When hippos roamed Jinja and owned its golf course

Wednesday August 21 2019


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

My long search to understand the history I was mis-taught; the one I was never taught; or the one not written anywhere continues.
In recent years, I have gone off the grid to find the juicy bits. Nairobi is a very good place to find it, but it can be in unusual places. There are magazines and journals with strange names, that come out once, sometimes twice, a year, and cost the price of a dinner at a decent restaurant.
Edited and contributed by what we might call the “Old East African European and Asian”, they tap widely from the world and often offer some mind-bending insight into an East Africa gone by – and the local folks.
One of them, Old Africa: Stories from East Africa’s Past just came out. It has a little story on rebuilding the railway bridge over Nile, written by a mzungu lad, who worked in Jinja in 1952.
He had actually got a junior job on the Owen Falls Dam, and his task was to take daily water levels above Owen Falls around Ripon Falls. The daily readings then, and I think today, were relayed to the Egyptians so they could ascertain that the right flow set out in that controversial 1929 Nile Waters Agreement.
It was when he was wading through the waters, that he noticed a small part of the railway bridge had given way. Alarms raised, railway authorities alerted, and disaster averted as the bridge was temporarily closed and fixed.
Engineers might love the story of the rebuilding of the bridge, but I was struck by the non-railway elements of his tale. Near the bridge, he writes of a shallow bay where “the local hippos relaxed. The hippos visited the town during the night, overturning dustbins.
“They roamed the nearby golf course where they grazed, leaving deep footprints in soft places.”
And then in one of the first gems; “In fact, the Jinja Golf Club’s rule book contained a provision that balls trapped in a hippos’ footprint could be picked out and placed adjacent to it for the shot.”
And then, he describes the exploits of one of the fishermen. “Diving into the white water, he closed the sticks [around the clasp nets] as he felt a fish, and his mate would then pull him out of the water. They caught a lot of fish this way, immediately emptying the nets of fish on the grassy slopes nearby to dry.” And the second gem:
“The fish, not on the Basoga diet [then] were destined for northern Uganda.
Fascinating to imagine, but incomprehensible today, that a hippo would wander in Jinja. But it helps us picture the transformation of the region.
It is also a pointer to the hardiness of the men and women who made Jinja a great industrial town then – and perhaps the mettle for its recovery that the current generation lack.
Though they were colonial servants, there is still a nobility that we have to give to the working people’s sweat and the grit of the men and women who laid down the first bricks, railways, and roads of modern Uganda.
It is exciting to think of a time, with the colonial State straddling over them, a people built a commerce in which Basoga fishermen caught fish near Ripon Falls, to export to northern Uganda.
If I can think of one of the great acts of negligence of our time, it is in how some of us who could chronicle these rhythms of ordinary people, even when bedevilled by politics, get up every day and labour, have failed to show up.
A while ago, I was in London and went to visit with Sam Akaaki. I told him my curiosity about how many plants and flowers that I used to see when I was little boy, had long disappeared. I told him I kept wondering where I could find an old record of what we lost. He surprised me. He was friends with a wonderful chap who was in his mid 90s, he said, and had been the last colonial Chief Forestry officer, or something like, in Uganda.
The fellow was in an old people’s home, and about to pass. But he had told Sam he had a collection of books and documents he wanted to give away, including on Uganda’s plants.
I was back in London a few weeks later. Sam had collected the book, a huge volume like I had never seen on Uganda’s plants. He added colonial economic reports, political briefings, and even a remarkable book on wildlife in Uganda – and early 20th century poaching!
The Brits just didn’t pass through fwa like that.
The chief forestry officer died a few days after Sam picked up the books. The massive volume on Ugandan plants, I didn’t check that in. It was hand luggage.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3