Adventure and thrill seekers in Uganda rank whitewater rafting on the River Nile top of their lists, but few link tourist spots with traditional spiritualism.
Off-the-beaten-path and popular with tourists are the Itanda Falls, in Jinja, 100 kilometres east of Kampala, famous for adrenaline-pumping kayaking. Spectacular and powerful, the roaring Itanda Falls are an ideal spot for those looking for a weekend escape.
On a recent visit, I was introduced to another side of Itanda. When we arrived, two men were kneeling under a large tree just above the rapids of Itanda Falls. They sprinkled themselves with water and started to pray.
Residents say that whoever makes a pilgrimage to the tree and prays to the god of Itanda — locally known as Jaja Itanda — is cured of sickness and misfortune. Hundreds of people come here to sacrifice goats, cattle and chicken.
According to traditional mythology, Jaja Itanda chose an earthly representative who acts as an intermediary between humans and him.
Godfrey Lubyo, who has been a tour guide at Itanda Falls for the past 15 years, said Jaja first revealed himself in 1994 through a woman who was sitting on one of the rocks in the middle of the rapids. She has since been christened Jaja Itanda Mary.
“She was quiet and motionless and no one from this village knew her,” said 40-year-old Lubyo. “People gathered here for the entire day and performed rituals, sang and drummed, sacrificed chickens, goats and sheep. But it was not until after sunset that she told those who were present that she was Jaja Itanda."
The woman wanted a shrine to be built for her at the mouth of the waterfalls, but locals convinced her to have it built 100 metres away because of the tourist spot. She is said to be living at Buwala, a small village five kilometres from the falls.
Lubyo said up to 500 people still come to this spot every month to pray, among them Ugandan Indians living in Jinja.