Why is Uganda…Uganda?

An aerial view of part of Kampala City Central Business District.

What you need to know:

  • Why is Uganda...Uganda? How did we come to be what we are? In the first part of this 3-part weekly series, Ernest Bazanye gives a humorous and yet reflective take on whether we came to be Uganda because of fate, or because some British explorers and missionaries decided we were better off being "protected"

History is never entirely true. It may be made of facts, and these may comprise the ingredients of the katogo, but the interpretation of the final meal depends heavily on the chef, the eater, and whether the meal is breakfast, dinner, or a snack (you need to change your life if you have katogo for lunch). This is because, in addition to the facts, spice is thrown in from the historians' personal bias, and perspective, and intent.

This leads to the curious circumstance where a comedic interpretation of the facts, with a dash of conjecture and a pinch of speculation sprinkled in, leads to a casserole of fiction that, based on common sense understanding of the facts, is more illuminating than cold, sterile academics. 

There is a British sitcom set in World War I which shows that comic semi-fiction can ask the question best and then answer it with sharper accuracy than academic, journalistic, factual records of the war. 

 A private asks his captain for permission to ask his captain things then proceeds: “The way I see it, Captain, there’s a war on now, right,”

His captain acknowledges this prefix to the question. 

The private proceeds. “But there was a time when there wasn’t a war on, right?”

The captain rolls his eyes and sighs. He can sense where this is going. 

“So what I want to know is,” the private continues, finally descending on the question, “How did we get from the one state of affairs to the other state of affairs?”

“You mean how did the war begin?” the captain wearily summarises.

Private Baldrick’s setting of the question, even though roundabout and seemingly inane, is actually fuller and carries more intellectual heft than his captain’s summation and when applied, say, to this nation of ours, works better than simply “Why is Uganda?” 

Because right now there is a Uganda on, right? But there was a time when there was no Uganda here. The land was present. The hills towered, the rivers flowed, the lakes shimmered under the sun which hovered, and people crisscrossed the entire vista. But these people were not Ugandans. They were Acholi and Baganda and Banyoro and Bagwere and Iteso and so on, and each lived in their own cultural, social, and political spheres, unconnected by any single term, each at the time a singular separate nation.
There were outliers, small autonomous chiefdoms which lived outside the jurisdiction of the major kings and queens. None of them were from Uganda.

Now they all are. They pay taxes to the Uganda Revenue Authority. They pay homage to the Ugandan Ministry of Local Government's appointed District Commissioner. They go to Uganda Prisons jail if they steal a chicken, fornicate in public, or otherwise abuse the laws composed by the Ugandan Parliament. 
How did they get from the one state: managing their own independent affairs, to being corralled under this all-encompassing affair of a single state? 

The academic answer is The Berlin Conference. Bazungu drew lines on a map and decided that everyone within these scribbles would be subjects of the crown of Great British Empire and stand within a protectorate of Uganda.
But why?
Why did they choose us, why did they make us this way, why didn’t they leave us alone? Why change us to this? Why did they lead us from the one state of affairs to the current mess?

There are explanations that vary. There is what the lion says. There is what the hunter says. I would like to proceed by looking at it, not even from the view of the antelope, but from the perspective of the flea on its flank. Because Uganda’s history, the people of or on this land, have over these years, amounted to, not lions, certainly not hunters, but little more than helpless, tiny, weak insects, victims of epic, sweeping circumstance, victims of other mightier, larger forces. 

Today, in spite of the rhetoric, we have barely ever been citizens of the State of Uganda. We are victims of the State Uganda.
And from the view of the flea on the antelope's ass, this is why. 
It all started with water.

The Queen
Mrs Victoria of The House of Hannover. The Boss Lady. The Guvnor herself. Ssabazungu Vikito. The Last Mansa. The last Caesar. The final Shaka. After her there were no global emperors. She was the last person to rule the world.

The British Empire was the largest empire the world had ever seen and at its height covered a quarter of the planet and dominated a quarter of the humans on it. The saying that the sun never set on the British Empire came from the fact that it was always sunny somewhere in the British Empire, not just Philadelphia. 

To be perfectly fair, she was a constitutional monarch, and the actual running of government during her reign was done by the illumina-- sorry, I mean by a series of Prime Ministers who told Britain what to do and when, so, she cannot shoulder all the blame herself. Even though it was all done under her name so she did shoulder the glory.

That ambition, to rule the world, went rapidly out of fashion after Vikito and, under her prime ministers, empires began to shrink, and independence and sovereignty began to trend, bringing us to this 21st century, the first era where, if you go to someone’s place and beat them up, their place doesn’t automatically become yours. Nowadays the world looks at you like, “Vladimir, dude, get out of Ukraine. Behave!”

This is the first era in millennia where conquering lands is not legitimate practice. But from the day Joshua tore down the walls of Jericho with his jazz band to Victorian times, it was standard politics. Victorian Times. She didn’t just have an empire, she had an epoch. She had her own times. The Victorian Era. The minutes, hours, days and years of Her Imperial Majesty Victoria Queen.

Or should that be highness? The concept of the highness of a monarch is a bothersome one because it doesn’t only do what it is meant to do, which is to establish levels of elevation; the subject being placed in lowness, the subject bowing, the subject beneath and under, it also establishes perspectives. For one who is low to look at one who is high, one has to look upwards. There is something very undignified about looking up Queen Victoria, especially from Africa, which, it seems, was so beneath her highness, it was perpendicularly beneath her. Meaning to look at her highness, we were looking up her skirt and at her underwear. 

Perhaps her “majesty” would be more in line with the theme of massive global domination, but Victoria does not look very majestic. She is a pale, doughy, pile of ovals wrapped up in a sack and then dressed in a boring black dress. In this portrait, her face shows little personality. Stalin looks like the smug narcissist he was. Hitler looked impatient to get his portrait nonsense done with so he could go back to converting his inner, personal anger into global havoc. Winston Churchill and Shaka Zulu’s portraits both glowed with unstinting self-assuredness, as if they knew and never doubted that they were pursuing destiny when they killed whoever tried to stop them from taking over other people’s stuff. 

Nelson Mandela beams with conviction of a purpose larger than himself -- in the famous Robben Island portrait of his youth he simmers with longing for the day he can get out and pursue the freedom he has never lost hope or lost sight of. And the famous Long Walk To Freedom book cover portrait has the low, serene glow of a wise old man settled in the peace that comes from having done your best and having seen it work.

But Victoria? She barely looks animate in this portrait. She doesn’t look greedy. She doesn’t look power-hungry. She doesn’t look haughty, at least not haughty enough. She barely looks bored. 
And this brings us to the Nile.

The longest river in the world?

The Nile is a long river, and is most renowned for this aspect of its many characteristics. It could be the longest river in the world, except for the inconvenience that there is no standard way of measuring rivers. By one measure it is 6,600km long, and by others it is 7,000km. The Nile’s nearest rival in length, the Amazon river, is measured at 6,400km by the most stingy measure and 6,992km at the most generous. So we remain wary of just saying the Nile is the longest river in the world.

Its length had been unknown for a long time. As far back as Emperor Nero of Rome, Alexander the Great and other infamous adventurers, there has been interest in the Nile and its length, but while they knew where it ended, no one seemed to know where it started, and, quick math, you can’t tell the length of a thing unless you know where both its end and source are.

It’s a notoriously long thing, but this is like describing Ugandan super-song spinner, the foremost tugger of heartstrings and the sexiest, sweetest rasp that ever lilted “baibe” in Luganda, the one and only Irene Ntale, as one of the girls with the most expensive fake eyelashes. It hardly explains the point of Ntale, and the mention of length doesn’t clarify on the significance of the Nile.

The Nile has been a remarkable river for millennia, most significantly for being essential to the development of all of the Egyptian civilisations (yes, there was more than one) And not just them; The Nile also watered and fed the kingdoms below Misri: the Sudan, the lands of Kush, Ethiopia, Abbysinia and all the ones you have never heard of because I had not started this  series of precolonial African history articles yet, and you had no one to inform you but schoolteachers working off an outdated, colonialist-skewed syllabus.

The whole time the Nile was a mystery and a wonder for many reasons beyond just its length. Being huge, it obviously watered the kingdoms of Egypt sufficiently, which was useful, as it is nearly impossible to sustain a civilisation if everyone is dead from dehydration, but beyond that, it surprisingly continued to provide water all the time, even though it had just flowed through a pretty large and harsh desert. “How come?” many wondered.

There was the fact that it flooded regularly and seasonally. “How is this?” many wondered. It was this flooding that regularly replenished the Nile Valley in Ancient Egypt with loam and silt, great for agriculture and maintaining a vibrant and thriving nation in what was otherwise desert. “How so and where from?” many asked themselves. There was the persistent worry that if anyone at the other end ever chose to turn off the flow, not just Egypt, but Nubia, Abbyssinia, the Sudan and other great nations would die. “What? We need to find the source and make sure this doesn’t happen because we need these kingdoms!” many exclaimed.

So the Nile was not just a useful river, it was a curious one. Over the millennia, many had tried to find out where it came from, hoping that this would tell them how it came to be what it was.

This particular intellectual maneuver sometimes works. If you find out how something started, you will have an easier time unravelling the mysteries of whatever state of chaos or tranquility it is in at the present. Which is why we are reading a series of the source of Uganda.

Alexander the So-Called Great tried to find the source of the Nile. Didn't get far. Neither did that infamous European pop star Emperor Nero. The expeditions on record in classical European history all failed because the Nile went and still goes through some brutal conditions before it comes to placidly wash through Egypt.
And not just the desert. It was oftentimes unnavigable, swirling over treacherous rapids and murderous stone. Then there was the tropics with their myriad diseases and disease-carrying flies and mosquitoes which tended to be violently racist. Arab and Swahili traders could penetrate East Africa all the way in, grab some hapless negroes and march them off to sell as slaves with no problem. But white and European explorers were constantly dying of malaria, typhoid or Sleeping Sickness on the way down.

Along came John Speke
It was during Victoria’s era that the first white man finally made it. It’s largely agreed that it was John Speke who discovered the source of the Nile – “discovered” means being the first white man to see something outside Europe. 

John Speke had a beard. A big fat beard, aggressive and brutal beard. A beard so large and thick that this looks less like a portrait of a man with a beard and more like a portrait of a beard that just so happened to have been accompanied everywhere by some geezer.

The beard dominates the picture. The beard stands front and center and is so large it looms from the front. It looks like a shrewd, nasty and cunning but very powerful animal, and the rest of him looks like its docile pet.

A beard like that is why I think John Speke was an overcompensator who overdid things to prove his masculinity. Things like seek glory through historical and epic quests like hunting for river sources.
“What? Alexander the Great could not find the river source? And he was called the great? I, Johnny Speke, have got to find this Nile source so I can be so called great, instead,” said a voice from the head area, that could have been the mouth or the beard itself talking. Either way, the words were dripping with testosterone.

The RGS 
If you read that and thought “Real Gs, like in those gangsta rap songs?” then you are right but not correct. It stands for Royal Geographical Society actually, though that was in fact very much like a gang, a club, a crew. It was the squad John Speke was down with.
They were a group of men who sought glory through adventure and, in the Victorian era, this meant exploring.

It is easy to assume a motive for these British explorers. We could say the purpose of all this was to find conquests to claim and wealth to exploit and people to subjugate, but the behaviour of the RGS and its many beards and members suggests otherwise. The explorers like Speke, Burton and ilk were not warriors, they were not huns. They were adventurers. They appeared to be driven by a pursuit of what they deemed manliness, more interested in exploration than exploitation, more keen on discovery than disenfranchisement. They sound like the sort of fellows who would wax lyrical like, “Being out there in the jungles, in nature? Yeah! Facing danger fearlessly, diving into the unknown! That is what makes me feel alive! That’s what makes a real man!”

They did wax thus, actually. Some quotes from their journals follow. 

“That shallow life in England where a man is not permitted to be real and natural…” is what Henry Stanley moaned about before hotfooting it to the deep, “natural” jungles of tropical Africa.
Samuel Baker said he preferred to be “a wandering spirit” and to plunge “into the Unknown” than sit in a comfy cushion in a London sitting room.
And Speke himself wrote, “The sense of individuality is the main attraction. In the constant whirl of civilisation the personal element is somewhat lost in the mass. Out in the forests of Africa you are the man amongst your surroundings.”

Burton spent years of his life hunting for trails to explore in Africa. Livingston fed so many mosquitoes he was constantly receiving malaria and recovering from malaria, over and over. These expeditions seemed more akin to the childish glee of the New-New Age hippie of today, the one who decides to break away from his or her suburban life in California to go traipse around Tibet getting sunburn and indigestion instead of the mystic enlightenment they seek. Or the mid-life crisis of a modern city office drone, the sense that to be a real man you should be out there fighting or struggling or at least in some way uncomfortable.

Expedite my expedition
Some of you may question the integrity of what I am going to do, which is just imagine what happened and make stuff up. To these people, allow me to further appall and aggravate you by telling you that a huge amount of what you take as academic history contains quite a bit of this sort of thing. At least I’m not pretending. But here we go. What I imagine it was like:

The Victorian Throne Room, in which sits the monarch, and into which is shepherded the beard of John Speke and its constant companion.

John: Your majesty, I am here, your humble servant, to plead for your most majestic patronage for an historical quest. Your majesty, I seek to discover the source of The Nile.
Vickie:What’s the Nile?
John: It’s a river in Egypt, your majesty, a river that has for centuries fed and watered the great civilisations of eras. The Nile, your majesty, is...
Vickie: So you want to go to Egypt?
John: No, your Majesty. I seek to explore further into dark, deep, savage jungles south.
Vickie: But you say the Nile is in Egypt.
John: Yes, Majesty, part of it is, but not its source.
Vickie: The source is what you want?
John: Yes, majesty.
Vickie: So just go to Egypt and ask them. Surely they know. Those Egyptians know a lot of stuff. 
John: Majesty, the prodigious intellectual and academic scope of the Egyptian civilisation is renowned. However, it does not include the actual fact of the source of the Nile. No one seems to know. I, John Speke, would like to discover this in the name of your majesty, Queen Victoria.
Vickie: Hold on. Why don't the Egyptians know?
John: Well, the Nile is a powerful, long and oft-unnavigable river and sailing downstream to its origin has proved too daunting for previous explorers.
Vickie: That would explain why the Egyptians don’t bother.
You know, I don’t know what the source of the Thames is. This river, right here in London. I don’t know where it comes from.
John: Your majesty, it comes from…
Vickie: I don’t even know where the ‘h’ in the word Thames comes from. Why is there an ‘h’ in there when we all call it ‘Tames’? 
John: Well, the origin of the spelling…
Vickie: (She’s Queen. She doesn’t have to wait for other people to talk) I mean, I know the source of the fish I had for lunch. It was fished out of the Thames, Johnny.
John: Your majesty, if I may…
Vickie: This information, knowing the source of this thing, made no difference at all to my lunch. This fish did not taste more intellectually edifying. It was not more academically satisfying. It was fish, Johnny.
John: (Doesn’t bother trying to interrupt.)
Vickie: There was a time someone brought me fish that tasted curious. I asked what it was and it was explained to me that it was bass and was from the sea. I vomited some of it. I told that man to never bring me fish from that source again. That was the only time I cared about the source of my fish. We only care about the source of things when they are the source of problems. Otherwise, we just eat the fish. I am inclined to believe that the Nile has been providing Egypt satisfactorily for all of Egypt's centuries, bringing no cause to vomit, and this is why they don’t bother to find its source.
John: Your majesty, Alexander the Gre...
Vickie: Either that or they already found its source, saw that, “Oh, it’s a bunch of water flowing into more water. Flowing water. We’ve been looking at flowing water since we started this long and perilous journey from Cairo seeking the source of this Nile. All we have seen is flowing water. And now we get here to find nothing but more flowing water. Ah. Existential crisis. Why did we do this? What is the meaning of all this? What is the meaning of anything?” They go back to Egypt. Other Egyptians ask them what they found. Was it the gaping mouth of some mighty river god? Was it a funnel from the heavens? Was it the tears of a hundred thousand hippos weeping? Was it a portal to another dimension? And they said, “It was just some water.” And so they decided to find the source of some wine instead and didn’t bother with it anymore. 

I say this John, because I find it hard to believe that no one has discovered the source of a river as important as the Nile. I just think you haven’t. And that is why you want to. It’s one of those macho ego things you Royal Geographical Society blokes have. Okay, you go. I’m not going to stop you. I’m a constitutional monarch, after all. I don’t make the rules.

Finding Nalubaale
I will keep calling him John, for the duration of this piece, and not Mr Speke, until I come across some reason to believe that he would have called me Omwami Bazanye. So far, all I have is strong indications of an overarching racism that does not acknowledge the humanity of black Africans. Tales of his activities in Africa suggest that he saw us not as equals, but as tools, instruments, as livestock that was more convenient than apes. 

The sense that the African was a bit less human than the white one, this is what we snark at when we refer to the audacity of the claim to have “discovered” water bodies whose shores we have been thickly inhabiting for ages. It is as if the black negro Africans around the Lake Victoria didn’t know it was there and their simple, primitive negro brains just assumed that fish came from pans and boats flew over magic. As if, until John and cohorts discovered the Lake, no one knew it was there. It was he that showed us the way, and the African was astounded. “There’s water! It’s been here all along! That explains soooo much!” Then ensues the slapping of foreheads and murmurs of “Can you imagine? All along that’s what was causing all these floods and swamps! And it was right under our large Bantu noses!” Shaking of heads, noses inclusive.

It is easy to assume that, but not fair. John claiming to have discovered the source of the Nile didn’t mean discovering the presence of Nam Lolwe, but rather discovering that it was the place from which the Nile began. But I still reserve some suspicion that he naturally assumed that being the first white guy to do it made him the first legitimate human to do so. 

John and his RGS crew, the Speke Clique, if you will (It rhymes if you read it with the right accent: The Ugandan one.) made many trips into mainland Africa. 
The eastern coast had bustled for centuries with peoples from other lands: traders from Arabia, Europe and even, some research suspects, China. Most of them came by to trade. They bought and sold a few things from us, like ivory, spices and other merchandise, and, if they fancied it at the time, they bought us from us. Slaves and ivory were bestselling items along the Swahili coast.

The explorers arrived to a thick mix of ethnicities and activities with every one trying to earn a buck. What they did was create demand for a new service: The explorer's porter. Black porters could be contracted at the coast to carry baggage and supplies, translate local languages to the Royal Geographic language when they needed to communicate with whoever they met inland and serve as guides in general.

The image of the "explorer" in that era was typically a man with a handlebar mustache, pipe and pith hat, walking in single file with an entourage of "sambo" caricatures with big red lips and nothing but loincloths, one in the front assiduously slashing a way through the thick jungle undergrowth while the other blacks behind the white "Effendy" carried sacks of his provisions on their heads and backs.
Sometimes carrying Effendy himself, in a silly sedan chair. This image persisted as far as the 1950s Hollywood movies when we were the setting of a whole genre of adventure movies, (but our people were more props than costars).

But it would seem that the real porters who took the explorers around Africa were seasoned professionals at it. They were guys who knew routes, many languages, and even useful first aid and could deal with the venom of snake species from Lake Tanganyika, through the Rift Valley to Zanzibar.

The man who escorted John Speke, for example, was a one Sidi Mubarak, aka Bombay Mubarak. He was a member of the Yao people who was taken as a slave from Mozambique as a boy. Why he was called Bombay? Because he was enslaved in India. When he was emancipated, he came back to Africa and, on becoming an explorers' guide, came to be known as Bombay Mubarak because he spoke Hindi.

Bombay Mubarak was part of many British exploration exhibitions, including the one that led Johnny Speke to our lake. When John finally turned the corner and saw for the first time the great Nam Lolwe, the magnificence of the great Nyanja Nalubaale, he stopped, drew a deep breath and smiled triumphantly underneath that voluminous beard, which had grown even larger and more menacing from the circumstance of having spent so long away from a London barber, and said, “I have finally discovered the source of the Nile. It is this enormous sea that washes before me. I shall call it Lake Victoria.”

Let's imagine things again. Let’s play out the dialogue.

His porter: He says Nalubaale is called Lake Victoria.
His cook: That’s not what it is called. It’s called Nalubaale.
The porter: Tell him that.
The cook: How am I supposed to tell him anything? He doesn't speak our language.
The porter: Tell it to Mubarak and let Mubarak tell it to him.
The cook: Bombay does not speak Luganda. Let me tell the other porter to translate to Kiswahili so Bombay can hear it and relay the message in Hindi to the Englishman. Ali, hey, get someone to tell Effendy that it is not called Bikitolia. It is called Enyanja Nalubaale.
Another porter, who happens to be a Luo man: What do you mean Nalubaale? It's called Lolwe.
A third porter, who happens to be a Kerewe man: Guys, it's called Lake Ukerewe. I know this. I was born in it. I am from an island in the lake itself.
Bombay: Guys, decide on a name. Or I won't have anything to tell him. 
John: Yes, Lake Victoria, source of the Nile. Discovered by I, John Speke. Alexander the who? Hah! I am going to tell the Queen that I named it after her and it will be great. It must be awesome to have things named after you. Maybe one day they will name something after me. Like a road full of men and women of integrity and ethics and high morals.

The source of the source
By presuming to name our lake his queen’s name, John started the process of taking ownership of this land. He had found a lake for his queen. When Speke went back to Britain it was with information, maps, diaries and clues as to what lay in East Africa, how to get there, and survive the journey.

It was not his intention to spark off a series of events that would lead to colonialism, neocolonialism, and all the lingering malaise we still suffer decades since independence. He just wanted to be a hero, he just wanted to be "da man". It was not his intention, but it was his effect, and the discovery of the source of the Nile would become the source of what was to become Uganda.

Part II of the series, “Why is Uganda?” will run next Wednesday, March 31st.