Through the river and over the falls
Siragi Wasige makes his living leaping into Uganda’s Bujagali Falls at tourists’ behest.
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“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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”
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.”