The gods never left this corner of Uganda, so the story goes

Wednesday February 19 2020



CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

We stood atop a hill across Kanyadahi village, Kabarole District. It is a sight to behold.
When The Independent magazine chief Andrew Mwenda starts light-heartedly waxing about these environs and Kanyadahi, he offers up a lavish flurry of colourful language. Across is his family home seated atop a hill.
Andrew claims that Kanyadahi is the most beautiful village in Uganda, naye, Africa. He is not ashamed to say that God lives in the neighbourhood. That when the skies behold the beauty of the place, they cry.
It’s extravagant, but justified. We went to a location, and looked in the distance. There was Mt Rwenzori. Before us was Kibale Forest, and from a vantage point, you can see four crater lakes. There is something special about that. The lakes are some of the 56, which makes Kabarole the district with the most crater lakes in the world.
Rwenzori is the highest block mountain in Africa (Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro are free standing, not block, mountains). And Kibale National Park has the highest density of primates of any protected area of the world. There is probably no other place in the world where you can stand on a hill, and see three world and/or continental beating features in a go.
There is a story here of very long times gone by. These crater lakes were formed due to some furious volcanic activities in the region possibly up to 10,000 years ago.
It reminded me of the time I went with a colleague to the Nairobi National Museum to meet paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey. She took us out back, where there were fossils out of this world, some of giant creatures with enormous horns. I asked how old some of them were. Nonchalantly, she said one to two million years.
I felt emotional and small in a strange way. I was standing before fossils of animals that roamed this earth two million years ago; it made the time I had lived the equivalent of a blink in the big cosmic scheme. I felt a similar sense of awe surveying the majesty of the lakes. There is evidence all over of humans trying to leave their imprint. There are prized crater resorts in these resorts, and on the hills, farms of obviously prosperous farmers are sprouting, interspersed with the smaller plots of those who still struggle.
Land at the crater sides, has shot up nearly a mind-blowing 1,000 per cent in the last two decades. The few who bought, only a sprinkling being local Batooro, have made a massive fortune selling since. It was all because the Batooro were good Africans. They believed that vengeful ancestors resided in the lakes, and would punish those who came to live too close to upset their solace.
The locals thus kept their distance, and for a long time, “outsiders” – mostly mzungus as the people would call them – came, bought, and started to invest in lodges. The local folks waited for the gods to throw them mad, or kill their wives, but it didn’t happen. All they saw was lots of money rolling in their pockets. They realised they had read the gods wrong. They then jumped into the frenzy – late.
Today, looking back, and then also seeing the emerging forms of enterprise, one wonders what the next 100 years (to begin with) could bring. Will humans remake these places as dramatically as they were by the volcanoes thousands of years ago?
I spent most of my childhood near and in Kabarole capital Fort Portal. Our father worked at St Augustine’s College, in Butiiti, and one of my brothers and I went to St Leo’s College in Fort Portal, and another one to Nyakasura School.
I didn’t go back for a while until the early 1980s, during the rule of Obote II. We drove to Fort Portal through Mityana, onward to Kyenjonjo. I stopped for a while in Butiiti, and was depressed. When we were little, we would ride to the town to pick up the old man’s newspapers and magazines that had been dropped at the Post Office. The Post Office was long gone, and most of the town eaten by overgrown reeds.
Today, the drive is as different as day and night. Booming towns have regrown. These days, it is a smooth tarmac drive all the way.
But it is still only a start. We drove along silently briefly, then I turned to my travelling companion Prof Mahmood Mamdani and I asked him what it was he thought could be the magic bullet that builds on the momentum and turns the places we had seen into first world rural economies.
He gave it some thought, then said, “it has to be land rights for owners or users…then the magic will happen.” What wonderful days they were.