In March 2010, Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, the main mausoleum at Kasubi Royal Tombs where four of Buganda’s former kings are buried caught fire. The Kasubi Royal Tombs or specifically Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga was an architectural wonder made mainly from vegetative materials. It so wowed the world that Unesco declared it a world heritage site 10 years before it caught fire.
Baganda of all lives cried seeing the fire destroying a nation’s heritage, our source of pride. I watched on social media while on a business trip in Kigali and I stayed awake the whole night. It was emotionally draining. The following day, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi turned up perhaps to assess the damage and he was seen, like many Baganda, overcome with emotions.
The Baganda saw the fire outbreak as one way they are being subjugated and perhaps were in a small way reminded of the 1966 attack on the Mengo palace even though nobody knows whether the fire was an act of arson or not. The fire took place when Buganda was smarting itself from the 2009 riots when Kabaka Mutebi was blocked from touring his Bugerere county. Apart from the Kabaka, Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga is the main symbol of Buganda’s heritage alongside Bulange and perhaps Twekobe.
In May 2013, Kabaka Mutebi appointed Owek Charles Peter Mayiga as Katikkiro. Before that, the Kingdom had signed a contract with Omega Construction to rebuild the tombs but nothing much had been done. The contractor was supposed to use their resources to build and bill. Why they didn’t do that is their story to tell.
Katikkiro Mayiga started mobilizing resources to rebuild the tombs in what is known as Ettoffaali. He started with building a perimeter wall on 64 acres at Kasubi to protect the tombs from Kampala’s land grabbers who had started pointing at it just like they did with the Kabaka’s Lake in Lubaga. So protecting this land from the Kampala Mafia was a priority as well as reconstructing the tombs. For those who say Ettoffaali was a lot of money, if you have ever built a perimeter wall for your home, you know what it costs to build a perimeter wall on 64 acres!
Being Katikkiro comes with making tough decisions. So Owek Mayiga’s first call was to change the committee that had been put in place to rebuild the tombs and appointed Owek Kaddu Kiberu, the Peacock Paints entrepreneur to lead the team. Architect Jonathan Nsubuga (he of URA Towers among other designs) had been sent to England earlier to comb the museums looking for photos of the original tombs as they were before they were re-built by Ssekabaka Daudi Chwa in the 1938. He found the photos and work commenced.
Unlike the Masengere building, which had been incomplete for nearly 40 years (and Katikkiro Mayiga built it shortly after finishing the perimeter wall at Kasubi), Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga is a different ballgame. If you are constructing a hut, like for bars around Kampala, you can get people from anywhere to do the work. For Kasubi, the work must be done by specific clan members following every single norm you can think of otherwise it will not be considered the tombs. The work is tedious. The vegetative materials used are found in hard to reach areas.
Over the weekend, a close friend asked me why didn’t Katikkiro simply go to China and import artificial reeds and such other materials. The work would be done now and the materials would be fireproof, he argued. I smiled but explained that the Baganda wouldn’t accept such artificial tombs. This doesn’t mean that Muzibu Azaala Mpanga doesn’t have artificial materials. For example, the frame is made of steel so that it can last longer. The tip of Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga is many metres tall — taller than some storied buildings. But I shudder to imagine Kasubi with artificial grass from China! Kasubi means grass.
Talking of fire, the steel roof frame is painted with fireproof paint that had to be imported from Germany as nobody makes it in Uganda. The paint is made on order so that alone set the work at Kasubi by a few months back.
The materials used at Kasubi aren’t just picked from the bushes and applied. Some have to be softened and strengthened by sinking them in water for days. Each reed has to be sandpapered and there are millions of reeds so far used. Then some of the reeds are inserted one by one on a frame that is taller than some storied buildings. The ridges representing each of the 56 clans are enormous.
As I said earlier, the last time significant work had been done at Kasubi was in 1938 which means they aren’t many experts out there you can call upon to come and do the work. These are people who have had to learn on the job looking at the images of the tombs and recreate them with guidance from architects and engineers. I think of Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga as the pyramids in Egypt. Imagine if Egyptians were to rebuild the pyramids today same way as they were built then by the pharaohs, how long would it take?
For a few years, some people at Kasubi used their positions to derail the progress referring to one norm after another including bringing con artists within the walls of Kasubi. One time, a woman came out of no where and claimed that she was Kabaka Kintu’s wife — not heir to one of the wives but the real wife! Some people gave her audience and she started making one order after another. Today she wanted 100 chicken slaughtered, tomorrow she preferred a whole cow roasted. Apparently Kintu who ruled Buganda almost 1,000 years ago was giving issuing her with guidance on what the tombs should look like. She was smart enough to time the period Katikkiro Mayiga was out of the country to make her grand entrance into Kasubi. On return, the Katikkiro was given a report of what is happening at Kasubi. He ordered she is thrown out but by that time she had derailed the progress for a few weeks. I see her backers and ‘fans’ making one allegation too many on social media about how the Katikkiro doesn’t respect culture and norms. When one isn’t directly benefitting, the Katikkiro becomes such a bad person but then I digress.
The work has taken long to be accomplished (if less than seven years is too long, I believe the original tombs took much more) but there is no other way it could be done. Today, the complicated wonder that is the main entrance (Wankaaki) is done as well as the equally hard to weave Ddaali (ceiling). The end is now nearer than ever. Roofing will be the easiest part.
Owek Mayiga usually says privately that there is nothing that has been as difficult as the work at Kasubi for him as Katikkiro given the cultural mores and the tediousness of the job at hand. That says a lot given the complicated nature that is the Katikkiro’s job. Buganda can be complicated. Every Muganda thinks their idea is the best to move Buganda forward without thinking about the political economy of the Kingdom. A mere member of the Lukiiko once replaced goes to social media and complains. If a Member of Parliament isn’t invited for a talkshow on CBS, then the Katikkiro is so bad. If another politician is not endorsed to stand for some office, then Owek Mayiga is now working for the central government. If somebody sells all his father’s land and misuses the money, he blames it on the Katikkiro!
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