A global problem
Uganda is not alone in this. Across the globe many fast expanding urban cities risk losing their historical and cultural identity if heritage infrastructure and associated cultural values are not preserved and promoted. That is why strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage is the fourth target of Sustainable Development Goal 11of the UN.
Doreen Katusiime, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities says the government recognises the importance of Uganda’s built heritage.
“These buildings tell a story; they tell a story about us, about the people who built them and the people who lived in them,’ she said, “When we preserve them, we are able to tell the current and future generations about our history.”
In the east, Jinja town played a central role in linking the British Protectorate’s economy. Here, the first railway infrastructure linking the cotton fields of Busoga in south eastern Uganda to the Jinja Pier from where bales of cotton, Uganda’s main export at the time, were carried onwards by a steamship to the Kisumu Port in Kenya and onwards by railway to Mombasa. The pier was built in 1912.
Today, it lies derelict but it once was the terminus of the first railway in the country and it served as the main export gate for Uganda until the Uganda Railway reached Jinja directly from Kenya in 1928 and Kampala in 1931.
Still, in Jinja, the Indian community with its trade and business acumen was an indispensable force in Uganda’s fast growing economy and many streets feature Indian architecture built around the 1920s to the 1950s. Sadly, most of these buildings are in decay as are several remnants of Jinja’s industrial infrastructure.
On a positive note, the project highlights cases where families, public bodies and companies have made it a point to safeguard their properties and site for future generations.
In Jinja, for instance, the work of the Madhvani family in conserving and restoring their 1919 office building on Main Street is an example. The premises have been put to good use and have become the headquarters of the Madhvani Group. The Madhvani family received a National Heritage Award for protecting this building in 2016.
Still, in Jinja, on Main Street, the Source Café owners have recognized the historical value of their building, as well as its attractiveness for the growing tourism industry.
In Kampala, the Emin Pasha Hotel, formerly a private residence also shows a possible future for Uganda’s remaining historical properties while Mengo Hospital has also tried to preserve its heritage by carefully maintaining the Luke and Catherine wards complete with Dr. Albert Cook’s memorabilia. In Entebbe, the Botanical Gardens have become a major tourist attraction, as well as a scientific research centre.
Going forward, the Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda intends to document other historic buildings in Mbale in eastern Uganda and in the western town of Fort Portal. But Drani says the government should take responsibility for historic buildings around the country.
“We hope that the government of Uganda will see this as a pilot; that is doable and that it is something that they can build on and we also hope that this will be part of the policy so resources can be availed for the protection and preservation of these buildings.”
Drani also wants the government to update the laws that protect Uganda’s historic buildings. We are particularly interested in listing, which means that we are able to identify specific buildings that are important that should be preserved.
“We would also like to nurture technical competence when it comes to people who have expertise to restore historical properties. The tourism ministry should make popular these historic buildings.”
Maris Wanyera, the deputy National authorising officer in the Ministry of Finance who is in charge of coordinating and mobilising external funding as well as building external partnerships told The Independent recently that Uganda stands to gain even more from tourism once heritage sites and historical buildings are conserved and promoted.