Ugandan tourism promoters give disproportionate weight to our country’s abundant wild animals and other popular destinations. These are magnificent, of course, and will satisfy the majority of once-in-a-lifetime visitors. However, great beauty awaits one who chooses the unbeaten path through the countryside. Our recent visit to Ankole, for example, was the highlight of our winter holidays in East Africa. Driving through each of Ankole’s 10 counties of our youth (Nyabushozi, Ibanda, Buhweju, Bunyaruguru, Igara, Sheema, Kashaari, Isingiro, Rwampara and Kajara), offered exceptional visual delights and triggered memories of long deceased friends and great stories that we had heard and read over the years.
From the plains and rolling hillocks of the east and south-east, to the rocky mountains of the north and west; from the pastures of the southwest to the giant bald mountains of the south, Ankole is a beautiful country that still lives up to the name of its most dominant part in the past– Kaaro Karungi (the beautiful land). Kaaro Karungi. That is what the Kingdom of Nkore was called long before it forcefully absorbed neighbouring kingdoms of Buhweju, Bunyaruguru, Igara, Shema and remnants of Mpororo to become Ankole in 1901.
The trip through the villages, valleys, forests and mountains of Ankole offered greater satisfaction than our visits to East Africa’s beautiful parks. So much to see, including homes of men and women who were major players in that kingdom’s past. However, we were depressed by visits to two such homes, right in Mburara itself, the old capital of Ankole. It was not our first time to visit Mugaba, the palace of the former Omugabe (king) of Ankole. We knew the palace when it was still the home of Sir Charles Godfrey Gasyonga II, the last king of Ankole. We had visited the palace many times over the last 30 years, repeatedly pulled to it by its place in our history, and to bear witness to the progress of its unconscionable ruin.
At the beginning of 2018, a little more than 50 years since the last king was evicted from Mugaba, the palace continues its journey towards collapse, its once beautiful grounds an ugly bush, with a large sore in the ground that has been inflicted by fortune hunters called quarrymen. Equally ugly telecommunication masts tower over the palace. Squatters continue to enjoy the royal address, with unhygienic conditions that invite a public health officer’s intervention.
Even the gateman’s little rooms are occupied. Mud and wattle makeshift structures stand where the king’s motorcade used to await his party. The flower gardens gave way to unkempt banana plantations years ago. Malnourished maize stalks endure the hot sun that has scorched the earth. Palace windows are shuttered with mats and cardboard paper. Clothes drying on window ledges are the substitute for the royal standard that would have indicated the king’s presence in the palace. There is an oppressive and sad atmosphere all round.
“Shame on you Banyankore!”, I muttered under my breath. “This place belongs to all of you and your descendants!”
Too depressed to attempt a visit inside the building, we repaired to Nkokonjeru, the burial hill of kings and other royals. We had to visit the graves of friends who had once called Mugaba home. Princes John Barigye and Fred Edward Nkuranga Rubereeza were our friends. Princess Victoria Kishemeza Muvumba was my schoolmate. Omugabe Gasyonga was a friend of Lazaaro Kakorwa Tabaaro, my late father-in-law. So, to us, these were more than significant political figures buried here.
We were pleased to note that the area around Egashani (the royal mausoleum) was reasonably well maintained. The bushy grounds of years ago had been tamed, now manicured and free of reptiles. The gravestones over the remains of the princes and princesses were in good repair. However, some identifiers were illegible. Inside egashani was spotlessly clean. The graves of Kings Edward Suleman Kahaya II and Charles Godfrey Gasyonga II, that of the princess royal to Kahaya II and one of Crown Prince Barigye were very well maintained. However, there was a sadness beyond that induced by the memory of our deceased friends. The burial grounds were suffocated by large houses that had encroached on this important cultural site.
It was a desecration of a site rich in historical significance and an indictment on a society that seemed oblivious to its heritage. The understandable disagreement over the fate of Obugabe (monarchy) seemed to have closed the door to a collective investment in preservation of a past, complete with records of its pain and joy, and its dark and shining memories. That the kingdoms of Nkore and Ankole once existed cannot be changed. That there was great joy for some and deep pain for other subjects of the kings cannot be erased by silence or reconstruction of history. That restoration of the monarchy is an intensely emotional thought for both advocates and opponents invites the most careful handling and patient dialogue.
However, restoration of the palace, the royal regalia and records, and telling the full, unedited story of Nkore and Ankole is something that adult Banyankore owe their children and future generations. It is something that can also generate significant revenue, and contribute to much needed truth and reconciliation.
But who will take up the challenge? Ideally this should be a non-profit project of the Banyankore themselves. However, the likelihood of this happening in our lifetime is infinitesimally small. The people in position to do so are too emotionally invested in the argument over restoration of Obugabe to cooperate in what ought to be a nonpartisan effort. Common sense seems to elude Banyankore, whether Bairu, Bahima or Bahinda, whenever the conversation turns to their indelible feudal past.
Perhaps a group of younger Banyankore, free from the prison of history, who appreciate the importance of preservation of their culture and their story, will step forward and do what their elders have failed to do.