The announcement by government in January last year that it would demolish the Uganda museum to give way for the construction of a 60-storey trade centre understandably caused a stir.
Cultural activists, politicians and many people bitterly opposed the move and even took government to court. Sixteen months later, the battle still rages on, but how will it end? Edris Kiggundu dissects the arguments for and against the demolition of the historical structure.
At about five feet, seven inches tall, Ellady Muyambi does not cut the figure of someone who can sustain a fight. However, on a recent evening over a bottle of soda and punching away at his laptop, the big-eyed, bubbly-cheeked cultural rights activist appeared to be itching for one.
"We cannot allow this to happen. What will we tell our children and grandchildren?" Muyambi queried, in relation to the impending demolition of the Uganda museum by government to give way for construction of the 60-storey East Africa Trade Centre.
Muyambi is the executive director of Historic Resources Conservation Initiative (HRCI), a civil society organisation concerned with preservation of culture and nature. And it is not a coincidence that our meeting takes place within the precincts of the Uganda museum, a place that has become something of a second home for him.
Working closely with other organisations like Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), Historic Building Conservation Trust (HBCT) and distinguished people like retired Supreme court Judge, Justice George Kanyeihamba, Muyambi has literally staked his life on saving the museum.
This has earned him and other organisations involved in the cause national and international media coverage. Their efforts have also caught the attention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the UN body that oversees cultural heritage, among members. In April 2011 when the campaign had gathered momentum, Francesco Bandarin, the Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO, wrote to Kahinda Otafiire, the minister of Tourism, Trade and Industry at the time, urging the government to abandon the move and find alternative land elsewhere.
"As you are aware, the Uganda National Museum is the largest and oldest museum in the country. Its exhibitions on traditional culture, archeology, history, science and natural history are among the most important in East Africa... In light of the above considerations, we would appreciate it if you could inform us of the official position of your government regarding the fate of the Uganda National Museum," Bandarin wrote on April 15, 2011.
Similarly, last year, Merrick Posnansky, who was curator of the museum between 1958 and 1962, wrote in The Independent, a Ugandan weekly news magazine, that it would not be ideal to transfer the contents of the museum safely.
"I have seen museums restricted to floors of a multi-storey building. They do not work. A museum needs different rooms for different exhibitions, two floors would restrict some movement," Posnansky wrote.
Yet their struggle remains strewn with challenges and setbacks that will not be easy to overcome. For instance, in April this year, Muyambi and company suffered a major blow when the High Court dismissed, on technical grounds, a case they had filed against the demolition. Apparently, while filing the case, their lawyers had not provided a statutory notice to government, as is required in such cases. But the activists are not deterred.
In June, they filed an appeal in the Court of Appeal and hearing is scheduled to start soon.
"The Uganda Museum is a historical piece that should stand alone, and destroying it is a cultural crime which is tantamount to destroying Uganda's soul," Muyambi said last week.
Government continues to send mixed signals on whether it will demolish the museum. When the activists sued government last year, the Principal Assistant Secretary in the ministry of Tourism, James Byenjeru told court the trade centre would be constructed 'near' the museum.
"I know that the government intends to construct the East African Trade Centre next to the building housing the museum and as such, does not intend to demolish the museum," Byenjeru said.
Thereafter, the government said the museum would occupy two floors on the trade centre building, saying this space amounted to 6,000 square metres, ten times bigger that the space it currently occupies (600 square metres). Later, Otafiire quashed all this when he told Parliament that the museum "must go", describing those opposed to its demolition as "backward".
Indeed, the museum, which occupies 3.359 hectares (approximately 13 acres), located on Plot 5, Kira road in Kamwokya, is in dire need of a facelift. Although it is evident that the exterior recently got a fresh brush of paint, a number of things need to be fixed. For instance, the benches in the garden are dilapidated, while the parking yard needs to be widened and repaved.
The museum was founded in 1908 and has exhibits and artifacts of traditional culture, archeology, history and science. It has various interesting sections riddled with artifacts that bring to life the different historical aspects of our society. For instance, in the Stone Age section, one is able to observe physical tools used by Stone Age people. These tools include stones, bones and wood used for cutting, scrapping and chipping, and how they evolved into the modern tools that Ugandans use today, or used in the recent past.
One is also able to see how we evolved from our ancestors, from the pre-historic period through the history of apes and how they evolved into humans. The story is told by the displayed pictures, as well as real tools and bones or skulls that make the history we learn in school seem more real.
Uganda's multicultural and colourful past comes alive as one tours the History and Iron Age displays depicting the traditional ways of life in different kingdoms, tribes and communities of Uganda. Here one finds striking displays of traditional clothing (mostly bark cloth and animal skin), headdress, hairdressing, as well as hunting, the history of transportation, fishing, agriculture, war, religion, and how our ancestors spent their free time (traditional recreation).
Also of interest is the display that describes how justice was dispensed in Uganda many years ago. With no penal code, police force or criminal investigations department as they exist today, how did people in earlier days know/prove who had committed which crime and what punishment fitted him/her? One would be able to learn that the Madi and Lugbara used divine pots to assess the innocence of the accused.
However, despite this rich cultural heritage value, government believes that the museum has become a liability, having failed to generate any meaningful revenue. A trade centre in the same place, government feels, would perform much better. Yet government must also take part of the blame, having continually underfunded the museum. For instance, for the 2011/2012 financial year, it was allocated a mere Shs 50 million, money that certainly is not enough to meet its needs.
Over the years, the management of the museum has tried to come up with innovative ways to circumvent the funding crisis. It has, for instance, leased part of its land to the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which has established offices and to private developers like Ibamba restaurant. However, sources told us that the museum has no direct control over the resources generated from these ventures.
Management also introduced entry charges to boost the facility's income. Until the early 2000s, Ugandans visiting the museum were not charged but, today, adults pay Shs 1,000 to enter and children, Shs 500. The entry fees for foreigners are Shs 3,000 for adults and Shs 1,500 for children. Visitors carrying still and video cameras pay an additional Shs 5,000 and Shs 20,000 respectively.
Yet some analysts feel that for a government that has a history of ignoring public sentiment, particularly where demolition of public property is concerned, the cultural activists are fighting a lost cause. In 2006, the government gave the nod to the demolition of Shimoni Demonstration School to give way for the construction of a hotel, despite protests from various sections of the public.
The activists are aware of this and for now, have pinned their hopes on the case yet to be heard by the Court of Appeal. The real show, Muyambi says, starts now.