The Ssese Islands in the heart of Uganda’s Lake Victoria are a hidden gem, a stunning collection of lush landscapes and abundant wildlife. They are also a very dangerous place to fall ill, for there is no emergency health facility on any of the 84 islands.
The nearest hospital is in the busy mainland port town of Entebbe, and it is a four-hour ferry ride away.
The ferry only leaves once a day from one of the islands and is often full. If you become ill outside the ferry schedule, your survival depends on being able to find, and afford, a private speedboat. And when fuel is hard to come by, this can prove to be an impossible task.
“Every year many people die because they can’t get to hospital in time,” says Ssenyonga Ibrahim, manager of the Kalangala Red Cross branch of the Uganda Red Cross Society. “Expectant mothers miscarry unnecessarily, accident victims lose limbs that could have been saved, and children succumb to preventable diseases.”
To reduce the risk and save lives, the Red Cross launched its own emergency response boat, which can transport the sick and injured to the mainland in just 60 minutes, and rush to the scene of accidents on the water, day or night.
“Every month there are six or seven drownings or near drownings,” says Ssenyonga. “Previously our responses have been there, but not always on time, because we would have to find a boat and then look for fuel, which is very hard to get here, and that all took time. But now we will always be in a position to respond in time to disasters. This boat will undoubtedly save lives.”
The new boat and engine cost 23 million Ugandan shillings (8,782 US dollars). The community is confident it will quickly make a big difference to their lives, and reduce the fear of falling ill. For Kalisa Abukali, a 58-year-old fisherman, the boat is a blessing, but one which came too late for his friend Sona, a 48-year-old mechanic and father of six.
“Sona got HIV, and he didn’t have enough care or support,” says Abukali. “He needed care from the mainland, for medicine, but he didn’t think it was possible to get there, so he committed suicide. If there had been a boat, maybe it would have helped him get the help. He would have been able to ask the Red Cross for help.”
Opio Charles, chair of sanitation for the Mweena landing site in Bugala, the largest of Kalangala’s islands, adds, “I had to be admitted to Entebbe hospital for a week for dysentery. I got the ferry at 8 o’clock in the morning. It took four hours. It was a long, bad journey. I was close to death. I needed to go as quickly as possible. But although it was a horrible experience, at least I was able to make it. For some people, it is too expensive so they put off going and they die. Now we have the Red Cross boat and it is going to save so many lives.”
(C) Rebecca Lefort, British Red Cross