The mvule tree’s history in Uganda is an interesting one. These giant hardwoods that dotted the land were an obvious, valuable resource for the British colonialists. At that time, the tree’s value for the Basoga remained as community gathering spaces under the forgiving shade. They were so important that the Basoga coined a proverb: Emivule n’akasulya kabusoga which means “The mvule is the shade (or roof) of Busoga”.
The colonialists, however, saw timber for furniture, doors, and trusses in the trees. No one had ever cut down a mvule before, so when the colonialists asked “Who planted these trees?” the response from the natives was gyamera gyeene which means “they grew by themselves”. Essentially, the people said the trees are not owned since they germinated and grew on their own; people didn’t contribute to their existence.
This saying (gyamera gyeene) has become a bane of the Basoga people. As the tree had great value for the British, they were able to take advantage of the Basoga perspective on the mvule. Other neighbouring tribes noticed that the Basoga lost a valuable bartering resource when they told the British that the tree grows by itself.
Even today, when someone is bartering with a Musoga, you can occasionally hear that individual making a remark about the old saying as a way of reminding the Musoga that s/he has historically given things away to their own detriment. Never mind that the statement came during colonial rule, when a Musoga (or anyone else for that matter) had little say in the British acquisition of local resources.
Today, the tree is rarely seen. For over a century, it has been cut for timber and charcoal. And as there is no culture of planting such trees, they have become less common. The Busoga anthem even mentions the mvule as one of the three riches of the region, along with the Nile River and the hills. The song even reminds the people of a missed opportunity and a lost wealth.
The good news is that the Basoga are now changing this. The mvule is wealth that can be recreated. Almost everyone is capable of planting a tree and most people have a small piece of land on which they can plant. The old saying has changed to Tigyamera gyeene (It doesn’t germinate by itself). This means the Basoga people have realised that they must participate in the renewal of this wondrous tree.
For the past five years, I have watched every district in Busoga implement a mvule planting initiative. Each district forestry officer, under the Chief Administrative Officer and in partnership with Local Councils, has witnessed this previously neglected tree, experience a new life. I work with a small NGO partnering with local government and communities to bring these trees back to a bountiful presence in Busoga. This fulfilling work has allowed me to meet interesting and innovative people throughout Busoga. These relationships have grown just as the young mvule seedlings themselves, leaving me confident of the stability of Busoga for the coming generation.
Wealth can come again, but it will require the gentle and patient hand of the farmer. And more than that, it will require the cooperation of the people to grow their trees. This isn’t a new idea for the Basoga; after all, they have a proverb reminding us all of such: Emiti emito: n’ekibira which means “The young trees are the forest.” The saying carries with it the idea that the young seedlings of today (our children) are tomorrow’s forest (the future leaders).
Mr Garner works with local communities in Busoga.