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Friday March 16th is a cloudy, cool morning. The weather looked overcast, but nothing like the day before when 10 hours of nonstop rain pounded the Ugandan red clay landscape. I had a small river flowing right down to my banda and wasn’t sure I would make it back home. That much rain anywhere else in the world would mean high flows and flooding rivers, but not on the Nile. The sheer volume of the Nile is not impacted by rain even very heavy and prolonged rain fall. The CFS heading down stream from the Nile’s source in Jinja, Uganda are only impacted by how much power is being demanded from the hydro electric turbines on a given day. The Nile is the most precious resource that land locked Uganda has. As Africa’s main artery, it impacts the survival of millions of people over its 4,253 mile course. Uganda has been providing hydro power to its neighbors since the first dam was built at Owen Falls in the 1950`s, but the Nile’s flow also concerns its northern neighbors of Sudan and Egypt as well since all the agriculture in those northern countries relies on the Nile.

On this particular morning, the entire staff of Soft Power Health are gathering at Nile River Explorers campsite for breakfast before heading across the river to put in below Kalagala Falls for a rafting trip that will end at the Hairy Lemon Island. I am kayaking along with Dr. Burgess Norgaard, a visiting family practice doctor and paddler who is volunteering with Soft Power Health. After being inspired by EJ`s encounter with malaria during our first visit to the Nile in 2003, I founded Soft Power Health, a healthcare non-profit a year later, and I have run it ever since. This rafting trip is a big event for a number of reasons. First, its our staff Christmas party and yes, its now March, so we are seriously running on Ugandan time to make this happen, but better late than never! Second, this year is the last opportunity we will have to paddle the Nile in its natural and wild state through this section unimpeded by dams. The ongoing construction of Isimba dam, 15 kilometers downstream from Kalagala and Itanda Falls, will be completed by the end of 2018. Very unfortunately, the formerly protected Kalagala Offset Area will be flooded and this biologically diverse and unique section of the Nile will be under water for the foreseeable future!

The third and perhaps most important reason that this trip is happening despite some serious trepidation by most Soft Power Health staff, is that very few of our 70 person Soft Power Health Family have ever been down the Nile before! Soft Power Health employs an all Ugandan staff except for our country manager who is Irish. All our doctors, nurses, lab technicians, drivers, local educators, social workers, DIG gardening team, cooks, cleaners and maintenance people are Ugandan. Most Ugandans do not swim – this is true for 95% of our staff – and are afraid of water. The cost of going rafting is far out of reach for the vast majority of local people – including our staff. For all of these reasons, most Ugandans have no idea what they are about to lose in the coming months with Isimba dam’s completion – our staff included.

I have always found it a strange contradiction that the very people who the Nile belongs too, if it belongs to anyone, have the least idea of how amazing the river is and have a very limited ability to find out!! Rafting and kayaking are for the most part available to foreign visitors who can afford these activities. Though there are local safety kayakers, kayak instructors, and raft guides, they are in small minority compared to the rest of the population. Since the dam’s construction marches on daily, time is running out for the possibility of getting more local people like our Soft Power Health staff to see and experience the river first hand.

As the day progresses, the initial trepidation by our Soft Power family of getting into the rafts and doing the needed safety drills – which include swimming, rescuing each other from the raft, and even flip drills – has given way to excitement and pure thrill of riding through the rapids! After the first waves of Vengeance crash over the line of 7 rafts, shouts of joy and exuberance can be heard. Once through Hair of the Dog and Kula Shaker, people begin to jump out of the rafts and float in the large pool below.

Even some of the most frightened are smiling and enjoying their surroundings saying they had no idea the river was like this. All are beginning to understand what has drawn so many of us back for the last 15 years to this magic river. The final rapid, Nile Special, delivers its special embrace to all. Elated choruses of rafters making it right side up through the rapid echo up and down the river. Once on shore at the Hairy Lemon, the big grins and nearly speechless crews apart from, “Aah – Hah!“ are all that needs to be said. 70 Ugandans who never imagine they would see and experience the Nile first hand are learning why so many of us have loved the Nile for years! They have a new perspective on their “home“ river and a window into an world they would never otherwise see! If I had to guess, I think they have all become converts to the Nile!