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Kabaka Mutesa I, the father of Uganda's formal education

By Vision Reporter

Added 5th July 2012 12:03 PM

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profi ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country.

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profi ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country.

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profi ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOSEPH SSEMUTOOKE searches the archives and brings you the story of how reading and writing were introduced in Uganda

Kabaka Mutesa I Walugembe is lauded as the major force that helped Western civilisation to take root in Buganda and Uganda generally.

Mutesa I, who ruled Buganda Kingdom between 1856 and 1884, is particularly eulogised for inviting missionaries to come to his kingdom and introduce their advanced civilisation. The act stands as one of those rare cases, where a native ruler in what were then called the ‘dark regions of the world’ embraced the Western civilisation.

In calling for missionaries, Mutesa ‘invited’ literacy (the ability to read and write) as well. It was one of the aspects of the civilisation that the European missionaries always introduced wherever they went. Before the arrival of missionaries, reading and writing were alien in Buganda and most of Africa.

It should be noted that Mutesa’s invitation to Europeans was occasioned primarily by political interests. The monarch thought that by having the British on his side, it would be easy to thwart the Egyptians’ southerly expansion, which was threatening his kingdom.

However, some scholars contend that the desire to have his people attain Western civilisation, education inclusive, was another motivation for Mutesa to invite the Europeans.

Earliest reading and writing in Uganda
Historians trace the earliest reading and writing in Uganda to have been at the court of the Kabaka of Buganda. The earliest person to engage in that reading and writing is thought to have been Kabaka Ssuna, who reigned between 1832 and 1856. He was Kabaka Mutesa I’s father.

The earliest Arab and Swahili traders in present day Uganda are said to have convinced Kabaka Ssuna to adopt several tenets of Islam, thereby teaching him how to read and write Koran verses in Arabic.

Some Muslim leaders claim that the fi rst traders also taught a few other people at Ssuna’s court the art of reading and writing. 

But scholars have generally dismissed these claims, saying there were no people in Buganda, who could read and write when the fi rst European explorers visited Kabaka Mutesa I’s court. 

From Kabaka Ssuna, the next person acknowledged by history to have learnt how to read and write before the coming of the Europeans is Kabaka Ssuna’s son and successor to the throne, Kabaka Mutesa I.

Writing in a journal about his experience on the discovery of the source of the River Nile, John Speke, the first European to visit the Kabaka’s palace, indicated that the Kabaka could read the Koran and write basic Arabic and Swahili. However, Speke also noted that it was only the Kabaka who could read and write.

 He added that although a few of his top officials at court had also adopted a few tenets of Islam; none of them could read or write. They only followed what the king told them he had read about.

Mutesa’s brush with Stanley and other Europeans
The arrival of explorer and journalist Henry Murton Stanley at Kabaka Mutesa I’s court in April 1875 is generally accepted as the real entry point of literacy in Buganda and later Uganda.

Stanley arrived at the Kabaka’s court on an expedition to identify the source of the River Congo as well as confirm earlier explorers’ discoveries, but ended up staying at the court for months.

Writing in Through the Dark Continent (1878), a narrative of his first African travels, Stanley stated that his interactions with Kabaka Mutesa I indicated that he was more interest in European civilisation. He also noted that Mutesa was awed by the European culture, including modern medicine, clothes and the guns the Kabaka needed badly. 

Stanley stated that he personally taught Mutesa I the entire English alphabet, had him write the 10 commandments on a board for his daily perusal. He, along with his translator, Dallington Mutawfta, translated several parts of the scripture into Swahili, which Mutesa understood better, he added.

Mutesa and Stanley’s letters to England inviting missionaries
It was during Stanley’s visit that the famous letters of Mutesa I and Speke, inviting missionaries to his kingdom, were written and sent to England.

The arrival of missionaries ultimately marked the beginning of Western education and other aspects of Western civilisation in Buganda and present day Uganda generally.

In November 1875, a letter that was credited to Mutesa I, appeared in England’s Daily Telegraph, with the Kabaka stating that he wanted to be a friend of the white man, and asked him to visit his country.

A week after Mutesa’s letter was published, the newspaper published another letter written by Stanley, calling on missionaries to come to Buganda.

The letter began with what the explorer alleged to be a translation of Mutesa’s own words. He is said to have declared that he had realised that he and his people were ‘living in darkness’ and called on missionaries to come, guide and provide them light (Christianity).

Stanley stated (in the letter) how the land was ideal for missionary work with great harvests. He noted that “a practical Christian tutor, who can teach Christianity to the people, cure their diseases, construct dwell-ings, modern agriculture and turn his hand to anything like a sailor…”, was required.

Within three months of the letter’s publication, the Church Missionary Society in England had raised 24,000 pounds and selected eight pioneer missionaries to come to Buganda Kingdom to start missionary work.

Missionaries, the first writing teachers arrive
The eight-man expedition set off from England 16 months after the publication of Mutesa I and Stanley’s letters, arriving in Buganda in June 1877. The team was led by reverends Shergold Smith and C.T Wilson, who on arrival at Mutesa’s court started preaching ‘the good news’ to the Kabaka, his chiefs and the pages. 

All the while, they also taught them how to read and write. Two years later, in February 1879, Father Lourdel and Brother Amans of the Roman Catholic missionaries’ order of White Fathers arrived, too. They were joined by three other colleagues in the same year. Within two years, there were two different groups teaching Baganda how to read and write under the umbrella of Christian instruction.

Within months of the missionaries’ arrival, several people at Mutesa’s courts, including his wives, chiefs and pages, were able read and write, thanks to the missionaries’ catechism classes. Henceforth, literacy began spreading out to ordinary citizens.

Sixteen years later, the fi rst school was built at Mengo. In his book, Shaping the Society: Christianity and Culture, Stephen Kyeyune summarises well Mutesa’s key role in bringing literacy to Uganda.

He argues that Christianity and literacy spread fast because they started at the Kabaka’s palace, adding that it would have been a different story if it had started from elsewhere in the kingdom.

He notes that since all the people respected the king, his enthusiasm to learn how to write and read made his subjects to embrace it without ado. “If the king had repulsed the Europeans, they would have come at a much later time. Even then, their culture would have been shunned for a long time as happened elsewhere in Africa.”

Kabaka Mutesa I, the father of Uganda’s formal education

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