Lessons from Kilembe’s Gamparo

Author: Muniini K. Mulera. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Many workers died at Kilembe, killed by collapsed shafts and tunnels.
  • Others suffered very severe injuries, among them a man from Mparo whose spinal cord was crushed...

Dear Tingasiga:
His name announced his address. His smile complimented a gentle demeanor. His intellect enriched by experience. His industry sharpened by danger and fortune. Christopher Bernard Gamparo, who died at the age of 83 on Sunday June 26, was the quintessential gentleman.

Self-made, resilient, indefatigable, bright, at once humble and tough, he was possessed of the stuff that made his generation and that of his seniors the finest of the last 100 years.

Born in Mparo, Rukiga, Kigyezi on Tuesday June 20, 1939, under the rule of British Governor Sir Philip Euen Mitchell, Gamparo was the second-born of Elivaida Kahimakazi and her husband Zedekiya Mushushu wa Kakara.  His parents were peasants, with minimal cash income or opportunities for significant economic growth. However, the family’s fortune changed when they sent Gamparo to Kihanga Boys Primary School, a reputable Anglican institution in Mparo, founded in 1932. 

Gamparo, who was baptized at Kihanga by the Rev. Kezekiya Kasiisiri on Friday April 20, 1956, completed Junior Secondary Two, the eighth year of primary education, and soon took up employment at the newly launched Kilembe Copper Mines in Tooro Kingdom. It was a much-sought-after job that would dramatically change his life and that of his community.

Whereas copper deposits at Kilembe had been identified in 1906, it was not until 1956 that mining started after the completion of the railway extension from Kampala to Kasese at a cost of £5 million.

By the time Gamparo started work, Kilembe was a vast enterprise, owned by Canada’s Falconbridge Nickel Ltd (70 percent), Britain’s Commonwealth Development Corporation (20 percent) and Uganda Development Corporation (10 percent.)  Management was by Falconbridge of Africa Limited.

The early recruitment of mineworkers focused on the Bakiga, a process that was largely done by a Jewish-Cypriot called “Sikaadi” at his labour screening centre in Kabaare.
Within five years of the mines’ opening, the Bakiga constituted more than 80 percent of the labour force. The recruitment of other nationalities changed that percentage, with Bakiga dipping down to about 40 percent in 1965, before an upswing to more than 70 percent by 1967. Many Bakiga took their families with them and settled at Kilembe. With a population of 16,000 in 1967, Kilembe was the third largest town in Uganda.  Gamparo kept his home in Mparo.

Mining was extremely hard and dangerous work. My Makerere Medical School classmates and I had first-hand experience of the hazardous conditions when we visited Kilembe Mines in 1975, as part of our education in public health and industrial health. Descending hundreds of feet into the mines, then creeping along cold, wet and dark tunnels, with rocks hanging above our heads, was not a pleasant experience.

Many workers died at Kilembe, killed by collapsed shafts and tunnels. Others suffered very severe injuries, among them a man from Mparo whose spinal cord was crushed, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The image of that gentleman, now deceased, lives with me as a reminder of the sacrifice people made so that they could provide for us. 

The starting salary for unskilled labourers in the early 1960s was Shs145 ($20) per month. By 1965, the average labourer’s salary was Shs264 ($37) per month. This would be equivalent to Shs1.3 million ($345) per month in 2022.  Whereas the pay was very attractive to people with no other paid employment, a study by Azariah Baryaruha in 1965, revealed that Kilembe wages were relatively small compared to earnings of labourers at a company like BAT (British American Tobacco) where the workplace was cleaner and less dangerous.  

On the other hand, the miners and their families enjoyed modern company-owned houses at minimal rent, complete with good amenities and free health care at Kilembe Hospital. Above all, the mines offered excellent opportunities for worker education.  The labourers were trained and skilled in mining regulations, practice, and safety. They also had opportunities to learn or advance their knowledge of English.

The salaries afforded them a good lifestyle, evidence of which they displayed during their visits home at Christmas and Easter. We would await them at Kangondo, the most vibrant and largest commercial centre in Rukiga County at the time. As the Uganda Transport Company bus came to a stop, its open windows would display watches on the arms of our heroes from Kilembe.

The men would emerge, holding their transistor radios, and walk with a swag of those that had truly “arrived.” Their white shirts, nicely tucked into their grey or black trousers, were complimented with ties, and shoes that called attention to our shoeless feet.

They would retrieve their suitcases, hand them to us to carry, an honour and pleasure for which we neither demanded nor expected to be paid. They would tell stories of the mines – of life underground, of injuries and death, of a heroism that was rivetingly frightening.  However, their romantic walks with village damsels that had given extra attention to their looks and attire were a pleasurable sight and free tutorial in managing future matters of the heart. 

Throughout the 1960s, we witnessed an increasing number of iron-roofed houses and shops, and attended many weddings of the Kilembe men, the culinary delights a welcome side effect of the matrimonial joy of our hosts.  However, none of this came close to a unique contribution the miners made to Kigyezi’s development, one for which my generation is very grateful.

Kigyezi leaders had negotiated a deal with Kilembe Mines Ltd, with the consent of the miners, that a small percentage of their wages be withheld and remitted to the district treasury, for exclusive use as a source of bursaries for needy students in secondary schools. 

Many bright students were enabled to continue their academic journeys and have since served humanity very well.  It was an act of generosity that, to me, was at par with that of the kings of Ankole, Bunyoro and Tooro who invited tens of thousands of Bakiga to settle in their kingdoms.

To his wife Winnie Tibandeeba, one of the most hardworking farmers that I know, and to their children, my heartfelt condolences.

As I mourn and celebrate the life of this great man, I reflect on the message in his name. Was it amaani (strength) ga Mparo? Amagyezi (intellect) ga Mparo? Amazima (truth) ga Mparo? I think the message was amasiko ga Mparo, the hope of Mparo, which calls on its sons and daughters to generously give back to our community, just as Gamparo and his generation did.

Mulera is a medical doctor.

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