InfoNile journalists bring award-winning photos back to their subjects, sparking an engagement on how climate change is impacting lakeside communities
23rd March 2021
Ripon Landing Site, Jinja, Eastern Uganda
“Chairman Musa! Agnes the Nurse! Hassan the cook!” Smiling children chant the names of the subjects of photographs as the InfoNile team and community members of Ripon Landing Site set up in preparation for the first-ever community photo exhibition on the site.
Ripon is the closest landing site to the actual source of the Nile River within Lake Victoria, Uganda. Floating in the water, apart from plastic waste and the invasive weed, water hyacinth, are fishing boats loaded with some nets parked after a night of fishing. Egrets swoop in and wade on the shores, as black and white kingfishers can be seen in the distance.
Three years ago, land covered all the area where the boats dock now and the birds perch. However, due to the rising levels of Lake Victoria waters, the landing site has gotten smaller, forcing the fishing community further back on the land. Before the water rose in 2020, the landing site was 100 meters from the lakeshore. The water has since covered more than 50 meters of that land.
In 2021, InfoNile with funding from IHE Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme supported 10 journalists from nine countries to document everyday water stories around the Nile River and its tributaries. Published under the hashtag #EverydayNile, the photojournalism outreach project is meant to capture everyday life in the Nile Basin countries and aims at promoting cooperation and understanding of the water issues around the Nile River as a shared natural resource.
Amongst the photographers was Ugandan photojournalist Miriam Watsemba. Miriam documented the impacts of the rising water levels at Ripon landing site and how the community was adapting to the adverse effects including floods. As she produced her story, she went through a 6-month photojournalism training and mentorship program with InfoNile.
“When I first came to Ripon to document this story, before I even took out my camera, I was keen to seek the people’s truths and experiences,” noted Miriam on our way to conduct the first pre-visit before the exhibition. “Nurse Miriam, Chairman Musa and the rest of the community welcomed me into their homes and lives, in a way that enabled me to tell their story.”
About Sinking Land
Through four visits to the landing site, Miriam produced Sinking Land, a photo story that captured the collision between man and water as Lake Victoria flooded to overtake the site. The gallery and data-driven multimedia story captured everyday life in Ripon including families, homes, and businesses. It portrayed the devastation of some members of the community by floods, including Nurse Agnes, whose clinic was swept away, Chairman Musa, who had to evacuate his house with his family in the middle of the night, and other members of the community who had their economic activities disrupted and worlds turned upside down.
It also captured hope and joy as the community, despite all their challenges, enjoyed music entertainment by a local mobile band. Mataa ga Baana band is a five-member mobile band from Masaka, central Uganda, who move around performing for different communities.
A Sinking Land photo won first place in the 2021 Uganda Press Photo Association Awards in the Environment Category.
“I was shocked that the community did not even know that the rising water level was due to climate change and they did not even know about climate change,” Miriam said.
In March 2022, InfoNile was able to support Miriam to take her photos back to the community – with the aim to show the subjects of the photos how the photographer captured their stories for national and international audiences, in light of historical inequities in how photographers have often captured and used the stories of disadvantaged people. The exhibition was also meant to increase trust between the local community and journalists and how they tell their stories.
“My aim for ‘Sinking land’ was the inclusion of local voices in the conversation on climate change. I am overjoyed to see this vision come to life starting with this community exhibition “
On that first pre-visit, Miriam introduced the InfoNile team to the chairman of the landing site, Musa Daku, and his colleague Abdul Shortie, the tourism sector chairman, who were both very instrumental in helping us organize the community exhibition.
They both showed us around the site and pointed out possible locations where we could exhibit the photos. We decided to use the community’s social meeting place, an open plan shed with wooden benches opposite the water.
During the pre-visit, we also visited Nurse Miriam, who was sitting outside her new clinic with her friend. Upon seeing Miriam, she broke off into a broad smile and asked about her well-being since they last saw each other.
After concluding on the plans for the exhibition, we printed 19 photographs from Miriam’s gallery and included captions published in both English and Lusoga, the local language of eastern Uganda.
So there we were by the lakeside on 23rd March 2022, surrounded by children, men, and women admiring, laughing, and making jokes about the photographs captured by Miriam, those depicting themselves and their neighbors. Amongst them is Hassan the chef, who traveled 100 kilometers to join in on the exhibition.
As we set up, excitement spread through the community as more and more people streamed to the exhibition space, with laughter and recognition spreading amongst them.
When all the pictures had been hung up, the Maata ga Baana band was already playing the community’s favorite tunes, as more people gathered and reacted to the photographs.
“When I saw the photos, I was in awe to see that Ripon Landing site can be covered like this,” remarked Juma Waiswa, a resident on the site.
“When Miriam came here, people did not welcome her at first. At the time, people were annoyed at the government because their homes had been swept away and so they thought the newspapers had come to capture their misery. The exhibition has been a surprise and it is good you came back. For me I have enjoyed it,” said Abdul Shortie, the tourism sector chairman.
At the peak of the fun, approximately 100 people had gathered in the shed and were seated outside the shops and houses on the site. The community members witnessed the presentation of framed photos as gifts to photo subjects from Miriam and the InfoNile team.
Chairman Daku is a soft-spoken yet authoritative man who commands respect and admiration from the other members of the community. During the event, Daku facilitated a dialogue to engage the community on their understanding and responsibility around climate change.
“This was a beautiful place. People loved this place because of its beautiful weather and the conditions of living. But now, since the floods, business is not the same,” resident Juma Waiswa said.
“If the water levels rise again, we will be greatly affected because there will be completely no way to access the boats,” said Ekait Lawrence, tour guide and the secretary for the Ripon Association of tour guides.
“These photos are making me remember where we came from. These photos are making me realize that the weather keeps changing. Around this time last year, we had a lot of flooding and our houses were being submerged. And then like this last year, this year we’re having a lot of heat. There’s so much heat, it’s too hot. The weather keeps changing in ways that we don’t understand,” Daku said.
Nurse Agnes, one of the major subjects of Sinking Land, was away on the day of the exhibition, but Miriam recalled, “the first time I visited Agnes, she was saying, ‘If this water rises, I will go to Asia and move places.’ According to her, she thinks that when she changes geographical location, then she escapes the effects of climate change,” remarked Miriam after the exhibition.
Through the community participation, it was evident that the community was at first skeptical of having the media document their living situations, because of fear of people using their information to exploit or harm them, as well as a disconnect between the perception and reality of climate change.
At the end of the exhibition, it was wonderful to see the subjects engaged in conversations about how they can work together to conserve the environment next to their homes.
Whereas some of them will never recover from the losses they incurred during the floods in Lake Victoria, their engagement during the #EverydayNile community exhibition goes a long way to show their resilience and appreciation for their stories being told and heard by millions of people around the world.
“When [the community members] look through the images and think through them… you can almost experience their mindset change,” Miriam said. “It’s amazing by the time we left the [site], climate change was so normalized. They were now starting to give examples of things that had been going through, but they didn’t know they were climate change before.
“Knowledge is gained, understanding is gained faster, especially if its visions are very visual and the visuals are really relevant to the local community. You’re not bringing photos of melting glaciers from a foreign country to show them that there’s something called climate change. No, you are showing the fishermen a [flooded] landing site, a photo of a fellow fisherman in a situation that shows climate change. And the caption is written in Lusoga in a language he understands.”
According to Miriam, the biggest tool for journalists to help such communities adapt to climate change is human and solutions-centered storytelling.
“That storytelling becomes the bridge between the people who are interacting with climate change every day and the policymakers, decision-makers, the people who decide how resources are distributed, the people who decide how interventions are made,” she said.
In May, InfoNile will take back the photos from another #EverydayNile story to a community in Rusinga Island, Kenya that is using solar power to catch silverfish.
Click here for more information on #EverydayNile