Six months ago we reported on Laura Cini’s documentary about Punishment Island and now it’s time to get to know one of the ladies from it. Maudah Kyitaragabiirwe, 81, was interviewed by Katharina Lahner and Davis Byamukama.
What was the purpose of Punishment Island?
If you were a girl and you got pregnant before marriage, you were sent to a remote island on Lake Bunyonyi to suffer and die there as punishment for your misbehaving. The island is really small, there is no drinking water or food.
Back then girls got married as early as eleven or twelve years old. It was very important for parents to receive bride price in form of cows, goats or land. If you broke the rule and got pregnant before marriage, you brought shame and loss of bride price to your family. It was a cultural rule followed by everyone around here. The punishment of your death was seen as equal to the loss of the bride price.
How old were you when you were sent to Punishment Island? Who brought you there and why?
I was 15 years old. I was not married because I wanted to wait. I had a hidden boyfriend and then got pregnant. My family abandoned me, and my brother brought me by canoe to Punishment Island. I tried to convince him not to do so, but he said they had to send me there because of my misbehaviour. Before they took me to the island, they beat me for so long and hard that my fetus died inside of me. During this punishment I also lost my left eye.
Did you know about this island and punishment beforehand?
Yes, I was aware of it. I know about 50 women who have been sent there. 20 of them survived because men picked them up while the rest died. Most of them committed suicide and drowned in the water. To learn how to swim was not common back then.
How long did you stay on Punishment Island? Did you think you were going to die?
I was there for four nights, and I thought I was going to die there. I was the last woman who was sent to the island as the government and Christian missionaries stopped this form of punishment.
Was there another girl on the island while you were there?
No, I was the only one.
Who saved you and why?
In the evening of the fourth night a fisherman came and rescued me. He picked me up with his canoe and saved my life. I was dancing in his canoe on the way back to the mainland because I was so happy. He picked me up because he wanted to have a wife. He was 18 years old and had not been married yet because his family was poor and couldn’t pay the bride price. It was very common back then to pick women up from Punishment Island to get a wife for free.
How has your life been since?
I have had a good life, I stayed with the fisherman and his family. We got married immediately after he picked me up. I did farming, digging and produced handcrafts for the family. The family was happy about my arrival but the neighbours and community around weren’t. It was a shame to pick someone up from the Punishment Island.
Nowadays many people don’t know about my history but the people who know sometimes remind my grandchildren to make them angry. Yet my children don’t mind. They are happy about me being alive because I brought them to life. My husband passed away in 2001; we were together until then and had six children, three boys and three girls.
Have you ever seen your family since your return from Punishment Island? Did you forgive your brother who sent you to the island?
No, I have never seen my family again. After you get abandoned you are not allowed to return and live with your family again. But you are allowed to greet them if you see them somewhere. Because of Jesus Christ I survived and became born again. So I forgave them.
Do you regret your “misbehaving”?
Yes, I do. I did something wrong to the community.
What do you think about the punishment, would you have done the same to your daughter?
No, I would never have done that. It happened to me, and I know how it feels.
Was there also a punishment for boys who caused the pregnancy?
No, there was no punishment for them. Boys have been seen as the “kings” of the family, so no way of punishing them. There were no equal rights in the family back then.
If a girl got raped and became pregnant, did they also send her to Punishment Island?
If she told her family, the family went to the boy’s family and negotiated about marrying the girl and paying the bride price. They would force him to marry. That was not an uncommon scenario.
Has it been hard being asked all these questions?
It is hard to remember the time. I can talk about it but remembering the suffering and the beating is not good. Then again it is good to share my story with other people.
What do you think about local guides telling the story of Punishment Island to tourists?
I feel unhappy because it reminds me of my experience. But since my grandson is also a tour guide and brings tourists to our place to hear my story there has also been a positive affect: we are getting an extra income.
How do you compare the old times and the situation today?
These days people have the chance to get educated. I see a big difference in my grandson’s generation. You get married from 18 years on now and you can decide for yourself. I’m happy about this development.
My siblings never went to school. My father passed away when I was a baby and that’s why we didn’t have enough money for school. If I would have had the choice, I would have liked to become a teacher.