The colonial district of Kigezi in Uganda was made up of the independent precolonial kingdoms and clan territories of Rukiga, Rubanda, Ndorwa, Bufumbira, Kayonza, Kinkiizi and Rujumbura. It is home to the Batwa, Bakiga, Bafumbira, Banyabatumbi, Bahunde, Bashambo and other peoples from Rwanda and the Congo and was officially incorporated into the Uganda Protectorate in 1911. Three sections of the original montane rain forest that once swathed the mountains west of the Albertine Rift valley survive on the Virunga Volcanoes, Bwindi and Echuya. Parts are home to the iconic Mountain Gorilla, Chimpanzee and a host of rare endemic species.
The Western Rift, due to its topography became an important refuge for flora and fauna during climatic downturns, the African equivalent of northern Ice Ages, and, over time, the rift mountains developed some of the highest levels of biodiversity on the continent. This was important to the first and subsequent settlers who took advantage of the diverse resources – in the late 19th century the rift valley supported some of the densest rural populations in pre-colonial Africa.
About 2,500 years ago Bantu-speaking migrants slowly crossed the rift and in their interactions with native Cushites learnt grain (millet and sorghum, both originate in the Sahel) and banana agriculture and iron smelting and forging technology that created the second wave of Bantu expansion eastwards and southwards. The mountains were major centres of innovation and creativity.
It was only from c. 1700 that the valley became a political and cultural boundary between east and west due to the rise of pastoral kingdoms and in the 20th century the imposition of colonial boundaries that are the basis for today’s nation-states. Notwithstanding, the mountains have always attracted migrants and refugees from autocratic and economic misrule
Kigezi was an exception to the pastoral supremacy and, defending itself from invasion and aggression held to the traditional form of democratic clan-confederations. The collapse of this system in the late 1800s was due to a combination of negative factors that led to clan-valley independent territories that appeared ‘anarchic’ to the English invaders who needed over twenty years to ‘pacify’ the territory and ensure all paid their taxes regularly.
More formidable were monsters who could not converse with men and never showed themselves unless they saw a woman pass by; then, in voluptuous excitement, they squeezed them to death.
John Hannington Speke, 1861 (The first written reference to African Mountain Gorilla folklore)
Talking to a man, and a nice man too. I asked him why not a woman or girl from his fence (compound) ever came to church or to read. Answering by a question, as a native often does, he said: “Would you teach a cow or send a cow to church?”
Constance Hornby, 1930s (On safari among the Bakiga)
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