By Irene Namubiru
The Day The Boat Went Down In Lake Victoria, There Were Many Signs - Singer Iryn Namubiru Shares Hallowing Experience
On Friday night, I tried to sleep. I could not. There is a born again church nearby and they started praying very early and never stopped. I could hear the speakers, you know, the boom and bang and they would pray. I could not do anything. Instead of getting annoyed, I just stood up and started praying with the people from the church. I slept at around 5 in the morning.
The day before, my driver got in a terrible accident and was in hospital, so I had been there and promised to go back. Now, come Saturday morning, I get a call at 9am telling me “we’re being discharged. Come to hospital.” So I went to Nsambya Hospital around 10am and I left midday. They were still not ready to leave. On my way back home, I passed by my saloon for a pedicure in Lubowa.
While there, a friend of mine called Mr. Hope Mukasa calls me and tells me: you know what, I am here. Friends invited me for something. We are going on a boat.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but I asked him what time they were leaving. He told me maybe in an hour, then he called back after a few minutes telling me “we are leaving at 1:30pm to be exact, so that leaves you 50 minutes.”
I told him “no way. I don’t do boat cruises, and I’m doing my nails anyway. I won’t have time to come.” Anyway, I wasn’t really enthusiastic, so I let it go.
Then the time he told me elapsed. At 1:30 he calls me and says, “you know what? Can you believe, we’re still here. We haven’t left yet.”
I said, “you know what, go. I won’t make it. Just go.” I finished my nails and drove home around 2 o’clock. I found an interesting article about the Sentinelese, that uncontacted tribe in those Indian islands, and started reading about it.
Around ten past two, Hope calls me again to tell me “so you really are not coming? You should come. Come try it.”
I was like, “but what if I start preparing and within no time to boat comes?”
He said, “No, you try. Come.”
So I got ready. I dressed up and drove to Gaba. He directed me to the place. I finally arrived at a quarter to 3 at KK Beach. He saw me from a distance and waved, so I found them at a table.
They introduced me to the people who were there. Actually at the same table was the Prince Wasajja, whom I had not recognized, but then I recognized him and greeted him, and there were many other people, some of whose names I’ve since learned from papers. I saw many others that I knew, like OBs and Chuck Brian who died.
People were asking about the situation of the boat. The boat wasn’t coming, but booze was flowing. There was every kind of alcohol. People were downing double Black Labels and other whiskeys and Cognac like it was their last day. And anything you asked for, you were served by the bottle, it was always a full bottle for one person. My host was not drinking.
I didn’t know who was financing it, but they told me it was a gentleman called Freeman. I didn’t know him, but they were telling me there is Freeman who paid for everything, so everything was free.
So when I thought the boat wasn’t coming, that was coming to 4pm, I told Hope: “You know what? I think I’m tired already. I want to go back. I’ve seen people. I don’t know these people. These are not things I really do. I think I should go back home.” I started picking my bag to go, but he requested me to remain. That was the first time I was attempting to leave.
The second time, I saw the boat coming. They told me: “Ok, now the boat is here.” I saw it from a distance, but it took another 30 minutes to arrive, and then they started ferrying people to it.
We walked towards those small boats that were taking people to the big boat, and my heart was telling me ‘no, don’t go.’ So I turned and came back and sat somewhere where I found another friend and OB from Namasagali called Arnold Simbwa and other friends. There was another one called Stella Ntanda who was telling me “Iryn, no way. You are not leaving us here. You have to come with us. Do you want to be like Arnold who has already refused to go?”
I was thinking: you know what? I don’t really feel it. I don’t want to go. I’ve been here long enough. Let me just go back home. I did not sleep last night; I need to make up for my sleep. My friends were telling me “no, don’t leave.” So the second time, I still stayed.
The third time, I walked towards my car. My friends asked, “are you really going?”
I said, “Yes, this time I am going.”
They said, “Ok come and say goodbye to Freeman.”
I asked, “who is Freeman anyway? I don’t know Freeman.” They showed him to me in the distance about to board a small boat. I didn’t leave, but went with them to talk to Freeman. I had attempted not to get on that boat three times.
At the shore, they said, “let’s go!” Then Freeman tried to explain to me “you know, we were scheduled to leave around midday, but then the boat got issues, but eventually he has managed. He has come. Now it’s here. We can go. You know, the boat had a few hiccups.”
Eh! I was like, “Oh my God, a few hiccups? Hiccups? You mean the boat itself, or whoever was organizing had hiccups, as in problems?”
He said “the boat.”
Oh, that shocked me a little. I was like, “the boat? Hrm…” Anyway, we took one of those small boats that took us to the big boat.
On the big boat, the music was booming and it was full to capacity or even over booked. I had no seat. I had no life jacket. Someone said, “we can as well leave all those who have not boarded now. Tugende! Tubaleke!”
The boat that had dropped us was going back with life jackets, so I called it back and said, “we need to get life jackets. I cannot be on this boat without a jacket.” So they got us three blue lifejackets. There’s a guy who got one, one for me and one for Hope. I wore my jacket and fastened it right away, and then I remained on the boat.
Many never had a jacket, and many who had did not even fasten them. When Hope wore his, somehow he left it open claiming he was feeling hot. That's when I said, "hee ogila okyawoza ebyo, olowooza elyaato bweliba ligwaayo likuwa time y'okusiba life jacket?" meaning, "don't joke, do you think when the boat is capsizing it gives you time to fasten your jacket?" I fasten mine even harder.
People were in a happy mood and many already so drunk or tipsy. I got a seat in the middle of the boat where I could observe. There was a gentleman taking care of me. I later found out he was called John Bosco Nyanzi and he passed away. From the word go, the DJs kept on telling us to balance the boat.
My song was played, I liked it and so I started filming. I have a few videos that show so many people who were on the boat, and the girls who died. The girls who I recognized so well. Even from their bodies later, I could tell who they were. Well, many of them had wigs, which flew off, so it was kind of difficult, but from what they were wearing, I saw. I could recognize them later.
I later wanted to change for a better view, so I was helped up and remained in the same position for hours until when we capsized. There was someone next to me, Freeman and others. I wasn’t dancing, but I was always sliding down.
I realized the boat was always bending on that one side where I was, and the DJ kept on telling us “balance the boat, please balance the boat,” but people got on that boat drunk already.
At one point I shouted to the DJ, “tell them where exactly you want them to go to balance the boat.” I don’t know if he heard, but I had to say it, because he kept on telling people “balance the boat” and I could not understand exactly what he meant or where he wanted them to go.
Before that, Hope Mukasa had noticed that there was water flowing into the boat, and he showed me. “Do you see? There’s water coming into the boat. There’s water coming into the boat.” At the time it would come in and flow out. It did not really scare me. We did not know what was going on.
Actually the boat was under repair as we were sailing. Light was coming on and off. I didn’t realize that it was the engine failing, that we are in the middle of the lake not moving I got a little scared when a wave hit the boat and a speaker flew off into the water.
There were other boats passing by that realized we had a problem (this I learnt after the incident) and they warned that we were about to capsize. They came closer and asked for those who wanted to leave the boat. Some 15 people left and others were too drunk to care. It was known that this boat was always faulty and was down for over a month before we used it, had no license and the skippers were unqualified. They even jumped off the boat minutes before when they couldn’t do anything anymore, and left us to die. I was not aware of all this, or I could have panicked and died.
But when it was getting too dark, I got worried. There was my bag somewhere, I always have my phone on me, so I switched on the torch to save my bag. I told Hope
“you realize we are going?” I just held my bag and got ready.
No sooner had I finished the phrase than the boat capsized. The feeling of going down under is something I have always dreamt. It was like reliving those nightmares, because I fear water so much. I do not swim. I only learnt because it was compulsory in Namasagali College, where I studied and was rescued drowning twice. I always panic and swallow water.
I did not have water in my ears or through the nose. If I drunk at all, it's that little maybe half a teaspoon that was trying to chock me, but I was refusing to cough.
This time around I did not panic. I held my breath for about 40 seconds or a minute - thanks to my voice breath control techniques and training for music – and thanks to swimming lessons, I was peddling under water to get up. I have never dived, but I did what I saw my children do when they dive down to get up a peddle from the bottom of a pool. I peddled and my head got out of the water with my bag and phone, its torch making light. Maybe I was floating, I don’t know. I checked on my legs, like ‘what am I even doing? Am I standing? Am I lying on my back?’
Around me in the dark, people were screaming, wailing and others repenting. I was only responding AMEN in my heart to other people’s loud prayers across the water. There was this voice in my head that kept telling me, ‘keep on, you are not dying, relax, swim, keep on, you will reach.’
I kept up my phone so we could be found. There was this lady who kept grabbing me on my side and pulling on my jacket. I didn't say anything. I would just pull my jacket back on with the hand that had the bag. I had my head very well up out of the water and kept peddling to go forward.
And then the big waves started coming. That’s when I thought I was finished. I thought I was going to die, because they were somehow taking off my jacket. I felt my legs getting tired. I still did not let go of the bag and phone, telling myself I will drop them when I feel I can't anymore.
Eventually, a boat came. I saw it from a distance. I thought it was going to pass me by. I screamed “help! Help!” while waving my phone. They say it's thanks to the torchlight that they saw us and I was rescued. The lady who was grabbing on my jacket had hers on, but it got stuck on something on the boat. She died before getting onto the rescue boat. I later realized she was the owner of the capsized boat with her husband. She had been right beside me.
The guy came straight to me. He told me: relax, relax. Don’t shout. First come. Come closer. I went closer. He asked me for the phone. I gave it to him and he held my hand. I failed to carry the bag, it was so heavy. He took it and put it in the boat and he pulled me in. Once in the front of the boat where I fell, I could not move. My legs froze and I felt like I weighed a tone. I gathered energy and pulled myself to the back of the boat feeling like my lower part was numb.
Then he started saving other people. But so many people started holding onto the boat, and it seemed about to capsize. That's when I let out a mother of all screams that the whole lake must have heard. The boat man said I was destabilizing him with the screams and I was told to shut up. I didn’t look to see where we were going, but we quickly reached the shore. We were 10. But only 9 of us survived.
As we made our way off the boat into land, I asked the pilot, “can you give me my phone please?”
People screamed at me “do you want the phone or you want life? Just get out of the boat!” so I got out without it. I later on learned that he had gone back twice to save people.
When the last person was pulled off, the rescuer said “She looks dead already, or she’s dying…” ( Sheilla Nankunda)
I said, “let’s try to resuscitate her.” So we started doing the CPR, pressing and pressing. I gave her mouth-to-mouth as another person was pressing her chest, but there was no movement. There was no water coming out. We pressed. She was already dead. I was still strong thinking that maybe everybody had gotten out or that they were still swimming, that there were no more dead. Then I looked around.
The other revelers on this Island were wailing. Others in shock while many were helping. Before I moved to check on other bodies, I broke down and wailed. I said ‘oh God, I’ve been saved. I can’t believe I’m alive.’ People were crying for Iryn Namubiru in my presence, because no one could recognize me. My wig, shoes, make-up had all gone.
I went on to try and resuscitate others, but they were already dead. Many were foaming. Others, as we pressed, they squirted blood from the mouth, ears... it was a nightmare. The dead got so many, ah… I broke down.
I was asking around for Hope. “Is Hope around? Did he survive?” He too was looking for me.
But he heard me speak and said “Iryn, oh thank God.” Right away he said “Imagine, you had refused to come. You had refused to come…” Then he disappeared.
Because I didn’t have my phones - one was stolen from my bag earlier and the other left with the rescuer - I had one number in my head that I had crammed and a lady offered to give me a phone to call, so I called this one number. I just called to say I am alive. I’m not dead, because apparently they announced first that ‘Iryn Namubiru has died.’ I was among those people on the shore, but they didn’t recognize me because, well, I don’t know what I looked like. I kept on saying “this is Iryn” and many could not believe it was me.
There is this one girl who never left me right from the boat. We together were helped by locals to get a boda that took us back to Gaba where I had parked my car via Mukono. The boda man was kind enough to lend us jackets from his wife to keep warm. I dropped off this girl on Mukwano Round-about and gave her 10k shillings to take another Boda bike to her place in Rubaga.
I arrived at KK Beach around half past midnight. I was disguised. I had no shoes, makeup, wig and people could not recognize me, but the media was there. There were so many people. I asked the policeman to let me in, but they refused, so I sat somewhere.
After a few minutes, I saw Balam coming and they let him in. I told them “look, that Balam might even be looking for me. How can you let him go without asking him anything and you refuse me? I am telling you I am a survivor, my name is Iryn Namubiru and my car is inside. I just need to sit in my car.” Anyway, I think I looked like a mad woman.
So they called Balam for me, and he said, “it’s you I’ve been looking for. You and Kaddu. I’ve been looking for you.”
I asked, “Is he alive?”
He said, “I don’t know. I don’t know who is alive. I only know there’s [Prince] Wasajja, there’s Freeman and there’s Hope. The rest, I don’t know who is alive.”
I was escorted to my car, where the reality of what had just happened hit me again, I started shivering and crying. Then I had the DPC, many officers and other people surrounding me, comforting me and giving me support. Later at around 1am, Balam helped drive me out and escorted me home.
I reached home at around 1:30 in the morning. I did not have a phone. I could not alert anybody or do anything. Nobody knew what was happening. People thought maybe I was rescued, but I was in critical condition, which wasn’t true, so they were getting scared. Even my people at home were very scared and broken that when I reached the gate they thought it was my ghost.
At 3:30am, my manager arrived at my home with the young man Brian who had rescued me on the boat. He brought my SIM card that he had inserted in his phone, since my phone had run out of charge and he was taking my calls from people who were trying to find me. They started telling him “you know this number is Iryn Namubiru’s", and He said; " so now if she is the one, that lady I rescued her. She is alive. She is alive and safe.”
He then told me “I have your SIM card. I have your phone. I even have your shoes. You left your shoes on the boat.” This one is an honest boy. He said, “I am called Brian. I am in KIU. You’ll find me there. I’ll give you your phone. It is me who saved you.” On Monday, Brian delivered everything.
This movie keeps replaying in my head, and I keep breaking down as I remember. In the water I thought, ‘this is it. This is what is going to drown me.’ I was thinking, ‘now what? I’m getting tired. I’m choking. Should I just let go? Am I going to drown?’ I saw it coming. I could see my death. I could smell it.
In the days since, I have recognized many people who passed. I have videos showing people on the boat, showing people so well who had died. If there are any bodies that have not been recovered, maybe they could tell even from the videos.
I am thankful to all the people who reached out to check for my safety, my family members who started driving to look for me as soon as they heard the news, the manager who informed everybody about my situation and moved all night to finally find me home safe at 3:30am. To the young gentleman Brian, a student from KIU, I can never be grateful enough. Thank you for your helping heart and honesty. You made sure you saved my life and delivered my belongings to me personally at my house. Brian saved many other lives using a boat he had hired with friends to go partying.
Myself, I tried to give first aid and transport to those I could, but it was overwhelming. I am so thankful to whoever helped the survivors. The boda boda man who took me and another lady from Mutiima Beach to KK beach, you were so awesome. Thank you for lending us your wife's jackets. They kept us warm. And thanks for letting me use your phone when I had none.
In retrospect, there were so many signs that this boat ride was not right: in my gut I did not want to go; I saw the heavy drinking, heard the boat had mechanical issues, noticed the shortage of life jackets, that the boat was overloaded and crooked, leaking, the DJ telling us to balance the boat… There was peer pressure among friends to have a good time, but lives could have been saved if we took the signs more seriously.
This was a tragic and painful warning that safety is important. People think we wear life jackets for the police, but they are for our safety. If a boat is not in fit mechanical condition, there is reason to leave it. Be serious with your life. Take precautions. Take swimming lessons if you can.
I am so grateful to God and everybody who saved my life the day the boat went down, and I mourn those we lost. I pray that we learn from this and never allow such a thing to happen again.