Nile source a mystery 143 years after Speke

Jul 26, 2005

IT will be exactly 143 years tomorrow since the legendary English explorer John Hanning Speke discovered the source of River Nile, on July 28, 1863. To date, emotional debates still rage high about the real source of the Nile, making it stand out as one of the greatest enigmas of the world.

By George Laghu

IT will be exactly 143 years tomorrow since the legendary English explorer John Hanning Speke discovered the source of River Nile, on July 28, 1863. To date, emotional debates still rage high about the real source of the Nile, making it stand out as one of the greatest enigmas of the world.

River Nile’s allure lies in the fact that it is the world’s longest river along whose immensely fertile delta the world’s earliest civilisation started. Its unending large volumes of water supporting millions of people along its course adds to its fascination.

The Nile snakes through 4,145 miles (6,671 kilometres) from the heart of Africa along the equator through North East Africa into the Mediterranean sea. While not disclosing its source, the great religions of the Middle East such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism refer to the Nile as the river of hope and liberation. Indeed, Moses who later on led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt was hidden in the banks of the Nile to save him from the Pharoah’s wrath.

After defeating the Carthegeneans in the Punic wars of 149-146, the roman emperor Nero Agus sent an expedition to find the source of the Nile as a means of securing his empire, but the expedition stopped in the difficult Sudds of the Nile after which the name Sudan is delivered.
In 6-BC, King Necho of Egypt also commissioned a boat trip to find the source of the Nile.

Claudius Ptolemaues, commonly known as Ptolemy, in his famous work of geography in 150 AD wrote in his semi-mythical; work about the source of the Nile being a rem off from glaciers covering two giant mountains they called Mountains of the moon along the equator.
His works including 26 maps of specific geographic interests in the world including the River Nile inspired great voyages in the world including that of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

In 1150AD, Arabian geographer Suleyman-al-Masud wrote a book showing the source of the Nile in three great lakes far to the South. His successor Ibn Batuttal who travelled 75,000 miles reaching up to Timbuktu in West Africa wrote of the great River Nile along whose basin slave masters he called “slave farmers” took care of their slaves to earn good profits. Other sources of interest included an expedition under the French explorer Poncet in 1699, which reached Ethiopia from Cairo.

The discovery of the source of the nile by Fr Paez of the Jesuit missionaries in 1613 showed rains rather than snow capped mountains caused the disastrous seasonal floods in Egypt.

The narrative of Scottish explorer James Bruce who travelled up to Lake Tana, now Turkana, is perhaps the most revealing. Whether Englishman John Hanning Speke, a commissioned officer of the Indian army who fought in Punjab and spent time in exploring the Tibet mountains actually discovered the source of the Nile, largely remains a semantic issue between social and political historians, nationalists, linguistic experts and geomorphologic scientists.

However, the role of Speke undoubtedly made an indelible mark uncovering the Nile proving the Nile did not originate from an ice run off, but from large lake surrounded by snow capped mountains.
Entering East Africa through, Zanzibar, Speke and his friend Burton went westward and saw lake Tanganyika from where at Tabora Burton suffered a bout of malaria as Speke continued northwards becoming the first white man, to see lake Victoria.

On the mainland to the north, he saw Rippon falls on the July 28, 1863, which he deemed as the source of the Nile. He moved along the Nile to the north only to miss its entry into lake Albert.

To confirm his find, he returned a year later and walked to the west of lake Victoria, where he documented the presence of Kagera river as the remotest southern most source of the Nile with Lake Victoria as its major source of water. Known by the different names of river Ruvuvu/Ruvusu, Luvirosa, Kagera, Kiira, Victoria Nile, Albert Nile and Blue Nile, along its odyssey astride the continent since speke’s discovery, the Nile has played strategic roles to those living along its basin and the world as a whole.

The Nile water has been a major force of consensus building for the nations, through which it passes and the middle East politics in general. Egypt, which irrigates up to six million acres (2.4 million hectares) by using the Nile waters to produce food, sees the nile as of immense strategic importance as is the Sudan, which irrigates 2.4 million acres.

Because of this reason, colonial powers and especially Britain sought to control the Nile from its sources. For the same reason, the nile has directly shaped up ensuring that it is securely under British control.

With its many cataracts aside, the River Nile has provided easy means of transport and communication to and from the heart of Africa for purposes of trade, security and dissemination of religion.

To date, the Nile has bound many countries in its basin into one political organisation, the Nile basin Organisation, which agitates for the equitable use of the Nile water resources for an environmentally friendly social and economic development.

Many dams have been built across the Nile providing a cheap source of electricity to millions of homes and industries in the Nile Valley.

Apart from providing power, the Aswan High Dam in Egypt has helped to stop the formerly hazardous seasonal flooding and has provided a regulated source of water for irrigation.

Fishing in the Nile has not only provided an important economic activity in terms of employment, but also a cheap source of protein. The Nile has also offered inexhaustible sources of sporting activities such as deep water diving, white water surfing and boat racing with its allure remaining a major tourist attraction.

Speke’s discovery, which was precipitated by the desire of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London to find the sources of some of Africa’s great rivers Niger, Zambezi and Congo after taking over the African Association in 1830, is one of the scientific explorations commissioned by the RGS.

Some schools of thought, however, say the discovery of the source of the Nile cannot be attributed to Speke because he never reached the remote source of the Nile in the Burundian highlands where it started as river Nile Ruvuvu, flowing further as Ruvusu, Luvironso and the Kagera in Rwanda and south Western Uganda before entering the down warp of lake Victoria.

“Lake Victoria is the major contributor of water into the Victoria Nile, the point of exit to the Mediterranean sea at Ripon Falls in Jinja, where Speke made his discovery. I would call it a secondary source,” says Moses Muthaura, a specialist of geomorphology in the lake Victoria basin organisation that brings together Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

Muthaura’s argument is corroborated by practical experience on lake Victoria maritime transporters and fishermen who talk of crossing the Nile when on the lake.

The river Kagera water current flows through Lake Victoria in a deep brown colour and a high speed contrasting the deep blue and generally slow waters of the lake.

“That brownness flows to Jinja into the course of the Nile,” says Yowasi Mutyaba ,as he accelerated the motor boat to cross the speedy current of River Kagera’s brown invasion into the lakes’ blueness.

“It is possible that before the down warp, the Kagera river could be flowing towards Lake George to the West. lake Victoria is the authentic source of the Nile,” said Glady’s Akello of Makerere University. She argues that geological evidence shows the flow of Kagera river is much younger than that of the Nile at Jinja and further north.

Therefore, the Nile waters flowed in that course even before it could have changed the course of Kagera River.

Both groups, however, agree that Speke’s activities around lake Victoria led to a discovery, which has to date immensely affected the social, political and economic metabolism in river Nile basin and valley.

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