They are some of the most celebrated words of praise said of any nation; it is one pride-inducing utterance that generations of Ugandans have worked hard to live up to. It is one we are particularly happy to invoke as we mark 50 years of independence.
So what exactly did Winston Churchill say when he referred to Uganda as ‘the Pearl of Africa’, and what is the wider context in which he made his prophetic proclamation?
We often refer to ‘British Prime Minister’ Churchill coming to Uganda to issue forth his pronouncement. Well, in 1907 when he made the arduous journey from Mombasa, he was just a young Member of Parliament who had just been appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.
He wanted to see this colony… well, protectorate, called Uganda, and had not yet been knighted and, therefore, was not yet called Sir Winston. He would not become Britain’s Prime Minister until 1940, some 33 years ahead, in the middle of the Second World War. When he came to Uganda, not even the First World War had broken out.
At the relatively youthful age of 33, he came, he saw, and he named. He used just about every means of transport possible – by ship from England to Mombasa, then train from Mombasa to Kisumu (the Uganda Railway had reached there in 1901), then steamer/steam boat from Kisumu to Entebbe, a carriage to Kampala, then another steamer from Munyonyo to Jinja. He went by foot to the Nile Rapids, took a canoe to Lake Kyoga, from where he proceeded by bicycle to Masindi, then down the Murchison, and eventually on to Sudan by boat.
(One story says one day while walking, his party came across safari ants – ensanafu – in their collective might. Inquiring what this phenomenon was, Churchill was duly informed, and he proceeded to test the insects’ much vaunted collaborative action by planting his walking stick firmly in their midst. Within seconds, the ferocious ants had climbed up the stick and, his sergeant major barely holding back laughter, the great Englishman quickly abandoned stick and fled from the spot before the fighter ants would inflict any stinging terror).
Which is this Sudan Churchill headed into, and through which places did he pass? By 1907, Uganda was a much larger entity than we know it today. West Nile was part of the Lado Enclave, which was subsequently transferred to Sudan in 1910, before the West Nile bit was given back to Uganda in 1914. A huge swathe of territory in Torit (in present day South Sudan), twice as wide as Buganda, stretching all the way from the east of Juba and the entire east of the Nile to the Ethiopia border was part of Uganda.
Juba itself was in Uganda as part of the Lado Enclave. So was the northern part of Turkana, up to midway Lake Rudolph (Lake Turkana), which was only given to Kenya in 1926.
The entire Lake Albert and a strip of territory on the other side of the lake was in Uganda (part of Bunyoro), and was only transferred to Congo by the 1910 Brussels Convention. To the deep south-west, most of Kigezi, Kasese and all of Lake Edward were in Congo, only transferred to Uganda in the same treaty, whose agreement was not signed till 1915.
The people east of Kabale – in places like Maziba and Kikagati – were in German East Africa (Tanganyika), only joining Uganda in 1910.
Some of this information is contained in a publication, Understand Uganda’, that Daily Monitor is publishing for the Independence Jubilee season, and whose spine has formed the foundation for a series of public lectures on Uganda’s past that your columnist is conducting this week.
Churchill is one of the big personalities in Uganda’s past, and these were the prophetic words he pronounced over 100 years ago:
“The kingdom of Uganda is a fairy-tale. You climb up … and at the end there is a wonderful new world. The scenery is different, the vegetation is different, the climate is different, and, most of all, the people are different from anything elsewhere to be seen in the whole range of Africa ... I say: ‘Concentrate on Uganda’. For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life - bird, insect, reptile, beast - for vast scale -- Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.”
(Mr Sseppuuya is holding public lectures on ‘Uganda through History’, courtesy of Worship Harvest Ministries, at Kati Kati Restaurant, Kampala. 1-4 October, 5.30pm-8.00pm daily. Free entry).