When Ugandans, especially those who live in Kampala, think about tourism, what first comes to mind is travelling upcountry.
But forget the mountains, national parks, forests and more in the countryside; there is more to this capital city of ours, than meets the eye. Take Bulange building in Mengo, built in 1955 by Ssekabaka Sir Edward Muteesa II of Buganda, after coming back from exile in Northern Ireland where he had admired the Stormont building in Belfast.
Upon his return, he came back with its architectural plan upon which the construction of the kingdom’s administrative seat was based. The building houses the lukiiko, the first organized parliament in East Africa. It was reportedly built at a considered cost of five million Euros.
For someone new to Kampala, one may wonder about the ‘royal mile’, also in Mengo. This one-mile stretch of road connects Bulange to the king’s palace (lubiri) through the roundabout – Nantawetwa – which only opens for the king to drive straight through the decorative long drums. Everyone else navigates the roundabout.
Buganda’s ‘capital’ Mengo is one with many marvels, and even just driving along the royal mile (Kabaka Anjagala road) is lately an art exhibition of sorts with all the tribe’s totems on display. Then there is Twekobe, the official residence of the Kabaka, where also the Nnamulondo (Buganda’s throne) is kept.
Sitting on 260 acres of land, it was occupied by the army in 1966 when then president Apollo Milton Obote raided the palace and abolished kingdoms, sending King Freddie back into exile. The palace was repossessed in 1993 and renovated in 1998, but one part of its dark history was preserved.
Under Twekobe’s right wing sits former president Idi Amin’s infamous dungeon built by the Israelites in the early 1970s as an armory but the president later turned it into a torture chamber for his political opponents. Here, it is believed at least 26,000 people were tortured and killed, of whom 19,000 were killed by Amin’s regime from 1971 to 1979, and 7,000 by the Obote II regime from 1980 to 1985.
According to Augustine Muyomba, a tour guide for Buganda Heritage Tourism Board, Ugandans who lost their loved ones in the dungeons go to this still painful place to pray and remember them.
Then, a few metres off the royal mile on Rubaga road, the magnificent Hamu Mukasa Keweerimidde house built in 1902 still stands in its pristine state. The design of the house strikes you the moment you arrive with its metre-thick walls of bricks and clay mortar, thick corrugated iron sheets, wide wooden windows and wrap-around porch.
Like many structures from that era that are still standing – Mengo Senior School’s Sempa hall and the school’s old administrative building come to mind – the craftsmanship and durability from that time is astounding.
Inside the Mukasa house, the original furniture, utensils and portraits have been carefully preserved by the generations who have lived in the house. The design of the house reflects the colonial architecture copied from the British; Hamu Mukasa was among the very first Ugandans to visit England in 1902.
Mukasa, a page in Muteesa I’s court and later secretary to Sir Apollo Kaggwa, is remembered as a “scholar who never went to school” and this is depicted by his library full of volumes of encyclopedia, a must-have for elite homes of the time; Mukasa read widely and authored books about Buganda and Uganda.
Born in 1868, Mukasa died in 1956 and is well respected in Buganda history. Under Ssekabaka Daudi Chwa, Mukasa became the Kyaggwe ssaza chief (Ssekiboobo) and is credited for co-founding Gayaza High School, King’s College Budo, Bishop Tucker Theological College (now Uganda Christian University) and played a pivotal role in the construction of Namirembe cathedral, where he was buried.
AWAY FROM MENGO
As Hamu Mukasa was being laid to rest, another national treasure was taking shape about three kilometres from his grave. The National theatre, built in 1956 and opened officially in 1959, is another built heritage right in the heart of Kampala city. According to Samuel Ekanya, the sound and light technician at the National theatre, this place trains culture to Ugandans and also gives chance to performers to showcase their talent to the public.
Nestled between Siad Barre and Dewinton roads, the theatre has a 377-seater auditorium and has been installed with digital equipment to match current trends for modern performances.
The High court building near the Constitution Square, constructed by the colonialists in the 1930s is also architecture to behold. It is one of the last remaining neo classical early colonial architecture in Kampala and was clearly designed to impress. The building has six courtrooms, 16 chambers for judges and other judicial offices.
Solomon Muyita, the principal communications officer for the judiciary, says there are no plans of tampering with the architectural design of the building, apart from necessary renovations.
“We are constructing another block for the court of Appeal and Supreme Court nearby so that we leave this building as it is, instead of having it demolished for a bigger one.” Such a relief; Uganda is not big on preserving old structures, yet in Europe and North America centuries-old structures are revered and generally more expensive to buy or rent.
FROM BULANGE TO BAHA’I
On the outskirts of Kampala in Kyebando, the Baha’i House of Worship built in 1958 is a stand-out structure. It was built under the supervision of the architects of Bulange, with a nine-sided temple and striking dome surrounded by expansive, beautiful gardens. Known as the Mother Temple of Africa, the Baha’i temple remains one of the largest religious structures in Africa. It is also one of nine Baha’i temples – the only one in Africa – in the world.
Other historic architectural buildings in Kampala include the Mayor’s Parlour at KCCA, which was commissioned in 1949 by the then governor Sir John Hall, St Paul’s cathedral Namirembe and St Mary’s cathedral Lubaga, built in 1915 and 1914 respectively; Albert Cook’s house, the more than 100-years-old Mengo Senior School, Nakasero Hindu temple, Fort Jesus in Nsambya, the Independence monument, Norman Cinema (Watoto church), Ebenezer house now occupied by Uganda Bookshop, Fort Lugard, the UNESCO world heritage site Kasubi tombs, among others.
SCARE OF BEING ERASED
With the rapid population growth in the city, proliferation of slums and modernity, a number of old buildings in the city got torn down and some are in the process of being demolished.
Recently, fire devastated the iconic Makerere University administration block; a 40-year-old church in Ndeeba was demolished in the wee hours of the night; Pioneer mall, Kampala’s first shopping mall, was also demolished, while Kampala’s first cinema, Norman cinema, is also under threat of being replaced by a 12-storey modern building.
The lord mayor of Kampala city, Erias Lukwago, says KCCA has decided to come up with a deliberate policy and enact an ordinance through which these structures can be preserved.
“Right now as an institution, we do not have a legal instrument for that particular purpose and what is happening is just goodwill of patriotic Ugandans who love our built heritage, but we cannot entirely rely on that and that is the reason we must back up with legislation,” Lukwago said recently, adding that the bill has already been tabled before council.
“We should not only look at the beauty but also the historical significance. Those who want to change the buildings can do so internally but the external appearance of such buildings should remain the same.”
Sophie Kayongo from Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) says in 2018, with support of the European Union, they drafted an updated map of Kampala with 44 historic buildings and sites and also established the Heritage Conservation Trust of Uganda, a new program responsible for safeguarding built heritage.
The Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU), a private organization promoting the conservation of built heritage, has also documented and produced maps of historic buildings in Kampala, Jinja, Entebbe and Fort Portal.
Simon Musasizi, the Heritage Trust programme manager, says CCFU has also been actively engaged in the process of drafting the Kampala Historic Ordinance, which is currently before the city council. These are all long overdue efforts to safeguard historic buildings in Kampala.