The Beautiful Side of Kanungu
Beautiful Kanungu.

The Beautiful Side of Kanungu

There is much more to Kanungu than mass murder and cults.

By Gerald Businge
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First published: March 27, 2007

Many people know Kanungu for all the wrong reasons. Ask, and most people will tell you that they remember Kanungu as the place where hundreds of followers of a cult burnt to death on March 17, 2000. It is the worst mass murder case Uganda has ever witnessed. But Kanungu district, located in south western Uganda, is home to much more than massive loss of lives and a bad history. Gerald Businge writes that Kanungu is actually a riveting place, with plenty of lively people, endowed with a natural environment and fauna that live in this part of the once huge Kigezi district.

Kanungu District
Kanungu District.

Traveling to Kanungu
Kanungu is one of those places that sound remote right away, especially to people who live in Kampala and other urban areas in Uganda. Telling your family or friends that you are going to Kanungu sounds like you are traveling to a far off land. There may be a grain of truth in this view, but it may have little to do with the distance as an actual journey to Kanungu will reveal.

An affordable journey to Kanungu is best made by public means. However, if you can afford it, a 4WD or similar vehicle like the Land Rover, which can humble the difficult side roads and off road terrain in Kanungu, is better. If you travel to Kanungu by public means, there are two buses which both leave Kampala at 6:30am daily. It is best, therefore, that you wake up, depart from your lodgings and at arrive at the bus park well before this time. How early you wake up depends largely on where you lodge the night before your trip to Kanungu.

The journey on a bus takes you through Masaka, Mbarara, Ntungamo to Rukungiri where the tarmac section of the highway ends. It may be only 44 km from Rukungiri to Kanungu, but it usually takes you about three more hours before you reach either Kanungu or Kihihi town. These two main towns in Kanungu district are located adjacent to each other. One of the buses terminates at Kihihi town (the bigger and major town) while another terminates at Kanungu town (the district administration headquarters).

A typical sight that welcomes you to Kanungu town, western Uganda
A typical sight that welcomes you to Kanungu town, western Uganda.

By the time you alight at either Kanungu or Kihihi, it is usually about 4pm or 5pm and you have traveled about 500km from Kampala. Carved in 2001 out of Kabale district, Kanungu is bordered by Rukungiri, Kabale, Kisoro and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Challenging terrain
The major landmark of the journey to Kanungu is the rising and dropping terrain on both sides of the road along the Rukungiri-Kanungu section. At one point, it may appear as if you are moving at the bottom of the world, looking up at the hills, wondering whether some large boulders might roll and hit the vehicle off the road into the bottom of the canyon, or you might crash into some boulders that rolled onto the road earlier. At another much higher point, the vehicle seems to sway and plunge down the ravine and you can clearly see hundreds of feet below, into the bowels of the earth you have just left, with many houses and plantations seeming like small dots on the other side of the world.

It is at the Eneengo (valley with a big river) that this feeling is most acute as the bus drives for several miles while you can gape over 1000feet below to the left, while on the right the steep hillside hangs over you. Some people choose not to look, while the more adventurous are having a tour of their life watching the world rising and dropping. This is one highway where the vehicles surely need no speed governors. A little speeding or a misjudged turn may mean the vehicle falling down the ravine. To make matters worse, the road turns and twists at every 100 meters or so as it winds through the valleys and hills, sometimes making semi-circles, and at other points almost a full circle. If you plan to drive to Kanungu, this is no place for people who are scared of heights or the impatient, as unsteady driving may plunge you to a certain death.

For this reason, on your journey to Kanungu, you will surely appreciate the efforts of the people who managed to build this road since ordinary eyes would otherwise summarily decide that this is no place to have a road through which big vehicles like a bus can negotiate. But the locals and bus drivers seem to have mastered the road although steady and careful driving is clearly the key requirement to manage driving through here. The terrain makes one appreciate this available murram road. The Government of Uganda has promised to surface this road with tarmac from Rukungiri to Kihihi and on to the border with DRC.

Beautiful Scenery
But above all, visiting Kanungu makes you appreciate God's creation. Looking at such geographical features, beautiful environment and marveling at how people manage to live and earn a living on the steep hills, makes one appreciate what a master planner the Creator is.

The sight of houses lining up from the bottom to the tip of a hill, or the contours of farms looking like paintings of an expert artist is humbling. Kanungu may be rural, but it is a spectacular place. This is not just because of the rolling hills characteristic of this south western region of Uganda, but also because of how people have taken advantage of it to create suitable habitats and live good lives.

Even while still on the highway, you are presented with enough evidence that people have mastered how to live and survive in this environment. You will be impressed by the way they use dried banana fibers to roof their mud and wattle houses (there are still quite a number of such houses around) and trapping rainwater using fresh banana leaves. Water flowing from the top of the hills is also trapped and stored. This has led to the local administration facilities and private individuals who can afford it to undertake gravity water harvesting by piping water from the top of hills.

Economic Activities
Most of the people in Kanungu are Bakiga who migrated from Kabale and Rukungiri, while the indigenous people are Bahororo. According to Mzee Kaguri of Nyakagyezi in Kanungu, most people here, just like in Kabale and Rukungiri, are agriculturalists. Because of the good soils, people have taken advantage of the natural endowment to work hard and grow several crops for adequate domestic consumption and save the rest for sale. Many people are also increasingly taking on rearing livestock as a major economic activity, in addition to ensuring their own supply of nutritious milk, a requirement for almost every household.

Mzee Kaguri Eric, a native of Kanungu
Mzee Kaguri Eric, a native of Kanungu.

But few people keep cattle in large numbers since the people here are traditionally agriculturalists. Though there are a number of cattle paddocks that can be seen, it is mainly banana plantations that are a common sight in most areas of Kanungu. Kaguri says that for commercial purposes, people in Kanungu normally grow tobacco, maize, rice, Irish potatoes, coffee and tea. He says the tea is bought and processed by Kayonza Tea Factory at Kihihi. Almost every household here grows Omugusha (sorghum), which is used to make sorghum bread, the staple food of many families here, in addition to cassava and potatoes. Sorghum is also utilized to make Omuramba, the major social (alcoholic) drink among the Bakiga and Bahororo.

A hardworking Kanungu family admire their banana plantation
A hardworking Kanungu family admire their banana plantation.

Because of the good soils and tropical environment, vines and grapes grow in some areas of Kanungu. According to the District Development Programme on Agriculture, silk production was only recently introduced. Mulberry has also been found to grow well but shortage of markets has hampered the expansion of production. Kanungu used to be a major source of coffee and cotton until locals started complaining about the low prices they get for their agricultural products. The traders say this is because of the difficulty in transporting the goods up to the highway.

As a result, many households normally grow more crops for home consumption, and only sell when there is a financial crisis at home and they need cash. Even the cattle kept here are mainly to provide the family with milk, save for the large farms of "the Society", an association of cattle farmers in Kanungu who own the cattle and farms communually. The enormous paddocks stretching for several hills with the cattle grazing are another sight to behold. They remind one of a large ranch.

The People
Besides the locals forming the "Society" where they own and care for their cattle together, there is something about most homesteads in Kanungu that speaks volumes about unity, uniformity and togetherness. Most homesteads are made up of a main (iron roofed) house and a kitchen roofed with banana dried fibres. What is more intriguing is the fact that more than 80% of the main houses are plastered with mortar (cement and sand) or cow dung and are painted white. You can't help but wonder whether the obsession with painting the houses white is an indication that the people here deem themselves pure. However, it is not only painting their houses white that people in Kanungu seem to do in union. There are other interesting things they do together.

Buildings painted white are very common in Kanungu
Buildings painted white are very common in Kanungu.

Whether at a social gathering in the trading centre, or at a public function, every person seems to be itching to join in the Ekitaguriro, the traditional dance for the Bakiga. Every time one person starts the dance (which involves jumping and stamping the ground rhythmically by both men and women) they sway their hands and heads in tune with the traditional music and join in.

Ekitaguriro by the Bakiga:Click to Enlarge
Ekitaguriro by the Bakiga:Click to Enlarge.
Read more on Ekitaguriro


I also noticed that every shop you go to, only stocks the Aqua-Sipi brand of bottled water. It is difficult to get Rwenzori, Azur, Wavah, or Highland mineral water brands in Kanungu. Even at the public gatherings I attended on my four day trip, it is only Aqua-Sipi that was served. I was beginning to think that the water is produced in Kanungu until I learnt that it is produced by Mukwano Industries from their factories in Kasese town, western Uganda. To some outsiders, this perceived unity is comparable to a bandwagon in products' taste and way of life onto which rural populations jump. Judge them as you wish, but the people of Kanungu live their life as they see fit and many will not hesitate to tell you that much, should you try to challenge them.

Social challenges
According to Israel Kikangi, a school teacher in neighboring Kambuga, the arrogant nature of the local male population mixed with complacency is propelling HIV/AIDS in the area. "Many men here still marry many wives, despite advice against it. Despite the fertile soils, many men have become lazy and are normally engaged in drinking. You may be surprised, but some men chose to hire their land to commercial farmers instead of utilizing the land to grow crops for food and selling. Some change beginning with attitude would be good," he says.

Yet not all the challenges they are facing are of the local people's making. The good soils and exuberant terrain have been a good to the mosquitoes too. The mosquitoes have wrecked all the havoc they can on the population here. Many people have died from fever, while many cannot care for their gardens because they are sick or looking after the sick. Some families have to spend their scarce income on frequent treatment of malaria, and with the terrible terrain and resultant poor infrastructure, taking the sick to hospital is no easy task. Many times the sick are carried to the hospital on a stretcher on the shoulders of a team of relatives/friends/hired men for tens of kilometers.

The rate of incidence of malaria in Kanungu and neighbouring districts is so high that government is already using ICON, a very expensive chemical to spray against mosquitoes in the area. The children, who are the worst affected by malaria, also find it difficult to go to school because of the terrain, let alone the fact that some have to walk more than 10kms to school. Yet many parents cannot afford to take their children to boarding schools (mostly outside the district). The local teachers are also affected in such an environment and face related challenges. The district, as a result is among those fairing badly in educating its children. In the 2006 Uganda National Examinations, Kanungu was rated 42nd out of about 80 districts in the country, with a paltry 1,244 students passing in division one, representing 4.7% of the total number of candidates in the district.

Mosquitoes meet their match; An official sprays a building with ICON, a mosquito terminating chemical
Mosquitoes meet their match; An official sprays a building
with ICON, a mosquito terminating chemical.

Despite the traditional challenges, the area has also produced some of Uganda's notables, including Amama Mbabazi (Minister of Security and Secretary General of the ruling NRM party), James Garuga Musinguzi (one of the richest people in Uganda), Hamlet Kabushenga (former MP and leader of several development initiatives in the country), Robert Kabushenga (CEO of The Vision Printing and Publishing Corporation) to mention but a few. Hajji Ayub Barii, the LC3 chairman of Kambuga, one of the sub-counties in Kanungu says the district is keen to use its natives that are now holding prime positions of national administration and its natural endowments to make Kanungu a better place for the local people.

But attractive as it is, Kanungu is one place you are unlikely to want to visit again in a short while, unless it is for mandatory reasons. The journey is long enough to tire even the strong willed traveler. But with Garuga Muzinguzi set to open an airfield there, the more financially able locals and visitors may soon be making easy journeys to Kanungu and neighbouring areas that God has abundantly blessed with beautiful scenery, soils, and some of the rarest animal species like gorillas in the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, located at Kanungu's border with DRC.

By Gerald Businge
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First published: March 27, 2007
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Gerald Businge is a media practitioner and features Editor at Ultimate Media Consult in Uganda. He is a graduate of Mass Communication and several journalism and leadership certificates. He has been a practicing journalist since March 2001 and has worked at The New Vision as features writer, and has written extensively for different newspapers, magazines, newsletters in Uganda and internationally. He currently does fulltime media communication consultancy work as well as writing and editing at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd where he is a founding member and CEO. You can get his attention so long as you are interested in and you are working for a better world.