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United Nations predicted fire

By Vision Reporter

Added 20th March 2010 03:00 AM

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) eight years ago warned that the Kasubi tombs were at a risk of being destroyed by fire, termites or rain.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) eight years ago warned that the Kasubi tombs were at a risk of being destroyed by fire, termites or rain.

By Charles Wendo and Joshua Kato

THE United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) eight years ago warned that the Kasubi tombs were at a risk of being destroyed by fire, termites or rain.

The agency on January 31, 2002 published a spotlight article indicating that Kasubi tombs was among several world heritage sites in Africa that were at a risk of destruction. It noted that the traditional methods used for maintenance of the tombs were “losing ground”.

“The best way to preserve the Kasubi site, which is threatened by rain, termites, fire and even theft of timber, would probably be to revive traditional skills and combine them with modern conservation methods,” the authors recommended.

Saturday Vision could not establish whether the analysis, published on the UNESCO website, was directly communicated to the Government of Uganda or Buganda Kingdom. By press time the UNESCO press office in Paris had not yet responded to queries. The analysis titled UNESCO spotlight in world heritage sites is available on the UNESCO website.

The warning came a year after the Kasubi tombs were declared a world heritage site. Other world heritage sites in Uganda are Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Rwenzori Mountains National Park. Others submitted on the tentative list but not fully approved are the archaeological earthworks of Bigo bya Mugyenyi, Kibiro salt producing village, Ntusi man-made mounds and basin, Nyero rock paintings and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Over the years UNESCO has contributed over $73,000 (about sh146m) for refurbishment of the Kasubi tombs, though none of this went to fire-proofing the structures.

The tombs, located on a 30-acre piece of land, is an island of a natural environment in the middle of a city. However, it has attracted security concerns, with many people saying the surrounding bushes were a haven for rogues.

Despite the enormous value of the site and the ease with which the material can catch fire, security was lax. There were, for example, no armed and trained guards at the shrine.

Security is maintained by a few unarmed royal guards. Ideally, for proper security, such a shrine needed at least 15 security guards to be on patrol at all times. However most of the time, there was only a single guard or two manning the main gate.

There was no secure perimeter wall. Consequently gangs of men and women used to sneak into the enclosure to carry out illegal activities, including smoking bhang. Often thugs would emerge from the bushes behind the tombs and rob passersby at night.

“We complained that these bushes are a security threat to us and the site but nothing was done,” says one of the old care takers.
At one time, the thugs even threatened to rape some of the old women living there. This is why some of these women moved their huts nearer to the shrine and away from the thickets.

When one entered the tombs, the local guards did not check for threats. Any body could enter with a match box or anything inflammable. The Police post near the tombs does not cater for security of the tombs alone, but for the entire community.

Although the shrine predominantly had grass-thatched huts, some of the old women who lived there smoked pipes. Traditional healers also visited the site occasionally to carry out rituals, some of which involved lighting fires.

The site had five hand operated fire extinguishers. However, by the time the fire struck, only elderly women were at the site. Even then, hand-held fire extinguishers usually fail to control such big fires.

Instead the tombs could have been protected using a fire deterrent chemical. Alex Kalenge, the Fire Masters marketing manager, explained that the chemical is used to soak grass for about 30 minutes and it permanently becomes fire resistant. The liquid costs sh25,000 per litre and a set-up like Kasubi tombs would require about 1,000 litres, amounting to about sh25m. “Traditionally it has to be grass. You can’t change that. The only alternative is to use fire deterrent,” he said. “It can be applied before or after construction.”
Buganda will have a week of mourning for the disaster that struck the tombs starting on Monday March 22 to March 29.

During the mourning, men will wear kanzus (long white tunics) without coats (Amakanzu amateera). A piece of cloth will be tied around the waist (ekimyu). If a person cannot wear a kanzu, they should wear a black shirt without a necktie, or a shirt of any colour, but with a black band tied around the arm. The women will wear black gomesis.

This is the traditional way of mourning in Buganda.

United Nations predicted fire

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