Coming to Peace with the Fate of Uganda’s White Nile

Photo: Quinton Kennedy

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I had never been to Africa when Dr. Jessie Stone invited me to visit her at the White Nile in November 2018. Stone, a longtime member of the US Freestyle Kayak Team, is also the founder of Soft Power Health, a nonprofit that promotes malaria prevention, family planning, and good nutrition in the local communities of Uganda’s Jinja District. The Chinese had just finished another behemoth hydro project in Uganda, occluding for the second time in under a decade this massive tributary to the Nile proper. (The other, larger Nile tributary, Ethiopia’s Blue Nile, is set to be dammed within the year.)

Large hydro firms—many of them Chinese—are building monumental dams on important rivers all around the developing world, altering watersheds and displacing entire communities in the name of “affordable” electricity. Often, though, as is the case in Uganda, this electricity is still beyond the reach of the people who need it most. The firms sell the power to interests outside of the dam-affected area, leaving the displaced or disenfranchised without access to power, and yet the dam changes their river forever.

Construction of the Isimba Dam, Photo: Eli Reichman

I am always curious about how to reconcile the tragedy of stagnated rivers with the equally tragic and ever-increasing global need for energy. We know the ecological, economic, and emotional effects of dams, but we also know that we cannot expect nations striving for infrastructural stability to stop developing their resources. The questions surrounding hydro development are big and harrowing.

And so, for this piece, I asked a few influential and inspirational characters from North America’s whitewater community about their first and final experiences on the White Nile, their stories of and ties to this singular river. This is something of a retrospective—a collection of memories, a tribute, a reflective celebration of the newly redirected power of one of the greatest rivers on Earth.

In 1999 Brad Ludden—pro kayaker and founder of First Descents—should have been in his senior year of high school. Instead, he was on the Zambezi, paddling with his hero Steve Fisher. He was on an “unstructured, unendorsed, and certainly unsponsored” trip around the world. In Zambia, Ludden met English kayaking legend Alex Nicks, who invited him to what was, at that point, the wilderness of East Africa: the White Nile.

Rumors soared around the less-than-safe region of the Nile, which only served to animate the excitable and overzealous 18-year-old Ludden even more. Just 20 years after the fall of the famously brutal Idi Amin regime, reports of violence, much of it purportedly directed toward outsiders, were still prevalent. “We just knew there was whitewater,” Ludden says. And after gathering $800 and saying goodbye to the Zambezi, he and Nicks set out for Uganda to explore the source of the Nile.

Photo: Seth Ashworth

“When we got there, there were no other kayakers, no infrastructure, just a really raw, epic river. The rapids were ten times bigger than anything we’d seen. But the river was unbelievable, unreal. The whole thing was such a grand adventure.”

“As a paddler,” Ludden says, “it was everything to me. When you harnessed the White Nile, when you worked with it, found the right surge to go to the right place, you felt a sense of superhuman-like power. And conversely, when you didn’t, you felt so insignificant. For me, it not only created my sense of humility, but it also made me realize my true passion for kayaking—playing in the face of such greatness. Finding ways to express yourself artistically, as an athlete, in the face of true power. For me that was it. I felt at home. I’d found what for me as an athlete was my calling. The Nile showed me that.”

Eric Jackson went to the White Nile for the first time in 2003 with Clay Wright, Stephen Wright, Jay Kincaid, Chris Emerick, and Jessie Stone. Jackson got sick with malaria on that trip, and this became the event that catalyzed Stone’s commitment to Uganda and her obsession with malaria prevention.

Jackson remembers his early days at the Nile. “The river was an amazing place, with two distinct sections, and shuttles by boda boda [Ugandan motorbikes], locals that were very down to earth and friendly.” Jackson talks about his time on the fabled Hairy Lemon Island, near Nile Special rapid: “It was an island with no running water or electricity, other than solar: off the grid. We spent as much as six weeks at a time there, training, living, and family time. It brought me closer to my kids, and my wife, Kristine, also enjoyed the downtime of this experience.” He also attributes his world championship victories in large part to his dedicated training on the Nile.

Eric Jackson was in Uganda, with his family and Jessie Stone, when the gates were shut on Isimba Dam. He was there for the final flooding. Jackson says he will not return to the Nile unless it is to celebrate her liberation, to witness the decommissioning of the dams.

Speaking to the Nile, he left Uganda with these words: “Less than 1% of the world’s freshwater is free-flowing now. You are now beaten into submission by greed and are part of the 99%. I am sorry to lose you, and sorry you must live out the next 100 years with your power bridled, exploited, and exported. I was there the day you lost half of your life, and was there the day they took the rest. You will outlive me, you will outlive the dams, you will rise again, the artery that is clogged with silt and junk will be washed out and I hope my ancestors will ride your waves of glory once again.”

Nile Special, post-flood.

Adriene Levknecht, who has won North Carolina’s Green Race a record ten times, and whose First Descents nickname is, fittingly, Quickie, first saw the Nile in 2004 as a student with World Class Kayak Academy.

Eleven years passed before Levknecht went back to the Nile. “I was a much different paddler when I returned and I was training for the 2015 Worlds. In those six weeks I spent on the Hairy Lemon, I learned a lot about myself,” she says. “I also opened myself up to building new friendships and growing as an independent woman.”

She went back one more time, in 2017, for a final six weeks, and for her last round of magical sunset surf sessions on Nile Special wave. “One day, on the Hairy Lemon, we figured out we had 16 different countries living on the island together. All of us there for one reason: Nile Special is a mere 10-minute paddle away. What every kayaker came away with, after surfing or being around Nile Special, was a huge smile and a profound love for not only the river but the community that surrounded the wave.”

Adriene Levknecht surfing the Nile, Photo: Tom Hatwell

The loss of Nile Special saddens Levknecht, but she recognizes the power of organization and a common voice in the fight to keep dams off of rivers. “All we can do is try to stay positive on the little wins we get. The Ecuador kayaking community has done a great job at finding ways to nix dam projects, and American Whitewater is actively working toward removing dams in the U.S. every year.”

And looking forward, Adriene says, “The future of the Nile looks positive because we have people like Sam and Emily Ward who are out there keeping the stoke high and getting kayakers to keep coming back. They have found new waves, post-flood, that didn’t exist before. The river run still has loads of good surf waves. I made so many friends there, it is warm, the water is huge and mostly forgiving. Those things will keep me going back.”

Kalob Grady first visited the Nile in 2011, as a 16-year-old traveling with the New River Academy. Since then he has made seven pilgrimages to Uganda to kayak and, ultimately, to co-organize UNLEASHED, the sport’s definitive extreme big-water competition.

Grady acknowledges the White Nile’s capacity as a teacher. “The Nile taught me it was okay to make mistakes, to learn from these faults and to move forward with the experience under my belt. From kayaking, to teaching, to organizing international events, I keep this lesson close every day, and thank the Nile for her wisdom.”

When Grady speaks about Itanda Falls—the magnificent place to which river spirits from the submerged rapids at Bujagali Falls have been relocated—he indicates that his entire Nile experience begins and ends with this rapid.

2017 UNLEASHED, photo: Seth Ashworth

“On my final day in Uganda in 2011, a fellow student and I were given the opportunity to run Itanda rapid. [Riding on the backs of boda bodas], gripping our paddles and kayaks, red dust flying past, waving to countless children along the side of the road…taking a full scout of the rapid, top to bottom and bottom to top, gave me time to process how big this rapid was.

Finally, establishing the line was open and determining we had the necessary skills for a successful descent, we dropped in and came out the bottom a moment later with the biggest grin you ever did see. Remembering that day, and all it entailed will be with me forever for a multitude of reasons, some that can be shared, and others will be kept within.”

In the winter of 2018, Grady and the UNLEASHED crew hosted a stage of the competition on Itanda’s massive waves, which to Grady felt like a fitting way to bring his relationship with Itanda almost full circle.

Photo: Quinton Kennedy

Emily Jackson was just a little girl competing on the women’s pro tour the first time she saw the Nile, in 2005. “I was winning a bunch of the prize money and the ladies got really upset, like, What’s a 13-year-old gonna do with that money? And I was like, I’m donating it!”

Emily thought of her “Aunt” Jessie and wondered, as Jessie did, “How are the locals dealing with [the prevalence of malaria] when [foreign] kayakers come and they get so sick?” She kept competing and winning more prize money, and eventually, Emily began using the tour as a fundraising platform. Once she’d garnered $25,000, she decided it was time to see how far that money could go.

$5000 went to pay the salary of a local doctor. The rest of Emily’s money went toward rebuilding a school and helping to open the Soft Power Health clinic. “I was then dedicated to going back whenever I could. People always think you need a lot to give back, but a little goes a long way in Uganda.”

In 2018, thirteen years after she first experienced the Nile, Emily had her final day on Nile Special. She’d paid to change her plane ticket to get to Uganda one day sooner than planned, not knowing exactly when the flooding from Isimba would begin. She got there just in time. “I got hours of fantastic rides. I pulled every trick I wanted to do as if I’d been there the day before, even though it had been two years. The next day we came back, with Dane [my brother], and it was gone. It was very fateful, that day of surfing, that perfect session, and I’m very grateful for it.”

On their last day in Uganda in fall of 2018, the Jackson family went with Sam Ward to the place where the Hairy Lemon Island was now buried beneath meters of stagnated water. They’d heard of some monkeys stranded on the treetops of the freshly submerged island.

At first, they didn’t see any monkeys—only floating vegetation covered in desperate insects. Then, as Emily took one last photo, she noticed two monkeys—a mother and baby—in the corner of the camera screen. With bare hands, Emily pulled the monkeys from the water. “I put her down in my lap, and in that moment, she looked at me and just rested. I cried right then.”

Emily says she will go back to the Nile, as she wants her own children to experience the power, gratitude, and fullness that Uganda has taught her. The Nile guided Emily’s first experiences with giving back, with doing good and reaching past the immediate to affect positive change in communities beyond her own. When she rescued those monkeys, she says, it came full-circle. It felt “like I got to say goodbye.”

Darby McAdams’ first and only trip to the Nile was in the winter of 2017. The Nile has offered so many focused athletes the beauty of perfect routine: kayak, eat, sleep, repeat. For McAdams, it was no different. “In the morning, you could walk to the shore of the Island and watch the whole world wake up around you. It was everything from the yellow and pink haze of this iconic African sun coming up, to silhouetted fishermen out on their long canoes, flocks of thousands of birds flying up the river, monkeys swinging in the trees overhead.”

Her time on the Nile provided McAdams with perspective. “It made me realize how fortunate we are in the U.S. to have a voice. It might not always feel like it, but we can be heard much louder than a lot of people on this planet. My general consensus was that most people living near the Nile opposed the Isimba dam but there wasn’t a damned thing they could do to stop it.”

McAdams acknowledges the challenge of balancing the energy needs of a growing human population with the preservation of healthy riverine ecosystems. She does not, however, subscribe to the notion that all hydro is bad, citing small-scale projects as potentially eco-friendly. “It’s when it comes to large scale projects that dams have huge environmental impacts: devastating fish migrations, flooding cherished whitewater and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions via large reservoirs.” When it comes to the role of the kayaking community in the conservation discussion, McAdams says, “I actually do think we have a strong voice as kayakers, and there is power in numbers.”

McAdams was struck by the overwhelming generosity, kindness, and levity in the villages. “I would attribute that to having the energy and spiritual benefits of the river nearby. After all, isn’t that the same energy that attracts us, as kayakers, to rivers? I could certainly feel a connection with those communities. They were river people, too.”

The Hairy Lemon, Photo: Jessie Stone

Over breakfast, my last morning in Uganda, I ask Jessie about the future. “As long as I can paddle and the work I do is still meaningful and fun, I will keep coming back to the Nile,” she said. “The river has changed, but change is inevitable in life. What’s important is how you can adapt to that change and keep your heart and mind open.”

“It’s impossible to make sense of hydro dams, in a world where solar is such a viable option. In the developed world, we are finally removing dams and letting rivers go back to their natural states, and in the developing world, dams are still getting built like crazy.” For Stone, who fought hard as anyone to bring global awareness to Isimba’s threat to the White Nile, the most crucial next step is adaptation.

Photo: Seth Ashworth

Stone still paddles the Nile every day when she’s in Uganda. For her, the river is still alive, still vital to the communities she works with and cares deeply for. The Nile, she says, “is not dead for me—it’s changed. It’s not what it was on my first trip down, but neither am I the person, or the paddler I was then.”

And, to be sure, you should go kayaking in Uganda. Though Nile Special is gone, Itanda Falls, the Dead Dutchman, and several other spectacular rapids remain untouched post-flood, and there is still plenty to paddle, plenty to learn. The Nile, now and always, has a lot to teach us.

Editor’s Note: Learn more at World Bank Inspection PanelSave the White NileKayak the NileNile River Explorers, and read “A Displaced Spirit” by Chandra Brown.