A Bakonzo Environmental Forum

A Bakonzo Environmental Forum

In 1996, the Geographical Faculty of Makerere University staged an international conference on Ruwenzori, in Kampala, under the chairmanship of Dr Joy Tukahirwa and the presiding figure of Dr Henry Osmaston, doyen of the world’s specialists in the tropical highlands. The author was urged to attend.

I dropped all, and caught the flight. When a space emerged in the planned proceedings, I walked to the rostrum and ad-libbed a speech. A miasma of political correctness had been drifting over the conference scene, blurring the realities and vitiating effective conclusions. No African speaker had dared to mention the word ‘tribe’, and while the term ‘Bakonjo’ (sic) was occasionally breathed, the people were otherwise invariably anonymized as the ‘mountain communities’ or ‘the local population’; or reduced to statistical fodder as ‘human resources’. Various recommendations put forward on ‘conservation’, ‘land use, ‘sustainable growth’, ‘prevention of erosion’, and so on, blandly gutted the people of their right to be. That the mountain volk‘s identity as Bakonzo might be brought into play in the attainment of these scientific goals was inconceivable. The effect was an infinitely lofty condescension on the part of the conference’s African eggheads towards the tribe. Insofar as the people of Ruwenzori entered these discussions on the environmental fate of their homeland, they were a mush of peasantry whose methods of survival and age-honoured usages needed to be stopped, improved, or otherwise farthingaled.

When my chance at the rostrum came, I raised the theme of Bakonzo identity as the key ‘spiritual factor’ in the future preservation of Ruwenzori. I tried to explain how no plans and programmes for the ‘management’ of the mountains would succeed unless they carried with them the hearts of the Bakonzo as a people; yet at present the Bakonzo were virtually unrepresented on the lordly Uganda National Park’s Management Advisory Committees for Highland Ruwenzori and comparable bodies. I conjured a new and, hopefully, critically influential body: an exclusively Konzo ‘environmental forum’, comprised of a score or so of highland elders, literate or illiterate (it mattered not) combining with those few Bakonzo well educated in environmental science who were now emerging as specialists in conservation, park management and eco-tourism. I proposed that this ‘forum’ should face both ways – outwardly, to guide the Uganda Wildlife Authority, National Parks, government Ministries and official bodies concerned and, inwardly, to the tribe itself whose children they should be charged with educating from the earliest age in the treasure of creation of which they, the Bakonzo, were the guardians and the gatekeepers.

Thus would we seal and sanctify place with race, in accordance with the genesis of man on earth, obedient to his creator and thankful too. Implicit in what I proposed was a vibrant pride in tribe, tribe looking – legitimately – both ways, yet from a confidence and sense of unity bearing its unifying symbols, not least its king, omusinga, or ‘cultural leader’ in Musevenspeak of the day. The true highlanders who alone comprised the community concerned with the issues raised by the eggheads of the conference were exclusively Bakonzo. Yet that highland Konzo territory was administratively and politically parcelled out among at least three and possibly four tribes – Bakonzo, Batoro, Baamba, and Basongora. Since only one tribe was engaged on the territory we were so devotedly seeking to protect, Ruwenzori surely ached for a tribal figurehead. Who better but Charles himself? Who else at all? My little paper sought to be non-political in intent, and to arouse no extraneous passions. It brought in Charles only in the historical preamble; but anyone who had any real dealings with the mountains knew of Rwenzururu, the kingdom, and that there was a controversial king over the water.

IP and © 2003 Tom Stacey