where the river starts
Published 30 September 2017 Saturday magazine Nation newspaper
Above: Building from the early 1900s – Barclays Bank on Jinja main street
Copyright Rupi Mangat
“Speke passed on the Buganda side and standing on a rock by the river asked ‘what is the name of this river?’,” relates Captain Masanja of Jinja Sailing Club sailing us down the Nile from the mighty Victoria at Jinja, the quaint little town on the Ugandan shores – 90 kilometes from Kampala and 236 kilometers west of Kisumu on the Kenyan shores.
“The people did not understand what he was asking and replied ‘Naire’. And in the Lusoga language ‘Naire’ means ‘l don’t know.’”
“So Speke named the river Nile – which in actual fact means – ‘don’t know’ while the actual name of the Nile in Lusoga is Kiira.
It’s a funny local lore because the Nile derives its name from the Greek word Neilos meaning valley while the ancient Egyptians called their revered river Aur – black because of the colour of the sediments the river left behind after its annual flood.
We’ve had a hearty lunch at Jinja Sailing Club before the afternoon sail to the very point where the Nile starts its 6,853-kilometer journey to the Mediterranean Sea at Egypt.
It’s picturesque with the sun and the lake-breeze, sipping ice-cold mojitos.
Captain Masanja points to the breeding cages for tilapia underwater. Cormorants and egrets wait on the rails for an easy bite. The port is busy with a few cargo boats from around the lake with loads of charcoal bags being ferried as far as Kisumu.
It’s a very different scene from when John Hanning Speke stood here on 28 July 1862 and described the scene – ‘at their feet the great stream poured itself like a breaking tidal wave over a waterfall … the roar of the waters, the thousands of passenger-fish leaping at the falls with all their might; the Wasoga and Waganda fishermen coming out in boats and taking post on all the rocks with rod and hook, hippopotamus and crocodiles lying sleepily on the water’. Speke named the spot- Ripon Falls after the then president of the Royal Geographical Society.
Our captain stops the boat at where the falls would have been – but the Owen dam built in the 1950s drowned them. Only a few bubbles sprouting from the springs underwater and a blue sign points to the origin with curios shops on the islet. Nothing as breath-taking as Speke described the scene.
Captain Masanja sails to the bank overlooking the source. We disembark to see the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, the universal figure for peace who died in 1948 in India. He spent 21 years in Africa championing the cause for equal rights and racial equality. His wish was to have some of his ashes scattered on the Nile.
The sail downstream is exciting. In secluded bays on the river monitor lizards sun themselves on rocks. The riverine trees have flocks of Striated herons, darters, Open billed storks and kingfishers of many kinds including the bejewelled Pygmy. In Speke’s times, he writes of the banks teeming with hartebeest and elephants.
All that’s gone but we settle for a family of otters at play in the bay – gliding, disappearing, frolicking and diving deeper – it’s awesome. We keep a respectable distance to let them play in peace.
Opposite Jinja Sailing Club a delipidated building catches my eye. “It was Ripon Falls Hotel,” tells Himanshu Kumar of Jinja Sailing Club under the Marasa brand. The building belongs to the group with plans to renovate it.
Built in 1950 to host Queen Elizabeth for her to officially open the newly constructed Owen Dam in 1954, the hotel fell on bad times during Idi Amin’s bloody reign in the 1970s when he expelled the Ugandan Indians and destroyed the economy.
There’s a funny side to the story. The explorer Samuel Baker and his wife followed Speke and Grant to Africa in 1862 to confirm Speke’s origin of the Nile. Speke’s reputation had taken a bashing when he stated that the source of the Nile was at what he had named Ripon Falls.
Speke’s critics – with James Burton the most vocal and who had invited Speke on the first expedition to Mwanza in 1858 where Speke first stated that Victoria was the source of the Nile – questioned how someone who had seen the lake at only two different points 200 kilometers apart could be so sure that it was one lake and the source of the Nile?
And Speke had not endeared himself to the Victorian prudes for frolicking with the maidens at Kabaka Mutesa’s (Ugandan King’s) court.
Baker jokingly stated that Speke and Kabaka Mutesa should build a hotel on site and call it
Ripon Falls Hotel
Speke and Mutesa
Pombe and Mbugus always ready
Ripon Falls Hotel indeed was built but much later when the Queen came calling.
Road to Jinja
4 h 20 min (236.3 km) via A 109 and Kisumu – Busia Rd/B1
Must have for Uganda: log book, yellow fever certificate – East African’s use ID cards.
One stop border at Busia: Easy but the vehicle registration is lengthy – they keep the log book forcing you to return – annoying – if you decide to continue to another country.