UNDP etches monumental piece of Uganda’s rich heritage

March 31, 2020

Mr James Tumusiime, the proprietor of Igongo Cultural Centre and Country Hotel explains to Ms. Elsie Attafuah, the Resident Representative of UNDP and other guests, the history and attractions at the Biharwe Eclipse Monument Site. ©UNDP Uganda/Nicholas Burunde

By Henry Mukasa

Biharwe, Mbarara – What does the eclipse of the sun have to do with an advancing caravan of a traditional ruler, returning from an expedition; with his spear-wielding fighters and labourers in tow? For Uganda, this was not a mere intriguing occurrence but an indelible mark in the country’s history and a chapter in the world’s astronomy.

It is believed that on April 17, 1520 AD when a traditional king of Bunyoro, Olimi Rwitamahanga, was returning from an excursion in neighbouring Rwanda with his loot, the sky suddenly darkened, as they arrived at Biharwe, some 257.8 kilometres in Western Uganda, at the entrance of Mbarara town. The sudden happening cast a shadow over his entourage, effecting a halt in their advance and giving it a thought. 

Taking it as bad omen or vengeance being visited by the enemy at the war front, the king abandoned his loot at this spot. However, not to return home empty handed, he let his band of aides Eastwards, attacking rival Buganda kingdom (in central Uganda), then under King Nakibinge.

Even as the king returned to his palace in the oil rich Bunyoro region, neither him nor any member of his party and team of wise men could accurately tell what had happened when while at Biharwe, the sun was covered in what is accurately referred to as an eclipse. This has since been verified NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration agency of the United States, that conducts aerospace research.

Given the intransient nature of the eclipse, UNDP has now partnered with a local investor, Igongo Cultural Centre Limited, to inscribe permanently this valuable piece of Uganda’s heritage that spans over 500-years.

The partnership will involve Igongo; a medium sized enterprise, piloting UNDP’s inclusive business model – an innovative approach that directly improves the lives of the poor and local communities by making them part of the value chain of companies’ core business as; suppliers, distributors, retailers, employees or customers.

On Friday February 28th, 2020, Ms. Elsie Attafuah, the Resident Representative of UNDP in Uganda launched the 1520 AD majestic Eclipse Monument – an archeostronimical symbol erected to immortalize the total solar eclipse that occurred in Biharwe over 500 years, to the consternation of the travelling traditional ruler.

The monument whose expansion was funded by UNDP is meant to fuse traditional society and contemporary culture, as well as foster community led experiential tourism activities such as local brew making, pottery, as well as visits to the Ankole long horned cattle farms for milking experiences.

With the support of UNDP, Igongo Cultural Centre and Country Hotel has also partnered with neighbouring local communities to provide a rich tourism experience that is mutually beneficial. Igongo has provided guaranteed market for the community’s agricultural products and tapped into their skills to offer tourism guide services as well as local cultural dishes.

UNDP has also partnered with several enterprises to pilot Inclusive business models as a mechanism to unlock Uganda’s potential in both the tourism and mining sectors as well as address gender inequalities and social exclusion. Inclusive businesses create a strong foundation for profit and long-term sustainability and growth by bringing previously excluded people into the marketplace.

Speaking at the launch event, Ms. Attafuah said that sites like Biharwe Eclipse monument help Africa tell her story. “In most times, when others tell our story they look at it through their lens. Its high time we told our story, rebrand and position ourselves on the international market.”

She said that tourism has the power to generate quality jobs for durable growth, poverty reduction and offer incentives for environmental conservation, to help Uganda transit towards a more inclusive and resilient economy.

Ms. Attafuah explained that inclusive business approach goes beyond corporate social responsibility or philanthropy, and impacts investment by connecting poor people, women and youth to markets and thus address gender inequalities and social exclusion.

Ms. Attafuah pledged UNDP’s commitment to engage with the Government of Uganda to create an enabling environment; and with private sector to actively contribute to inclusive growth, leaving no one behind.

On his part, Mr. Tumusiime appreciated UNDP for the support in improving the eclipse site. He said the monument etches further the interrelation between culture and the history of the kingdoms of Ankole, Bunyoro and Buganda.

“In Africa we don’t have many places we talk about which are beyond the colonial period. This site is remembered for what happened here 500 years ago. It is a very important landmark that the entire world should know and appreciate,” Mr. Tumusiime said.

“The fact that 500 years ago, something affected three kingdoms in one area, we thought we could have that in our history to help our imagination – how were people living… the fact that these kingdoms existed, is the nucleus of the evolution of Uganda,” he added.

Mr. Tumusiime said the monument was erected to authenticate the transient eclipse as several Uganda doubted its occurrence simply because they never studied about it in history lessons like for example, slave trade and Christianity. He added that a visiting professor from the US had told President Museveni that they studied about the Biharwe Eclipse, which was used to further authenticate its occurrence.

Ms. Claire Mugabi, the Marketing Manager of Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) commended Mr Tumusiime for curating the events surrounding Biharwe eclipse. She said UTB will ensure that all tour operators add the site on the itinerary of their visitors. “We share ensure that coming here is part of their experience,” Ms. Mugabi said.

Ms. Rose Mwanja, the Commissioner Museums and Monuments in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities disclosed that Government has received an inquest from UNESCO about the hill and that her ministry will support the hill’s nomination as a world heritage site

Uganda now has two eclipse sites; at Owiny Primary School in Pacwach district (2013) and now Biharwe Hill (1520).