Thursday April 24 2014

Treat Uganda Museum like the national treasure it is

By Karoli Ssemogerere

City dwellers still have a few moments of non-commercial entertainment left in Kampala. One of these is the Uganda Museum, a couple of minutes from the entrance to Mulago Hospital. Both Mulago and the museum share birthdays. The new Mulago Complex and the Uganda Museum opened their doors to the public in October, 1962. The museum is also the official address of the aptly named Department of Museums and Monuments in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities.

For many years, parts of the museum – depending on whom you talk to - were closed for various reasons. There was a time when the equivalent of the Africana section was closed off to the public. This is where bone fossils of animal life dug up by archeologists are kept. The section also has mounted skeletal fossils donated by Gailey & Roberts, the Muljibhai Madhvani Foundation and reptile mounting by the now deceased Sebastian Nsubuga, a lab technician who served for nearly 60 years at St Mary’s College Kisubi.
In exchanges on social media, one of my schoolmates wrote that this part of the museum was closed off because of the prominent encrusted star that marked the date of the opening of the museum by Dr Apollo Milton Obote, Uganda’s first post-independence Prime Minister. The star bears his name and official opening date: October 8, 1962.

For a public enterprise, the museum is dilapidated but still in good shape. There is also some element of thoughtfulness. Visitors expecting elaborate views of traditional regalia, including the royal drums of Ankole Bagyendanwa, which are still in the custody of the Central Government, are likely to be disappointed. Most of these regalia were returned to traditional rulers in 1962. The recreation of the Ganda god of war - Kibuuka - and its royal drums, which are now by law part of the national inventory, is one of the few original items at the museum.

The museum also has recent generous donors. The 1996 Olympics 400 Meters bronze medalist Davis Kamoga donated his bronze medal. Neither of the two gold medals has made it here - Idi Amin impounded Dennis Akii Bua’s gold from the 1972 Olympics 400 meter hurdles and it’s too early to tell where the 2012 winner will donate his. The Germans who heard of this were saddened and quickly contributed secretly to send him a copy of the Olympics medal.

The museum is a fairly straight forward narrative of the pre-colonial era and colonial days. The geological and human history is well represented in a thoughtful manner, mixing aspects of life with natural occurrences. On paper, the ministry is caretaker of more than 300 sites in Uganda but with hardly enough resources to do so. Some have new benefactors with little or no connection with their past, like KCCA’s recreation of Clock Tower and attempts to spruce up some of the monuments in the city.

President Museveni has also made his contribution. He donated two of the presidential cars that carried him in the first years of his presidency - a G-Wagon and Mercedes Sedan. Only Obote (and until President Museveni purchased a Pullman) was conveyed in a bullet proof car. One of Uganda’s first cars, a Model T Ford donated by the Uganda Company, an industrial conglomerate of sorts in early Uganda, is also on display.

Recent history has found its way into the museum. There is a Bujagali exhibit and in the next several months, the Oil and Gas exhibit marking the entry of Uganda into the fossil fuel era will be open to the public. Most of the artifacts are encased and protected from direct sunlight. Wood, which is quite resilient, dominated early Uganda. We owe it to the Alur for the first executioner’s life. The banana plantain is tied with the arrival of Kintu from Mt. Elgon.

Political historians are likely to spend a lot of time on the map of Uganda. Most history books record the West Nile exchange in 1914, Kigezi in 1911 and Western Kenya in 1926, glossing over the actual reasons for these monumental territorial adjustments that shaped modern Uganda. In northern Uganda, Acholiland was split after the Lamogi rebellion. The British were also quick to cut a sliver off of northern Karamoja to keep at bay one of the fiercest tribes in this area, probably the Dodoth. The British classified the Nandi and Maasai as hostile tribes and accordingly preferred to administer them together. Mt Rwenzori and Mt Elgon were shared between the Congo and Kenya respectively because they provided natural borders while West Nile came to Uganda to secure the waters of the Nile.

Inside the museum, one gets an insight into how profoundly dinner tables in Uganda have changed in the last 50 years. As communities progressed aided by iron tools and implements, so did their sophistication grow, stemming from more time to prepare meals and need to store food. Northern Uganda still has traditional granaries but they have disappeared in most of the other parts of the country. Pottery as an art has disappeared as have recreational games played after meals.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.