May 23-25, 2014: Great Rifts and Little Birds: Our Trek through the Wonders of Southwestern Uganda

A productive meeting with faculty, administrators, and students from Mbarara University of Science and Technology.
A productive meeting with faculty, administrators, and students from Mbarara University of Science and Technology.

After spending nearly a week in and around urban areas in central Uganda, we headed to the southwestern part of the country. Several faculty visited Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), which we had learned about through the paper “Developing Astronomy in Uganda” in the proceedings of a 2011 International Astronomical Union Symposium. The paper was authored by MUST’s Dean of Science, Dr. Simon Anguma, and by a Senior Lecturer, Dr. Edward Jurua. Unforunately, Drs. Anguma and Jurua were out of the country, but we did get to meet the Associate Dean, Dr. Julius Lejju, the Public Relations OFfice, Dennis Lukaaya, two faculty members, David Okut and Cosmos Dubma, and a graduate student, Benard Nsamba. We had a productive meeting in which our hosts described the partnerships they had built with institutions in South Africa, Sweden, and Germany. In our conversation, they were enthusiastic about collaborating with Harper on furthering astronomy education, science education in general, outreach, and possibly research. It was inspiring to see a young institution (established in 1989) with humble origins rapidly emerging as a regional leader in science.

As we continued in our journey, the highway became emptier, the air cooler and cleaner, and the informal sidewalk economy less vibrant. We drove past tea plantations in the Ankole region, which were larger and in better shape than the ones near Jinja. Our driver told us that these plantations were owned by small scale farmers who had organized themselves into cooperatives, and many owned their own homes. The women who were weeding and plucking did not appear as desperate as those observed in the corporate plantation in Jinja. Perhaps they did but we were driving too fast to notice. Or perhaps life really was better here. One of the faculty members at Makerere had described this region as the Switzerland of Uganda but was immediately corrected by another faculty member who had said it was the Switzerland of Africa. Who were we to disagree?

Then, suddenly, there it was — the western arm of the East African Rift, also known as the Albertine Rift, which is slowly splitting the continent in two. This is a zone of spreading (Divergent plate boundary) that will eventually be filled by the ocean like the Red Sea and the Sea of Aden. Before us lay a flat green valley extending to the distant horizon. In the distance lay Lakes Edward and George and the snowcapped Ruwenzori mountains — the legnedary “Mountains of the Moon.” We could have compared the magnificent vista to those of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, but we just stood there in awe.

A stunning view of the Albertine Rift.
A stunning view of the Albertine Rift.

We descended down the Albertine Rift valley wall into the northern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), Uganda’s oldest national park, which was established in 1954 whlie the country was still a British colony. The park’s diverse ecosystems include wetlands, open savanna, dense scrub, and tropical rainforest. Among the topographic features of interest that can be found there are volcanic craters, and both escarpments and valleys associated with geologic faulting. The park has lost most of its wildlife during the turbulent 1970s and 80s, but the presence of game was still evidence — elephant, cape buffalo, Uganda kob, waterbuck, warthog, hippo, crocodiles, among many others. Sadly, rhino are no longer found in the park, having been poached out of existence. Bird life as prolific with the park boasting over 600 species.

Several fishing villages were present in the park, which raised interesting questions. Were the villages substantially benefiting from QENP tourism? Were there any ecotourism ventures initiated by the villagers? How had local attitudes towards wildlife evolved since the park was formed – especially since the “fortress conservation” model, which forcefully excludes local people from all the natural resources in a protected area, was apparently not implemented here in its purest form? How was the park coping with invasive plant species radiating from human settlements in and outside the protected area, such as the Mathenge shrub, a type of mesquite (Prosopis juliflora)? How was resource use (wood, salt, and fishing) by the villages managed?

A group photo with Muguruzi.
A group photo with Muguruzi.

Our next stop was the town of Kabale, where we picked up Mr. Festo Karwemera, an elder from the Bakiga (pronounced “Bachiga”) tribe, before heading to our hotel on picturesque Lake Bunyonyi.  Mr Karwemera, who is referred to as “Muguruzi” which means “elder,” has spent the last half century documenting and promoting the traditional culture of Southwestern Uganda.  He has written a dozen books on the Bakiga language and other topics but has not had much success marketing them to local people, organizations, and schools.  He despairs that the young people in the area “try to be European but we are not European.”  We had a long candid conversation with Muguruzi on his life and work.  He recited poems and two young people demonstrated dances for us.  Muguruzi is not nostalgic for all traditional practices, however.  An example from his “good riddance” list was the practice of abandoning unmarried pregnant girls on one of the tiny islands in the lake; he noted wryly that the men who got them pregnant did not suffer the same punishment.

That night, it was mostly clear. We went up to the open terrace of our hotel to witness a spectacular night sky. It was a new moon. There were some familiar objects in unfamiliar places. Orion was sideways and setting in the west. Above it, shining brilliantly, were Jupiter and Sirius. Mars was close to the zenith. The Big Dipper was low in the north. Polaris was just below the northern horizon, we figured. In the opposite direction were objects most of us had never before seen: the Southern Cross and Centaurus which includes Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system. The Milky Way arched across the Southern sky. There was another faint band almost perpendicular to it, connecting Jupiter to Mars. This band was most likely the zodiacal light, the light reflected off millions of dust particles that orbit the Sun.

We would have loved to spend more time in Lake Bunyonyi, but early the next morning, we were back on the road.  At least, the long car rides made for deep conversations, topics changing as rapidly as the scenery.  While in Kampala, we had talked about inequality, inequity, power, exploitation, poverty, class, and colonialism.  We had discussed and debated subsistence farming, cash crops, child labor, education, migration, urbanization, housing, transport, and the future of capitalism.  Now that we were surrounded by trees, lakes, and wildlife, we found ourselves talking about our families and how we wished they were here with us.  We shared our life stories, especially graduate school and the road to Harper.  We described what and how we teach.  We were surprised to find out the degree to which the rest of the group was interested in our disciplines.  We shared our dreams and our vision for ourselves, the college, and society.  This has been a unique opportunity – an intense journey with colleagues in a fascinating place.  We have much to learn from each other.  We have made the most of our time together.

The lovely Lake Bunyonyi.
The lovely Lake Bunyonyi.

 

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