By Tom Stacey
‘My’ Bakonzo tribe of equatorial Africa’s Mountains of the Moon, aka the Ruwenzori Mountains, the glaciered and snow-peaked range on the Uganda-Congo border, exemplify ethnic groups which so easily can be eliminated by sheer demographic ruthlessness, amid a welter of suffering and sorrow.
By God’s grace and a twist of political fortune, in which I have been privileged to play a key part, that potential suffering has been countered and, today, eliminated. The suffering of course is the result of the destruction of a people’s sense of who they are, be that in the form of the loss of their territory, language, way of life, or cultural or administrative autonomy. The Bakonzo now have their presence in their mountains in their own `Kingdom of Rwenzururu’ recognized by the government of Uganda, within whose borders the majority of Bakonzo have their traditional homeland.
Rwenzururu, with a population of around 800,000, is now one of the five constituent Bantu kingdoms which, as cultural entities, like with widely known kingdoms of Buganda and Toro, constitute most of the southern (Bantu) half of Uganda.
When I was first among these hardy mountain tribesmen exactly 60 years ago they were reckoned to number some 150,000 people. The British Governor in the capital in Kampala had accepted their original administrative lumping-together within the pre-existing Kingdom of Toro because of the inaccessibility of their steep and roadless terrain of the Ruwenzori foothills. The colonial hand, having taken hold a mere 60 years previously, was still only lightly felt in that remote region.
Albeit neighbours, the Batoro (of Toro) were an unrelated tribe in the plains east of the mountains, with a tradition of powerful kingship operating from their regional capital of Fort Portal in Western Uganda. Their way of life markedly contrasted with that of the Bakonzo. The Batoro looked down on the stocky Bakonzo, on their hail-stormed slopes with their strange crops, as lesser beings. There were no schools in the mountains. Any Bakonzo seeking education would be taught only in the Batoro linguistic medium. The evolving fate of the mountain people would surely be – for sheer administrative convenience – assimilation within the dominant Batoro, already then rapidly benefitting from the sophistication provided by the colonial presence.
The Batoro spoke English as their second language, went to mission schools, had their own churches, had access to medical care, and wore shirts and trousers. The Bakonzo had none of these things. They wore goatskins and monkey-pelts and bark-cloth. They could neither read nor write. But they were hardy, and knew who they were with the stubborn independence of mountain people everywhere.
When I was living with them in 1954, my principal companion was one of the very rare schooled members of the tribe. He imbued me with his own passionate commitment to Bakonzo survival as a people. He and I created the grandly entitled Bakonzo Life History Research Society. In the years following my tramp of 1954 through the eighty-mile length of the mountain range, the BLHRS was to develop under its Mukonzo co-founder into a tribal political movement demanding, originally, proportional political representation within the parliament of Toro which in the course of continued frustration led to a declaration of independence in their mountains by the Bakonzo and related inhabitants, under the declared presidency, and then kingship, of my devoted companion.
Back in England, fully active in a journalistic, writing and political career, I was called in to settle this rebellion by a newly independent Uganda. I can’t say I succeeded, but was intimately (and dramatically) re-acquainted with a people on whom I had already written the first of, so far, three books. After 20 years of defiance in the mountains, with their own schools, courts, uniformed police, army, tax-collection and self-administration, the second Bakonzo king (son of my companion) reconciled his ‘Kingdom’ with Uganda as totally separate from Toro. I remained close to the tribal leadership in its claim to the further right to full status, as Rwenzururu (effectively, Bakonzo), as one Uganda’s existing ‘cultural’ tribal Kingdoms.
It was quite a struggle. But astonishingly it was achieved, as recently as 2009. The effect on the people has been to transform the esteem in which they are held by the fellow Ugandans, and of course their self-esteem. Their numbers have grown by natural progression by a factor of five since was first among them. No longer do they seek to hide their tribal identity when moving about in the broader Ugandan community. Their allegiance to their national (Ugandan) identity is reinforced by their more intimate ethnic self-confidence, a phenomenon I have observed elsewhere. Their economic contribution, commanding the site of a flourishing coffee industry and mineral wealth, reinforces their authority.
Their own Rwenzururu capital in the eastern foothills has grown to be a major regional hub, linking them with their ethnic brothers (some 4 million of them) across the border on the Congo side. Its local airstrip is now mooted as an international airport to serve the equatorial centre of 1the continent. Radio stations transmit in their language, books and journals are beginning to appear in it. Cathedrals of the two great episcopal denominations flourish; a university is in view.
Perhaps it should not I who says this. But had I not turned up among them at 24 to write a book on a remote and hitherto unstudied people, little or none of what I have described would have happened.