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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2 Replies to “The Ghosts of Dictators in Bukoba”

  1. This is quite an interesting read. I'm not convinced about the treasure because what would the Germans be gaining? Anyway. The thing you said about African leaders destroying what they find and replacing with things of far less value rings true for many. This is a good read.

  2. Hmmm, about that treasure, you never know with these oral tales. They might find a few coins. Maybe the omukama was hoarding what little the German's paid him, and that was the treasure his offsprings dream about.

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