In the village of Ziba, not far from the shores of Lake Victoria, in central Uganda, a small hill stands.
On some maps, particularly if you chance on one of the older ones, it is identified by its official name: Jack’s Mount. Curious name, innit? Well, Dear Reader, let me tell you a small story behind this name.
In July or August of 1875, the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, was making his way through these parts; although the natives did not know it then, it was a visit that would change their lives and destinies in fundamental ways.
Anyway, one of the local chiefs, a Mutongole, had given Stanley a cow and which had been added to his travelling party, to provide milk and, later, meat. A few days later, one of Stanley’s five dogs made the ill-advised decision to launch an unprovoked attack on the cow.
The cow turned, gored the dog and killed it. Stanley was so upset by the loss of “my faithful companion Jack, a bull-terrier of remarkable intelligence and affection which accompanied me from England” and he noted that the dog’s death was “regretted by all who knew his many good qualities”.
To preserve the memory of his beloved dog, Stanley thus named the hill where its remains were interred, as Jack’s Mount. It is not clear whether the cow had a name, or what happened to it in the aftermath of this tragedy; but I can bet my last kinusu that there is no hill, stream, river or paddock named after it.
The Black Lives Matter movement against racism in the United States and elsewhere has reenergised a long-standing debate about the history of colonised places and spaces, and whether it matters what they are called or named.
In many countries across the world, statues erected in the memory of prominent people are being fished out of rivers where protestors have consigned them.
Many celebrated icons have been exposed as racist slavers or samesuch and their reputations torn up and thrown into the dustbin of history. A similar campaign is underway in Uganda headlined by lawyer and historical author Apollo Makubuya to re-examine the names of our places.
How is it that the streets in Kampala are littered with the names of missionaries and their colonial bodyguards – Baskerville, Colville, Ternan, Hesketh Bell, et cetera – but hardly any named after Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro and Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda who are, in the eyes of many, your columnist inclusive, among our many unsung heroes?
My adroit friend Rebecca Rwakabukoza and I recently finished a paper on the subject, which I promise to share once it is published. In it we trace the contours of the nomenclature of Uganda’s places and spaces, from the explorer age to the colonial era and to the post-independence period.
We argue, first, that renaming a place is a necessary first step to eventually claiming its ownership. In addition, political leaders use these place names to signal their decolonising and nationalist intentions, but in different but important ways.
For instance, Idi Amin renamed the Murchison Falls and National Park, so named after Roderick Murchison, the long-time head of the Royal Geographical Society, after Omukama Kabalega. This was one of his symbolic acts of defiance against the neo-colony.
When Amin was removed, the name of the park was restored to its colonial heritage! We also show that while the National Resistance Army saw it befitting to name some of its units after Kabalega and Mwanga, such magnanimity was not forthcoming once the rebels took power.
In what can be interpreted as a sign of respect to the metropolitan, contemporary renaming efforts have tended to avoid colonial-era redress and instead focused on celebrating more recent ‘heroes’ like Benedicto Kiwanuka and John Babiiha.
Thus we are able to tip our caps to the nationalists by renaming the Owen Falls Dam, but lack the courage to bend over backwards and officially restore Lake Nalubaale to its pre-colonial name.
The colonial-era genocide in Bunyoro might yet go unpunished, but how are we to explain to future generations that we celebrated the names of the colonial officers that destroyed a once-great kingdom and, for all intents and purposes, ignored the kings that fought for the dignity and independence of their people? For how much longer can we continue to forget our kings and their valiant histories while remembering, on every other street, the names of their conquerors and their dogs?
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.