Off the beaten path in Tanzania: Ukerewe Island

I was browsing through my old photos albums the other day and came across the shots I took during my trip to Tanzania in 2017, so it’s time to reminisce!

I visited this East African country for the second time as a volunteer with a Canadian NGO and a group of Tanzanian healthcare workers running medical caravans on Ukerewe Island. On our days off, we had the chance to explore quite a bit of this beautiful and interesting island situated within Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest fresh water lake, sitting between the borders of Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya.

Ukerewe Island houses a population of 150,000 people. It is definitely not a usual tourist destination, and I did not spot any foreigners other than my fellow group members during our time there.

The island actually has a reputation as being a sanctuary for people with albinism. Albino people are an oppressed minority in Tanzania and are in fact heavily targeted for violence. There is a great deal of superstition around albinism in East African culture, which has led many of those affected to become victims of black magic rituals. You can read more about the plight of African albino people here.

Getting there

To visit Ukerewe, you must ride a ferry that departs from Mwanza on the mainland, taking you to the island’s main town, Nansio. It is a 3 to 4 hour trip on a large boat that also transports a bunch of cargo. Sadly, there have been safety issues with the ferry system on Lake Victoria, including a recent disaster involving the boat traveling between Ukerewe and the smaller island of Ukara which claimed at least 136 lives. Fortunately, my trip was uneventful and our group arrived safely after over 30 hours of international and domestic transit.

Our home base for two weeks was a guesthouse in Nansio, which we essentially turned into our medical supply storage facility. Our days during caravan were long and busy, usually starting at the crack of dawn and extending into the late evening as we did prep work for the following day. The caravan ultimately took us to 9 villages around the island, where we set up shop and saw upwards of 600 patients per day at our mobile clinics.

Hiking and biking adventures

Needless to say, we welcomed the weekend break and took up the opportunity to do some leisure activities while exploring the island. One of our logistics team members was a tour guide by trade, so he organized several excursions for us.

We started with a walking tour, with our first stop at the shoreline near Lake Victoria. It sure looks nice but swimming is not recommended as the lake is a breeding ground for freshwater snails, which are vectors for schistosomiasis, also known as ‘snail fever’. You really don’t want to catch that.

We moved on and, unexpectedly for me, ended up on a climb up a rocky hill. I headed up in my flip flops. This made for a sketchy hike at first but I soon embraced it as a ‘local living’ experience as I was joined by a posse of curious kids, some of whom were in their bare feet. They trailed me all the way to the top and were eager to have their photos taken.

Our group continued via bicycle to tour more of the island. This was promoted as an ‘easy’ excursion but I think we ended up cycling something like 50 kilometres including several intense uphill climbs. When I wasn’t huffing and puffing, it was quite a nice ride through scenic paths. Our group of mzungus was evidently an entertaining curiosity to the locals who would call out in greeting as we passed them by.

We stopped at the base of another huge rock formation for a lunch break. Some of the other brave souls in the group climbed up the rock, but I was not equipped with the proper footwear to venture upward this time.

Gone fishin’

After a rough bike ride home, we went out for an early evening fishing trip. It was a pretty rustic experience, with wooden boats and hand-fashioned rods. I did end up catching one sizeable fish!

Shall we dance?

We capped off the weekend by attending a traditional dance performance put on by some of the locals.

The star of the show was this one youngster who had some serious moves!

After a productive weekend of fun and exploration, it was time to get back to work on caravan. Eventually, I said goodbye to Ukerewe and headed off to my adventure in Uganda.

🤡 Chuckles

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