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May 24, 2024



Tommy Hatwell heads out to the small village of Bujagali alongside the river Nile in Uganda on a mission to deliver a life changing project and tell the story through his amazing pictures.

Words and photos: Tommy Hatwell


Seven of us are sprawled out in various shapes across all surfaces of the coffee shop in Heathrow’s Terminal 2. With the darkness and chills of early November safely outside we have seven trolleys, fourteen bags, two paddle boards, one paddle bag and a kayak. It’s 9pm and our flight departs at 6am… Joe, Nick and Angus are the youngest members of the group and use their energy wisely, whizzing around on trolleys, running the wrong way up the escalators and generally entertaining whoever is working the CCTV night shift. Ross is already fast asleep on the floor under a table, Chris is listening to music and Steve is dreaming about the one that got away. I’m Tommy, sitting here sipping hot chocolate, and this is all my fault.

Just before the airport begins to come alive, we are up and strolling towards the check-in desk. One by one all 14 bags are tagged and swallowed into the system. My camera bag outweighs a small hippo, but sneaks through as hand luggage, the kayak, paddles, and paddle boards slide gently down the oversized luggage belt and we are free. While we make our way through security, have breakfast and dribble snooze our way through movies, games and plane food for the next thirteen hours let me take a minute to explain why…


Since 2008 I have been traveling to Uganda, primarily following my passion for kayaking and adventure travel along with their naturally evolving relationship with photography. Over the years the camera has become a much larger part of my life, work and travels, so much so that in 2018 I set up, Think People Think Story. A small but mighty organisation using photography as a foundation to creatively inspire and deliver life-changing projects in communities around the world that have welcomed me along the way. The team joined this journey for the first time. Over the next 31 days together we will be immersing ourselves in Ugandan life, meeting wonderful humans, and dropping into a world-class river in various ways all whilst delivering some exciting community projects as team Think People Think Story.


Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa, home to the largest lake in Africa and the largest tropical lake in the world, Lake Victoria. As it drains from its northern shores The White Nile is born, a section of the longest river in the world, and home to warm water, powerful rapids, incredible humans and no crocodiles… most of the time at least. In the last decade, two significant dam projects have been completed on this section and the impact on the river, its community and tourism has been profound. In addition to the world shutting down in 2020 the adventure capital of East Africa has taken a beating. BUT… the people adapted, the river keeps flowing, and tourism is returning.


Touching down in Uganda is a beautiful moment, passports stamped, all bags, boards and boats accounted for we push through the sliding doors to be greeted by the warm African night, and high fives from David, Morris and Ambrose the core Ugandan team, who will be guiding and supporting us during the trip. After a few days of acclimatising in Kampala, we arrived at Bujagali Village where the team paired off to settle in with their host families. Bujagali is the gateway to the water, everything here revolves around it, from fishing to tourism, and people from around the world travel to enjoy the journey along the warm waters of the White Nile.


Paddle boarding is not a new activity to Bujagali, with a kayak school based inside a local campsite they are available for visitors to hire out. The flat water provides an easier, more relaxed way to explore the water, especially if you don’t want to take on the grade 5 rapids downstream. With access to the water just a few minutes away from our front door it’s hard to beat. It didn’t take long for the first mission to the water to come around, we weren’t short of kids offering to pump up the boards and attempt to carry them for us. Our first stop along the river is Bujagali Lake – above the dam is the most accessible place to paddle board. The lake is flat with a gentle, yet powerful flow. Paddling across and upstream is a very good workout or you can sneak along the edge taking in the nature, navigate around the islands or simply just go with the flow. The kids loved getting out on the paddle boards, and before we knew it the board was already halfway across the lake loaded with Ashimu and his friend Shakul, who were natural water babies.


Loading up the wagon with kayaks and boards for a trip below the dam takes the team on a mission to a section where the river is wide, waves are minimal, but the water moves steadily with the power and grace of the longest river in the world. We spent the evening falling in, swimming around and just having a lot of fun. More often than not, the adventure to get to the river is just as memorable, with Nick and I sliding around on George’s bike whilst navigating the huge potholes and oncoming vehicles.


As we continue further downriver in the small village of Bubugo you will find the Banana Kayak School, set up by kayakers from Europe to support the local community, it is now led by the local legend Bosco, who coaches kids in water safety and all aspects of learning to kayak, with the hopes that the kids will have the skills to work as guides for the local rafting companies someday. We arranged a day to join them in training, we took the paddle boards and some smaller body boards and kayaks for the team to enjoy. A few of the more confident students took the paddle boards straight across to a wave called ‘Super Hole’, whilst the youngsters stayed closer to shore surfing and swimming in the smaller rapids.

Super hole is a 50ft wide wave in the middle of the river, It’s easy to access in a kayak, but not that easy on a paddle board, that being said, some humans rose to the challenge. The power of the water is immense, and just paddling up to the wave is a mission. If you manage to compose yourself in the eddy behind the main rock you’re doing extremely well, but to get the power required to cut up into the flow then across a small green section of water and over to the main wave is seriously challenging. Moses, Koa and many of the youngsters from Bubugo Kayak School carried the boards through and above the island next to the wave, then paddled across the flow to drop down into the main wave, with minimal success, but a lot of fun was had in simply trying.


After another hour floating down river, you reach Itunda, one of the biggest rapids on the river, at grade 5+ and 400+ metres long It is a monster. We were smartly getting on the river in the large eddy below the main rapids and making our way to a much smaller section called Itunda Hole, the wave itself is a little tight for a paddle board, but the lighter rapids are excellent for an afternoon of fun on the water. Whilst the kayakers surfed the waves and paddle boarders were attempting to get amongst it, some students from Kampala came along and tried out the boards on the flat water. The beautiful thing about Uganda is how friendly and inquisitive everyone is and we were more than happy to fit a buoyancy aid and let them have a go.


Whilst the river flowed, we still had work to do, by far our biggest project to deliver was The Sleepwell Project. This year was the second project, and after supporting 60 families with new mattresses bedsheets and blankets in 2020, we were set to deliver to 123 more families across two communities. The Sleepwell Project quite simply aims to improve the sleep of families and children in Uganda by providing them with brand new healthy foam mattresses to replace their old dusty unsafe ones. With support from people around the world, we spent four days across two locations delivering the gift of healthier, happier sleeps to families in Uganda.


As we make our way back up to the lake we meet Timo, a local yoga instructor, most mornings he can be found on the platform stretching away with guests overlooking the lake as monkeys jump through the trees above them. We made a plan to collaborate and create some new photos for his business. Late afternoon we made our way out onto the lake towards the calmer waters behind the islands. While Timo was working on his balance, I got creative with the camera. As the famous Bujagali sun set beyond the horizon, we paddled back across the river, clambered up the steps and took some well earned sodas in the campsite bar overlooking the river.


Uganda is one of the most amazing places to experience. Above all, the incredible people we met along the way continue to inspire us. The water once again cooled us down and fired us up with the gift of both calm and chaotic adventures. The paddle boards supported by Hatha remain in Uganda as our teammate Moses begins his small guiding business – Nile River Paddle Boarding. The buoyancy aids and kit supported by Nookie were left with the team at Bubugo Kayak School.

As a team, we delivered many more projects and had plenty more adventures, but those are for another time. The impact trips like this have on everyone is profound, but not always obvious in the moment, it is only when we look back at the journey that we can really feel it and reflect on the changes within ourselves. The camera has always been a tool for telling stories, the more people we can bring into the story, the more impact the images and the trips will continue to have. If you would like to learn more about the adventure and our projects we will meet you @ www.thinkpeoplethinkstory.com.

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