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In Kabalega’s Kingdom: Bunyoro in Uganda

Above: Royal tomb of King Kabalega near Hoima in Uganda. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: The East African Nation media 25 April 2020

By Rupi Mangat

Powerful and progressive, Kabalega defended his kingdom against colonial onset

It was the taxi driver who announced, “The royal tomb of Kabalega is here.”  He brought the car to a halting screech when he realized l was serious about seeing it.

At that point Kabalega was quite unknown to me. I was whiling away days in Masindi visiting friends. With time on my hands and no intention of doing Murchison Falls – for now dubbed as the most powerful waterfall in the world – which l had visited in 2017, l was following in my late grandmother’s steps to Hoima. She gave birth in each of the three East African countries with the last born in Hoima in the 1940s.

Hoima was only 60 kilometres further west of Masindi and another 20 to Lake Albert, one of the African great lakes in the rift.

Kabalega’s Royal Tomb

Ten kilometres to Hoima, across a large green field and circled by a low wall, the guard at the gate asked, “Do have permission to enter?”

We did not which meant driving to Hoima to pay the entrance fee and get the key to open the royal tomb that looked exactly like the Kasubi royal tomb of the Buganda kings in Kampala. It sounded too complicated.

Instead we walked around the wall of the royal tomb to stop at a poster where Samuel Baker and his wife had met the king in 1864. The Bakers’ had marched from Equatorial Egypt – part of today’s South Sudan-northern Uganda) of which he was governor in search of the Nile’s source. They had heard of a lake and made haste passing near Hoima.

The couple met Kabalega and it seemed that nothing unpleasant happened.

Hoima

Court View Restaurant in Hoima in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Court View Restaurant in Hoima in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat

The road between Masindi and Hoima is being tarmacked with few papyrus swamps or thick swathes of forest visible unlike the Baker’s time.

The present king has his royal residence in Hoima but has little power. It’s a small but busy town, crowded. Few Indian buildings of the pre-colonial days like the one-storey dukas stand amidst modern multi-storey buildings. We enjoy lunch in a 1959 Indian house now converted into a restaurant, New Court that is a sister to New Court View Hotel in Masindi. All the Indians must have left when Idi Amin ordered them out in 1972.

But Hoima’s in the process of becoming big for oil has been discovered in recent times in Lake Albert, with an oil refinery and pipeline under construction. In anticipation of the good times to follow, my taxi driver points to the new tarmac road cutting across a forest to the newly built Hoima International Airport.

Lake Albert

Lake ALbert from the great rift escarpment near Hoima in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Lake ALbert from the great rift escarpment near Hoima in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat

Another 20 kilometres away, we’re on the escarpment overlooking the African Great Lake. Chinese road makers watch over the road works as gigantic rollers flatten the road to lay the tar.  The lake shimmers under the afternoon sun. The Bakers in 1864 became the first white people to see it and name it after Victoria’s late consort.

Hoima to l. Albert in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Roadworks between Hoima and l. Albert in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat

The name Victoria had already been bequeathed upon Nam Lolwe (as the Luo’s called it) in 1858 by John Hanning Speke – who guessed it to be the source of the Nile but only confirmed by Henry Morten Stanley who sailed around it between 1874 and 1877.

The connection between the two African Great Lakes is the Nile. It flows from Lake Victoria via Owen Falls Dam (aka the submerged Ripon Falls) and Murchison Falls to Lake Albert and onwards north.

My plans change regarding Murchison Falls. There are too many trucks passing through Masindi. Rumour has it that the road is being tarmacked in Murchison Falls National Park to transport the oil and that the world’s most powerful waterfall is soon to be dammed.

Masindi

Bakers and King Kabalega monument near Masindi 1872 in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Bakers and King Kabalega monument near Masindi 1872 in Uganda Copyright Rupi Mangat

Back in Masindi, we stop at another monument dedicated to Kabalega meeting the Bakers’ in 1872. Baker asked the king to cede his kingdom to the Equatorial province of Egypt. The king wasn’t amused by the audacity of this and sent the couple packing with showers of spears passing within inches of them.

Kabalega was a man of vision building his kingdom on the strength of trade. According to literature, in 1879 the first caesarean in the world to save both mother and child was performed in Kabalega’s kingdom. A celebrated war hero, he kept the British off for five years until he was shot and captured in 1899 and exiled to Seychelles until 1923. He died en route home.

For once l agree with Idi Amin that Murchison Falls must be called Kabalega Falls.

Zooming in to Murchison Falls from the boat Copyright Rupi Mangat

Zooming in to Murchison Falls from the boat Copyright Rupi Mangat

Gallery

Fact file

Masindi is 847 kms west of Nairobi via the Busia border or an hour’s flight to Entebbe followed by a 250-km, four hour drive to Masindi. Kenyans do not need a visa and can enter with an ID card.

Personal recommendations: Paraa Safari Lodge and Chobe Safari Lodge (near Karuma rapids across the park). Red Chilli Hideaway is cheap and cheerful by the Nile before the ferry crossing.

In Masindi stay at New Court View Hotel(about USD 30 bed and breakfast) 60 kms east of Hoima. Murchison Falls is 100 kms on the opposite direction. Both are doable as day trips. Taxis at USD 50 for each trip available at the hotel.

In Entebbe check in at Via Via that’s affordable luxe

 

 

 

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