Uganda bookshop: A 90-year legacy

Aug 27, 2012

You cannot miss that corner shop in a colonial-looking building with the simple sign reading ‘Uganda Bookshop’

You cannot miss that corner shop in a colonial-looking building with the simple sign reading ‘Uganda Bookshop’. As Henry Lubega discovers, it represents a 90-year historical legacy

The furnishing looks very old but still wonderful. The shelves are almost half-full with spiritual and some academic books and a few other stationery items. This was once a glorious shopping centre for books in the country.

It was started in 1925 as a printing press for the Church of Uganda in Namirembe along Balintuma Road.

The business was incorporated in 1927 and it was started by a Church Missionary Society official by the names of Mackay. The machine he was using to print was named after him.

Having started as a network to distribute church and Christian material, the enterprise expanded its operations into books and publishing in its later years. Then known as the Mackay printing press, the whole aim was to print religious materials in the different languages to ease the spread of Christianity in Uganda.

From Namirembe the printing press moved to plot 69 Kibira Road, now Mukwano Road.

Location changes
When the selling of religious books became a serious business, the enterprise decided to open up a shop. In 1927, the bookshop was incorporated with its first shop located on the same lot as the Bank of Uganda, opposite the Grand Imperial Hotel. After a while, that location was deemed a threat to the central bank.

“When we were in the canteen on the top floor, we could see what was happening in the central Bank’s strong room,” recalls Moses Mulwana Salongo who worked at the bookshop for 51 years until his retirement in 2010. He joined the company in 1949.

It was on that basis that the fi rst Obote regime decided to give the Bookshop the location of Plot 1 Duster Street, which used to house Uganda Printers in exchange. The new location is the same plot where Church house is being constructed today.

Sole distributor
Soon the business established branches in Masaka, Hoima, Mbale, Gulu, Kabale and Fort Portal for the sole purpose of distributing Christian books. Soon the opportunity opened up to supply scholastic material like chalk and text books to Government schools across the country.

“By 1959 we were the sole distributors of scholastic materials all over the country. Orders would start coming in as early as October and deliveries would start by early January before the beginning of the academic year,” explains Mulwana.

In 1969 with good income the bookshop opted to put up a better building on its premises. But, according to Mulwana, the city planners declared that the bookshop was a tenant on Bank of Uganda property and was supposed to pay rent to the central bank of sh10,000 per month.

President Obote had long made a decree giving the bookshop’s land to the central bank in exchange for Plot 1 Duster Street. But the decree had not been communicated to the bookshop leadership which had unknowingly accumulated rent arrears.

Instead of relocating to the freely given plot, the bookshop manager decided otherwise.

“Campbell talked to his colleague called Dr. Brown, then manager of Uganda Company, to sell them property on Plot 1 Square Road, now known as Buganda Road, directly opposite the Central Police Station. Uganda Bookshop paid 250,000 British Pounds for that property. That’s how we moved and left the Bank of Uganda property.”

Loss of monopoly
After 1962 President Obote sought to break the Uganda Bookshop monopoly on supplying scholastic materials by creating Uganda Schools Supplies, which was located on Uganda House building. This is when business started becoming competitive. Many of the schools started placing their orders with Uganda Schools Supplies.

Because of the dwindling business the building was partially rented out to Foods and Beverages until 1974 when Amin’s government was buying property in the city. The property was sold at sh25m to the government.

Final Destination
Because of the prevailing circumstances at the time, many foreigners left the country. One such person was McKenzie Smith who had got a piece of land on Colville Street as appreciation for his work for the Kampala City Authority.

By 1937 Smith had constructed the building on the corner plot.

“When McKenzie left the country, he left the building in the hands of the British Council and it is from there that the Uganda Bookshop bought the building in 1977, during the centenary year of the Church of Uganda,” recalls Charles Lubega Matovu, a former accountant with the bookshop.

The first days after the takeover were not easy as Amin’s soldiers had wanted to take the building, having known that the original owner had fled the country. It took the intervention of the church since the bookshop was a business arm of the church, to secure their property.

Tough times
Matovu had joined the bookshop as a shop assistant and rose through the ranks to become a cashier, accountant and retired as the estimator after 37 years. He says the bookshop was the first Ugandan institution to deal with international publishing houses.

“Our stationery and other goods were coming directly from European firms like Longman, Cambridge, and Steadman in Germany.”

But like all other Ugandan institutions, the bookshop was also affected during the eight years of Amin’s rule. “During that time, all our European supplies stopped giving us goods. We resorted to buying from Nairobi or buying from individuals who managed to import from Europe.

Much as our competitor Uganda Schools Supplies had closed shop after the fall of Obote because it was seen as a UPC business, we still could not get back to our original footing because of the prevailing situation,” says Matovu.

When the schools contract was interfered with, diversification became necessary.

Uganda Bookshop then started dealing in surveyors’ equipment which kept it in business. When international publishers stopped supplying, the bookshop started selling handcrafts and exporting some to Italy, according to Matovu.

As many Europeans left during Amin’s time, the first Ugandan soon took over management of the bookshop.

Martin Lurther Galiwango managed it for 34 years.

Danger of debt
As a business it was not safe from debt. It once faced the possibility of falling under the auctioneer’s hammer. This situation, according to one of the long serving employees, now retired, was due to poor management.

“The managers’ appointments were political and not based on the church recommendation as it was before.

This is when everything started falling apart. Many of the branches were in rented premises and they started closing down, save for those in Kabale, Fort-Portal, Hoima and Mbale,” he says.

Mulwana says the bookshop was rescued when Livingstone Nkoyoyo was elected Archbishop of the Church of Uganda. He appointed a new manager, a British man called Restone who introduced the idea of sub-letting offices at the bookshop to raise money and reduce the loan debt which had reached sh480m.

“One year later when he was leaving, it had reduced to sh230m. It took the intervention of Archbishop Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo to raise the balance and save the property from being taken over by the banks,” says Mulwana.

Future Plans
The current manager, Tom Wangolo, explains that much as the site where the Church House is being constructed had been given to the bookshop, it was taken over by the Church of Ugandan because the bookshop is an investment arm of the Church.

Wangolo reveals that their plans to redevelop the current site on Colville Street have been blocked by the planning department of Kampala Capital City Authority. Ebenezer House as it is called is one of the three buildings whose demolition KCCA has stayed in order to preserve the legacy of the old structures in Kampala.

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