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By Christine Drijaru

Every November, when various news outlets revisit the tragic 2018 MV Templar boat accident on Lake Victoria, like clockwork, a voice in my head reminds me that I could have been one of the dead or a survivor (this option would only be possible by divine intervention, for I don’t know how to swim). Even some of the seasoned swimmers drowned as the dying clutched them, pulling them deeper into the lake.

Esther Katushabe Arinda, 24, one of those who died, had tried to persuade me to go on the ill-fated boat. I vividly recall her enthusiasm about the cruise that Thursday, November 22, when we met at the gym in Kireka, Wakiso district.

Esther was only a few months into working out at the gym. I had joined it years earlier. Our shared passion for fitness drew us closer. So when she got wind of this “hot plot, which even royals were going to attend”, she felt obliged to share it with me.

“Tina, let’s go. You can’t miss this cruise. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Imagine the hot guys who are going to be there. It’s just 100k. Let’s go,” she pushed.

Some of the gym members eavesdropped on our conversation and gave us their good wishes.

The boat cruise seemed like worthwhile plot. However, my sister was getting married in a couple of weeks and I had taken out a substantial amount of money to contribute to the event. I explained this to Esther.

“I am also organising a friend’s wedding, but I am still going on the cruise. Let’s go,” she said.

I told her I would think about it and get back to her. I didn’t have proggie that weekend. And the boat cruise cost just 100k. I didn’t have to rob a bank for the money, so if I really wanted to go, I would have gone. Somehow, we lost touch and didn’t agree on the particulars of meeting. It turns out Esther went on the boat cruise.

Frantic phone calls on Sunday, November 25

Early on Sunday morning, I was woken up by phone calls from members of the gym, the ones who had heard my conversation with Esther.

“I am so glad you are okay. Munange, Esther was one of the people who perished in that accident,” Stanley said.

I froze. Esther was here just the other day, now she was gone. It could have been me. Who am I to have survived? There were chilling pictures of bodies strewn across the beach. Esther’s was among those.

We collected money among ourselves and gave it to one of Esther’s colleagues as no one could trace her relatives. Esther happened to operate a Mobile Money kiosk. In a way, she reminds me of the 20-year-old victim of the recent bomb blast in Komamboga, who was buried by friends because none of her relatives appeared.

Eventually, when Esther’s relatives showed up, another challenge presented itself – money. That heartbreaking picture of her coffin stuffed into a taxi is a difficult one to forget. Esther’s body was one of the last to be claimed from the mortuary.

Although I didn’t get on that dreaded boat, I still get chills whenever I think of what could have happened. I cannot begin to fathom the trauma of the survivors, those who lost loved ones, children who became orphaned.  Esther left behind two young children.

Encounter with the butcher

Weeks later, I went to the butcher in Kireka and his face lit up on seeing me.

Yiii, nsanyuse nnyo okulaba, owaakabi wange (I am so glad to see you, my superstar),” he said, as he added me more pieces of meat on the half kilo I had ordered.

He was usually friendly towards me, but he had never given me this much nyongeza. I put the gesture down to him trying to up his wooing game.

“When I heard the sad news of the death of a certain girl at the gym, I thought it was you,” he said.

It hit me hard. News of my ‘death’ had spread among the residents. Esther fitted my description; she was dark, youthful, and shapely, although slightly shorter than me. She also liked to dress like me while in the gym; sports bras and low waist leggings. So I ask again, who am I to have survived?

Survivors’ life after the tragedy

In a story carried in The Kampala Sun newspaper in 2019, the survivors shared their experiences.

Singer Iryn Namubiru took to her Facebook page, saying it was by God’s grace that she was alive. She said she was getting medical treatment, but was deeply traumatised.  After she was discharged from hospital, Namubiru looked for Brian Masole, a student at Kampala International University, who rescued her, to thank him.

She added: “I have since discovered God more, learnt to trust my gut more, and realised how much love there is for me. People really do care.”

Paul Mulundannume Ssembatya, a Kikuubo businessman and owner of Ssembatya Arcade on Nabugabo Road, said he had never been on a boat cruise, but on that fateful day, he was invited by Freeman Kiyimba, another survivor.

It hit me hard. News of my ‘death’ had spread among the residents. Esther fitted my description; she was dark, youthful, and shapely, although slightly shorter than me. She also liked to dress like me while in the gym; sports bras and low waist leggings. So I ask again, who am I to have survived?

Kiyimba told him that he needed to accompany Prince David Wasajja, who had been invited to officiate at the opening of K-Palm Beach in Mpaata sub-county, Mukono district.

Ssembatya says he cannot remember exactly how he survived the boat tragedy, but he heard voices mentioning a hand holding a rosary. In his struggle to survive, Ssembatya pulled out his rosary.

He also asked God to forgive him for not completing a church he had started in Janya sub-parish in Mpigi.

“If I had died, I don’t know how I would have defended myself before the Creator because I had the money on my bank account. For some reason, I thought I was spending too much on the church construction, so I halted the work,” he explained.

After Ssembatya survived, he vowed to embark on completing the church. He ordered for all the materials for the construction and decoration that were estimated to cost over sh4b.

“I have imported all the materials for the finest decoration of the church and opened a store in Ndeeba, where we keep them. I have done this in appreciation of what God did for me,” he said.

In addition, he also put right all documents concerning his wealth, just in case the Creator calls him.

In October 2019, Janya residents changed the name of Entebbe Road (in Mpigi) to “Mulundannume” during a village meeting, to thank Ssembatya for putting up such a magnificent church in the area.

Farouk Mujjumba, who owns a chain of modern food vending kiosks in Kampala, escaped death twice that fateful day. He jumped from the main boat as it capsised onto another rescue boat, where the owner who was helping them, also died. The boat capsised. After the incident, he decided to focus on finding a woman to marry and have children with. He said he was done postponing marriage.

Another survivor of the accident, Alex Niyonzima, wrote a book detailing his traumatic experience.

Arnold Ssimbwa survived the boat accident, but died of a stroke in April this year
Farouk Mujumba vowed to look for a wife and start a family after he survived
Fashionista Chuck Brian didn’t live to see another day
Freeman Kiyimba escaped death
Isaac Kayondo perished

Other victims of the boat accident

Arnold Ssimbwa (he later died in April this year), the son of Prince David Ggolooba, the elder brother of Kabaka Ronald Mutebi; John Kaddu, the father of singer Desire Luzinda’s daughter and Justin Tashobya, wife of StarTimes director Aldrine Nsubuga.

Those who died included Brian Ndoori aka Chuck Brian, Kikuubo businessman Yoweri Musumba, Fred Mawanda, Arnold Buule, George William Kisitu, M. Kaweesi, Moses Muyenga, Michael Kaddu, Isaac Kayondo, John Nyanzi and Winnie Kobusingye. The owner of the boat, Michael Templar Bisase and his wife Sheila also died, leaving behind two young children.

Over 30 people were killed when the MV Templar boat capsised on Lake Victoria on November 24, 2018. At least 37 people survived, while several others remain unaccounted for. Many distanced themselves from the tragedy because they were stigmatised; some were hanging out with side dishes, while others were enjoying life with reckless abandon, among other reasons.

The boat was estimated to be carrying over 100 revellers. KK beach was the base for the revellers before they set off for K-Palm Beach. However, the boat got mechanical problems, so it was diverted to Mutima Beach.

Paul Semakula (RIP)
Paul Ssembatya completed a church he had started constructing after he survived the boat accident
Sheila Gashishiri (RIP)
Singer Iryn Namubiru is a survivor of the boat accident
Templar and Shiela Bisase perished in the accident
Winnie Kobusingye (RIP)
Yoweri Musumba (RIP)
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