On Friday night, I tried to sleep. I could not. There is a born again church nearby and they started praying very early. Instead of getting annoyed, I started praying with the people from the church. I slept at around 5am.
On Saturday, I passed by my salon in Lubowa for a pedicure.
While there, a friend, Mr Hope Mukasa, calls and tells me: “You know what, I am here. Friends invited me for something. We are going on a boat.”
I was not 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, so that leaves you 50 minutes.”
I told him “no way. I don’t do boat cruises”, so I let it go.
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 drove home around 2pm. Hope calls me again shortly to tell me “so you really are not coming? You should come. Come try it.”
I drove to Ggaba. I arrived at a quarter to 3pm at KK Beach. [Hope] saw me from a distance and waved. I found them at a table. At the same table was Prince David Wasajja.
People were asking about the situation of the boat. The boat wasn’t coming, but booze was flowing. There was every kind of alcohol. And anything you asked for, you were served by the bottle. I didn’t know who was financing it, but they told me it was a gentleman called Freeman.
So when I thought the boat wasn’t coming, that was coming to 4pm, I told Hope: “I want to go back.” But he requested me to remain.
The second time [I attempted to leave], They told me: “Ok, now the boat is here.” I saw it from a distance, but it took another 30 minutes to arrive.
We walked towards those small boats that were taking people to the big boat, and my heart was telling me “no, don’t go”. I turned [went] and sat somewhere where I found another friend called Arnold Simbwa and others. There was another one called Stella Ntanda who was telling me “Iryn, no way. You are not leaving us here…?”
So I stayed. The third time, I walked towards my car. My friends asked: “Are you really going?”
I said, “Yes.”
They said, “Ok come and say goodbye to Freeman.”
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. Now it’s here. We can go. You know, the boat had a few hiccups.”
I was like, “Oh my God, a few hiccups?
Anyway, we took one of those small boats that [took] us to the big boat.
On the big boat, music was booming and it was full or even over booked. I had no seat. I had no life jacket. The boat that had dropped us was going back with life jackets, so I called it back and said, “We need to get lifejackets.” So they got us three blue lifejackets. I wore my jacket and fastened it.
Many never had jackets, and many did not even fasten them. When Hope wore his, he left it open claiming he was feeling hot. That’s when I said, “Don’t joke, do you think when the boat is capsizing it gives you time to fasten your jacket?”
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. From the word go, the DJs kept telling us to balance the boat.There was someone next to me, Freeman and others. I wasn’t dancing, but I was always sliding down. I realised 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.”
Hope Mukasa had noticed that there was water flowing into the boat, and he showed me. At the time it would come in and flow out. Actually the boat was under repair as we were sailing. Light was coming on and off. I didn’t realise 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 realised we had a problem and they warned that we were about to capsize. They asked for those who wanted to leave. 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 and left us to die.
But when it was getting too dark, I got worried. I always have my phone on me, so I switched on the torch to save my bag. I told Hope: “You realise we are going?” I just held my bag and got ready.
No sooner had I finished the phrase than the boat capsized. 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.
This time I did not panic. I held my breath for about 40 seconds or a minute and I was peddling under water. I have never dived, but I did what I saw my children do when they dive. I peddled and my head got out of the water. Maybe I was floating, I don’t know.
Around me in the dark, people were screaming, wailing and others repenting. 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 would just pull my jacket back on. I kept going forward.
And then the big waves started coming, I thought I was going to die, because they were somehow taking off my jacket. I felt my legs getting tired.
Eventually, a boat came. 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 died before getting onto the rescue boat. I later realised 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. 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. My legs froze and I felt like I weighed a tonne. 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 and I was told to shut up. 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!” 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…”
The other revellers on this Island were wailing. Others were 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 recognise me. My wig, shoes, make-up had all gone.
I went on to try and resuscitate others, but they were already dead.
I was asking around for Hope. 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…” Then he disappeared.
In retrospect, there were so many signs that this boat ride was not right. 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; the DJ telling us to balance the boat… Lives could have been saved if we took the signs more seriously.
This was a tragic and painful warning that safety is important. I am so grateful to God and everybody who saved my life.
I mourn those we lost. I pray that we learn from this and never allow such a thing to happen again.
This is a condensed version of Namubiru’s narration.