5 October 2017

Uganda Museum - Country's Past Thin On Political History

The hall has a musty smell and is so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.

Inside glass encasements lie traditional musical instruments, spears, bows, and Stone Age tools.

Welcome to the Uganda museum. Back in the day, school was not really school until the teachers took you on a museum tour. And it was in much better shape, then.

Located off Old Kira road in Kamwokya - Kitante, the Uganda museum is a perfect place for whoever wants to get a glimpse of the country's cultural heritage. It would, however, be a big disappointment if one were interested in the country's political journey.

For starters, my guide tells me, the Uganda museum was first opened in 1908 at a place called Fort Lugard in Old Kampala. It was in 1942 transferred to Makerere University and then brought to Kitante in 1953.

At Kitante, a visitor goes through what is called ethno history - a branch of anthropology concerned with the history of peoples and cultures, especially non-Western ones.

The musical instruments, spears, and cooking utensils are part of the extended display of tribal artifacts.

Traditional medicine and how Ugandans fought enemies with spears are some of the displays you will find at the museum.

How did families live?

The museum displays a scene where a man helped clear the bush but women planted, did the weeding and harvested. There are pots on display too - typical of village life then. Each homestead had at least a pot for fetching water, one for cooking, one to harvest rainwater and smaller ones for crockery.

For generations that have no idea how all those looked, the museum has answers. One cannot fail to note that although much has changed in the last couple of decades, not much has been captured in Uganda's only public museum.

For example, now a woman can do just as much as a man can do - these changes have not been captured.

In a book this year, A History of Modern Uganda, British author Richard Reid gave Uganda museum a harsh review.

"Culture [at Uganda museum] is presented in stasis; decades of new research have failed to have much impact on the archaeological cross-section gazed on by countless cohorts of local schoolchildren," wrote Reid in the 2017 book, which examines the political, economic, and social history of Uganda.

Those interested in Ganda culture, a display of Ham Mukasa comes handy. My guide told me Mukasa was the founder of the scout movement in the country and was a page to Buganda king Muteesa I and later secretary to Sir Apollo Kaggwa, the kingdom's katikkiro in 1890.

Of more interest is the display of archaeological excavations, among them the Uganda pithecus, which is billed to be the remains of what is believed to be the oldest fossil ever discovered on earth.

The ape fossil is believed to be aged between 19 and 20 million years discovered in Napak, near Mount Moroto, in Karamoja, in 2011.

The other is the ancestor of the white rhinoceros in Africa, which lived in Napak nineteen million years ago. The animal is now extinct.

The chair that President Museveni sat on at the steps of parliament in 1986 as he was sworn-in for the first time after waging a five-year guerrilla war, is on display - although temporarily.

PRESIDENTIAL CARS

For curious observers, you cannot display a country's history minus its political journey, yet this is exactly what has happened at the Uganda museum.

Shamil Birigwawo, a guide, said: "The museum does not display former presidents for political reasons."

Strange!

Don't expect to find any history about Uganda's former presidents such as Apollo Milton Obote, Idi Amin, Godfrey Binaisa and the rest.

The display of vehicles used by Museveni and former presidents is the closest the museum gets to telling our political story.

President Museveni's first Mercedes Benz and two other Landcruiser V8 Prados that he has used, are on display, complete with their bullet-proof windows. But it is Amin's Mercedes Benz that draws much awe.

It has no tyres and the guide was quick to explain that the museum received the car without them. Amin ruled Uganda from 1972 to 1979. Imagine how much richer the museum would have been had it told the complete Idi Amin story...

Well, the other Benz on display is the one used by President Obote. While the cars themselves are vintage gold, the place under which they are parked is something else; it looks more like a cow shed. The vehicles are covered in dust with no trace of care at all.

The museum staff ruins the special effect the presidential cars would have brought, by abandoning other random cars or their scrap close to the important cars on display.

I asked my guide whether the other cars had also been used by presidents.

He replied: "Those [cars] are for the staff that no longer use them."

What a pity!

One of the rich sections of the museum, however, is that of the sports achievements. On display are images of John Akii-Bua, Uganda's first gold medalist, racing in the 1972 in Munich, Germany.

Stephen Kiprotich's gold medal in Berlin in 2012 - Uganda's Olympic second - is also displayed.

The Ugandan football team that played barefoot in 1956 in London is also displayed. It beat the British Olympic team.

The story is told by pundits of how the British team that year was playing better than the boot-wearing Ugandan team and was assured of victory.

But the quick-thinking Ugandan team - many of them wearing soccer boots for the first time - decided to ditch propriety for comfort and kicked off their shoes, turning the game around and memorably winning it.

The museum pays homage to their achievement.

OIL JOURNEY

The most recent addition to the museum is Uganda's journey to oil discovery. Launched in 2015 by Energy minister Irene Muloni, the section shows places where oil was discovered, safety appeals and the break-down of how Uganda started exploration for the hydrocarbons as early as 1927.

For those doubting Uganda has oil, it would be a good opportunity to look at the country's first oil drop at the museum displayed in transparent jugs.

With all its weaknesses, the Uganda museum is an important place to start if you want to know Uganda's history. It may not be complete, but it is important.

This perhaps speaks to the neglect of the museum as an important institution in Uganda's history. Other countries have multiple, specialized museums, all in impeccable condition and attracting multitudes of tourists.

Our only national museum possibly belongs in another museum too, altogether. The government view has always been that while the museum occupies prime real estate, it does not bring in as much revenue as is expected.

In fact government has to dip into its coffers to keep it running.

The government in 2011 suggested a multi-story business complex be built so the museum occupies a section and let out the rest for revenue, but activists fought the proposal as an attack on the country's heritage.

It is Shs 2,000 for adults and Shs 5,000 for the foreigners for entrance. And don't forget to go with a tip for the guide; otherwise, they will refuse to take you around and you will never figure out who the imposing 'Nakayima' is.

In case you have been wondering why the museum gardens have become the wedding and festival venue of choice, there; you have your answer.

The national heritage site needs the money to keep its doors open another day.

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