The Children of the Sse See Islands

I didn't want to die in a bat cave

I didn’t want to die in this bat cave.

July 25, 2007: Sse Sse Islands, Uganda

As usual, I didn’t really know where I was going, I was just trying to get out of pollution of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. I thought it would be a 45-minute ferry ride to these islands, the Sse Sses, that I had heard about.

To my surprise, it took more than 4 hours. Lake Victoria is big. After landing on the main island of Kalangala, I walked up to a smiling girl in a sailor outfit, found a hotel and hired a guide to take me walking in the jungle. Basically, I gave an unknown man, Kalim, a decent sum of money to take me deep into a jungle full of snakes and other unknown wildlife. Just for the record, I did draw the line on entering the bat cave with Kalim – but why I choose that point to draw the line is beyond me since I was already completely lost high up in the hills after walking for hours. To my thinking, dying in the jungle is one thing; dying in a bat cave is something else.

Photo of a family in crisis

Photo of a family in crisis

Luckily, Kalim was not only honorable, but an excellent guide, giving me one of my best insights into Africa. He was a village elder and as we passed the kids would kneel down in front of him so he could place his hand on their heads and bless them. Kailm took each opportunity to check the children’s light blue cards – the record of their clinic appointments and treatment. See, most of these children were HIV positive and Kalim had helped found a clinic for those on the island “infected and affected with HIV/AIDS.”

The clinic was to offer medical help (albeit with no medicine or medical personnel). But a least they had a clinic. During our walk Kailm introduced me to a family of 10 children and a grandmother (the mother had already died of HIV/AIDS years before). The eldest daughter, 15, was just diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and was highly ashamed to confront Kalim. While he talked with her, the younger children played outside in the dirt. The older siblings gathering together, too aware of the painful discussion taking place inside their hut.

Young and vulnerable, many Sse Sse Islands girls await a terrible  future

Young Sse Sse Islands girls, many facing a terrible future

Kailm explained to me that as many as 40% of the villagers had HIV/AIDS. (Others reported the figure as high as 80%.) Since Kalangala was a fishing village, they “imported” several women a week from the mainland to service the men on the island. The same prostitutes slept with all the same men, who then returned to their wives, and pretty soon everyone became infected. Kalim also explained how most of the children contacted the virus through incest and inappropriate sexual relations with neighbors and uncles.  These men would prey on the young girls, thinking them “clean” of the virus – which they were, of course, until they were raped and abused. It was terribly sad to understand the fate that awaited many of these vulnerable children.

To raise money for the island clinic, Kalim and several village women ran a small curio shop. We stopped by at the end of our 5-hour walking tour so I could purchase some goods and make a donation. I bought all I could carry (and in fact I bought a separate bag so I could mail my goodies home).

My two days on the Sse Sses and the people I met there influenced me tremendously throughout my East Africa journey.

And they continue to impact my life every day.


My roommates greet me morning and night

My roommates greet me morning and night

See, I’ve blown up two portraits of the Kalangala children and have them hanging on my living room wall.

Their serious, sweet faces greet me each morning and every night and remind me how much we are all responsible to help protect those that are defenseless.





This entry was posted on Friday, June 12th, 2009 and is filed under Africa.

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