By Stephen Ssenkaaba
Down the deep valley that feeds into the blue waters of what is largely known as “the source of the Nile” in Jinja, a busy day rolls on.
Tourist vans roam; petty traders beckon tourists, tour guides pounce on unsuspecting passersby and attendants of little wooden craft shops call out to prospective customers. We know this as the spot where John Speke, one of the early British explorers, allegedly witnessed the source of River Nile.
With its lush greenery and cool sea breeze, it remains one of the most visited sites in Uganda. But the ‘source’ is also famous for hosting one of the world’s most charismatic figures: Mahatma Gandhi.
The father of the Indian nation, Gandhi rests on a raised brown slab plinth in the lush green gardens on the extreme right hand corner of this expansive space. Appearing in an artfully rendered bronze bust, his presence bestows a calming tranquility in an otherwise busy environment.
In this dark, grey-brown bust, Gandhi spots a pensive demeanor, looking down on all his visitors or perhaps praying for them. Set against green towering trees and a thriving fl ower garden, the bust shares in the cool whispers of the fresh breeze emerging from the tender leaves of the healthy trees surrounding it.true
It brings down a sort of calmness and peace that seem to elude any part of this active place. In a symbolic sort of way, such a background powerfully resonates with the very values that this man stood for: peace, calmness and co-existence. And, it easily rubs off the visitors.
As I stood below this monument, marveling at its chiseled bronze glazed body, I witnessed the nearly divine spell that it seems to have on visitors here. In groups; in pairs; even as individuals, people approach this statue with some sort of prayerful reverence.
A young woman came to the statue as I watched. With calculated steps, she made her way to the garden; her initially quick strides growing ever slower as she got closer. She suddenly stopped right in front of it.
She looked at it straight up, went up the steps, closer to the pedestal, read the words on the foundation stone, turned her head, looked up and lightly reached for the statue with her hand.
“Why?” I asked. “What is it about this man that brings you here?”
“I do not know. I want to know more about him, maybe I can teach my students about him; I do not think he is covered in our syllabus. I would like to go back and ask those who know more about him to tell me,” said Joyce Asaba, a teacher of mathematics and social studies from Hoima.
She afterwards paused for a picture while standing next to the statue and disappeared. As an artwork, Gandhi’s statue bares appealing aesthetic qualities; a shapely torso with a glazed yet rutted finishing that makes for powerful texture.
This is the kind of statue that you see and also want to feel. Through well-considered, even slightly exaggerated rendering of the eyes, nose, moustache, lips and ears, the artist draws us into the soul of this highly acclaimed individual.
His eyes are not just closed or half closed, the lips are not just firmly clenched, and brow not just well-lined, and the ears not just wide spread- the artist is saying something: that Gandhi is watching, praying, listening; please join him.
Birth of the statue
The statue at the source of the Nile was an idea of the Indian community in Uganda in collaboration with the Indian government.
It was unveiled on October 5, 1997 by His Excellency Inder Kumar Gujral, then Prime Minister of the republic of India. It has since been maintained by Bank of Baroda, an Indian owned bank here.
According to Ashok Garg, the bank managing director, this monument stands not only as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi’s in uential work in Africa, but also as a reminder of Gandhi’s decision to have a portion of his ashes sprinkled in the Nile in 1948.
“By putting up the statue, we commemorate a great man, who worked hard to spread a message of peace in the world, but also whose virtues of non-violence influenced leaders like Nelson Mandela and other rulers,” Garg says.
Gandhi spent 21 years of his illustrious career in Africa where he championed the rights of the downtrodden and marginalized communities.
It was his wish, according to some unofficial sources, that on death, some of his ashes be sprinkled in the Nile, perhaps to cement a long lasting relationship with a continent that shaped his career, but also, I guess to immortalize and spread his legacy in Africa and beyond.
No doubt the ashes sprinkled in Nile in Jinja have been washed all over the continent and beyond. The Gandhi monument has become a pilgrimage and tourist site for Ugandan and Indian nationals.
According to Garg, every year, on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, the Indian community pays homage to their country’s founding father by visiting the statue and presenting flowers.
For many Ugandans, this monuments stands for the honour and grace of a peace activist and world icon.
“To see that Gandhi’s ashes were immersed here and his statue located here is a great honour to our country,” Susan Mulungi, a restaurant operator, says.
She adds that as an individual, the presence of Gandhi’s monument here reminds her “to always be tolerant with my friends”.
Ismail Kirunda, a tour guide at the source of the Nile, says alongside the spot where John Speke is said to have seen the Nile, Gandhi’s monument has added a tourist value to this place.
“A number of people come here just to see and take pictures next to Gandhi’s statue” he says.
Locations of statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Jinja
- “The source of the Nile” in Jinja
- The compound of the Hindu temple on Bell Avenue West in Jinja. It is a full figure statue of Gandhi, holding a stick in the right hand and a book in the left, while sporting his famously simple traditional Indian dhoti and shawl. It is a beautiful statue, standing on a raised red-brick pedestal, which shows Gandhi seemingly taking a step. Its dark monochromic rendering gives this work harmony and easy viewing.
- Rajni Tailor, a renowned businessman, talks of a third Gandhi statue at Gill Singh’s house not far away from the temple.
The symbolic Gandhi statue in Jinja