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Photo by TK

STORY AND PHOTOS BY NICOLE DREON

There’s good reason that Amina Tayona is the most popular girl in Bujagali Falls, a tiny fishing village in southeast Uganda where the White Nile once rumbled out of Lake Victoria. Everywhere the now 22-year-old safety kayaker goes, children from the Basoga tribe tag behind her, tugging at her arms and calling her out with of chants of “Amina, Amina, Amina.” In a country where the average woman gives birth to seven children and less than 10 percent of girls graduate from high school, female role models are far and few between. So when Tayona set out to master the Nile in a kayak six years ago, the river gods took notice.

The Dream: “I had a dream in 2005 when I was in primary school that I would be a kayaker,” says Amina, who’s now one of two Ugandan women to earn a living as a whitewater kayaker. “All the girls here are afraid of the river, but I said no, I will not be scared, I can do it.”

The Hard Knocks: Learning to even swim in Bujagali Falls is no easy task. “As a child my mother was doing the wash in the river and I slipped off the rocks and fell in,” Tayona says. “When I waved my arms and came up to the surface again, this is how I learned.” From there, a few tough swims out of the kayak in her favorite rapid, Silverback (now dammed), helped Tayona master Class V.

The Learning Curve: In less than six months, Tayona went from wet-exit to punching in the clock for Nalubale Rafting as a safety kayaker. “There are guys who travel across the world here to kayak, and are just blown away at what Tayona is running in such a short amount of time. It is just unheard of,” says Jamie Simpson, who instructs and mentors almost all of the local paddlers through his company, Kayak the Nile. “She really has a raw talent.”

The Nile Advantage: Honing your stroke on the Nile is like carving your first turns in the Chugach or catching your first wave at Pipeline. “Amina is paddling 30 kilometers of the world’s best river every day,” Simpson adds. “There is a huge gap between male and female kayakers right now, but someone like Amina, who is training on the big stuff, could close that gap.”

The Paycheck: Tayona makes $13 per trip, which is four times what the average villager makes in a day. “I am the one who is providing for the whole family at home because my mother is a farmer and my dad is having no job,” she says. “Everyone is saying, ‘You’re nuts to give your sister school fees,’ but my family still looks after me.”

This story first appeared in 2011 before the Bujagali Dam on the White Nile drowned many of the rapids Amina Tayona learned to paddle on. Now another dam, the Isimba Dam, could flood out the remainder of the river’s legendary paddling in Uganda.

IN THE NEWS: Support the Amina and the Ugandan team on Indiegogo.