Through the river and over the falls

Siragi Wasige makes his living leaping into Uganda’s Bujagali Falls at tourists’ behest.

By , Correspondent

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    Swimmer: Siragi Wasige learned to swim the Nile's white-water rapids 15 years ago, and worked his way up to jumping Bujagali Falls.
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Siragi Wasige doesn’t have that many options.

Umwenda, the village along the Nile River where Mr. Wasige was born, is unremarkable, which is to say it has as little as most other villages in rural Uganda. But a guy with a wife and two kids at home has to earn a living, so Wasige spends his days along the river, waiting for tourists to wander by the famous Bujagali Falls. For just a few bucks, he does the trick that draws them to its banks: He hurls himself into a Grade V white-water rapid, wearing only his swimming trunks and holding an empty jerry can.

“You have to make sure the jerry can you use does not have an inlet for water – no cracks, no hole,” he says as he tightens the lid on his five-gallon yellow jug. “If there’s a hole, you sink.”

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He slips a rope around his wrist and tightens the knot at the other end, around the handle of the jerry can. “It’s for emergencies,” he says with a smile. It’s an obliging nod to risk, but one he thinks is gratuitous. “I have a lot of faith in the jerry can.”

His may be the least capital-intensive job on the Nile, where white-water rafting has become a cash cow of Ugandan tourism. The river supports about 12,000 rafters each year, most of them foreigners, and another 200 or so fishermen, local leaders say.

But the fishermen need boats and nets and oars; the white-water guides need top-of-the-line rafts and safety equipment. Wasige needs an item so cheap and so ubiquitous that even the poorest African homes have them. Like millions of other people across the continent, Wasige uses the jerry can to haul water into his house – when he’s not using it to keep himself afloat.

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Wasige is the youngest of the Bujagali Swimmers, a quartet of guys who taught themselves how to rough the rapids of the river they grew up on.

To chart their course, they took the long, thin tail that hangs from a bunch of bananas, threw it into the water, and watched how it moved. When they pulled the stem out of the water, they checked for scratches, a sign that the stem had scraped a rock they’d want to avoid themselves.

Swimming Bujagali takes craftsman-like skill: You need to stay on the right-hand side of the bank, where there are fewer rocks, and control your body even as the water pushes you to speed up.

“It’s as you ride a bicycle,” one jumper says. You accelerate as “you go down a slope, but you control the bicycle by yourself.” Above all, you need to avoid the rocks, which are becoming an ever-greater hazard as the water level drops.

Hence the jerry can, a kind of flotation device that’s a required tool of the job. About a year ago, one man died after the can slipped out of his grip, so as a gesture of caution, the swimmers here started fastening the jerry cans to their wrists with rope.

Still, they use the cans less for buoyancy than for self defense; there’s little risk, they say, of being sucked into the river by a strong current. But they – and their wives – worry about how easy it is to smash into the boulders that jut out of the banks.

The danger doesn’t frighten Wasige.

“The only mistake comes with the drink,” he says, and so he swears off alcohol. He’s a careful swimmer who learned his trade 15 years ago in calmer waters downstream. He worked his way up to jumping Bujagali, where the water crashes down at a speed of 1.8 million liters per second. His first five years were a sort of apprenticeship, showing the older boys that he was a strong enough swimmer – and a charming enough performer – to merit pay.

These days, with ten years under his belt, Wasige is a seasoned professional. He flashes foreigners a bright smile, and when he catches their eyes, flexes his pecs. It’s a kind of come-hither that, on a good day, ends in four or five commissions – maybe more in July and August, which Wasige says are his busiest months.

He won’t jump for less than 10,000 Ugandan shillings – about $3 – and sometimes makes as much as 30,000 shillings ($9) a swim.

“I take it as a job. It’s a source of income,” he says. That means he has to think like a businessman, a task at which he’s had a lot of practice.

One of six children, Wasige earned a living for his family as a coffee coyote of sorts, buying beans in villages and bringing them to Jinja to sell at a profit. Even such meager business was lucrative enough that Wasige dropped out of school after only two years of education.

If he’d stayed in school, he thinks, his English would be good enough to be a rafting guide. But he knows only Luganda, and the river, and so he makes money by scoping out cash the best way he knows how: angling for tourists from the “rich” countries.

“Africans and the bazungu pay best,” he says, using the Swahili word for “white people.”

And then there are those who are so cheap that they never pay at all. Wasige isn’t certain how many times he’s been stiffed. “It happens,” he acknowledges with a shrug. “I feel bad, but I let them go. I don’t want to fight with people.”

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For all his business sense, Wasige will soon be out of a job. The government of Uganda expects its pet power project, the Bujagali Dam, to be finished in three years. It says the dam will increase the electricity output in the power-strapped country; opponents say the project will ruin the scenic beauty of the Nile, which has made tourism on the Bujagali stretch a million-dollar-a-year industry.

But the high-level policy debate doesn’t matter much to Wasige and the hundreds of other locals who earn their living from these waters. Since construction started on the dam last year, they’ve seen the water levels drop, and some rapids disappear completely. The rafting companies are planning to move closer to Kampala, where they expect the Nile to swell and make slightly less adventure-worthy rapids.

But Wasige and the other Bujagali Swimmers don’t have much interest in relocating. They grew up on the Falls, and this was a job of convenience, after all. Besides, Wasige says, he’ll be almost 30 when the dam is finished, the age he says marks “getting old.”

“I’ll get a plan when I get old….It is why I’m learning to drive,” says Wasige, who hopes he can learn fast enough to make a living as a taxi man. “The dam will be up in two years…. I’ll be 30. It will be the end of me.”

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