The Ghosts of Dictators in Bukoba

Some places are like pages of a book that preserves history. Bukoba is one such place. It boasts of something from every chapter in human history; Stone Age rock art in Bwanjai, ancient foundries in Katuruka, a colonial palace in Kanazi, and ruins from one of Africa’s first inter-state wars in Kyaka. I went to Bukoba to look at our distant  past, intrigued that the Bahaya could make high-grade steel 2000 years ago, and oral lore has it that they constructed an iron-tower that reached the heavens.  But I failed to get a decent look into that past because ghosts of two dictators blocked my view.

Hermes, a descendant of Kahigi,
he was kind enough to show me the ruined palace.
One of these was Omukama Kahigi, who I had not heard of prior to my arrival in Bukoba. I heard about his palace by pure chance. I had run out of places to visit and I was idling on the beach, chatting with a local woman, who mentioned that I might want to see this colonial palace. I jumped at the opportunity, hoping I would stumble upon something grand. Instead, I got a lot of oral stories that have survived for nearly a hundred years.

The German’s built the palace for an omukama, Kahigi of Kainja. He was the weakest, and the most looked down upon, of the eight kings who ruled Buhaya shortly after the collapse of the Karagwe kingdom in the 1800s. Each had his own autonomous territory, but Kahigi struggled to hold on to his authority, and he feared being defeated and subjugated by one of other seven. He paid tribute to the Kabaka of Buganda, who helped him cling on to the throne. When the German’s invaded, he found a new ally
The house the German’s built Kahigi. Oral lore has it that
a maze underneath was a torture and death chamber.
At school, when we are taught about colonialism, they say Europeans did not meet resistance, and yet listening to anecdotes like that of Kahigi suggests otherwise. The Bahaya passively resisted. Though they did not take up arms, they refused to cooperate with the colonialists, and this made it difficult for the Germans to gain a foothold. They needed the support of the local leaders, and clever as they were, they saw an opportunity in Kahigi. Being the weakest, hungering for power, Kahigi quickly ingratiated himself towards the Germans, and they used him to conquer the Bahaya.
 
“He was the first to realize the power of the Germans,” his great-great grandson, Hermes Balige Nyarubamba, apparent heir to the all-but-dead kingdom, told me when I visited. As other kingdoms resisted colonization, Kahigi welcomed the Germans. Warmly. They gave him what he wanted. Power. They made him ruler of the region, and to thank him for his help, they gave him a lot of land, and they made him a German officer, and they built for him a palace in 1905, the ruins of which I was visiting.
 
When I saw his photos, I at first thought I was looking at a German. I could not see an African man from that period dressed up like that. Hermes told me that his great-grandfather loved the German’s so much that he behaved like a German, he dressed, and ate, and walked, and talked like a Germany. After Germany lost World War 1, Kahigi became lost. He did not know to relate to his new masters, the British. He committed suicide rather than serve another master, some sources say, but Hermes said it was because a British officer mocked him for his love for Germany, that the British officer called him a ‘German pet’ or something to that effect, and Kahigi could just not live with that insult. He was in a worse place than when the Germans found him. 

 

German boy: Kahigi, in German uniform.
It took me a moment to realize he was African.
“Was he loved?” I asked Hermes.
 
Hermes shook his head sadly. “He was like your Idi Amin,” he replied. He told me that the Germans built a maze under the palace where they tortured and killed people, with the full cooperation of the omukama. After their defeat, the maze was closed. “There is a secret door,” Hermes added. His father, who passed away in 2010, once opened the door, and took him into the maze, but they quickly retreated because the horrors from a century ago still haunt it. He says he saw a huge spirit-snake that roams the tunnels, and he heard ghosts of the people who died in there. “We want to open the maze to the public,” he told me, “but we have to first conduct rituals to cleanse the place. It’s not nice in there. It is terrible and full of horrible memories. It’s still haunted.” After his father passed away, he tried to open the door again, but failed. He cannot remember how to open it.

Nor would he show me the doorway to the maze. “It is a secret,” he explained. “Before we open it to the public we have to first explore it. There might be buried treasure in there.” 
 
There are three buildings in the palace. According Hermes, after the Germans constructed the first, a mbandwa – prophet, or shaman, – warned the king that he had used the visitors to gain power, but a time would come when that power would fade away, when his reign would weaken and die, and he would not have even a house for his children. He would have nothing valuable to give to his children. So Kahigi asked the Germans to build a new house for his son. They did. Kahigi however did not tell his son, Alfred Kalema, the full prophecy, so when Kalema tried to enter the new house, he saw a fire, and a giant snake. 

“Is it the same spirit-snake that haunts the maze?” I asked Hermes, interrupting his story.


“Maybe,” Hermes replied. “You see, the prophecy had it that doom would come soon, and Kalema would not enjoy the fruits of his father’s gamble with the Germans.” So the snake prevented Kalema from entering the house and Kalema had to build one, the third house, for himself. No one was able to live in the original palace until Kahigi’s grandson, Peter Nyarubamba, born in 1958, came along.

 

A shrine within the palace, where ancestral spirits are worshiped.
Some rooms in the palace are also used for spirit worship.
The family now lives in near poverty, partially surviving on fees tourists pay. The Tanzanian government banned all traditional kingships, and gives royal families no allowances. This palace had fallen to ruins. It resurrected and opened to tourists following the efforts of an American professor, Peter Schmidt.
 
“There is German treasure hidden away somewhere in here,” Hermes tells me as he explains the family’s financial situation. He thinks that because of the prophecy, Kahigi asked the German’s not just for a second building, but for treasure for his descendants. “They gave him a lot of treasure,” Hermes added. “We don’t know what kind of treasure it is, or how much it is, but the German’s buried treasure somewhere here and we are still looking for it. That’s one reason we can’t open the maze to the public, or reveal the location of the door.”
Ruins of a Rugaruga guardhouse, outside the palace at Kanazi, Bukoba.
Just outside the palace, are trenches, which Hermes said were dug during the 1978 Uganda-Tanzania war. I paused to think about the significance of these trenches, and them being so close to the palace. It put two kinds of people who I think are responsible or Africa’s current socio-political crisis in the same geographical location, two ghosts who are a symbolic representation of how things really fell apart in East Africa; how colonialists easily subjugated our grandparents, and how post-independence misrule and corruption stifled our opportunity to rise. Two people who hungered for power and used it selfishly. I’m superstitious, and I wonder if the ancestors were sort of preserving history by having these two things, the palace and the trenches, exist side-by-side to this day.
 
Bukoba still talks about Idi Amin’s invasion, even those who were not born at that time give animated narrations of tales from the war, and maybe this is because the Tanzanian government made efforts to ensure the people of the region never forget the war. Bukoba town bore the brunt of aerial bombings, most of which were thankfully wide of the mark. Some historians say Idi Amin’s pilots were not properly trained, and Tanzanian anti-aircraft guns brought down a number of the planes. People display pieces of metal in their offices (at least one that I saw), which they claim was from Amin’s planes. In Kyaka, a town an hour’s drive from Bukoba, Amin’s forces did considerable damage to some buildings, and the Tanzanian army keeps one as a monument to the war.

 

The ruins of a church in Kyaka, Tanzania,
destroyed during the Uganda-Tanzania war of 1978-79
Before the war, this building belonged to the Lutheran Church (ELCT). At first, there were two parishes, Kashasha and Kituntu, which joined to form Kyaka Parish and it built this church in 1960. The church stood on a hill, and must have been a majestic structure in its prime. Then, in 1971, Idi Amin started a feud with Nyerere, and there was talk of war. The Tanzanian army asked the church to vacate the hill, for it was of a strategic military importance. Whoever controlled the hill would control the town, and the main highway between Uganda and Tanzania. The church then shifted to what was supposed to be a temporal location, but which is where it stands to this day, because in 1978, war broke out and Idi Amin bombed the hill. By that time, it was a purely military post, with heavy equipment. The war left it in ruins, but Amin failed to control the hill, and hence could not control the town of Kyaka, and the highway, and thus he lost the war. 

Or so the oral tales have it.
 
I looked at the new church, and I saw symbolism in the bombed out structure. The new building is nothing compared to the one that was destroyed, it is no architectural wonder, and is not magnificent. Even the ruins is grander than the replacement church. There in I saw the legacy of African leaders, they destroy, and what they destroy, is replaced by things of far less value.
~~
 
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Bukoba: A Secret on the Shores of Lake Victoria

Bukoba: A Secret on the Shores of Lake Victoria

Visiting Bukoba in Tanzania turned out to be an exciting way to spend the end of year holidays. There was very little information online about its attractions, or how to get there, and this was a pain. I could not just google about an attraction and figure out how to go there. In fact, even in the villages with the attractions, some residents had no idea. At the rock paintings in Bwanjai, for example, I asked a bodaboda rider to take me to the caves, but he had never heard of them, though he said he had lived there for a long time. The scanty information may be because Bukoba doesn’t get a lot of tourists, and the advantage of this is that the hotels are not overpriced. I got very decent self-contained rooms at about 10k TZ shillings, ideal for a budget traveler. 
Somewhere to relax. The beaches are ideal for camping and picnics.
The site with the most information, Zamadamu Katuruka, was also the reason I decided to visit. I came upon it while researching iron works in ancient Africa, and was surprised to learn that the Haya produced high-grade steel as far back as 2000 years ago, probably around the time the Bachwezi ruled the region. It told me how little we know about our histories, and how distorted our histories have become after colonialism and foreign religions. I was curious as to what the locals thought of this history, and what the tools the Haya made with this steel.
If you love architectural wonders, Bukoba is full of them! Old colonial houses like one this make up much of the town.
Beer, roast goat or fish, and ugali at the beach. Hmmmm!

 To get to Katuruka, where the most famous ancient foundries are located, one online site suggested I take a dalla-dalla bound for Maruku, but whoever wrote that advice had probably never used a dalla-dalla in the Kagera region. They pack people like firewood. When I took one, from Bukoba to Kyaka, at the end of the trip after I had run out of money, we were twenty six people in a mini-bus meant for fourteen passengers. To Katuruka, I took a boda-boda, mostly for convenience and to save time. In a dalla-dalla, the 40 minute journey would have gone on for two hours. Besides, the boda-bodas are reassuring for they all have spare helmets, and it was far cheaper than a dalla-dalla. I paid about 10K TZ shillings for a return trip, and the rider waited patiently for an hour as I toured the place. I would have paid about 2000 TZ for a one way trip on a dalla-dalla, and then I would have had to get a boda to take me to the actual site.

I liked it that Katuruka is right in the middle of a village, and the tour takes you all over the village. I don’t like visiting ‘dead’ places which exist purely for tourism. It’s the one thing I really enjoyed in Bukoba. All the sites were ‘alive’ with people living within them, and it was often easy to get a guide from the community. In Katuruka, a young man of about 20 years showed me around. He learned about the history of the place from his uncle, the official caretaker, who had gone away for Christmas. From what I gathered, the uncle was bored with the job since it did not get many visitors, and so this young man, who had finished school but had no job, found himself with employment.

 There are twelve sites in Katuruka, spread over about a kilometer of the village. We started with a visit to a reconstructed chief’s palace. It looked so small that I wondered if they got their history right. I didn’t like it. The furnaces too were reconstructed, nothing was original. I was beginning to feel a little cheated, for I had seen similar furnaces before that were not built for tourists. Then we got to the spot where an iron-tower ‘that reached the heavens’ once stood, and the tour became a little interesting. And then, the ‘vanishing well’ made the trip totally worth it.
  
The well is part of the royal history of the Bahaya. One of the kings, Rugomora Mahe, fled to exile following a feud with his father. He lived somewhere in present day Uganda with a one-legged water spirit called Mugasha. Mahe returned to the kingdom after his father’s death and found a severe drought and famine, and he asked Mugasha for help. Unfortunately, the spirit sent too much water and floods killed people. Then Mahe called out to Mugasha again and this time the spirit gave him a well, with instructions that it should be kept clean and pure, and no fish should live in it.
  
Whenever the well becomes dirty, it vanishes, and reappears in a different place. I saw over ten dry holes, which were previously locations of the well. They are close to each other. At one time, the Lutheran Church built a spring well, and their reverends prayed to break the curse, but the well dried up in no time, rendering their money wasted.
  
At the well, I found a woman who said her name was Regina. “I think the well keeps vanishing because of drought,” she said. “It moves from place to place depending on the season.” I did not buy her reasoning. I’ve seen seasonal streams and wells before. They never shift position, but here was a well that never stays in the same place!
  
Regina knew nothing about Mugasha, or Rugomora, or the iron smelting, though she lives just a few meters from the site called Zamadamu Katuruka. “Isn’t that a school?” she asked.
Regina draws water from the current location of the well.

 The next day, Christmas, I idled around the beaches and watched birds. The food was great. I mostly ate fish and ugali. I enjoyed the architecture, for I have a thing for old houses. I was thrilled to see houses built on rocks, like in this photo. There were daytime dance spots on the beach, which were enclosed using canvas, mostly for children and youth.

The next day, I wanted to go to Musira. I was told there were caves that were burial sites for traditional doctors, but the locals were not really aware of this and someone whispered to me that those caves are seasonal. During the rains, they flood and are inaccessible. They are not even deep enough to explore, or so I was told. I heard that in Musira I could have seen crashed remains of Idi Amin’s warplanes, from the Tanzania-Uganda war of 1978, but this turned out to be false. The army ferried all the debris away. Discouraged, I instead visited a colonial palace, which the Germans used to conquer the region, but it’s quite a bit of a tale, so I’ll save that for another post.
  
On my fourth day, I visited the rock paintings at Bwanjai, which is in the same village as the Nyakijoga Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. I’ll start with the shrine. If you are Catholic and want to say prayers, visit it, otherwise, it’s a waste of time. To reach Bwanjai, I paid 3000 TZ in a shared taxi, and it deposited me in Mugana town. There, I asked a boda-boda guy to take me to the rock paintings.
  
That was the icing on the cake, to tour a village with a guide who was born and lives in the area. We rode into the wild and we talked about life in the village. The locals value the caves mostly because they can take shelter as they herd cattle. I was intrigued that nearly all the shelters face away from the sun, with only one getting directing sunlight in the morning. Each cave has a canopy that eerily resembles a front porch, and this makes me think the rocks were constructed. I could not stop asking myself; Is it just nature, or are these ruins of some long lost civilization?
Work of nature or ruins of a civilization? A Stone Age rock shelter in Bwanjai, Tanzania
Rock art Bwanjai, Tanzania. This set has not been defaced, other caves were in terrible shape, with feces in some of them.

 I know, ‘experts’ say that Stone Age people had no means to build anything grand. But I look at the pyramids of Egypt and wonder where they got the technology. I look at the ruins in South America and wonder how those ancient people hauled huge stones over many miles. And when I look at this, I wonder, is it really just a work of nature, or is there something we are missing? Why is it that all shelters (entry ways?) face away from the sun? Maybe someone should use a scanner to check if there is something inside those rocks.

 Amidu, my guide, showed me a way to the rocks via a small stream with a minor water fall. The locals call it kyabazaire (loosely translates to ‘it belongs to those who give birth’). In the old days, after a delivering and the placenta refuses to come out, they would make the mother lie under this water fall to force out the ‘dirt’ inside. He used the word ‘dirt’. These days, a woman might need an operation to remove the placenta. I wondered if the waterfall was an effective method, or if it worsened the woman’s situation….
An illegal brewery near the rock art at Bwanjai, Tanzania

 Further down the stream, I found a mother and her son brewing alcohol. It is illegal to brew alcohol in Tanzania and so these people have to do it in hiding, in the bushes, far away from the eyes of the authorities. When they heard our motorcycle, they at first ran away, fearing we were police. They only came out of the bushes when they heard Amidu’s voice. They offered me a jug of the brew, and I paid for it. We sat there in the wild and I enjoyed my Christmas two days late. The brew was so strong I can’t remember how I made my way out of the bush.

~~
If you enjoyed this post, consider supporting me. You can become my patron at patreon.com/dilstories and help me make short films in the scifi, fantasy, and horror genres, which are tough seeing they require a lot of special effects. Or you could subscribe to my channel on YouTube.com/dilstories, where you can also see some of my films.

 

Ideal for backpacking and camping, the civilized wilderness of Bukoba This was taken on the way to the Bwanjai Rock Art Caves, Tanzania

 

The Cathedral in Bukoba town is worth is a visit, but it is open only when there is a service, and photos are not allowed.
The exterior of the cathedral in Bukoba town, it is magnificent.

 

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