During our recent holidays, my wife and I, in the mood to thoroughly revisit her home area of Nkore and neighbouring kingdoms, made the decision to set up camp at a place called Biharwe, exactly 12 kilometres east of Mburara [now Mbarara]. We were familiar with the place. The roadside food market and Igongo Cultural Centre had become mandatory stops, however late it was on our journey.
Igongo’s garden restaurant had always met our exacting standards. Its clean and odourless public washrooms were the perfect answer for those, like me, with a hypersensitive sense of smell. Biharwe was significant for another reason. It was the place where the fortunes of two ancient kingdoms were decided 20 generations ago.
In the very early years of the 16th Century, Omukama Olimi I Rukidi Rwitamahanga Omwitabyaro wa Kalimbi of Bunyoro-Kitara declared war against his neighbours. True to his name – “Olimi, the Scourge of Nations” – personally led his forces against Buganda in an effort to restore that kingdom to Kitara. Olimi defeated the Baganda, killing Kabaka Nakibinge Kagali during the battle of Mulago.
However, according to Bunyoro historian JW Nyakatura, Olimi’s ministers successfully advised him to leave Buganda alone, fearful that a disastrous curse might befall him.
The restless king then invaded Nkore, routed the forces of Omugabe Ntare I Nyabugaro Bwera, captured the royal capital at Kakukuuru and set up shop. He then dropped in on Umwami Ruganzu II Ndori, the great warrior king of Rwanda, robbed him of cattle, women, children and other valuables, before repairing to Biharwe, Nkore, now under his rule.
What finally dislodged the Banyoro from Biharwe and Nkore were not the weapons of the Banyankore, but a spectacular occurrence that terrified Omukama Olimi I and sent him and his men fleeing fast, leaving behind all their loot, including women and cattle.
“As soon as the push back against the Banyoro began,” Nkore historians Alozio G Kataate and Lazaaro Kamugungunu wrote in 1955, “the Sun fell from the sky, threw itself into Lake Mutukura and caused total darkness to engulf the whole world.”
One imagines the King of Bunyoro and his men in full flight, convinced that either Nkore or Rwanda had mobilised their best magicians to cause such shock and awe at Biharwe.
To restore celestial order, Omugabe of Nkore presented sacrifices of a cow and a sheep to God. Then “the Sun lifted itself and returned to its position in the sky,” Kataate and Kamugungunu recorded with evident confidence.
It was not until the early 20th Century that the great darkness at Biharwe was explained to our people. It turns out that the great magicians of Nkore, or perhaps Rwanda, had induced a total eclipse of the Sun. Space scientists tell us that it occurred in the afternoon of Saturday, April 17, 1520, that is, exactly 498 years ago today. The US National Aeronautical and Space Administration Solar Eclipse Website tells us that the eclipse at Biharwe started at 3.52pm local time, peaked at 5.01pm and ended at 6.02pm.
Happily for Nkore, superstition triumphed. The celestial event saved Nkore and may have consolidated the Bahinda dynasty’s hold on the throne. Nkore historian Samwiri Rubaraza Karugire considered it “possible that the foreign attack itself might have united the people behind their rulers.”
This remarkable event was on our minds as we pulled into Igongo on December 30, 2017. In spite of many stops at Igongo over the years, we had not visited the Country Hotel that was opened in 2014. We had heard great reviews, but we had not anticipated the level of comfort and service that awaited us at the hotel.
From the very friendly and helpful doorkeepers to the efficient receptionists; from the highly professional and caring restaurant staff to their managers; and from the very courteous housekeepers to the laundry staff, our interactions were consistently excellent. Then there was the wide variety of traditional food!
The most important thing to us in a hotel room is the cleanliness of its bathrooms. We pay our money to a hotel expecting all the five senses to be pleased, not to be assaulted by odours and other discomforts.
Our spacious room at Igongo, with very clean and modern bathroom and shower facilities, and the free and reliable Wi-Fi connections made for a very pleasant stay. There is really nothing that comes close to Igongo anywhere in south-western Uganda.
Igongo is a work in progress, of course. Its owners should install ramps all over the facility to ensure safe accessibility for people with mobility challenges. They need to work with local authorities to stop the extremely loud noise from two nearby churches whose congregations act as though God is hearing-impaired.
Besides the irritating noise, our pleasant stay at Igongo allowed us ample opportunities to contemplate the great events of 498 years ago. From our bedroom window, we enjoyed an excellent view of the Biharwe Eclipse Monument atop the hill across the road. Another great contribution by the owners of Igongo to the preservation of our rich history, the monument commemorates the Sun’s proverbial fall from the sky. Its three legs represent the three kings – Nkore, Bunyoro and Buganda - that form part of the story.
The guided tour of Eriijukiro, a rich and well curated museum in front of the hotel, was an equally enjoyable and educative experience. The bookstore next door was a welcome drain on my wallet. On their website, the folks at Igongo describe their facility as “the ultimate destination for lovers of history, art, culture and comfort.” They had us in mind, and they delivered well beyond our expectations.
We left feeling proud of James Rwehabura Tumusiime, the brain behind Igongo, for offering us an excellent facility that reminded us that when we set our minds to it, Ugandans had the capacity to compete with the best in the world.