand the environmental, economic and spiritual value of free-flowing streams—damming flows, drowning canyons and diverting water can seem nothing short of insane. But the answer isn’t black or white. How would you feel if your homes were threatened seasonally by flooding? How would you feel if you lacked clean drinking water? How would you feel if you woke one morning to the idea that your gods have left you?

NRS believes these questions can be answered only through thoughtful and respectful conversation, and hopes Juma’s story will help inspire it.