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ARTS: Rwenzururu is inner struggle for heritage

By Vision Reporter

Added 17th June 2004 03:00 AM

One of the most striking and pertinent examples of the legacy of colonialism in Africa and the misconceived plans of the rulers that followed is the predicament of the Bakonzo people, who live in the far west of Uganda.

One of the most striking and pertinent examples of the legacy of colonialism in Africa and the misconceived plans of the rulers that followed is the predicament of the Bakonzo people, who live in the far west of Uganda.

Book: Tribe: The Hidden History of the Mountains of the Moon
Author: Tom Stacey
Publisher: Stacey International
Price: sh60,000
Available: Leading bookstores in Kampala
Reviewer: Kabaka Ronald Mutebi of Buganda
Reprinted from Literary Review May 2004

One of the most striking and pertinent examples of the legacy of colonialism in Africa and the misconceived plans of the rulers that followed is the predicament of the Bakonzo people, who live in the far west of Uganda.

The Bakonzo, together with their close relatives, the Baamba, live in the upper reaches of the 15,000-foot, snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains — Ptolemy’s ‘Mountains of the Moon’ — which straddle the border between Uganda and Congo, struggling to cling on to a tribal identity that the modern world, with its emphasis on bland, soulless conformism and human monoculture, now considers to be obsolete.

Tom Stacey had his first encounter with the Bakonzo in 1954, when he went in search of a possible story for a book.

As he was terrified of being misunderstood to be merely interested in them as a way of furthering his literary career, he would, he decided, only write a book if it served a higher purpose than merely exposing an exotic people.

He probably got over these qualms, and living with the Bakonzo for several months, he got to know and appreciate their way of life and their beliefs, which, it seemed to him, fulfilled the most profound of all human needs: The need to belong ( in a place and in a group) encompassed in the idea of the tribe.

His association with the Bakonzo has lasted for 50 years, and they have composed songs about him. Which is always a telling sign in Africa societies. He has witnessed and at times instigated many of the events that have shaped their fortunes.

Bakonzo folklore is full of stories of injustice rained down upon the tribe throughout the years by the Batoro, the people who inhabit the neighbouring lowland kingdom of Toro.

The federal settlement that saw the creation of the modern state of Uganda had put the Bakonzo under the rule of both the King of Toro and a central government based hundreds of miles away in Kampala. According to Stacey, neither party dealt sympathetically with the Bakonzo, who felt excluded by their new government.

In 1962, a few months after the newly independent state of Uganda came into being, the Bakonzo rebelled against the central government, and in doing so they became the prototype for the secessionist and insurrectionary movements that have overtaken the African continent.

Stacey, by then a family man and a foreign correspondent based in London, was enticed by the Ugandan government to go back up to the steep ridges of the Rwenzori mountains and try to persuade his old buddy Isaya Mukirane, the leader of the rebels, to reach an understanding with the new government.

He gallantly embraced this mission, and the reader’s mind conjures up wonderful images of columns of short, beefy Bakonzo rebels marching amid the giant heather and the lobelia obelisks of the Rwenzori steppes, and in their midst the six-foot tall, willowy white Stacey wearing a colobus monkey skin — all of them pursued by the soldiers of the central government.

There was to be no settlement. The secessionists declared themselves to be a kingdom – the Kingdom of Rwenzuru – and their sense of grievance simmers on up to this day.

Even as he was intervening on the government’s behalf, Stacey seems to have known that the Bakonzo would settle for nothing short of total control of their domain and destiny, and evidently has a sneaking respect for their obduracy.

During one awkward situation, negotiating with a Rwenzururu diehard called Fanehasi Bwambale (the Rwenzururu ‘Pimpernel’), Stacey confides to the reader, in tones perhaps of resignation, that this individual ‘never trusted me.

Why should he? If ever I was to broker a deal between Isaya (Mukirane) and Kampala, it would shatter the dream of Rwenzururu.’ And the dream lives on, which emphasises Stacey’s major theme in this book: that the tribe and ethnicity are of profound importance to the human condition.

Africa’s post-independence governors deplored this inheritance, for a while.

Their faith was in the state and central authority, and the tribe was derided. Stacey, on the other hand, believes that ‘the blood we ascribe to expressions of tribalism we should more accurately ascribe to the fear in the centralising authority of artificial post-colonial states to accommodate the reality of the tribe as the fount of men’s right to grow and the spark of their fullness’.

His belief in the tribe and ethnicity is almost religious: ‘The proper sense of his ethnicity feeds Man the conviction of his identity and a glimpse of his grandeur.

No substitute exists for that food.

For a man to be deprived of it in the context of his grandeur is as for a man to be deprived of his childhood in the eye of his maturity... Ethnicity is a requirement of soul.’ For Stacey, this is a doctrine that should apply to all mankind and not only to Africans.


The book is a chronicle of Stacey’s lifetime association with a fascinating people and its heritage. It is history, anthropology, travelogue and philosophy all brewed together to produce a wonderful story, and it has much to say to all of us.

ARTS: Rwenzururu is inner struggle for heritage

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