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.

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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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