On Sunday December 2, Prince Arnold Ssimbwa, one of the survivors of the November 24 fatal boat accident on Lake Victoria, turned up at Victory Christian Centre, where he gave his life to Christ and became a born-again Christian.
Before Pastor Joseph Sserwadda prayed for him and his wife, Ssimbwa shared in Luganda his harrowing testimony with the congregation. Carolyne Nakazibwe transcribed the testimony:
Praise God, brethren.
Where do I even start!
One thing I know is that Muzaana (his wife) has been telling me all the time, "give your life to Christ; get saved" and I won't lie, we had problems because of that.
See, out of the blue, she woke up one day and declared she was a born-again Christian. She did not prepare me, and I had to adjust to her new life. By default, in our bedroom we listen to Impact FM till morning. I knew the presenters, but not by face.
In June, we came here to dedicate our child. Last Saturday, I came back and everybody was sure I had died. Many of you have read about my escape. [When I came out of the water] I did not wait around. In fact, when I went to report to police, I told them, let me be your case study; I am not among the missing, I am not among the dead, I am nowhere.
I am not on the survivors list. Yet when I was leaving Mutima beach after the accident, I left with 10 other survivors who are not anywhere on the lists. If you are looking for the true numbers, start there. There are so many people like me who left their homes without telling anyone where we were going.
My wife returned home unaware of what had happened, but the maid had seen me leaving with my small bag. She had had a premonition the previous night, thinking 'uncle left with a bag. Where Prince Wasajja is, Ssimbwa is not far off. It is impossible for him not to have been on that boat.'
But she could not ask her boss about her suspicions that I was on the boat. I was on that boat - those who watched the viral video, I am the guy who was dancing on top of the boat. I can't lie to you, I was drunk. When I left my dancing post, I decided to take a power nap.
I found a bass beam and slept; it was booming music, but I slept on. But as I slept, water seeping into my shoes woke me up. I wondered whether I had wet myself and checked my clothes but I was dry. I looked out at the lake; on top of the boat being in bad shape, the lake was really, really choppy that night. Every few minutes, the waves would roll us this way, that way... The boat had stabilised a bit when the first big wave hit us.
The generator that sat on the roof of the boat was knocked into the lake with two speakers. That was our first warning. Now, unless you are a good swimmer, you may not know that the first thing you need to do in such crisis is to compose yourself.
Think about the worst-case scenario and what you would do. I looked at where we were coming from - direction Ggaba - and a very bad wave was headed for us.
I said, Lord, this is it. It was 8pm by then. We had been meant to depart Ggaba at 10am, but we left at 5:30pm. If other survivors speak out, they will tell you I told them that if the boat is not here by 3pm, let us not board. And the first man I met on shore told me, "You man, you were telling us not to go; how did you get onto that boat?" I told him, I don't know.
Now, by the time you see the wave with your naked eye, it means it is closer than it appears. I thought, should the boat capsize on this side, I will grab this rail. If it capsizes the other way, I will jump in and swim in the other direction, but I had no idea where that was. It was clear we were not more than 150m from the shore, but because of the state we were in, I reasoned that I could not swim beyond 50m without losing energy.
I said I would not attempt to swim. When the boat capsized, I held on as planned. There was a man who was clinging to my leg, but I thought, if I kick him, I will never forgive myself; I knew the water would eventually wash him away but I could not give him my hand. At that time it is all about you.
Eventually I felt him slip off and drown. All I was doing was praying, asking God for one more chance to put things right. I told Him, Lord help me; my children are young, I need to repent to my people. I maintained my grip on the boat and saw the first rescue boat approach.
Every time I went under and resurfaced, I would notice that the boat was sinking and my body was disappearing further under the water. The first time I resurfaced, I noticed there were many people in the water, screaming. The second time I came up, the noises were reducing.
The third time, I only saw bodies. People had been crying; saying 'my children!' And that is the problem; the breath they needed to survive, most of them were talking and crying. It can take only three minutes in water before one drowns. The first boat arrived and there was a scramble for it.
The thing is, it was a fishing boat and the man was on his way to fish. Now that net entangled even some people with life jackets and they died. I watched and decided to wait.
I was praying for one thing; for God to leave me with my breath and the grip on the boat. I ignored the second boat; it is the third boat that pulled up right to my side and I raised my hand and the man told me not to get in, but just cling to the boat. We were about 12 and we spread out around the boat to give it balance, then our rescuer used his oars to get us to shore.
What killed the people on the first boat is that they were all fighting to climb into the boat. Imagine getting to the shore and seeing the people you had been drinking with lined up, dead! By the way, if someone had done CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), most of them would have survived.
But they would drag you out of the water and dump you there. I am so thankful to God that He gave me another chance. I still have so much to do; my home is in disarray and we need to put things right with my wife. So much has been said, but I believe this is a good start.
SURVIVED MV TEMPLAR TWO WEEKS AGO
Arnold Ssimbwa's uncle, Prince David Wasajja sent him the message about the boat cruise organised by Freeman Kiyimba. It was the third boat cruise he was to attend organised by Kiyimba. This was perfect; Ssimbwa, 42, an events manager, saw the chance to socialise and network with potential clients.
For someone who had survived the same boat just two weeks earlier, Ssimbwa still cannot explain how he ended up on the same MV Templar and this time came that close to death.
"I had been on that boat on November 10 and expressed my reservations to the people I was with. I said that was the last time I was stepping on that boat," Ssimbwa told The Observer in an interview at Cariboo restaurant on Kampala road.
On November 10, he said, the boat was clearly in bad mechanical condition and spent two-and-half hours covering a journey that normally takes an hour. On the fateful Saturday November 24, Ssimbwa had taken a boda boda from the Luzira marina to get to KK beach on time, after he was told the vessel had been changed from MV Amani that departs from Luzira.
On getting to Ggaba, the party boat was nowhere to be seen. "We were told the boat was being painted, then they said it was undergoing some repairs..."
When the boat finally arrived, it was the dreaded MV Templar, but booze and group excitement had clouded his judgement and he boarded. When the boat finally set off, none of the happy people on board saw the disaster coming. And as death loomed from the dark waters, it was yet to sink in for most of them.
"Somebody even shouted, 'Titanic!' I think initially people thought it was a joke." But like the Titanic, what was meant to be a happy day ended in trauma and tears.
"Reaching the shores was the most scary moment of my life. I called for my uncle Wasajja until I saw him. He asked me, 'Nyanzi ali wa? (Where is Nyanzi?)' I will never forget that. John Bosco Nyanzi was his right-hand man. He drowned. He was adored in royal circles." Why Ssimbwa did not tell his wife where he was going? "She would not have been happy about it. But I know she prayed for my journey mercies. She always prays for me."
ON THE SOCIAL MEDIA BACKLASH
Wasajja and all the other men above 40 that were on the boat bore the brunt of a social media backlash afterwards, with many people trolling them for mingling with "kids". "For starters, who has the manual on who gets on a boat? I am 42. There were guys who were older than Uncle Wasajja on that boat. We are first human before we are royals. Soon they will tell us we can't go into any club. Thank God I won't be going to any club soon," he said.
"I have had grey hair all my life; it doesn't make me old. I would have taken all the blame if it were a Monday and I had gone on the boat cruise." What he is really worried about are Templar Bisase's three orphaned children and all his friends that perished on the boat. "Templar was growing weak. He looked weak and frail. He looked worried. He has been struggling with his kidneys. I suspect he tried to swim and failed."
When Ssimbwa got home, he remembers crying and praying. "The decision to get saved is one I took on my own. I know the first two or three months are going to be tough. I have been a party boy and all, but there is always a first time. I have a good team of pastors praying for me and counselling me," now in tears, Ssimbwa said.
"I am not out to prove anything to anyone. I have done it all, I have sinned...let people give me chance. I am thankful to be alive." For now, he is sure of one thing: no more boat cruises for him.