TRIBE: The Hidden History of the Mountains of the Moon
‘TRIBE is not simply a tale about a people tucked away in almost inaccessible African mountains totally removed from our world. For man in our increasingly mobile world is also losing his roots, his identity and the glimpse of grandeur. There is a sharing of tragedy here.’
— W F Deedes, Daily Telegraph
TRIBE is a unique written record of the hidden history of an astonishing region and its people. Stacey has lived in thrall to another culture. He learned the Bakonzo tribe’s language, delved their customs, and made the colobus skin the raiment of leadership. They called him musabuli (rescuer or redeemer). The way of life he first describes changes as the narrative unfolds over the author’s 50-year involvement. This major work is an exceptional piece of travel literature, and an ‘autobiography’ of a people to whom the author belongs as an honoured mzee, or elder. It is an indelible portrayal of a disappearing world.
Read an extract: A spirit-honouring dance
The Ruwenzori Mountains are so named because of the phenomenon of snow – five glaciered peak clusters, unmatched elsewhere in equatoria. Ruwenzori means ‘the site of the snow-god.’ One of the most remote regions on Earth, the all but impenetrable highlands of the massif rise to a glacier-land of over 16,000 feet. Herodotus wrote of them as the Mountains of the Moon nearly two and a half millennia ago; the playwright Aeschylus had already written of the river Nile ‘watered by the snows of Africa’. The place remains to this day a surreal, awesome and cloud-encircled fastness; a lost world, suggestive of some other planet.
Read an extract: The chronology of exploration
From TRIBE‘s overriding theme Stacey draws a universal proposition which will no doubt be considered controversial by those who deny the influence of ethnicity upon the spirit of Man. The setting of TRIBE may be central Africa, vividly recaptured, but in revealing the hidden history of the Mountains of the Moon, and the people therein, Stacey lays open a hidden truth of the human condition everywhere and always.
Over half a century ago, Stacey, aged 24, after crossing the Congo from the west, entered the Ruwenzori Mountains to live with the Bakonzo tribe. The Bakonzo Life History Research Society founded by Stacey and his chief companion, Isaya Mukirane, transmogrified into the Rwenzururu Secessionist Movement, in the name of which Mukirane raised the flag of rebellion in 1962.
Read an extract: A Place of Monstrous Beauty
Isaya Mukirane’s unilateral declaration of independence and defiant creation of an armed kingdom was not recognized by Uganda. Stacey was invited in 1963 by Milton Obote, Uganda’s Prime Minister, to try to help settle the revolt. In 1967 Mukirane died and was succeeded by his son, Charles Wesley Mumbere.
Read an extract: A Kingdom Comes
The Rwenzururu rebel Kingdom was to rule the inner mountains for 20 years, defying Uganda and Congo alike. There followed a stormy campaign for formal recognition, cut across by guerrilla movements, each with their own agenda, sponsored by Uganda’s hostile neighbours seeking to exploit the impenetrability of the forested massif. Worst of these was the ADF, ‘Alliance for Democratic Freedom’, which for four-and-a-half years emptied the mountains of their highland population.
Read an extract: A Bakonzo Environmental Forum
The end of hostilities in the mountains was marked by Tom Stacey’s ascent in 2001 to the snowbound heights at 16,000 feet with his Bakonzo companions. To quote him: ‘In 2001, the Government deemed the eastern flanks of Ruwenzori to be free of the scourge of guerrilla forces, visitors would be permitted to re-enter and to climb into the heights again, to research the upper territory’s 15 unique species of mammals, the 25 unique reptiles, the 18 unique birds, the fantastical giant vegetation, and score upon score of strictly Ruwenzori insects, mosses, lichens, for the first time since the rebel invasion of 1996 and the invaders’ flight into the highlands.
Read an extract: The Roots of Identity
The Mountains of the Moon stretch about 80 miles long and 30 miles wide. They peak at 16,763 feet, and are rarely visible because of the mists and clouds that enshroud them. Unlike most mountains in east Africa, they are not of volcanic origin but are a vast block of the earth’s crust which was gradually thrust upwards by huge tectonic pressures, carrying with it plants and animals into a unique biosphere. ‘Giantism,’ writes Tom Stacey, ‘became the route to survival for the plant species which, like Jurassic Saurians, dominate the savage terrain – whereas the solution for fungi became miniaturisation.’
This land is vast and varied: tropical rain forest, a belt of bamboos, a belt of giant heathers, extensive highland bogs, lost lakes, forests of helichrysums, and the astonishing giantism of all surviving species, until the raw rock and glaciered heights, crowned by Stanley Plateau and Margherita Peak, quell all growth. Countless torrential streams descend to unite as major rivers – ultimately feeding the Nile’s remotest headwaters.
Much is still to be learned about the area’s geology, animal and plant life. It is a zoologist’s dream: highland chimpanzee, giant forest hog, Ruwenzori leopard, Ruwenzori hyrax, the unique colobus monkey, sunbirds, crimson-breasted turacos, scarlet-tufted malachites. It is a botanist’s dream too: lobelias and groundsels never less than 20 feet in height when fully grown; giant heathers of 40 or 50 feet; old man’s beard; giant ferns; Stair’s purple-pink orchid; a riot of mosses and parasites at 40 feet. ‘What makes for this giantism?’ asks Tom Stacey, ‘Have I not yet said? It is the consequence of a climate comprising summer by day and winter by night, fed – or tormented – by vast rainfall and a diurnal dose of infra-red and ultra-violet from a sun immediately overhead whose rays are filtered by negligible atmosphere. No other massif on earth matches this.’
Such is the Bakonzo tribe’s heartland, indeed their Olympus.
‘Peer, then, from out of this story as if through a high window. You will see a white man writing about black men, and about his English self in Africa among Africans, across almost half a century. As your eyes strain for what more may be seen from that window, so has my own account of events strained beyond its own locus and narrative – beyond the specificities of what I have been witnessing in Ruwenzori this past half-century towards what the study of tribe may show the student to be generally true of men at any place in any time: a straining out from multiplicity towards a certain universality.
‘You who have been beside me for so long will have grown familiar with what I claim to be a constant in man’s presence on his planet, namely the holiness of ethnicity. Race and place, I say, belong to one another not just inexorably but righteously: the proper sense of his ethnicity feeds Man the conviction of his identity and a glimpse of his grandeur. No substitute exists for that food. For a man to be deprived of it in the context of his grandeur is as for a man to be deprived of his childhood in the eye of his maturity. He is a man without root: without root he is without leaf.
‘This ethnicity is a protean reality – an allegiance implied by every combination of blood and language, territory and history, culture and inheritance, cosmology and ethic: a reality on the change by the decade, the year, the month, the day, the hour. It will be today broad, tomorrow narrow. It will mutate, shift, merge, mix, be willfully adopted, or consciously assumed, or parasitical upon another. It will misrepresent itself, misread itself, dishonour itself; and it will inspire, uplift, and rally. It will be subject to exploitation and corruption; it will be conducive to glory and sacrifice. It will be a source of war and a source of peace.’